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Valley of the Dolls: Joss Whedon Discusses "Man on the Street" Episode of "Dollhouse"

Tonight's episode of Dollhouse on FOX? It's the Joss Whedon-scripted "Man on the Street," the series' sixth installment and the one episode which many are holding up as the first time the dark drama series really hits its stride.

To promote this all-important episode, Dollhouse creator Joss Whedon participated in a conference call with press and answered some questions that were lingering in the minds of both audience members and journalists alike: will we ever see any of the Dollhouse's employees' personal lives, do some of the engagements (ahem, midwife) that Echo is assigned to make sense, and where's the trademark Whedon sense of humor? Will Whedon really leave television behind for new media?

And, yes, Joss addressed all of those questions and more. (You can read Whedon's earlier comments, made prior to Dollhouse's premiere, here.)

Given that tonight's episode, "Man on the Street" better represents Whedon's vision for Dollhouse, what was it like writing the script for this installment?

"I wrote it faster than anything I’d ever written," said Whedon. "It just poured out of me. It was like all of that brewing that we've been doing became the soup of that episode and so it really was a game changer for us on set and in production. The staff and the cast read it and a lot of tumblers fell into place. That’s how we felt about the episode."

Was there any sense, however, that the "Man on the Street" episode was
perhaps being over-hyped?

"There may be a negativity associated with hyping it, but for all of us, episodes like Episode Eight ["Needs"] and a lot of the following episodes really work on the model of 'Man on the Street' more than anything else," Whedon said. "So it was a big moment for us. It was a moment that we felt like we found a level and we were really proud of it. So I figure that other people may feel differently, but we walked away from shooting that episode going, okay, we just added a layer and we feel pretty excited about it."

As for what changed with "Man on the Street," Whedon was frank about what finally clicked within him while breaking this episode.

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

So if this episode approaches the mythology of the series from a "sideways" place, much like Dollhouse's original pilot, was it a case of Whedon finding the series or the network finally relenting and letting him do Dollhouse the way he wanted to?

"I think it was both," mused Whedon. "['Man on the Street'] definitely contains elements that were pitched or developed by people at the network in terms of the motivations of the Dollhouse and the feel of the politics of the thing and what’s going on: the thriller aspect... It’s very much full of the stuff that they were pitching. But it also is storytelling wise, much more how I had envisioned coming at it to be only in a sense that is clearer, than my original pilot. My original pilot was deliberately obtuse and you had to come along and stay with it and figure it out."

"This, we go right up front," he continued. "Here’s the situation. It’s a myth. This guy is looking for it and all that stuff. We lay it out as simply as we did in the first five, but because we get to get inside the Dollhouse more and have the events there take on much more resonance, it has got what I had hoped to bring to the other episodes that I didn't really have the opportunity as much. So I felt like it was really finding the code to a show that I can do my best work in that the network still really can get behind. So it was a meeting of the minds."

And while this episode features the first face-to-face (and yes, "fist-to-fist") encounter between Echo and FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), don't look for any exploration of the reasons why Paul is so determined to track down the Dollhouse.

"We don’t really go back into his story in the first season, the first of so many seasons that there will inevitably be," said Whedon, rather tongue-in-cheek. "We feel like there’s a thorn in his side and we feel that we can push it further and twist it and possibly hit a vital organ."

Likewise, this season won't really deal with the motivations behind why Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) is working for the Dollhouse.

"I will tell you without reservation that in this season, we don’t answer it," he admitted.

But Whedon does say that we will see the handler/Active dynamic between Boyd and Echo change over the course of the season... into something that might just approach the rapport between Buffy and Giles.

"[Their relationship] is going to shift," said Whedon. "It’s definitely very much that same kind of de facto father figure. He definitely cares about her more than his job requires, but at the same time, he doesn't have the same opportunities in these first 13 [episodes] to really do anything to help her in that same sense. Their relationship is also going to have to shift a little in the ways that I’m not going to describe. But for us on the staff, that was sort of the bedrock place of no matter what happens with these guys, we know that he wants to protect her and it’s the only truly safe place in the Dollhouse is his paternal feeling toward Echo."

