DOLLHOUSE and the Unconventional Pilot

Joss Whedon’s / Eliza Dushku’s Dollhouse had a lot going for and against it.

Whedon had some blank checks to cash, Dushku had a deal with FOX, the premise was fascinating, and one actor playing multiple roles week to week is always a juicy prospect.

Whether because of marketing, timing, direct competition in an era where appointment TV was still struggling to Be A Thing, or a combination of the above, the show struggled out of the gate. Another factor is often cited in that the first few episodes are the weakest, and tease a deeper mythology the audience couldn’t be sure would be delivered. 2008/09 was still an era where networks thought they had time to let dramas simmer before they had to really Start Delivering,* but also constantly rolled out shows which were simply procedurals or weeklies. Which was fine so long as they were on CBS (which often let shows linger til they got good and/or an audience), or the first few eps were REAL SMASHINGLY GOOD.

Dollhouse notably had an unaired pilot “Echo” which was later pushed to Ep2, then canabalised to spread some of its mythology bits across the season. ** One could speculate this was a sign of some confusion and/or retooling (and The AV Club touches on some of that in its initial coverage), but it’s just as possible the show was re-re-re-written as much as shows usually are, except because of the Whedon pull they got to shoot some things first, and decided to release it as a push for DVD sales.

Dushku (and many of the cast promoting continually) said things “took off . . . around Episode 6,” which led to plenty of speculation about interference, patience, etc. and is also a wild understatement.

So let’s talk Episode 6 “Man on the Street.” Could they have used this as their pilot after the first pilot failed to catch the right attention? Or could they have shot this episode as their selling point and still air it in order, something Firefly did, and an unusual tactic I’ve written about before? What happens in this episode which made it necessary to air at that point, and could some of those occurrences have worked in a pilot to get a big audience to follow, or did they need space and buildup?***

To answer that we need to dig into what each episode has which fulfils the pilot’s mission. In that post linked above I note some things writers and producers agree upon wanting in a pilot:

overview of interesting main characters, rambunctious sex, tender sex, broad color palate, a wide range of sets and costumes, a hero, a villain, a fight, blood, cleavage, a moral dilemma, some special effects, witty/humorous lines, angst, perhaps a love triangle.

[added bonus if] you could give them all that, plus death row, a vampire, an outrageous blonde wig, a great leather jacket, a mystical weapon of great power, a bathtub scene, girl-on-girl action, death by garbage disposal, orphaned child drama, rooms festooned with candles and rope lights, and a shot which starts on a bloody glass slipper . . .

Dollhouse isn’t as hard-sci-fi as Lost Girl, but it still has all the potential for the second paragraph, and much of the first. In fact, both the actual pilot 1.01 “Ghost” and 1.06 “Man on the Street” contain many of those elements, so why do I think “Man on the Street” should have a second look as a better selling point than the pilot? The best (well, easiest) way to break this down is what would work, what wouldn’t, and why they went the way they did. First let’s touch on what “Ghost” does, then we’ll talk about how “Man on the Street” fills or misses those same beats.

“Ghost” as a Pilot

The AV Club’s pilot review sums it up as:

In short order, Whedon establishes a few important details: The Groundhog Day-like reality of Actives who accumulate all sorts of real experience over a brief period, only to have it erased from their memories; the specific compatibility Actives have to the situation (or, in this case, the client) at hand; and the details that can linger in their memories even after they’ve ostensibly been wiped away. It’s this last part that’s most intriguing (and most reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), because these ghosts in the machine will keep the show from hitting the reset button every week. When Adele talks to Echo about starting with a “clean slate” in the opening scene, Echo replies, “You ever try to clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.” And with that, you have a sustainable metaphor for the whole show. Every week, Echo and company are given new personalities and new adventures, which will satisfy those who tune in casually, while leaving bits and pieces behind to serve an overarching plot.

Now let’s talk about technically, specifically how it does those things.

  1. Introduce main characters. In fairly quick succession we:

– Meet Echo and see her on a mission
– Meet Echo’s handler Boyd
– Meet important secondary characters including Topher (programmer), Whiskey (Dollhouse doctor and always-perfect Amy Acker) Adele and Dominic (Dollhouse head and her security chief), Sierra and Joe (another doll and her handler), Paul and Mellie (FBI agent chasing the Dollhouse and his hot neighbour), and Loomis (Paul’s higher-clearance quasi-ally at the FBI).

2. Introduce the premise and show it in action.

The opening sequence is en medias res action and party and banter, not letting up until the ‘clock strikes’ on our Cinderella, her handler arrives, says some magic words, and she goes and lies in a chair which takes her from sexy motorcycle-racing confident girl in love to docile zombie. The dialogue supports or fills in the gaps that these ‘Dolls’ are wiped and can have personality implanted, but really the action has fairly neatly established it with a mini-story.

