I decided the other day that it was finally time to catch up on season 2 of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. I think most people would agree (Whedon fans included) that Dollhouse was luke-warm on arrival. The series premise (revolving around the character of Echo, an "active" at the eponymous "dollhouse", a place where one may rent a living human being who has been implanted with a new personality geared towards your personal needs/fantasies) was somewhat interesting, but the situations that arose from it weren't incredibly compelling. It really wasn't until about midway through season 1 that the plot began thickening and we began to get a glimpse into Whedon's serpentine labyrinth of story. For those who stuck around long enough, season 1 ultimately paid off, answering a lot of questions and raising new ones and unlike Whedon's previous Fox series (Firefly) was picked up for a second run. In the interim between the final episode of season 1 and the announcement that the show had been picked up again for the fall, there was no shortage of rumors and internet chatter about how Fox had screwed Joss over yet again. The two most prominent accusations were regarding a pilot episode that was not aired (similar to what had happened to Firefly) and season 1's un-aired finale "Epitaph One". The finale became a major source of curiosity for many fans as it purportedly took place several years in the future and featured "The Guild" and "Doctor Horrible's Sing Along Blog" actress Felicia Day. Fox apparently didn't think it was a good end cap to the season and so the only place that it and the pilot would be seen would be on DVD.
Season 2 of Dollhouse began about as luke-warm as season 1 had and sooner rather than later Fox decided to pull the plug, but they would allow Whedon to finish out the series' story. I had watched season 2 up to about the 4th episode, just before they started showing two episodes back to back each night and the remainder of the series from that point on has been sitting on my DVR for the last few months. I had heard that the series ultimately refers to or somehow ties in with the events in the missing season 1 finale Epitaph One and that the final episode of the series was even called "Epitaph Two". Before I started watching the rest of season 2 I wanted to see Epitaph One and get the whole Dollhouse experience, so I ordered the disc from Netflix and last night I sat down to watch it.
Why on Earth didn't Fox air this episode?!
Ok, I can probably understand why they didn't air it. Epitaph One, while it does feature characters from the series up to that point, doesn't do much to advance "the story so far", at least not in an immediate way. We find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic world, one where the technology to impose different personalities on existing people has gone awry, where it is implied that one day a phone call capable of transmitting imprints went out and afterward the world was split into two factions: those who answered the call and those who didn't. It's actually a chilling and quite original premise, like some kind of Orwellian, sci-fi, zombie fiction. As a season finale, Epitaph One would have been a serious cliff-hanger for a series that Fox obviously still wasn't sure about. As an executive programming decision without much insight or forethought, it makes sense not to air it. Having just seen it myself, if Epitaph One had aired as the season finale, I would have been able to forgive the slow start to season 2. The question remains as to whether or not the show's writers could have kept the standard Dollhouse stories interesting, while slowly doling out the intrigue and filling in the blanks left by Epitaph One, but it's a question that (perhaps fortunately) does not need to be answered. Season 2 became the last season of Dollhouse, but Whedon got to end it rather than leave it hanging and I'm looking forward to catching up to it all on my DVR, especially after watching Epitaph One.
Dollhouse definitely does reinforce the idea that American television is often too stuck on the idea of the "ongoing series". The goal in American television has always been: stay on the air as long as you can. In recent years however we've seen a surge in more directed story-telling, shows like: Lost, Heroes, Firefly, Dollhouse, Battlestar Galactica, and even going back to the 90's with show like Babylon 5, Space Above and Beyond, and The West Wing. In the case of shows like The West Wing and Babylon 5, these were shows that were only ever designed to last a certain amount of time. Babylon 5 was a story in 5 parts, each season being one of those parts. The West Wing was a story about the Bartlett administration and could have run at the most 8 seasons (even considering that season 1 starts us halfway through Bartlett's first year in office. American television writers are writing series' with the framework for finite stories, but still stuck on (or forced to adhere to) the ideology of the ongoing series. If American television writers were able to work more like the way Japanese and British television often does and work with projects designed to be finite then what you'd likely end up with would be more compelling, shorter series' and because of that, the likelihood of series' remaining on the air might increase.
Dollhouse as an example is perfect. If the show had been designed from the start to be 2 or 3 seasons long then the filler that most found to be boring, but that is necessary to extend of the life of and prove the validity of an ongoing series, would not need to be present and viewers would likely be more engaged. It's definitely something to think about, but whether or not television authors like Joss Whedon could ever sell such an idea to a network is a whole other subject. Perhaps it's not so much the writer's mentality as it is the network's. After all, something that gets good ratings season after season an that you can just renew is better than a bunch of finite shows that you have to take chances on once the previous one's run is up. At least from a "bottom line" TV executive perspective.