To return to a question that been asked several times before, is it possible that some of the employees of the Dollhouse are in fact imprinted Actives themselves?

"Yes, we talked about that and the different possibilities that we could tweak and the pasts that people have," said Whedon. "How many layers of unreality can you have in somebody’s identity and to an extent, we get very excited. We have to pull ourselves back and say if we make this a lie within a lie within a lie within a lie, people are just going to start slapping us. We’re like now we’re not invested in anybody. So we've talked about [it], but we've been very restrained with the concept because you have to have some touchstone of reality, even in this world."

Another question that keeps popping up among the series' viewers: why did Dollhouse get, well, imprinted with a lack of humor?

"There is humor in the show," said Whedon. "There’s a lot in the episode after 'Man on the Street.' But the fact of the matter is this is not a comedy... If there is a typical Whedon show, this is not it. It’s not the lighthearted romp that the other shows were... There’s definitely funny stuff coming up. There’s always moments of funny, but 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. If people are feeling like it’s too serious, then either their expectation has to be changed, or we need to lighten up a little. But, yes, I don’t think they’re ever going to see the same sort of long, six page runs of just pure humor. This is not that show."

And the fact that some of the engagements--like when Echo is imprinted with the personality of safecracker Taffy--make sense while others--like Echo being a midwife up in the mountains--don't? It's something that Whedon and the other writers are still trying to work on.

"You know, we do work on it," admitted Whedon. "Again, it’s one of those things where because it makes sense to us on some levels, we look back and go, 'Are they with us?' But we finished shooting it before any of it aired, so it’s a little dicey there. There were times we talked about why some of the engagements it seemed a little bit like, you could find somebody who might be that person... It’s just become the way we do it. But we never spent too much time with that because we were never sure how much of an issue that was going to be. It’s the one thing that’s difficult about making a show when it’s not airing is you don’t have that feedback yet... So it gets addressed, but probably not as much as people would like."

But, given the Dollhouse's mission statement, you'd expect that most of these engagements would be of the weird sexual kind. Yet in the first five episodes, this is only touched on pretty tangentially. Was this intentional or a network note?

"There were two things," said Whedon. "One is, yes, some people at the network definitely said, 'Well, wait a minute. This idea that we've bought is illegal and very racy and frightens us.' There was definitely an element of [wondering] should we tone this down that for me was frustrating because what I was telling them was dangerous ground and was meant to be. That is not to say that the only thing I pitched them was Echo has sex. The idea was always that she would be doing a lot of different things. I had a structure that the first few episodes was supposed to take us into whereby the type of engagement would always be shifting. That she would be solving crimes, that she would be helping people. That she would be committing crimes, [...] that sexuality was a big part of it and the most sort of edgy and possibly titillating part of it, but not in any way the only part of it."

"When I pitched [Dollhouse I said], 'It’s Alias meets Quantum Leap,'" said Whedon. "I thought of [Echo] more than anything as kind of life coach, as a kind of the 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 that you want it to be. And that could be something nice, evil, sexual. It could be any number of things. It was never just meant to be the one. The one sort of took over because it’s the one that frightens people the most and also obviously interests them the most."

"Having said that," said Whedon, "I still have no problem with the idea that somebody very rich and very far off in the mountains would hire the perfect midwife."

Should we be expecting some emotional twists then potentially in the relationships between Victor and Sierra or even between Paul Ballard and Echo?

"If we have to figure out a caper, that’s work
," said Whedon. "But to figure out something that causes one of them to be in pain, that’s fun! So, yes, 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. For certain people, there could be some romance, but it’s never simple... Victor’s feelings about Sierra are probably the closest thing to simple that there is in the show right now. We’re not not going to mess everybody up."

As for showing what some of the Dollhouse's employees are up to after-hours, is Whedon figuratively handcuffed as far as showing that element on the series?

"We’re not handcuffed," he said. "It’s just that at this point, we’re still interested in how they relate to our actives and particularly [Echo]. So we don’t spend a lot of time with people in their outside lives, although we do spend some. We will learn a little something about the private lives of some of our employees, but something we’re threading in lightly. That’s really something you would come to later in a season."

