Another day, another battle against the Big Bad. Joss Whedon’s trademark seasonal villain was first widely used throughout “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a method to ensure a note of finality and fulfillment at the conclusion of each chapter of the show, due to the unceasing threat of cancellation that hung over the production. While these villains ranged from a vengeful goddess to the first conception of evil itself, the one demon that the multi-talented producer, director and sometimes composer Whedon has never quite been able to conquer is the television network.
Responsible for both cult and critically lauded hits as “Firefly,” “Angel” and, most recently, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” Whedon has built up an almost unwavering fan base. Though there has been the occasional misstep - the fourth season of “Angel” comes to mind - Whedon devotees unfailingly continue to worship at the altar of his brilliance. Even to those who don’t list Whedonism as their official religion on the census, it would be difficult for any true television aficionado to dispel his mastery at characterization and pithy dialogue. The executives behind these programs however, have shown themselves again and again to be nonbelievers.
Whedon’s newest project, “Dollhouse,” is a science fiction founded drama focusing on the duties of a group of personality-free “Actives” as they partake in varying missions. As the show prepares to premiere this Friday on FOX, the excitement surrounding its arrival to the airwaves is pervaded by an overwhelming sense of déj? vu.
Whedon’s previous dealings with the Fox Corporation concluded with the ultimate cancellation of the sci-fi/Western “Firefly.” If any one reason can be given for the premature finale of the masterful show, it may be the confusion that surrounded the program’s pilot episode. Originally occupying a two-hour-long block and taking time to give due exposition to the complicated new universe created for the purposes of the show, it was subsequently severed by FOX into an hour-long segment, significant as a standalone episode, but failing to fully explain the nine central characters and their situations. The mid-season pilot of “Dollhouse” has encountered startlingly similar difficulties, with the original episode, “Echo,” airing instead in the show’s second slot, and a new introductory installment created instead. Whedon however has assured his fans that they can rest easy, and that this time, the decision made was entirely his own. This comment is still of little solace given that “Dollhouse” has already been accompanied by additional difficulties, pushing its intended premiere date months back from its original autumn timeslot.
While “Firefly” and the woes already surrounding “Dollhouse” stand as a disastrous testament to why Whedon might be best passing over the network system altogether, it bears mentioning that both “Buffy” and “Angel” were allowed to unfold in their near entirety, and with notable risks to the traditional television formula taken along the way. “Buffy” alone featured abstract and even dangerous concepts such as the episode “Hush,” with almost no dialogue, a primary character coming out as a lesbian, a graphic attempted-rape scene and, most notably, the much-adored musical installment, “Once More With Feeling.” Whedon took this expanded perception of standards with him when he began searching for a home for “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” The 43-minute musical miniseries that Whedon originally aimed to have air on the ABC Family network (which rejected the piece) found itself not only as one of Time magazine’s top inventions of 2008, but also in the shortlist of the year’s best television shows - even though the program never aired on a network. While personal humility may stop many from admitting to a statement like this, I can personally attest to having watched the program over a dozen times already, and still not tiring enough to cease my search for the hidden Easter eggs on the DVD, as well as attempting to transcribe the entire score to the piano. Since Whedon met such genius and success with this small work, it’s almost difficult to fathom why he would even bother returning to mainstream television production at all. And while it would be Whedonism blasphemy to hope for a quick end to the much-awaited “Dollhouse,” a small part of me hopes that it won’t hold Whedon’s attention for too long. I know I’m not the only one around who is hoping for a “Dr. Horrible” sequel, or less corporately plagued creation, that will redefine the boundaries of entertainment media all over again.