Friday, May 15, 2009

Numfar, Do the Dance of Joy! 'Dollhouse' Renewed For Second Season

Look at it. Just look at it. I resigned myself to the inevitability of Dollhouse's cancellation long ago. Never mind the history with Fox: it simply wasn't a very good show. Then everything kicked into high gear in the middle of the season and I found myself biting my nails with every Whedonesque update. Early predictions following the finale's abysmal ratings (disregard that cancellation naysaying!) were understandably grim, with every cynical critic and insider betting the farm that Dollhouse would be put to pasture -- I apologize for that horrid metaphor-mixing, but I'm happy right now.

Then, something wonderful happened. News began leaking that Fox entered into serious talks with Whedon and the show runners, suggesting that the network had not simply canned the series in frustration. People started throwing out statistics involving DVR and online playback, as well as the inevitable profit margin afforded by a Whedon series on DVD -- consider how many times Serenity has been re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray in its short lifespan. The actors urged fans to email and even call Fox's offices, resulting in their answering services crashing from the influx. Within two weeks, the tide had completely turned, and all signs pointed to renewal. This can mean only one thing: President Obama has so re-shaped the American landscape and outlook that even Fox television can give us hope.

Now with sources confirming a renewal (the official announcement comes Monday, May 18), I have at last given in to the hope and excitement that I refused to allow myself to feel in the storm of gathering hype. I'm so excited that I'm writing this, a distraction from my usual style of shoddy criticism, because, well, I write when I'm excited (note to self: get laid). But while my head may be in the clouds right now, I've at least kept my toes on the ground, and I realize that Dollhouse still has a hell of a fight ahead of it. So let me discuss some of the conditions that will likely accompany the show's renewal and what they might mean for the series. (WARNING- THE REST OF THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS)

1. Budget cuts. Get ready, because they're coming. Most of the early insider reports that hinted towards the show's renewal mentioned that Fox would expect drastic cost reduction to increase the chance for profit. The problem is: what can they cut? The only serious investment in the show was the actual Dollhouse set, but its costs were more or less negligible because they essentially took the place of the pilot the crew never shot (Fox paid for an order of episodes rather than funding a pilot to determine whether or not to pick up an entire series). Everything else has been fairly inexpensive. I don't know how much the actors and crew are being paid, but given that a sizable chunk are relative newcomers, while the rest (Williams, Dushku, Acker, Lennix, etc.) don't seem like the kind of A-listers to draw hefty paychecks, so I wonder if cutting cast would necessarily reduce costs significantly. Nevertheless, fans have been right to point out that Angel was on the receiving end of a budget cut for its fifth season, and most of us can agree that the show flourished under the pressure.

2. The time slot. Placing an un-proven, dense thematic web of a series on Friday nights was an early sign that Fox had little faith in the series' success, but it drew fairly healthy numbers for the time, even if they were consistently well-beneath even modest predictions. When paired with another science fiction show (the ailing Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) the show did well enough, but when Fox switched the lead-in with the final few episodes of Prison Break, both shows suffered horribly, and Dollhouse never recovered.

Some articles on Whedonesque reported that Fox is planning to keep the show on Fridays, which means one of two things: 1) Fox still doesn't believe that Dollhouse has a shot in hell of making a profit but just lack anything else better to risk or 2) they are genuinely trying to make Fridays a feasible night for profit. With DVR becoming more and more prevalent -- though I still don't have one... -- networks are slowly coming around to the possibilities of such devices. While it allows people to zip past the ads, devices that let consumers watch their favorite shows anytime slightly relieves them of the need to time their shows just right. Maybe we'll get lucky and it'll find its way to Monday nights with 24, but if the show does stay on Fridays, it still has a shot if networks continue to look at the many alternative methods of TV viewing that have popped up in recent years. Just please don't set it up to compete with Lost (as if all the recent Abrams vs. Whedon stuff hasn't been annoying enough already).

3. No more Remote-Free T.V. On the one hand, Remote-Free T.V. was an interesting venture designed to capitalize on the pros and combat the cons of DVR programming. By reducing the average 15-16 minutes of ads per hour to just a few 90-second breaks, Fox banked on the idea that it would take more effort to fast-forward through the brief commercials and would instead just sit and watch those. A great idea for the viewers, but cutting that much potential ad revenue from both Dollhouse and Fringe (which was also on the bubble for a while before getting renewed) threatened a show that was on shaky ground from the start and which both the show runners and executives admitted needed time to grow. While I enjoyed watching Dollhouse's later episodes, getting sucked in for what felt like an eternity, only to look at the clock and see I was only halfway through, the reversion to a normal T.V. format is actually a boon for the show's chances. Cutting out a whole ten minutes of time will save a lot of money, and the ad revenue will increase.

