Pop Culture
Feb 09, 2009, 05:14AM

Dollhouse Stimulus Package

Two media darlings have hit a wall recently. Will their ambitious new projects make pundits swoon once more?

Dollhouse.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

The cast of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse angrily await congressional action.

In recent weeks, two messianic figures have been dragged through a media battleground of innuendo and suspicion. Who are they? Barack Obama and Joss Whedon, of course. It’s certainly a silly pairing, but recently the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the creator of Democracy (wait, that’s what he did, right?) have had very public missteps. It turns out they’re having trouble at their new gigs. In trying to get his new Fox show Dollhouse off the ground, Whedon has had to delicately balance studio interference, rabid fans, and his own famously uncompromising vision. In trying to float an economic stimulus package and get his administration fully staffed, Obama has had trouble with Republican lawmakers who couldn’t pass Economics 101 if they tried. Fox shunted Dollhouse into the Friday night “death slot” that killed Whedon’s last show, the much-lamented Firefly; Obama traded the pit bull with lipstick for Mitch McConnell (no lipstick).

Both are grappling with worn-out conventional wisdom in their respective fields: yes, spending can be stimulative and no, sci-fi geeks do not always stay in on Friday nights. But both Whedon and Obama also have the problem of being figures the media loves to love. Take Obama’s open-necked, swaggering interview with a geeking-out Matt Lauer, or this breathless homage to Buffy reruns in The Guardian. Coverage of their last gigs—Dr. Horrible, a super-villain musical that showed how web-based content could be outrageously profitable, and No-Drama Obama, an almost perfectly-run presidential campaign—was mostly adoring, objectivity be damned. These guys are good at what they do, and that makes for a good story. But the better story comes when things start to go wrong; smelling blood, the press closes in. After months of various reports hinting at problems on the set, an article in next week’s Rolling Stone (link opens a PDF) lowers expectations for Dollhouse by reporting that the show will be Whedon’s last foray into television. The show’s concept is a bit weird, involving people who can assume any persona after having their memory wiped, and Whedon has had to re-shoot episodes. Regardless, fans and the media alike have been hyperventilating for weeks, waiting for Dollhouse to go down hard.

“The Thrill is Gone” has become the soundtrack of presidential coverage lately. In last Friday’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer could barely contain himself as he declared that the “magical mystery tour” of Obama’s rise to power is over after two and a half weeks. Wavy gravy and hyperbole aside, Obama did lose control of the economic debate in recent days, in part because cable news channels have been interviewing two Republican lawmakers for every one Democrat. But rumors of Obama’s political demise are ridiculously overblown. As he reminded the House leadership in the good old days of his first week in office, he won, and he reasserted himself accordingly at the end of the week. Not to mention a USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday that shows 55 percent of those surveyed saying they have gained confidence in Obama’s ability to improve the economy since he took office. Over the weekend, a compromise stimulus package was cobbled together, earning Obama’s cause (as of Sunday afternoon) three new GOP votes. Not a resounding success, but still. By the time we tune into Dollhouse on Friday, Obama’s stimulus package will likely be ready for passage. After all, if anyone in politics is possessed with vampiric efficiency, it’s Rahm Emmanuel.

Obama and Whedon have shown their ability to deliver, and their fans want to see them do so. But the media thrives on suffering—admittedly, it can be fun to watch—so until Dollhouse is a smash hit and results of the stimulus start becoming apparent, I doubt they’ll give either an easy time. Nor should they, but especially on the political side, there is a line between creating substantive debate and obstruction. Fortunately, another quality that Whedon and Obama share is patience. Some new tax cuts aside, Obama’s stimulus package is a slow-burner. This is a problem for the 24-hour news cycle, and for Republicans who are trying to return to core values when some are declaring the conservative movement dead. Whedon tells stories by concealing serious, long-term character studies in gleeful genre self-awareness. The lukewarm early reviews of the Dollhouse pilot could be put down to executives muddling the creative process, but also to Whedon’s stories developing over the course of a season rather than jumping out immediately. The pilots of Buffy and Firefly, like that of The Wire, are not as immediately striking as, say, the first episode of Lost. It could all be much ado about nothing.

But hell, Dollhouse might suck and Obama’s stimulus package might be a disaster—we’ll have to wait and see, which is not something the media is built to do.

Dollhouse premieres this Friday (February 13) on Fox; the Economic Recovery package may come to a living room near you around the same time.


Register or Login to leave a comment