Tonight the final episode of Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” will air on Fox, canceled after barely two seasons.

Saw that coming.

“Dollhouse”, produced by Joss Whedon and Boston-born actress Eliza Dushku, premiered in February of last year to mixed reviews. There were the Whedon loyalists who recognized the spark of genius that made projects like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Serenity” brilliant. And there were those who saw it as flat, complicated, and directionless from the beginning.

Then there were the fans who just genuinely enjoyed the concept: Technology that can imprint a human brain with any personality. Our main characters were everything from the perfect date to the perfect assassin, and a few surprises in between.

But as of tonight, all that “Dollhouse” was is coming to an end. Cancelled before its time. But this isn’t the first time this has happened to a Joss Whedon show.

Perhaps Whedon’s most famous cancelled show was 2003’s “Firefly”, a Space Western with an ensemble cast, amazing dialog, and a budget too big for its experimental genre-mixing. It went off the air after only 13 episodes, but the seeds of a cult classic were planted.

Two years after the little-known show was cancelled by Fox, it had a huge fan following and a big damn movie. Serenity, the movie based on “Firefly”, was a hit. It gave fans the satisfaction of seeing their beloved story resolved on the silver screen.

But why was “Firefly” cancelled? If ratings were the problem, the network had only to wait a while. If DVD sales of the TV series and ticket sales for Serenity are any indication, “Firefly” would’ve had ratings of Buffy-like proportions within at least two seasons.

Was the budget too big to maintain? Budgets can always be cut, even with a special-effects heavy show. Perhaps the network was worried that audiences weren’t ready for a genre-bending sci-fi concept no one had ever seen before.

To that I say: Look at the success of Battlestar Galactica.

Even Whedon’s show Angel, a spin-off of his incredibly popular Buffy series, didn’t last as long as its creator intended. Cancelled in the fifth season and forced to wrap things up hastily, Angel was meant for at least another season. Its death wasn’t quite as tragic as “Firefly”, since the series did get a full five seasons. But again, the assumption was made that once Buffy ended, no one would want to watch its spinoff series. The network doubted Joss Whedon’s fans a second time.

And now, with the cancellation of “Dollhouse”, the Fox network is again snubbing the work of a great creator of television and doubting the faith of his fans. But this time, I find it hard to blame them.

“Dollhouse” was not Joss Whedon’s greatest show. I don’t even think it was his second best show. It fell far short of the brilliance of Buffy, as well as the short-but-sweet web series Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It may be that “Dollhouse” was doomed from the beginning. Were it not for loyal Whedonites the world over (and the curious viewers willing to give it a chance), it might not have lasted past the pilot.

But Whedon has had terrible pilots before. Season one of Buffy (which, as I might have said before, was his finest work) was a comedy of low-budget errors. Once it got off the ground, the show was great, but it was only by luck that the network decided to let it live past that first laughable season.

“Dollhouse”, by contrast, was blessed with an enormous budget and all-star crew from the very beginning. The set was beautiful, the actors were beautiful, the writers were legends in the industry… and yet it didn’t have that certain special something that takes a story and makes it great. How could a show starting with all the advantages turn out only mediocre at best, and get cancelled by the second season?

“Dollhouse” wasn’t terrible, it just… wasn’t great. Maybe the problem was that we expected greatness of the next big Joss Whedon show starring a bad-ass female protagonist.

It had its moments. The comic stylings of nerd-genius Topher Brink were always good for a laugh. The acting of Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman as they switched seamlessly between personalities was breathtaking. The “Dollhouse” itself was a gorgeous set. The surprise plot-twists every five episodes or so kept me on my toes. And then there was the raw presence of Eliza Dushku, a woman who can turn heads no matter what she’s doing.

But none of this was enough to overshadow the fact that “Dollhouse” — much like its lead character — didn’t know its own identity. The show felt hesitant, like its creator knew that one false move could get it cancelled. They wanted so badly to get it right. And they failed to recognize their strengths and run with them.

From the beginning “Dollhouse” was a decent show that failed to grasp its full potential. They had their chance, and now they’re getting cancelled. As this is not Whedon’s first cancellation, the rumor goes that once “Dollhouse” goes off the air, he won’t be doing any more TV shows. Instead, Whedon will be focusing on web-based projects like Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

Perhaps the show will redeem itself in the final episode. But it looks like this one’s going out with a whimper, not a bang.