So, we know what Dollhouse has to contend with on the business side of things, but how should it adapt to these situations, not only to ensure profits increase enough to guarantee the show a solid run but to ensure that the show is good enough to deserve one. I do not presume to tell Joss Whedon or his crop of talented writers how to script their shows. Heck, I would not even presume to tell Dan Brown how to write novels -- though if I did, my advice would be brief: "Stop writing." But sitting here in my own cramped space of the blogosphere, what harm could I possibly do? It's not like anyone reads this anyway. So here are a few things I'd like to see happen to ensure that this renewal is not a fluke:

More Dollhouse-centric episodes. Not only would this cut down on costs, but the most interesting episodes of the first season largely took place within the Dollhouse -- "Man on the Street," "Spy in the House of Love," "Briar Rose." When we stay in the Dollhouse we see it for what it really is: a vile machination run by people so intelligent that they've blinded themselves to the ethical nightmare of their work (or at least they just cover it up well). With Ballard, the only main character to exist outside of the organization, now working for them, we can spend more time in the set that's already been bought and paid for, and we can get to the bottom of the Dollhouse (which in turn could lead to a breakthrough more quickly, allowing at least some of the Dolls to break free and bring the place down).

Let some characters take the week off. The chief problem with the series so far is that no one, not even the people who don't get their minds wiped at the end of each episode, is progressing very much. Reducing recurring and even main characters' screen time offers the possibility of focus on a select few per episode. After all, many of the best episodes of Buffy and Angel revolved around a single character. Plus, by rotating the cast slightly, you might only have to pay someone for 9 episodes as opposed to 13 (the second season will likely be another truncated one, by the way).

Don't regress. The finale was clearly set up for the possibility of being the final episode of the series period, and because of it (and because it was made by Tim "there is no hope" Minear) we seemingly ended on a note of futility: Echo got all those personalities wiped, and went back to square one, except for the fact that she remembered her real name. Now that it's coming back, it's imperative that Joss not allow the show to return to the ghastly "Doll of the Week" format that defined the lukewarm and occasionally ice-cold first half. They need to hit the ground running with this one, to deal with the fallout of Alpha's attack and to address what Echo went through. Preferably, someone needs to awaken and fight the Dollhouse, but on nobler terms than the psychotic Alpha.

Fix Victor. This one is pretty straightforward. I can buy Dr. Saunders' scars, as the real Dr. Saunders was killed before he could patch Whiskey up, and that the lack of a living medical staff left her permanently scarred. But now Whiskey is a qualified surgeon, and scar prevention is advanced even today. It's only natural to assume that they could make him look almost completely normal in the future. Not only does this allow Enver Gjokaj (one of the finest actors on the show) the chance to stay and do something, it reduces makeup time and costs, saving some cash.

Make Amy Acker a part of the main cast. Yes, I know, it's silly to suggest a promotion at a time when budget cuts are on the horizon. But I went back and watched the last few episodes and, combined with the memories of my Angel binge at the end of last year, I'm certain that Amy Acker is just about the best actress on television. I couldn't name you five people on all four of Joss' shows who bring it as consistently and as amazingly as her (Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk are the only ones I might rank above her). I'm not sure why she doesn't get more work (I mean, it's a shallow industry, so even if she had no talent at all, have you looked at her?), but damn it, Joss better not waste this precious resource. Of course, this is totally wishful thinking, as Acker has already been cast as a lead on ABC's new show Happy Town (maybe she auditioned out of fear that Dollhouse would never make it), so the likelihood of her even appearing as frequently as she did are quite low.

So, Kevin Reilly, the man who helped keep NBC's crop of excellent comedies afloat when they all debuted to bad ratings (The Office, 30 Rock) and who became the latest president of FOX, delivered. Perhaps Reilly believes that, like those aforementioned shows with their shaky beginnings, Dollhouse is a potential gold mine, one worth the effort of digging to reach the riches just a bit further beneath the soil. As much as I've taken Fox to task over the years, Reilly's good people, and he happens to be one of the few at the front of a changing entertainment landscape who sees ways to work within the shifting paradigm. This stunning news gives Dollhouse a literal second chance, but we can only hope that, come the fall, Whedon comes out swinging and reminds everyone why he's the best damn writer to ever grace the small screen.

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