3. Talk about why the premise is problematic as fuck.

OK, for most pilots this isn’t necessary. Sometimes a premise is “this is a specific event / organisation in the real world,” sometimes a problem is self-evident but will get worked out in the series (IE The Sopranos has gangsters, Orphan Black has clones; the former is gonna have corruption and murders, the latter is going to have confusion and ethical conundrums around genes), sometimes there’s no particular problematic aspect. But in a show where the premise is not explicitly “these are sex slaves with their agency wiped” but definitely “these are people with their agencies wiped who are sometimes being used as sex slaves,” you’ve at least got to acknowledge you know this is a problem so the audience can trust you further.

4. Have its own plot / self-contained story

An absolute must for procedurals, some genre pilots get away without this, but it’s still a good idea, particularly for network shows. Gotta give the customer a sample, right? And it’s usually a good vehicle to deliver your character intros, exposition about how world-specific organisations work, etc.

The cold open gives broad strokes of how the Dolls work, but the main plot revolves around a kidnapped girl. The girl’s dad, complete with Overtly Suspicious Head of Security, hires Echo, who is programmed as a hostage negotiator and leads the charge to get the girl back.

5. Further the show’s overall mythology

Again, not every show needs to do this, but Dollhouse is essentially a limited-run show interested in telling an overarching story (more on this below when I talk about why they probably didn’t bump much plot around). The pilot must hint or flash this, both to promise an audience something, and so it doesn’t run out of runway and cram mythology into a final four episodes.

Some of the mythology is hinted at in props, character notes, little bits of dialogue; Whiskey has fresh scars on her face, Adele mentions an ‘incident,’ these are tiny seeds, intentionally sown.

In addition to seeds “Ghost” wields fully sprouted trees to whack viewers full on the head. The main plot reveals two things: the Dolls can fail in unforeseeable ways, and the Dolls can retain echoes**** of their assignments. The former is when Echo’s implant causes severe PTSD response, and the latter can be seen coming by anyone know knows TV because they keep claiming it can’t happen, and confirmed in the final scene, which is . . .

6. A twist to keep the audience coming back.

In “Ghost” (as with the ALIAS pilot years before, and LOST a few years after that) this ‘hook’ is linked to the overall mythology. Knowing what we know about Echo, all memory of her engagement should be wiped clean, but the final frames show she remembers it, as the ‘clean slate’ conversation foreshadowed.

The main plot, the hints at overall mythology, and other touches such as the fresh scars on Whiskey’s face, all touch on the theme of trauma, one of the foremost concerns of the series, including a strong throughline in “Man on the Street”.

7. Whizz Bang

A pilot needs to be functional, but as mentioned in the big black block above preferably also involves fun and adrenaline. You gotta give the people what they want, and what they want is Sex! Fights! Explosions! Banter! “Ghost” opens with a motorcycle chase, has Dushku’s Echo’s implant rolling in the hay with a fine-looking random, gives several flashy interiors (and a limo and a big boat) by way of a rich client, and hand-to-hand fight and a big gun.

Now we know what the actual pilot does:

Why “Man on the Street” Would Work As a Pilot

As with “Ghost”, this episode would need to: introduce main characters, introduce the premise and show it in action, talk about why the premise is problematic, have its own plot, further the show’s overall mythology, and include a twist to keep the audience watching.

1. We meet all the same characters as in “Ghost”

As well as a few tertiary characters (more on them below) and single-plot character Patton Oswalt’s Mynor and his Disposable Henchmen (great band name).

2A. Introduce the Premise . . . 2B. And show it in action.

“Man on the Street” seperate the showing and telling more than “Ghost.” On either side of every act break a 60 Minutes-style Everyman Journalist conducts video interviews with ‘real people’ who give us snippets of information.

Its directness is a neat little writing trick (some may say cheat), but it’s also unusual in shows such as Dollhouse, to break format just the once, particularly in a way which doesn’t tie into the episode’s A-story. It introduces the Dollhouse / show premise as an urban legend Angelenos are well aware of, also establishing this is a universe which is ‘our current reality,’ something “Ghost” is never quite so clear on. It also allows for humour, gives a neat entry point to Paul’s POV of “huh I can’t prove it because I don’t have the omniscient view of the audience, but wow this may really be happening,” and explores multiple elements of the Dollhouse mythos without character exposition.

If the network saw the pilot and wanted MOAR EXPOSITION, these interviews could easily be tweaked or added before airing: “I heard they take kids who have been kicked out of their parent’s houses” to explain why nobody is searching for these ‘missing persons,’ or “they like to target athletes who have been dropped from their school’s scholarship programs and have no way to pay for school” to explain why these young, fit people might be desperate or just adventurous enough to volunteer. The conceit is practically what producers SCREAM for in a pilot, clearly laying out multiple points of the show’s engine, while giving us an idea what the world’s populace feel about it, presenting multiple points of view, and hinting anyone could be a involved, etc. It’s also a bit obvious, which is usually forgiven more in a pilot than subsequent episodes.

