Sunday, November 8, 2009

Joss Whedon's Sleeping Beauty

I've been wanting to write an entry on the show "Dollhouse" for a while now and found a great fan-made video that succinctly illustrates some of the reasons why this series can be considered a modern and dark retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

The show description posted in the info section summarizes what "Dollhouse" deals with very well and gives all the pertinent viewing information:
Dollhouse is Joss Whedon's latest show, starring Eliza Dushku and Tahmoh Penikett. It explores existential questions such as identity, the loss of self, and the ties between mind and psyche. If you enjoy a good story, a beautiful setting, superb acting, complex character development, or postmodern interpretations of myth, then you owe it to yourself to give this one a try. Visit or view the latest episodes online at Watch live on Fridays at 9/8C on FOX!
On the surface this show appears to be about fantasies, the opportunity to live many lives/have many experiences, watch beautiful people and vicariously kick a whole lot of butt along the way - all the entertainment a 'fanboy' could want - right? So what is it really about? Slavery? Human trafficking? Compromised morals? What really makes a person? All of those and more.
But that doesn't begin to describe the show. It's about identity, yes, but what that means is way beyond "Who do you want me to be?" (the show's advertising hook for the first season). It's about what people really are, who we really are (on the surface and in our essential make-up) and the half-life so many of us live as we try to cope with our pain and our past. The 'dolls' (whose minds and personalities apparently get wiped and replaced with constructs according to a client's specifications) aren't the only ones who need waking up. While it's entertaining to some extent to see the 'dolls' change personalities, clothes and roles (and pushing their acting abilities to unexpected places), which is what the network has pushed as the hook for new viewers, that's the least interesting part of the show.

It was no surprise to see Mr. Whedon tap directly into the Sleeping Beauty metaphor and base the double-episode season finale on it. The first part (episode 1.11) was even titled "Briar Rose" and began with the Echo (the show's lead) playing the role of a social worker/counselor to a young abuse victim and placing the seeds of self-empowerment so the girl can rescue herself. Of course, this foreshadows Echo's own journey through the season finale and also through the series. Here we not only have the metaphors in play of the castle, the spell, the thorns and various dragons but also the vulnerability of the girl (be it the child or Echo herself) to sexual (and other forms of) abuse and how it can be a catalyst for waking up, or for permanent imprisonment of a different kind. Echo has shown increasing signs of self-awareness despite having her brain repeatedly wiped and imprinted with a variety of personalities and it's become clear the real Echo (or Caroline, as we're told her real name is in the first episode) is still in there somewhere, despite it being theoretically impossible.The show had a rocky start and, admittedly, I stuck with the show because of my respect for Joss Whedon's writing and his mythic sense of story. He said right from the start to "hang in there until episode six" when apparently network interference would back off and the true intent of the show would finally kick in. By episode five, I had just about lost my patience in putting up with apparently two-dimensional story-lines that barely covered as teen-boy entertainment but episode six did prove to kick the show into high gear. It wasn't until episode nine that I was won over though. From then on the show has been mesmerizing - intelligent, layered, complex and very much a thinking person's show (sorry fanboys!). I continue to be irritated by the shallow advertising approach (pretty-people-kick-butt-in-great-outfits-and-can-be-the-stuff-of-your-dreams through to iPhone apps in which you can 'dress the Dushku doll as you desire' - ugh!) but "Dollhouse" now transcends that mentality easily. The second season, though still in the Friday-night-slot-of-death, has gone from strength to strength, to the point that people are now considering this to - possibly - be Joss Whedon's finest work to date.In this sense, the whole show can be considered a type of Sleeping Beauty - and one that's not for kids. The way the story arc has developed and deepened harkens far more to earlier versions of Sleeping Beauty (eg. with Talia) than it does to the well known version, complete with sexual complexities and the intricacies of families and consequences of choices. On top of that the show has made allusions to Eden and Adam and Eve. Are we being told to wake up and create a new, more aware society or is this an indication of where we're headed right now? There are different types of 'sleepers' shown in the show in various states of awareness and, without going into detail on any plot points, each of the Dollhouse characters - dolls, staff and clients - are all dealing with being woken in one form or another. Mr. Whedon's work is already part of university curricula, not only for media studies but in philosophy, social sciences and cultural studies. Not even finished it's second season (and not really counting the first five episodes), already "Dollhouse" presents a myriad of deep questions of cultural significance within a mythic yet deceptively simple fairy tale-like structure. I wouldn't be surprised to see this show added to the 'required viewing' list for college students.There's so much more I could discuss with regard to the parallels with Sleeping Beauty but to do so would be 'spoileriffic'. Just be assured that this series blatantly examines the human condition and what it really means to be a person - just as fairy tales do.

If you like delving deeply into fairy tales, you owe it to yourself to give this show a viewing. (I would recommend starting at episode six, which is said to be extremely similar to the original pilot rejected by Fox. You can always go back and catch up later, perhaps with more patience than I initially had, to pick up on the subtle details that contribute to the show's layering. The original pilot is apparently available on the DVD/Blu-ray First Season box.)

Here's a fairly good trailer that hints at some of the depth in the show. It's a little longer than the usual ads but you'll understand why when you watch it:

Once you've watched the series you may be interested in exploring the Sleeping Beauty parallels in the Briar Rose episode in particular, further. I found this blog article HERE which has quite a few interesting observations about episode 1.11 but please note there are lots of spoilers as it assumes you've already watched the episode.

: If you're interested in following/catching up on Dollhouse, you should know that while it is regularly scheduled for the aforementioned Friday-night-kill-spot at 9pm, it has been pulled off during the November 'sweeps' (I can only speculate why). The network promises it will return in December with back-to-back episodes for the rest of the season, then, after a Christmas break will return to it's regular weekly time starting January 8th. I hope this is a good sign and that at least a third season will be aired. It certainly feels like we've just opened Pandora's box and I want to know what might happen next.


  1. this looks great, i hope comes to the UK.

  2. I am a Buffy Nerd from way back. To this day, when I play "My Way," as done by Sid Vicious, I think of Spike, my beloved Spike, leaving town and singing along.
    But I can't get into Dollhouse. I am not a huge fan of Eliza Dushku.