Is that a person there?
Dollhouse could perhaps be seen as Joss Whedon’s most personal statement in that it’s about the absence of personality—or more precisely, about personality as almost-absent, but never fully destroyed, trace. In Dollhouse, Echo (the impressively unresponsive Eliza Dushku) is a shell, robbed of its original self, Caroline. Through the first season (all I could bare to watch) Caroline is mostly gone; we only see flashback glimpses of her as Echo is filled with various other personalities — a dominatrix, an outdoorswoman, a perfect girlfriend, another perfect girlfriend. The first season ends with a future vision of a world in which individual brains are erasable, plunging the world into dystopic chaos. Everyone is a replaceable cog. This provokes dramatic visible terror on the one hand, and the usual genre comforts on the other, as the main plot focuses on a group of entirely forgettable actors being picked off one by one in the usual manner of the post-apocalypse, complete with predictable tricky unpredictable betrayal and surprise reversal at the end.
Whedon famously had only sporadic control over Dollhouse; the network messed with and compromised his vision. But does that mean that Dollhouse isn’t Whedon? Or does that make it instead all the more Whedonesque? Reading through our lengthy Whedon roundtable, what’s most striking is how utterly generic, in every sense, Whedon’s output seems to be. Tim Jones identifies Whedon’s cardinal virtue/sin as cleverness—but the iconic line of dialogue he uses to illustrate that cleverness probably wasn’t Whedon’s at all, but a Robert Downey Jr. ad lib. Philippe Leblanc points out Whedon’s obsession with military conspiracies…but that’s an obsession he shares with every other media property ever (“Orphan Black” comes immediately to mind, as just one example.) Lisa Levy praises Whedon’s embrace of non-conformity, and Megan Purdy criticizes his unthinking racism. But enthusiasm for non-conformity and thoughtless racism are hardly unusual in pop-culture generally. Perhaps most tellingly, Ana Cabral Martins singles out Whedon’s ability to keep all the moving parts of the Avengers films moving. Whedon, Martins suggests, is most Whedon when he’s smoothly assembling corporate product. He’s the Mussolini of pop culture, making the nerd content run on time.
Again, whedon, like most people in television and film, always works in collaborative contexts. If there’s not one, distinct, Whedon vision, it’s probably in part because Whedon’s almost never working by himself to begin with. My single favorite Whedon project may be the last-season episode of Angel in which our hero is changed into a muppet—and how much did Whedon even contribute to that? He has a writer credit, but who knows what that does or doesn’t mean. Similarly, episode 3 of Dollhouse, in which a suicidal pop star is cured of depression by being told to suck it up, is one of the single worst episodes of television I’ve ever seen. But again, is that Whedon’s fault? Maybe he would have made an only moderately crappy episode if he’d had creative control. Who knows?
But Whedon’s selflessness goes beyond the usual difficulties of attribution in collaborative work, I think. David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Quentin Tarantino, even Jenji Kohan all seem to have distinctive interests, themes, visual styles, rhythms. Does Whedon? As I said, I don’t think the roundtable has unearthed any. Whedon likes strong female heroes, sticking it to the man, and playing with geek toys. These are not individual interests. Instead, they put him smack center in the mainstream. He’s into the same things everyone else is into. His success isn’t because he has an individual vision, but because he doesn’t—or more generously, perhaps, it’s because his individual vision is everybody’s individual vision. He sees what everyone sees, and everyone loves it.
That’s not to say I hate Whedon; I’m part of everyone, after all, I enjoy strong female heroes, clever dialogue, and Hulk smashing, at least intermittently. In fact, hating Whedon, or loving Whedon, seems largely beside the point. What’s there to hate or love, anyway? You might as well loathe the dolls in the Dollhouse, in all their interchangeable vacuity. There’s nothing there to hate or love. I’m forced to admit that Joss Whedon does exist, but even so, it seems odd that anyone bothered to take the time to invent him.
This concludes our Joss Whedon roundtable…I think! Unless someone else sneaks in at the end. But it’s probably over. Click on the link to see all our posts! Thanks to everyone for contributing, commenting, and reading.