But pilots can’t just tell us, we need to see. So we have Echo is implanted with two very different personalities, with very different goals, to demonstrate how the premise works and how it can fall apart. We witness Topher ‘building’ a personality she later uses, and explaining some of its components. Echo’s story doesn’t just demonstrate how the Dolls work, it’s related to the overall mythos, because Paul is able to track Mynor’s Dollhouse use through his friend Loomis, and this happens to bring him to Echo. (Look, this coincidence isn’t any more or less believable in Episode 6 than Episode 1. The show expects us to suspend some disbelief and allow for coincidences, handwaving that if there are limited Dolls, several paths are going to cross, whenever it’s most convenient. Paul ‘happens’ to be watching news footage of the woman whose photo was just delivered to him, Echo ‘happens’ to return to her alma mater at them most convenient time, etc; in a world where mind reprogramming is as easy as sitting in a dentist’s chair, is that really what the audience is going to get hung up on? Well. Sometimes. But we’ll allow a certain amount.)

Echo’s story also directly comments on on way the premise is problematic, and Oswalt’s discussion at his kitchen table is a wonderful bit of acting for him, but it’s actually the C-story which really gets into the muck. Because as mentioned above, any pilot for this show really needs to:

3. Talk about why the premise is problematic as fuck.

Where Echo’s story openly philosophises about it, Sierra’s shows it in all its grossness . . . and Paul and Mellie’s introduces a real moral tangle.

4. Have its own plot.

Echo’s main assignment actually neatly ties together some of the above; it brings together some of our main characters, it’s the crux of one of three ways this episode explores the more problematic elements of the very concepts of Dolls, but it’s also got its own story, which though more understated and personal than the RICH MAN NEEDS HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR! plot of “Ghost” is still its own thing. Along with that, we have Sierra’s C plot, and the B plot of Paul getting oh-so-close to both the Dollhouse and his neighbour Mellie, which:

5. Further the show’s mythology.

Covered. Next.

6. A twist to keep the audience coming back

Oh yes, the delicious twist of Mellie. We’ll dig into how this twist would impact the episode as a pilot below, but if you weren’t into the show by this point, and this reveal didn’t do it for you, you probably weren’t going to be into it at all.

7. Whizz Bang (ie Sex! Fights! Camera Moves! and other fun)

While it’s not as energetic as the “Ghost” bedroom romp, Paul and Mellie spend a cute night together, there are plenty of abs on display.

While the sex may be tamer and more relationship / plot related, this fight scene tops most the show has done to this point: it’s long, changes locations, a few times points out its lack of stunties, uses some unusual angles and fun lighting, and holds good weight because it’s between two people who are both series protagonists, in whom we’ve become invested in scenes prior. Putting this in a pilot would certainly perk some eyebrows.

Watch below. (The first fights here are also from this episode, but it’s the long middle sequence which is a doozy)

Apart from its for-2008-network-TV-flashy style, does the fight work ‘better’ in an Ep6 slot than a pilot slot? Well, perhaps differently. In a pilot you could still wonder if he’s gonna get Echo is really going to do something drastic and get Paul killed / subsumed by the Dollhouse, but by the time this plays here in the 6th slot, you’re fairly sure she won’t, if only because he’s clearly a series regular / his face would be so well known to every FBI agent in the area.

We’ve also got this brief scene which is notable for five reasons: it contains our twist, it uses intercutting well, it flips from being a pretty tough ‘man attempts to rape and kill woman’ to ‘woman kills would-be rapist’, its short sharp fight is a contrast to Pauls’ just before, and the frame at 1:11 perfectly transitions to recontextualise the earlier hidden camera we had seen in Mellie’s house.

As for overall looks and other fun bits, despite not spending nearly as much on locations as “Ghost”, “Man on the Street” has several stunner shots; David Straiton does good work here as ever.

OK so those are almost all strongly in the YES: WORKS AS PILOT column. Now:

What about “Man on the Street” Mightn’t Work As A Pilot

1. Character Count

Some would argue “Man on the Street” has a few too many characters if you’re meeting everyone all at once, but then “Ghost” gave us several kidnappers, the aforementioned false-flag head of security, and just about everyone else here.

The main Hero Character Adjacent people we didn’t meet in “Ghost” are Ivy (Topher’s assistant) and Bicks (Joe’s substitute). We don’t really get an ‘intro’ to Loomis, but she’s an easy inclusion not just because you can introduce her in a few words as an FBI colleague, but because TV audiences know this workplace trope character is so embedded in shows like this it would be more suspicious for Paul not to have one.

