Joss Whedon on ‘Dollhouse’s’ humor, layers and ‘ick factor’

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The ‘Dollhouse’ episode that Joss Whedon wants the whole world to see is airing Friday, so the popular TV scribe held a conference call today with the entertainment press to discuss how he’s feeling about his new series and why there is still hope for this Fox drama.

The rocky road of Whedon’s highly anticipated series has been well-documented, but Whedon is very excited about ‘Man on the Street,’ the upcoming episode that he wrote, and the fact that his audience grew by 21% last week to 4.3. million viewers.


The following are excerpts from a Q&A with reporters:

Q: Your fans have been been waiting for your signature humor to shine through. Is that coming in future episodes, or is this just not that kind of show?

A: There is humor in the show. There’s a lot in the episode after. The fact of the matter is that this is not a comedy. And if there is a typical Whedon show, this is not it. It’s not the lighthearted romp that the other shows were. The fact of the matter is that there’s definitely funny stuff coming up. There’s always moments of funny. It doesn’t build like a comedy. It wasn’t designed to be a comedy. It’s not going to play that instrument. You have to do different things at different times. And if people are feeling like it’s too serious, either their expectation has to change or we have to lighten up a little. But you’re never going to see the long, six-page runs of pure humor. This is just not that show .... You can’t turn it into pop-culture referential ‘Dollhouse.’

Q: Viewers have complained of the ick factor of the premise. Most of the dolls are there voluntarily, but knowing that at least one isn’t, doesn’t that continue to make the show uncomfortable?

A: It makes me uncomfortable. I’m not going to lie. For me it’s part of what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with people who have power and are abusing it, and people who don’t and are trying to regain it. In some instances, we want to show the dollhouse is providing a service that somebody is looking for. And in other instances that’s going to be abused and the ick factor gets very high.

Q: Do you think there might have been a negative side effect to all the interviews you did where you emphasized that Episode 6 was where you wanted people to get hooked?

A: You know, there may have been a negative side to it because people may have said, ‘The first five episodes are crap,’ which I don’t believe. But I do believe there’s the negativity of somebody saying, ‘Well, now he’s blaming the network’ for the other episodes. No, no, no. We did our best to try and figure out how to put the show over as a new paradigm under the gun while we were in production or, occasionally, out of production. And what happened with ‘Man on the Street’ — it came to me as a concept really quickly. And for the first time, there was a real simpatico. They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we get that.’ And it was a very simple thing. I wrote it faster than anything I’ve ever written. It just poured out of me. All of that brewing we’d been doing became the soup for that episode. It really was a game changer for us on set and in production. The cast and the staff read it and a lot of tumblers fell into place. That’s how we felt about the episode. There may be a negativity associated with hyping it. But a lot of the following episodes really work on the model of ‘Man on the Street.’ It was a big moment for us. We found a new level and were really proud of it. Other people may feel differently, but we walked away from shooting that episode going OK, we’ve just added a layer and we feel pretty excited about it.


Q: What was that other layer that you found?

A: Doing an episode that somebody who had never seen the show could walk in on because it explains the premise very clearly. In fact, it’s about explaining the premise. At the same time, really getting under the skin of the dollhouse and of Paul’s character and what’s going on with everybody and the workings of the place and coming at it kind of sideways rather than just showing an engagement and flipping in some information around that engagement. This was one where we got to look at the cogs of the clock, and that’s what gave it such momentum for us.

Q: How much of this was you needing the time to find the show? Or was it the network relenting and letting it get to the place you wanted?

A: It was kind of both. ‘Man on the Street’ definitely contains elements that were pitched by or developed by people at the network in terms of the motivations of ‘Dollhouse’ and the feel of the politics of the thing and the thriller aspect. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, now they’ve shut up, and now we’ll do it my way.’ It’s very much the stuff they were pitching, but it also is storytelling-wise much more how I had envisioned coming at it. You know, to be only in a sense that is clearer than my original pilot. My original pilot was deliberately obtuse. You had to go along and figure it out .... We lay it out as simply as we did in the first five, but because we get to get inside the dollhouse and have the events take on more resonance, it’s got what I had hoped to bring to the other episodes. It was really finding the code to a show that I can do my best work in and the network can still get behind. It was a meeting of the minds.

Q: Obviously, the big market for the dollhouse is weird, weird sexual engagements. But the first five episodes touched on that very little. Is that a choice because you’re on network TV or are you waiting to get the show to that place later?

A: Yes, some people at the network were like, ‘Wait a minute, this idea that we just bought is illegal and very racy and frightens us.’ There was definitely an element of ‘Shall we tone this down?’ That for me was frustrating because what I was selling them was dangerous ground. That’s not to say that the only thing I pitched them was Echo having sex. The idea was that she was always going to be different things.

Sexuality was a big part of it and certainly the most edgy and titillating part of it, but not in any way the only part of it. When I pitched it, it was ‘Alias’ meets ‘Quantum Leap.’ I thought of her, more than anything, as a life coach. As the kind of person you absolutely need in your life at a certain moment who will either change you or comfort you or take your life to the level you want it to be. And that could be nice, evil, sexual. It could be any number of things. It was never meant to be the one. The one just took over because it’s the one that frightens people the most and also obviously interests them the most. I think we ended up not going there as much as we would have in the first few episodes because we were still in that dialogue with some of the people at the network. You end up doing a disservice if you just gloss over it and hit it head-on.


Q: How deep are you going to go with relationships? Could there be romances developing?

A: The emotion of the thing is really why we’re there. It’s the only thing that really interests us. If we have to figure out a caper, that’s work. But to figure out something that causes one of them to be in pain, that’s fun. As the show progresses, we are able to get further with the emotionality because the dolls are actualizing more and everything is going to get much more tense for everybody.

— Maria Elena Fernandez