17 May, 2010

For A Little While


            I miss yelling, “It’s on!”

                Let me explain.

It was October of 2007 when we first heard of Joss Whedon’s return to television with a new series called Dollhouse about a young woman who is everybody’s fantasy.  Sweet.  And then we heard it would star Buffy The Vampire Slayer alum Eliza Dushku.  Even sweeter.  But then we heard it would be setup at Fox, the studio behind the mishandled masterpiece Firefly.  Not as sweet, but we were in the hands of The Master and if HE trusted those suits again, well, so would we.  And then we heard what it was;  something totally different from The Whedonverse we’d lived in thus far.  And then pages of the Pilot Script surfaced.  They were confusing, not as “Joss” as we expected.  But that’s okay;  it was, after all, Joss.  But then we heard Fox was once again meddling with The Plan.  Joss?  They pulled his Pilot.  Demanded changes.  “IT’S FIREFLY ALL OVER AGAIN!”  Okay, not so much with the sweetness.  But wait!  Joss pulled the Pilot himself!  It was still his show!  WHAT’S GOING ON OVER THERE?!  And then we saw the trailer.  “Did I fall asleep?”  “For a little while.”  YEEEEESSSSS.  And in February of 2009 the show premiered and we saw six words we’d not seen on television in almost as many years:  Written & Directed by Joss Whedon.  Indeed, Mr. Gleason:  how sweet it is.
           
For two seasons we were given a glimpse inside this new world.  Far too short a time for a show as involved as it is, and far too short a time for those of us that were glued to the screen those Friday evenings.  A factory of our dreams, so long as we trusted that factory to not let the dreams become our nightmares.  There was the clunky start – Stage Fright – and the early gem – Man On The Street.  And there were those that beset the dolls’ mortality – Needs – and birthed the endgame’s immortality – Haunted.  Writers wrote, Actors acted, and Fox seemed to relax its hold and allow Whedon to tell his story.  By the end of the first season – Alpha! – things were looking up.  And how we culminated?  “I hope I’m still alive when we find me.”  We never doubted the sweet for a second.  We bought the Season 1 DVDs, poured over them, loved them.  We couldn’t wait for Season 2!  But then the news:  it might not be coming back?  We raced to Whedonesque.  WHO KNEW ANYTHING?!  TELL US!  We fought.  We prayed.  And the benevolent Fox spared us.  But for how long? 

Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain went to Lie To Me while Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters came from Reaper.  Fox cut the budget.  But fear not, Joss was Writing & Directing the Season opener.  With Jamie Bamber and more of the post-apocalyptic storyline!  Then … Vows?  Aside from the Whiskey scenes another (yawn) setup not only so UN-Joss but with all of the post-apocalyptic stuff cut!  Perhaps another clunky start, but then there was Belonging, and we once again wonder where the show’s been all our lives.  Then Public Eye and Love Supreme (Alpha!).  Yes, we were toyed with, crammed into, stretched along, sped through;  all the missteps that only someone as wondrously creative as Joss & Co are – whose hands were clearly tied in such a “how long do I have to tell this story?” fashion – COULD create.  And with all of us hanging on every word.  Not just the story’s, but the stories behind them.  SPOILERS! the websites warned, but we clicked on them anyway, learning before we met The Left Hand that yet another Whedon alum would be joining us, and before we entered The Attic that Dominic was waiting for us.  But isn’t all this info what we wanted?  What we always want?  What we would have paid Adelle anything for?  A snippet of what came next?  (Yes.)  So much so, in fact, that by the time we returned to Epitaph 2 – and however badly titled the last few episodes are, how wonderful Getting Closer is – we should only be happily surprised they were able to keep the head of Rossum a surprise at all.   

Sadly, in November of 2009, just two years after we were thrilled to hear Joss & Co were back, they were gone.  Yanked from us;  roughly;  painfully.  Sure, there was talk of Joss directing an episode of Glee (VERY sweet) and we saw the teaser posters for Cabin In The Woods, but what of The Dollhouse itself?  Too soon, its doors were closed.  Fox agreed to air the remaining episodes – one small lesson they learned from Firefly – and so, as if we were asked to pack our bags days before our plane was to leave, we were given back-to-back episodes, and scooted out the door.  In January of 2010, Echo laid down in her bed for one last time … and went to sleep.