"Our first 13 are basically, just take the baseball bat and keep on hitting and then later on if you have people hooked, those threads are easier to weave in because [viewers] are more invested," continued Whedon. "We’re just swinging for the bleachers emotionally in the second half and so some things we will get to show because it will give us insights into the characters, but not everybody has an apartment set."

And viewers will definitely learn more about Amy Acker's scarred Dr. Claire Saunders.

"I love that character, not just because it’s Amy Acker, but because she wears misery and torture on her face literally," he admitted. "We will definitely learn how she came to this fabulous career. In the last few episodes, we get to turn the Acker up pretty hot and it’s very exciting."

However, don't expect any other Whedonverse alums to turn up on Dollhouse, other than Dr. Horrible's Felicia Day, who's slated to appear in an upcoming installment.

"Well, I did mention that Felicia Day was going to appear in an episode and that’s pretty much it for Buffy," said Whedon. "Most of them are, I’m happy to say, working, but I do like to see the gang. [However] we have to establish to reality of this world before we can bring in somebody without it being too jarring. Although we have one episode with a guy who looks a lot like Nick Brendan and his character’s name is Nicholas and that was a terrible idea. We should have never named him Nicholas because every time I see his footage, I go, 'Hey, wait a minute.' Oh, I’m confused."

And now for the $64,000 question: Is Whedon leaving television for the internet altogether, as some recent reports have indicated?

"I never actually said that," said Whedon. "It’s definitely [that] the new media is very attractive to me. It’s an open field. There’s a lot of freedom and I’m very afraid that that freedom will be taken away before the artistic community has a foothold in it. So for reasons both artistic and political, I wish very much to pursue new media. But that doesn't mean that I’m never going to do television. Everybody knows I had a rough time getting Dollhouse up-to-speed, but that doesn't mean I’m never going to do television. I love television and I love it in a different way than I love the Internet in a different way that I love movies. It’s a kind of storytelling that is just, the scope and the breadth and the depth that you can get from a TV show is unlike anything else and I love it."

Dollhouse's "Man on the Street" episode, the series' sixth, airs tonight at 9 pm ET/PT on FOX.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Great write-up, Jace. Have you seen "Man On The Street"?
Anonymous said…
It's frustrating because I want to like this show but it just isn't working for me and the fact that they're still explaining the premise in episode six (no matter how good the episode is) is not a good thing.
Anonymous said…
I have so wanted to like this series as well but have had trouble finishing the epsiodes...until tonight! Wow, really interesting plot twists, i was hooked and wanting more. Now that i am getting into it, it will no doubt be cancelled.
Anonymous said…
Could this episode have been any more perfect?

I think not.
Samantha Hunter said…
I had a hard time buying the sudden relationship. Ballard has been blowing her off since the start of the series, barely talking to her, ignoring her when she brings him pasta... now he is madly in love? Ugh.

It was more interesting than previous epis, but still very clunky and it's only on the TiVo b/c my husband said he heard that it "got interesting."

I don't know. The basic execution problems with the show are still there, but we'll ride it out and see. There were a few more signs of Joss in this epi, but it's still not coming together for me, even though I'd like it to...

Sam
Anonymous said…
This is a great show with some great ideas. I read a few negative comments that were posted. From the very first episode the writers have been throwing us curve balls, and that's a good thing. In episode 1 Echo gets imprinted with a personality that has post traumatic stress disorder for pete's sake! This is original television. If you don't like it go watch CSI or Law & Order or any show that can be described as a "procedural" or "medical drama" which are all shows with the exact same plots week after week after week. God forbid that someone who works in this medium should have an original thought. I not only like this show, I love it. Thank you Joss Whedon. People need to realize if they don't embrace original ideas in TV then all they're going to be left with is Jay Leno 5 nights a week an reruns of Deal or No Deal. If we allow TV to generate into boring unoriginal crap then I will be following Joss Whedon to the "new media" and I will not return.
Unknown said…
This is an excellent episode. This is why I give a new series a few eps to work out the kinks. If the writing and story lines continue to improve like this, we can look forward to many more eps.

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