As for the other two, Topher has other people to ramble exposition to so Ivy can wait. And Bicks . . . well, sorry Bicks, but you don’t just add nothing, you actually confuse the issue; no matter where this episode airs, his role needs to be rewritten or cut altogether. Clearly he’s here to help Boyd tie things together about Joe’s disgusting evil abuse, but either he has other scenes which were cut down, or his scene with Boyd on the balcony was shoehorned in when the room thought something not clear enough. Getting rid of him clarifies things.

2. That Twist

This to me is the biggest conundrum: while I argue Mellie’s reveal is a much better, and less obvious, hook than Echo’s remembrances at the end of “Ghost,” it also only has as much impact as it does because we’ve seen Paul get close to Mellie without having any idea of her real nature. 44 minutes isn’t enough to really invest in their relationship, but six 44 minute blocks sure as hell is. And for those who would have assumed “an FBI agent getting this close would have some sort of handler (hey there, Orphan Black multiple-use plot twist), the show had taken two episodes to set up Victor / Anthony as someone who the Dollhouse was using to manipulate and keep an eye on Paul. We’ve never seen a Doll actually living outside the Dollhouse, so Paul’s constant run-ins with Mellie at her place, as well as the FBI building and his apartment, lured us into a false sense of security.

So yes. This particular twist is best a few episodes in. But if you take it out of this episode to make the rest a pilot, you untangle a lot of other interwoven threads which means the episode as a whole needs a massive restructure. These are the sorts of problems you face as a writer and showrunner, and while they are delicious and fun, sometimes you just have to pick a route and stick to it.

Why They [Probably] Didn’t Bump Anything Up

Short answer: they didn’t NEED to, see above stranglehold by network TV.

Long answer is obviously guess work; I wasn’t in the room, I’ve no idea what notes the network gave, and if anyone’s talked about the pilot decisions specifically, I’ve not seen it. But, I can take some educated guesses, and even if they’re not what happened, we can learn by guess-back-engineering.

First, as noted under “what wouldn’t work,” the changes required would certainly have required a bit of season-arc rejiggering. Any shorter show with fairly set season arc(s) will have a harder time shuffling episodes; think of something like GLOW, you would have to change not just the big event they’re leading up to, but also where this character is in her divorce, where that character is in her bitter feud, etc. As a shorter season which was leaning into trends of 8-to-13 episode arcs (which we are now seeing more of, for much better or far worse, as Netflix is continually proving), Dollhouse was clearly willing to play with network structure. Hell, it would even give quick little vignettes before the ‘actual’ episode kicked in. While ‘true’ procedurals use it to find the dead body or show us a flash of a robbery in progress, a lot of these ‘hybrid’ shows which may have procedural elements but more sci-fi premises clearly use them to dump some pitches which the room worked over but ultimately discarded, and I for one much enjoy it something its network compatriots from Dark Angel to Person of Interest were doing [watch that 16 second hyperlink now, thank me later].

But despite its willingness to toy with structure and bounce some different styles in, it still had plenty of need for conventional acts, episodic plots, etc., and moving “Man on the Street” as a. whole would not have worked. They still could have cannibalised , perhaps, but imagine cutting elements from it and pasting it into “Ghost,” which was already chock-full, or losing what really made the Mellie plotline hit hard.

No, while I think they could absolutely have shot it as their proof-of-concept to deliver tone, style, and Whizz Bang, the impact of the story did need the prior episodes to set it up. If certain things in those prior episodes had been different, or if it had come a year earlier or later, or a million other things, I may be here talking about Dollhouse Season 9, but here we are. TV is a cruel mistress, and her whims are nigh incalculable.

Stray Observations

– *That they didn’t give the same leeway to more out-of-the-box shows *cough* Wonderfalls *cough*, and that they were generally wrong but the audience didn’t have many options if they couldn’t afford cable or get creative with a VCR, is not the subject of this post today.

– **It also had a coda of sorts “Epitaph One”, which was released on the DVD boxset after the show was revived for a second and final season; arguably this was because of how the original pilot was counted, but it’s all pretty apocryphal, he-said / he-said.

-*** Audience patience, what needs buildup versus what should happen right out the gate, which shows work better dumping plot like it’s a bad boyfriend (The Good Place) versus leaning into the slow burn (The Americans) or somewhere in between (the sweet spot of ALIAS) is also not the subject of this post today, but . . . well it’s so massive I want FilmCritHulk to tackle this.

-**** Yes, “Echo”s. A literary device using naming conventions to comment on / foreshadow future plot events is really something the creators of the Dollhouse should have considered when naming her.

– All photos but the top are taken from “Man on the Street”

– They clearly had a blast filming those fake newsreel segments.

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