Maybe it was the long, relaxing shower or the slightly melancholy thoughts of old friends that I have become disconnected with over time, or perhaps the combination of both, but it was Saturday morning after watching the newest Dollhouse episode that I finally realized, or maybe accepted, what it was that Dollhouse was missing; the glitch that was making the show feel hazy and unattainable.
It came to me as both simple and obvious, but it was a simple and obvious truth that had never existed in any Joss Whedon show. That's probably why I missed it in the first place. In fact, it is a staple, a wide-sweeping signature of any preceding Whedon show that is the very thing that is making Dollhouse...less. I am speaking of it's lack of deep, meaningful and solid relationships.
I have heard some people complain that Dollhouse hasn't contained much of that witty-Whedon dialogue that we love so much...but I don't think that's the real problem. Even if we did have that dialogue, no matter how great, it would mean little without the relationships to support it. If we look at it from that perspective, it's perhaps that very lack of character connection that is at fault for our missing dialogue.
This lack of connection, for the characters and therefore the audience, is plainly displayed in both Paul Ballard, our one and only constant outside the Dollhouse, and within all the actives and employees in the Dollhouse. The reason behind this lack in all the characters of the Dollhouse is evident by the very definition of the show; it's about people being constantly wiped clean of personality, uploaded with a new one, wiped clean again, uploaded again with yet a different personality, and so on. There is no constant here, nothing to cling to and we find ourselves, much like Echo at times, searching for a familiar face, feeling or instinct to guide us towards the safety and comfort that deep attachment can bring. But as much as we enjoy watching these obviously deep and complex characters (Topher is one of my personal favorites), it's hard to love them or love to hate them or sympathize with them on any deep emotional level. The ones who aren't dolls (Topher, Claire, Adelle, etc) live, work and breathe around the dolls and since their work relationships tend towards the creepy (Topher/Claire) or just the cold (Adelle/everyone else), they too lack any deep and abiding relationships to support them. The one exception I will list here is Boyd. He is the one character I find that I can feel for, that I can connect to more deeply than any other character, even Echo herself. It is his concern and care, what can only been seen as fatherly (Watcher-ly) affection and worry, towards Echo and his clear outlook on what is right and what is wrong that allows for such a character-viewer bond in this one and only case. He is also the one person that Echo finds that she can cling to, even in moments of fading memory and personal chaos ("Target", "Briar Rose"). This also helps pave the viewers' way to seeing Boyd as someone they can trust and relate to. Unfortunately, Boyd has seen very little screen time lately, not to mention that his removal as Echo's handler has distanced her and us from him, causing our tentative connect to become even looser.
As for Paul Ballard, he voiced this problem himself in the latest episode, "Briar Rose": "My whole life, my whole life isn't real". The one character that should have been our constant, should have been the person to forge the more likely lasting relationships, is instead surrounded by dolls. Every relationship he's had (except the rare professional one), every deep conversation he's been apart of, has been with a doll. If say, we had some back-story or some time with him that wasn't related to the Dollhouse, we could have the material to forge some connection to him. But we don't have that material and ever since we've known Paul Ballard he has been lost and confused and so we, the viewers, have been lost and confused with him. He has no anchor in this chaos, now even more so since discovering Echo's resistance to being rescued and his soon to be finding that even his reluctant co-rescuer is in fact a cold-blooded, psycho killer. His constantly unstable reality causes us to keep our distance from him emotionally, no matter how stunning he looks without a shirt on. Also, his righteousness is less touching than it should be, considering we don't really understand yet WHY he is so gung-ho about finding Caroline and bringing down the Dollhouse. Instead of chivalrous, he comes off as slightly looney-toons in his desperation and blind need.
I have never come across this problem with Joss' shows before so I find it difficult to express how I feel about Dollhouse. With Buffy, it was her relationships with her friends, family and Watcher that made her special, that allowed her to live long past the time that any other Slayer had ever survived. All of Xander's witticisms, all of Angel's dead-pan lines, all of Buffy's sarcastic retorts; they would have all been meaningless without the support of the relationships around them. The same goes for the characters in Angel - Wesley's dark transformation (one of the best ever on television) would never have been possible without the loss of his friends and eventually the loss of his one true love (Fred) - and goes for Firefly as well. The relationships do not revolve around the story - the story revolves around the relationships. The story comes from the relationships. And that is why they were great shows. And that is what Dollhouse is missing.
Don't get me wrong. I love Dollhouse. I love it for it for the fun, I love it for the Tahmoh, I love it for the potential and I love it for trying. What we need more than anything is a second season. We need the time for character and relationship development and we need the time to correct the story flow, which has been choppy - I'm sure due to network interference . We need that chance. Even though it's a chance in Hell, I am choosing to go against my nature and look upon this chance optimistically. If Joss has taught me anything in the 13 years he's been apart of my life, it is to laugh in the face of any "chance in hell" situation...and then hide until it goes away.