No bones about it, Fox’s Friday night SciFi shows are doomed. “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” despite being a surprisingly good show, has ass ratings. And “Dollhouse,” despite coming from Joss Wheedon, is ass and also has ass ratings (although both shows did manage to come in third in their respective timeslot, which is better than fifth, I guess). Dustin has discussed, at length, his issues with “Dollhouse,” and I largely agree. But I wanted to briefly ramble because Friday’s airings of these shows starkly showed the difference between the two, and explain while I’ll be sad to see “Terminator” go but am OK with “Dollhouse” being sent to the Attic. (*Spoilers obviously abound, though not for anything that hasn’t aired yet*)
Both shows began with a strikingly similar problem, in that their lead characters and actresses were generally the least interesting. Lena Headey’s performance as the titular Sarah Connor has been generally bland, and the early storylines revolving around her character were equally meh. But as the show started to expand beyond her and John’s relationship, it also managed to find its legs. Friday’s episode was a perfect example of this — yes, Sarah she played an important role in it, as did her relationship with John. But they’ve built up such a strong world of characters and other plot threads that Headey and the Sarah character are no longer distractions or disappointments, just a weaker part of the show (in fact, my only major complaints about show, of late, come during the episodes that go back to spending too much time with Sarah).
“Dollhouse,” similarly, has yet to justify Eliza Dushku’s involvement. But where “Terminator” has opened the world up in a way that successfully takes the focus off of its weaker purported-core, the opening of the the world in “Dollhouse” only highlights Dushku’s weakness. And, again, Friday’s episode was a perfect example of this, solidifying the fact that I am much more interested in Sierra and Victor, than in Dushku’s Echo. Both of these actors have shown themselves far more capable (particularly Dichen Lachman, who plays Sierra) of portraying the chameleon-like aspect the roles require. So whenever we’d cut away from them back to Echo, I found myself simply spinning in wait for when we’d cut away from Dushku back to something good. Plus, the background we’ve now been given to Sierra’s character, that she was apparently sold into this slavery, is far more compelling and interesting than Echo’s background (i.e., that she willingly stepped through the Looking Glass to avoid prison).
Point being, “Terminator” has gotten to the point where they’ve figured out how to use Headey (and Thomas Dekker as John Connor) relatively well and, except for episodes featuring her almost exclusively, I’ve come to not mind her storylines. But I’m just not feeling any indication that “Dollhouse” is going to be capable of doing this with Dushku and her Echo, even if it were given a second season to try to figure itself out. Particularly since Whedon and Dushku have repeatedly said that the whole point of the show was to be a vehicle for her.
In any event, Friday night also brought something else to light about both of these shows — “Terminator” is playing for keeps, “Dollhouse” ain’t. Going into the episode, I was pretty psyched for “Dollhouse,” because the notion of these dolls being fully awake certainly opened up a lot of possibilities. Of course, I expected things to go back to a quasi-status quo, but I figured there would be at least some sort of lasting impact from the capital-A Awakening. And while there may be, every hint and impression from the episode was that things are actually going the opposite way, with everyone’s little memory-leak glitches being all fixed up, allowing them to get back to being relatively clean slates. That’s fucking boring and safe.
“Terminator,” meanwhile, did one of the ballsiest things I’ve seen on a network show, unexpectedly killing a main character in a flash, with no pomp and circumstance, nor any leaks or network signaling ahead of time. Brian Austin Green was a bit of a revelation on this show, managing to quickly make all the detractors, myself included, eat our words as he became one of the best things about the series. Despite being a fan favorite, however, showrunner Josh Friedman insisted that Derek be killed quickly and unceremoniously, as violent deaths often come. That his death was so surprising and underplayed, just a simple bullet to the head as he turned the wrong corner into the path of a skinjob, made it all the more awesome (one of the few out-loud “oh shit” moments I’ve had in ‘09), and it was the perfect cap that his remains were tossed into an unmarked grave in the same public cemetery where his brother’s remains wound up 25-years-ago.
And with that bullet, Friedman let us know that he’s not fucking around (and Fox let us know that, every once in a blue fucking moon, they’ll actually cede to the show’s creators). Several characters have been taken out over the course of this season, and it’s pretty clear that, aside from John Connor, it’s fair game on everyone. And I love that feeling about a show. It likely won’t matter, as this week’s season finale is almost certainly a series finale, but at least it’s going out strong. “Dollhouse,” meanwhile, seems to be limping to its inevitably impending series finale, and I’m going to be far less sad to see it go. In fact, you might say it will be quickly wiped from my memory. Is that too cheesy a way to go out? …fuck it.