The reason I mention any of this is because we now live in a world where we can’t help but mention it.  Because we can’t escape it.  I, for one, wish I didn’t see or hear half the things I do in the course of watching a show.  Because whatever happened to just watching the show?  I remember watching Buffy in its initial run and I’d stay away from “next week on” just so I wouldn’t have a glimpse of what lay ahead.  (When they intentionally kept Anthony Stewart Head’s credit from his return to the show?  “I’d like to test that theory.”  Thank you!)  But that’s where we are now.  With the Internet and Entertainment Tonight and TMZ feeding us info, not to mention the shows themselves feeding that very publicity, it’s the “secrets revealed” that spark our interest.  The drama behind the drama.  “What the network wouldn’t allow you to see!”  The immediacy of iTunes and Hulu and DVD Boxsets and Netflix all but deny our escape.  And as much as I too give in to the immediacy of our fandom – who can’t help but indulge? – I do miss the days when I got to yell, “It’s on!”

            Okay, I’ll explain.

            For some time now, I’ve been thinking about watching Buffy.  Not again, as I often do, but rather – eventually along with Angel – live during their initial run in the late nineties and early aughts, when friends would come over for that wonderful two-hour event every Tuesday evening.  And so I started thinking about watching ANYTHING live, before the coming of TiVO, when getting together with friends to watch The New Episode was indeed a case for getting together. We’d potluck dinner and drinks, inevitably bake chocolate chip cookies, and sit and watch TV. When commercials appeared, we’d rush to the restroom, or refill our plates and glasses, and when the show came back on, someone would yell, “It’s on!” – always sing-songingly long like that, “It’s ooo-ooon!” – and we’d rush back in … and sit … and stare …

One of my favorite memories of those years is those Tuesday night get-togethers, not just because I’m (clearly) a fan, but because those evenings were indeed happier times.  Easier times.  When friends came over, every week, and TOGETHER we’d eat and drink and enjoy a favorite show. And I don’t just mean the virgin territory that watching a favorite show in its initial run brings; episodic cliffhangers and the like.  It’s the camaraderie of the thing.  Ours was Buffy and Angel though The X-Files and The Sopranos were popular, as I’m sure Lost is today.  At least I hope so.  I hope get-togethers still happen, even if they’re TiVOd viewings.  There’s something special about that thread between storyteller and audience. That there IS an audience, a GROUP of people, laughing, crying, reacting together.  Sadly, there’s no longer an urgency to see The New Episode – “It’s on in five minutes!  Drive faster!” – and therefore not as big a reason to call friends and say, “Let’s make an event of this.”  Because you CAN watch it at your leisure.  And, sure, that’s attractive. As we get older, all of us, no matter our age, time goes by faster, and there’s much less of it. There’s too much real life getting in the way. So as the opportunities to sit and watch TV become more precious, the desire to watch WHAT we want WHEN we want is great (and fair enough). But I do miss those Tuesday nights when we got together and watched Buffy and Angel and had to call out “It’s on!” as the commercial returned to the show and we rushed back to the glow of the screen.

And so perhaps you’ll appreciate a nostalgic melancholy for those of us, say, thirty and older who are the last to watch TV as it aired;  the last to experience that weekly, episodic magic. Yes, shows still air, and they’re still episodic, but the birth of TiVO and boxsets and downloadable episodes and ever-evolving “seasons” have changed the way we view TV.  The way we CAN view TV.  Before, it was Buffy aired Tuesdays at 8:00.  Now?  I’d sadly have no idea.  For instance, I love Glee.  Never miss it.  But when is it on?  Haven’t a clue.  At the beginning of the season my wife and I set our TiVO, it does its thing, and we watch.  And if we miss an ep?  Doesn’t matter, there it is for us to get to when we can. And sometimes real life butts its head enough that we go a week or two without seeing it and we have to play catch-up.  So we cook a nice meal on a Sunday evening and sit and watch three episodes in a row.  But you see what I mean?  As the way we’re ABLE to view TV has changed over the years, HOW we view it can’t help but follow. And those special nights of staying in or rushing home – much less getting friends together to join in the fun (much less not seeing or hearing anything about the show before catching up our TiVOd viewings?) – simply dissolve into that very nostalgia of happier days.  Alas.

