Joss pulls a JRB

DollhouseThe pilots (first episodes) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly are both notable for being narrow. You’re not going to get a mass ER-like audience from a story that starts with a vampire bite, much less from one that opens on a silent space salvage operation. You are going to get a genre audience, and that audience may well turn out to be a devoted one, but it will never be a large audience.

With Dollhouse, Joss Whedon seems to have embraced the network meddling that has so bothered him in the past. The open is a motorcycle race, followed soon after by sexy dancing, naked showering, a hostage crisis, shooting… Only once or twice does authentic “Whedon” writing shine through. The rest is equal parts FOX network filler, pandering, and standard tropes. The concept of the “dollhouse” is never adequately fleshed out. The sets and the stars are pretty, but the show is shallow.

Still, the creation, while flawed, is not without merit. It just isn’t exceptional. And much the same can be said about playwright and composer Jason Robert Brown, whose latest show, 13, recently ended its brief Broadway engagement. Brown’s previous works include the heartfelt Songs for a New World and the raw and emotional Last Five Years. All of his shows have had devoted fans, but not the sort of broad appeal that would carry them to Broadway. With 13, Brown made a conscious choice to aim lower, or, at least, broader. He made something that was good, that had merit, but that was not truly exceptional. It made it to Broadway, after many changes, and had a brief run before closing in a dismal economic climate.

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse will follow the same pattern. FOX has committed to a 12 episode run, but each week the audience numbers (in the Friday evening “death” scheduling slot) are shrinking. It is unlikely that the show will come back for a second season.

What is the lesson here? That people who make deep and meaningful and heartfelt work are doomed to be marginalized? I don’t think so. I think that when it comes to art in modern society, we are no longer in an age where everyone likes, or pretends to like, the same thing. We no longer go from a period of Impressionism to the Heidelberg Schol and then on to Arts and Crafts. Our choice of media is so vast, our interests so varied, the number of artists so many, that we can’t judge things the way we used to. Joss Whedon, or Jason Robert Brown, can create truly good shows, and they can affect half a million people deeply, and that is nothing to scoff at. Shonda Rhimes can create Grey’s Anatomy and it can touch 20 million people lightly. But Joss Whedon probably can’t create Dollhouse and touch 20 million, or even 10 million. He isn’t that sort of entertainer. The lesson of Dollhouse, for Joss, is the same as Pushing Daisies for Bryan Fuller, and Veronica Mars, for Rob Thomas. Do what you do well, do it well, and find a good place for it. That place may not be a major television network. Pour your heart into it. Affect people. Don’t compromise. Hope for the best. And don’t try to be what you are not.

If that isn’t enough, if you really want that big huge break, the adoration of millions, then take comfort in this: some of the best artists of the past were never truly recognized until many years later. For what it’s worth.

5 replies on “Joss pulls a JRB”

  1. The lesson here is that next time Joss Whedon wants to make a sci-fi TV show, he needs to start going to the sci-fi network where they’ll let him do what actually works and be accepting of marginalized viewership numbers.

  2. I think the comparison between JRB and Whedon is false. While NONE of JRB’s shows (other than Parade which he tries to ignore with unbelievable tenacity) were actually very successful (monetarily) when created, Whedon created a phenomenon with Buffy. Sure, Angel didn’t get the same numbers, but it lasted for many seasons. Firefly had it’s own set of issues. As we learned from Buffy, a show can start episodic but with a good premise and grow when the right random characters are fleshed out or thrown in. Whedon’s true strength isn’t his premises, it’s his characters (which then breeds dialogue, situations, etc.) So why is he doing a show where all the interesting personalities are wiped at the end of each episode?

  3. Whedon’s phenomenon with Buffy is the same as JRB’s phenomenon with Last 5 Years, so far as a comparison of a TV career can be to a theatrical career. L5Y didn’t do well in it’s initial runs, but it’s set a small contingency of Theatre people proclaiming him as the next great composer, while the rest of the world has never heard of him.

    Whedon had a show on the WB, and later the CW, and UPN at one point, and who knows what other networks that real people don’t watch, and it set a small group of sci-fi/fantasy people proclaiming him as the modern storyteller while the rest of the world has never heard of him. Dollhouse shows so much of Eliza Dushku’s bare skin that it actually bores me (she’s just not that hot, and nobody’s hot enough to make up for that many gratuitous plot-stopping skin shots) and if that’s not a sellout on the level of “write a show that won’t gross on Broadway but that will be done at middle schools till the end of time”, I don’t know what is.

    But yeah, it’s taking too long for Dushku’s character to be more than a cipher. By the end of the episode I don’t care how she feels or what happens to her, the only thing that affects the next episode and the rest of the series is whether she dies. Nothing she does each episode makes a damn difference. Unfortunately for Whedon, while Fox will give it the rest of the half-season to try out, I don’t see Fox giving it the full second season to develop into something the general world will want to watch.

  4. I must preface this by acknowledging I have not seen Dollhouse.


    I must concur with Amy… Buffy is a household name. EVERYONE knows about Buffy. Last Five Years, while certainly popular among the theater crowd, is an unknown in popular culture. It seems to me that Whedon has taken advantage of his popularity from Buffy to be able to try out different forms now, which may or may not sail the way Buffy did. JRB, on the other hand, made a conscious choice to work with other people who were creating something in a more “popular” vein than his previous work.

  5. Sure, Buffy is “a household name,” among certain households, while Last 5 Years never rose to that sort of prominence. But that’s the difference between theater and television. Perhaps a more apt comparison is something like, Buffy is to Grey’s Anatomy as Last Five Years is to Mamma Mia. But like Gil said, any comparison of theater to TV is going to be highly imperfect, so I’m willing to accept that my fundamental premise might be flawed.

    Surprisingly, since writing this I have found myself listening to a lot of 13, both the Broadway album and the original Taper run. Mix the two up, and you get a gaggle of pretty decent songs. “I’m Getting Over It” has a lot of resonance for me at the moment.

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