The reviews are rolling in for the new U2 record and, predictably, many of them begin by whinging about how insufferable and pompous Bono is. Since it's been awhile since the last U2 album, I'd forgotten about this. But here it is. Again. Over and over. The reviews have been fairly positive but the negative reviews have one glaring similarity -- they are dismissive. They're dismissive in part because the reviewer had that one listen, back when the band invited them to hear the record. One listen.
This is a problem, especially for a record like this. I've listened to it about five times now and it's starting to crystallize, but I'm still not ready to pass judgment on it. The way our world works now doesn't allow for that level of absorption. We take something in and then (usually while it's still playing/showing/we're still reading it) we make our judgment. Regardless of my final judgment (which is inching towards the positive with every listen), I applaud U2's determination to make a record that isn't high concept or easily digested. That's not an easy thing to do in Twitterific microblog-land.
Dollhouse has now aired twice, and fewer people watched the second episode than watched the first, if that's even possible without going into negative numbers. It's disturbing enough that people didn't tune in for the pilot, but that second episode erosion is just a fact of life. I know I've been guilty of it in the past, but I'm trying to give shows more of a chance. I'm glad I checked into the second episode of Dollhouse. I'm being a little disingenuous there, though... it's not like I wouldn't watch anything Joss Whedon gets on the air. But that's because I watched all of Firefly, which started out similarly rocky and got fucking great.
The second episode of Dollhouse was fantastic. The first episode felt like a show that had been cooked for too long. It was unfocused and lacked a throughline but as with all Joss Whedon shows, it had that uniqueness that makes it interesting. The second episode was focused, and the development of the relationship between Echo and Boyd was lovely and emotional, which really helped to clarify and coalesce the show.
What I really, really wish is that Whedon had gotten to shoot and air his original pilot because THAT thing felt like a pilot. Not totally formed, but I thought it was a much better launch than the aired pilot. Topher was much more interesting and less annoying, an intriguingly aware character. The introduction of Echo and explanation of the Actives worked better. And Paul, the resident Fed... he really suffered when they tossed the pilot out. I just thought it was a better representation of Whedon's world than the pilot we saw. It's too bad.
The way TeeVee works now and has worked for an unfortunate number of years is, you'd better hit it out of the fucking box with the pilot or your show's dead. Shows don't get the chance to grow on networks anymore. They won't pick up a full season of a new show and you aren't guaranteed that they'll air, much less shoot, your initial order. So there's far too much pressure on a pilot than there should be. More pressure means more fingers in the pie. More fingers in the pie means myriad points of view. And this means that the original voice -- the creator's -- is subsumed, sometimes to a destructive degree.
This is a necessity of network television, because the goal is to reach as large an audience as possible. Anyone who sells a show to a network gets this, even if it's a sometimes painful process.
Joss Whedon is an interesting case because he had a high-concept show right out of the gate. Buffy was an easy premise to understand, and the pilot totally works as the first episode of the show. You get why we're starting here. It sets the show and the characters up beautifully. The premise is so simple that it's easy to complicate. Joss added many layers to the show and the premise stayed rock solid. Angel was successful partly because it was a spinoff of the Buffyverse. I think we all know this, right? So what happened with Firefly? And Dollhouse?
Think about this for a minute -- Buffy didn't come out of nowhere. There was the movie. And Joss learned what didn't work from the movie. By the time he did the show, he'd lived with the character and the universe and, most crucially, the tone. And he made it work the second time around.
One of the things I appreciate most about Joss is his penchant for exploration, which is where Firefly and Dollhouse live. What we saw with Firefly and are seeing with Dollhouse, I think, is his process. Back in the day, about twenty or thirty years ago, a writer could explore like this because shows were put on the air, and there they stayed. But you can't do that now, not unless you're on cable. You certainly can't do it on network, unless your show was a hit right away (Lost). Although Joss earned a lot of capital with Buffy and Angel, he still gets smacked upside the head for an unclear premise or a half-formed pilot. So he'll get shows on, but then he'll live in hell until either he can figure it out, or the network cancels the show.
Joss is a world-builder. He built Buffy as a world, and spun off Angel into a parallel world that was still within the same universe. Firefly definitely had its own world, and Dollhouse does, too. But world-building usually doesn't spring fully formed. It needs to be nurtured. It needs to grow. It needs (like the formation of a real world) to make mistakes, to try things out. But in TeeVee, you can't do that, which is (I think) why it's so easy to pitch a procedural. You don't have to explain the world, because the world of a procedural has been so well defined. I don't think it's particularly interesting, but it is comforting and familiar to an audience, and the executives know that.
Joss doesn't work that way. His worlds are messy and complicated but if you stick around, they are fascinating. This type of exploration is a huge part of what I love most about TeeVee. And if I were Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams, then I could world-build. But not yet, gentle readers.
So people are dumping on Dollhouse. That's fine if you don't like Joss's process, or you prefer more clarity in your shows or premises. But if you're one of the people who is upset with the TeeVee status quo, then shame on you. And shame on me, too, for not always supporting these types of shows. But I'm going to make more of an effort to do so in the future. Hey, Fringe got good when y'all weren't looking, too!
I really do appreciate when people go for it, when they don't go for the cynical, obvious, easy answer. Being too cool, or too literal, or too predictable. I always hope that writers pitch what they truly love, but I don't always feel that they do. I miss big, elegiac shows, too. I don't think we've had one since the West Wing. I know it's fashionable to hate that show, but it did so many things wonderfully well. It was smart, for one. It was unabashed in its point of view; it didn't try to please everyone. And damn, Sorkin WENT for it on that show. Witness this sequence, from the second-season ender, Two Cathedrals. The only shows in recent memory that have used music this effectively are Sarah Connor (down, Deepstructure!) and Mad Men.
Being cynical is a safe default in TeeVee. If you're cynical, then you're doing something cool. You can deride shows that wear their hearts on their sleeves. Let's face it. Everyone wants to be cool. But being honest and open-hearted and not being afraid to show you love your characters, well... that's the truly brave thing to do.
I wanted to mention the Christian Bale thing, too, since I forgot to do so last time. People, step off. If you really think Christian Bale was wrong for what he said to the DP, I'm pretty sure you've never spent time on a set. This wasn't the first time the DP had gotten in Bale's eyeline. Bale's rant, for what it's worth, was pretty even-handed. And the only thing that made it notable, to me, was the fact that the director just fucking stood there and let it happen. Um, McG? It's your SET, dude. Why do you let this go on for four minutes? The second Bale starts on the DP, your job is to TAKE FUCKING CONTROL. Get the DP out of there, assure Bale it won't happen again. You don't stand there like an impotent jackass. You just don't. Grow a fucking spine.
Christian Bale is not a monster. He's a professional. And if the DP had been a professional, too, this wouldn't have happened. I think it's appalling that Bale was forced to apologize to the entire planet because somebody broke the rules and leaked this to the press. I'll bet that asshole didn't have to apologize to anyone. At least Bale wasn't forced to go to anger counseling.
np - Mando Diao, "Give Me Fire"