“But what does this mean to DOLLHOUSE?!” you yell.  And who can blame you?

Well, I wanted to write about this for a while, so as I started thinking about watching Buffy and Angel, I couldn’t help but think about watching Dollhouse, not to mention tackling any words on the Whedonverse is a tough market indeed, as there are far better writers out there that I knew in the wake of the show’s demise would delve deeply into its psyche.  So I thought, “What could I bring?”  Maybe it would help if I rewatched the episodes.  Or perused the websites.  Or chatted with fellow fans.  After all, I knew I’d be up against some of the smartest and most devoted fans out there.  And that’s when it hit me.  What I had – didn’t have – working for me.

I wasn’t going to go back and revisit anything at all.

I was, like Echo, going to embark on this adventure with whatever memories I had with me.  However tangible they may or may not be.  Like those days when I first enjoyed Buffy, without her boxsets, having to run back when the commercials were over or I really would miss something, I’d now go back into The Dollhouse with just my mind’s eye to guide me.

Frankly, I think Echo’d be proud. 

In any event, it’s time for my treatment …

Looking back on Dollhouse without studying it affords a fan such as myself – who already studies The Whedonverse as all us fans do – the chance to revel in what was great about it – and think about what wasn’t so great – without gloating or nitpicking.  Frankly I don’t want to spend a paragraph talking about how Man On The Street touched me.  It’s enough to remember the look on Patton Oswalt’s face when she walks up to him at the end, takes his hand, and, seeing him through the sprinkler, he holds her.  I don’t want to spend a paragraph talking about how Vows upset me.  I expect more from Joss, simple as that.  Though, knowing we were supposed to see post-Apocalyptic Felicia Day again but Joss rewrote and reshot, well, there it is.  More Fox meddling because Epitaph One never aired in the States?  Fair enough.  But I’d love to see his original Season 2 opener.  (Perhaps something for the Season 2 DVDs?  As of writing this, they’re not out yet.)  But you see what I mean.  Here I am making left turns and right turns and u-turns without so much as touching the clutch and could I do that without the freedom of not so much as popping in a DVD or clicking on a website?  (At least while I’m writing this?)  Not so much.

Where Dollhouse shines is its natural ability, Joss’ natural ability, to humanize the impractical.  I was going to say impossible, but impossible doesn’t really exist for the storyteller.  After all, we make this stuff up.  But the impractical – everything from reinventing the classic (X-Men) to breathing life into the seemingly trivial (Toy Story) to stripping back the big (Alien Resurrection) to dramatizing the supernatural (Buffy et al) – mmmmm, that’s Joss’ petrie dish.  And it’s not the impracticality of any of it.  What Joss does, no matter the genre, the budget, the medium (I’ll argue this in his movies, TV shows, comics, even blogs) is he touches on the pulse of the matter.  Not the gimmick – the imprintable whatever-you-want-them-to-bes, but the heartbeat – the Caroline;  not the Echo, but the Caroline – of the matter.  The BREATH of it.  It’s that he makes all his worlds not just identifiable but touchable, huggable, FEELABLE.  It’s not the cool of the thing, however cool the thing is, it’s the humanity therein.  And Dollhouse, for all its tech-laden gimmicks, is a very human story.

My favorite moment in the redone Ep 1 is Ballard’s getting berated by his boss (Badger from Firefly) to give up looking for The Dollhouse, all the while intercut with Ballard’s sparring in a boxing ring.  And when he’s down and out, beaten by this other boxer, Ballard tells his boss he’ll give up, AND IN THE RING HE GETS BACK UP AND KNOCKS THE OTHER BOXER OUT, clearly a man that doesn’t give up on anything.  Well written, well shot, well cut?  Sure.  But what it immediately gave us was a second hero – we knew of Echo, but now there was this guy – not programmable with anything Matrixy or cool, but human, one of us, that would fight the good fight along with, and perhaps despite offense to, the dolls.  Man On The Street gave us a man who didn’t hire this girl for sex (in fact the sex is comically undercut:  “Porn!”) but in fact just wanted to enjoy a moment with the love of his life that he never got to have.  Haunted birthed the idea that the tech could be used to immortalize The Powers That Be, but in essence it was about the very human idea of what comes after?  And what, given its conscious chance, would we do with it?  Say to our loved ones?  Hear about ourselves?  Spy In The House Of Love is one of the great reveals in the series because it humanizes Adelle, touching on the very basic idea that love is not just the greatest foundation-for but escape-from it all.  Needs asked, “What if we take them back to their core?”  Well, their core’s WHO THEY ARE, not WHO WE’VE MADE THEM.  For Topher’s birthday?  He just wants to play games.  And the beginning of his spiral in Season 2?  When the two women in his life are yanked from him;  when he’s forced from who he is into who they’ve made him.  And then (sigh) Adelle’s and Topher’s resurrection:  in my favorite relationship in the series, they find solace in each other.  (Not to mention the on-the-nose – but it works well because of Gjokaj’s and Lachman’s performances – Viktor’s and Sierra’s very natural love rising above all the tech.)  And so it continues until the mythology of the series – everything leading up to the epitaphs – takes over and Ballard and Caroline fight to restore humanity to the entire world.  All meaty stuff?  Indeed.  But that’s Joss & Co for you. 

For me, Dollhouse is the movie version of its own book.  That is, it’s so condensed that I feel like we’re seeing a screenplay of a novel.  It’s great, and it is, but the real meat of it – the text to these scripts – is still out there somewhere.  Therefore, the biggest problem with the show, and I think everyone would agree with me, is that Joss wasn’t allowed to tell his story the way he wanted to.  And I don’t just mean the studio’s involvement.  Every show has that, including Buffy.  (And, let’s be fair, studio involvement often helps.)  But with Buffy or Angel when he was greenlit for a season, it was twenty-two episodes.  Nearly twice the number than the thirteen we were given here.  While for Dollhouse’s first season they were still hoping to receive the back nine, I’m not surprised we had the stand-alones early on;  and I’m not surprised the second half, overall, really took flight.  Somewhere in there Joss learned he’d only get thirteen, and was allowed to tell his story with them.  So when I heard the second season would ONLY be thirteen episodes, I thought, “Okay, here we go.  It’s reprieve time.  Joss knows it.  No more fat.  All about the story.  Lean, mean, fighting machine.”  (Not to mention I was hoping Fox had learned from their not tampering so much and would let Joss do his thing.  Well, if they did …)  The problem this time around was he attempted too much.  Talent that he and his crew have, it was so good that we wished we had more time with it all.  Besides, given he knew Season 2 was probably the show’s last, he wanted to tell it all.  And, well, fair enough. 

But this is what it boils down to.  Shoving all that goodness into only twenty-six episodes.  Total.  Only four more, mind you, than a normal single season (and only two more than a single 24).  Frankly, Joss works best when he has time to tell his story.  When he has time to pace out his novel instead of paring it down to its screenplay version.  I can’t help but feel Alexis Denisof’s wonderful Senator Perrin storyline, for instance, was drastically compressed.  What a wonderful full season storyline that would have been!  After all, the monster of the week is just that, a plot device to mirror what the ep’s really about.  ‘Cause it’s what the SEASON’S about that matters to him;  and, inevitably, to us.  That’s the story he’s telling.  And that’s the story we want.  Or, in Caroline’s case, wished for.

In January of 2010, it was time for the show’s own treatment;  and with two years of its young life wiped away, Dollhouse closed its doors for the last time.  I hope that one day it will be looked at for the series it is, not the series it was when it aired, bogged down by all its baggage.  Coming out of The Year Of The Strike.  Budgets slashed.  Joss’ first new series in so many years, returning to the medium that made him our hero, all our expectations put on that.  Starring Eliza Dushku who, let me say quickly here, IS sexy, so why did so many critics argue against featuring her that way?  (And if I hear one more time she’s a bad actress, I’m going to slap that person and then write another 3500 words convincing them to the contrary.  But I digress …)  It was a show with a difficult concept, on the dreaded Friday night, without the typical advertising support one expects for such a show.  But, again, this was Fox;  and Dollhouse isn’t the next American Idol.  There was the immediate news – I think we were one episode in – that it wasn’t a hit.  One episode?  That’s the bar now?  I don’t want to belabor the point, but the drama behind the drama IS effective:  if you hear long enough that she isn’t pretty, no amount of Miranda Kerr walking in the door is going to balance that prejudice.  But hopefully time will pass and people will watch the show on DVD and they’ll be able to sit back and enjoy a show that’s indeed worth enjoying.  Maybe even get people together and make an event out of it.  Certainly yell, “It’s on!” when it’s time for the next Act.  Because for all its baggage, Joss & Co were able to do the one thing, week after week, that’s the mission statement of any show:  ENTERTAIN.  And for all the essays written about her, for all her critiquing, by the professionals and us fans, Dollhouse WAS entertaining.

Even if only, sadly, “for a little while.”

10 comments:

  1. I love Joss. I love Dollhouse. Eliza, however, is not a good actress and you can't convince me otherwise. I do think that her weakness was a glaring error in an otherwise brilliant cast.

    And also, you may want to read this if you're going to continue writing for a literate audience: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/poring-over-pore-and-pour/

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  2. Great essay (a little random at times but still) I too miss the days of not knowing. To be fair though the age of TiVo has brought with it the bliss of never having to ask my loved ones to stop talking for five minutes while I watch the end of an episode so...

    Deeder25:
    I agree with you that Eliza has about as much range as a paper plane; watching her try to emote on a weekly basis was painful at times. I've got to take you to task on your nitpicking though; calling someone out for a verb confusion most likely caused by an overzealous auto-correct function is infantile at best and certainly isn't reflective of expected behaviour from a "literary audience."

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  3. One word off out of 3,525 ain't that bad.

    And - for what it's worth - Eliza may not have turned out to be the greatest fit for her role (keeping in mind just how difficult a role it was and would've been for anyone to pull off effectively) but you should give credit where credit is due. Dollhouse, from its inception to its birth on the small screen, was just as much a creation of Eliza Dushku's as it was Joss Whedon's and it hardly seems fair to unequivocally praise the creation while dissing the involvement of someone whose creative input was key to its very existence.

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  5. When the season one of Dollhouse aired, I remember being a little disappointed by the first few episodes, though things did definitely pick up. When I got the season one DVD set and re-watched, I enjoyed all of the episodes.

    Leading up to Dollhouse, I had been reading everything I could find about it online. I think knowing so much beforehand, in addition to having such high expectations of Joss Whedon, set me up for a bit of a let down. I remember thinking in those first episodes: "yes, yes, that is all so obvious...this just feels awkward."

    Back when I was watching Buffy/Angel/Firefly, I wasn't reading any of this stuff beforehand, as you mentioned. I definitely appreciate that I can find out about new shows that are coming up by reading posts online, but too much information can certainly take away from the experience.

    Gotta say, though, I love my PVR. Yes, "event" TV made it fun and special, but it's nice not to have to schedule my evenings around TV shows or worry about missing episodes. :)

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  6. I think Eliza is a fine actress- not, perhaps, Oscar caliber but she gets the job done. She made the viewer care enough about her character. There's also another factor here- Caroline was different than the other dolls; she maintained more of her core self than the others and perhaps that was reflected in how she played the characters. Was that deliberate and, if so, a testament then to her acting ability to maintain a common thread while playing different personalities. Had Echo been as mutable as Victor and Sierra, she would have been even harder to care about and the core of the plot would have been missing.

    There's also an issue of context. Enver and Dichen were such stunningly talented actors (my goodness, Enver's portral of Topher- and the scenes with he and Fran- were mind-boggling). Fran also good in the actition department. And Miracle Laurie, too (how about her scary barefoot assassination of the guy who was going to kill her?). Or Alan Tudyk's morph into Alpha? And we haven't even gotten to the other cast members 'cuz this comment would be as long as the post!

    There were some real revelations of acting skill on this show and in that context Eliza, while the star, did not shine as brightly as she might have in the hands of another creator. Not a surprise, Joss did the same with the Scoobies and Angel Investigations- the supporting cast was integral to the show and carefully drawn in great detail.

    So I stand up to defend Eliza's acting chops. She did good. Maybe not OMFG good every episode, but good.

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  7. Eliza Dushku was better at her role than she gets credit for.

    There was a point at the end of the series where Echo had fully integrated all of her personalities into one Being. At that point in the story, Eliza Dushku had to change facial expressions and mannerisms very quickly to show us Echo switching between personalities. She did that very well. I always knew who was at the forefront of Echo, without anyone naming that personality explicitly. At that point, I appreciated all of the work that Eliza did earlier in the series to differentiate those personalities, and the level of skill her role as Echo required. When Dushku had to play those personalities side-by-side in the short of one scene, it was clear that they were differentiated and distinct and believable.

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  8. Also worth noting if we're going to deconstruct the "Dushku can't act" BS, is that Actives were supposed to be stripped down to their barest, "childlike" personalities between wipes. And yet... it's occurred to me each has a theme!

    "Sierra" is incredibly shy, despite her original persona being revealed as a lot stronger - ever notice how confidently she pulls off the tough cookie imprints, though? She's a girl constantly in flux between being aware of her power, and unaware of it (in keeping with the way they explored her issues with being a victim of sexual abuse, really).

    "Victor" is like a puppy in his child-state, but his original persona's a soldier. Ever notice how fluidly he moves from one persona to the next? Also notice how willingly he went along with the amalgamate soldier idea? And yet, the entire reason he entered the Dollhouse was to get rid of PTSD that he acquired during the act of killing someone in Afghanistan, something that shook him to his core as he couldn't dehumanize his target enough to forgive himself. He's a man that easily loses himself to something larger, but at his core, he is kind and loving.

    And then there's "Echo". In early episodes, she always seemed awkward and empty compared to the other Actives, something many people pinned on "bad" acting. Yet I can't help reading this in hindsight as Caroline having the thing that makes her Caroline ripped away; notice that she seems more "human" the more she opens up towards others, and all the more so when she gains a more conscious awareness that things aren't "right" in the Dollhouse.

    Caroline isn't Caroline if she isn't helping people or fighting the Power, so of course, she seems kind of empty when she's not!

    It's also worth pointing out that though some have criticized Joss Whedon for "writing the same characters over and over", in actual fact, they miss an important point: he uses a lot of the same starting archetypes, but the CHARACTERS are largely the creation and influence of the actors who play them; he's basically said as much, and I agree.

    Want to know what I thought when introduced to Adelle, Topher and Boyd? I thought, "Dr. Walsh, Warren and Giles". Yet it's also clear that despite starting from a similar concept, each of those Buffy characters is distinct from the Dollhouse characters... because of the way the actor plays them. Adelle is warmer and more human and more lonely; Topher actually grows up; and Boyd is... not Giles, even in early episodes (warm black man vs. stuffy Brit is a very different kind of paternal!).

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  9. Then, too - adding to my previous comment and jumping back to an episode/role that was heavily criticized for Eliza's "bad" acting- people noticed of course that Elinor Penn in "Ghost" was awkward. What they didn't realize though - what I only really realized upon watching it a second time - is that that awkwardness is entirely intentional, and entirely Elinor Penn! It's all but spelled out in ten-foot neon letters that Penn - the woman who was Penn's core personality, at any rate - was the victim of past abuse herself, and nearly killed by it. She coped at all, by throwing herself into her work, which to her mind is helping children get back to their families safely. It's even revealed that the original woman committed suicide. Read: the woman was wound tighter than a Victorian corset! Of course she's behaviorally awkward!

    Like you said, the early episodes were often awkward the first time around, yet rewatching, they do suddenly seem a lot more enjoyable. And you catch so many little continuity hints, too. Like, watching "Ghost" after seeing "The Target", and then watching the latter again, you realize the glitching is naturally-occurring and includes flashes of her original self; a huge plot point! And in "Stage Fright", likewise, there's a moment where she says, "I have to save her"... and the guy she's speaking to, and even me on the first viewing, thought she was talking about Rayna. But a second viewing made me realize: she's actually looking at a picture of Sierra when she says that! Something you don't necessarily notice because of the context and because the shot isn't set up to make you notice where she's looking so much as her expression.

    Event TV is a fun idea, but this is why I appreciate technology: because it affords even niche shows the ability to be subtle and complex. And that is something I wouldn't trade for the world.

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  10. This was very enjoyable to read by another fan of Dollhouse. I plan to rewatch (as I'm currently doing with Buffy) and see them for what they are as a whole.

    I do enjoy that I can make an EVENT if I choose with my TiVo, DVD's etc. There will always be change, it's up to us to work with it.

    Great post and makes me excited to see when the season 2 DVD's are ready for purchase.

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