About The Author

Bombshell executive editor Jess d'Arbonne works in book publishing. In her non-existent spare time she writes about nerd culture, books, feminism, and zombies. She's a Libra, a Browncoat, a self-professed geek, and nobody's fool. You can follow her on Twitter @JessDarb

21 Responses

  1. Taylor

    You were right about the show going out in a whimper. However, I feel that the plot line was actually a great one, and the acceleration of the plot was meant for at least another season or two.

    It’s evident within the first 5 minutes of the last episode that the concepts could have been explored over a good 5-8 more episodes. Then, another 2-3 for the transition from 2010 to 2020 would have helped. And then a couple more filler episodes would have worked well into the slow buildup.

    Yes, season one did seem to have an identity crisis. There were some issues with plot development, it did seem to start and stop, but overall it was truly a remarkable experience- and the world that was representative of the hell that could possibly occur if this wiping tech were to actually exist was reminiscent of the Reevers from Firefly. Again, Whedon trying to get in his last laugh, I suppose.

    Also, the Friday night slot is notoriously awful for TV series- it’s really hard to build up with a slot on a night when everyone wants to be out and partying instead of sitting at home watching TV. If Fox had given it a chance, maybe switching it to a Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday slot, perhaps it might have taken off instead of slumped. I mean, the same thing happened to Firefly with the Friday night slot.

    Who can say what Joss’s best show truly is? They all seem to be met with confusion from the people who sign on initially but find themselves corporately frustrated into making cuts. Perhaps Whedon has merely become cynical with the underappreciation that he is constantly met with as well as people’s inability to be patient and wait to see how things develop.

  2. Jess

    The curse of the double F: Fox and Friday night.
    I agree that if the show had been allowed to progress naturally, it would’ve been good. The first season just got its sea-legs towards the end, but they were canceled so early into season 2, that things just got rushed. I think they could’ve had a great second season if the doom of cancellation wasn’t looming over their heads.

  3. Lschuma!

    I personally thought that Fox was right to downplay the series. It was weak.

    As his reputation as a television auteur has grown, Joss has become more stubborn when it comes to compromising with the networks. It’s fine–I think he’s really talented and he’ll function well as an independent media creator. But the series took a back-seat to his other projects and started to become erratic without his close supervision, like a neglected child.

    And I’m sorry: Eliza Dushku can be strong actress in the right role, but she lacks range. She was a poor choice to play a role that demanded such versatility, and she definitely doesn’t have what it takes to carry her own show.

  4. Lschuma!

    I personally thought that Fox was right to downplay the series. It was weak.

    As his reputation as a television auteur has grown, Joss has become more stubborn when it comes to compromising with the networks. It’s fine–I think he’s really talented and he’ll function well as an independent media creator. But the series took a back-seat to his other projects and started to become erratic without his close supervision, like a neglected child.

    And I’m sorry: Eliza Dushku can be strong actress in the right role, but she lacks range. She was a poor choice to play a role that demanded such versatility, and she just doesn’t have what it takes to carry a show.

  5. stufu

    I loved the show, to bad it had to end like this. Another season…. Oh well, we can use our imagination. uggggggggg arggggggggh, Joss you are a genius.

  6. Mike Lavoie

    Yes I agree that the show was a liitle weak in the beginning. But towards the end of season one and all of season two I thought it became very good. Every week I couldn’t wait to see the show. And I’m not just some kid, but 56 years old and a lover of good science fiction shows. (Babylon 5) was great.

  7. Jeff

    What shame this show was cancelled. Great show continue to get cancelled as terrible ones (Desparate Housewives) stays on the air. A show that makes you think and use your imagination is great, but they seem to always get cancelled to make room for cop and doctor shows…please we have enough of those boring 1 hour junkholes…..

    • Rayn

      Brilliantly said Jeff. Hollywood have this horrible way of dumbing down the audience and producing the same crap over and over. I’m so sick of mindless shows such as desperate housewives and the OC in which they drag the show out for far too long with a weak story line and the longer the show the more stretched that story line becomes, not to mention all the horribly nausiating reality shows that make you want to bang your head against a brick wall as its more entertaining, the bachelor for example, a bunch of money grabbing whores with no brains competing for this mans affections cause he’s rich and gorgeous.

  8. David

    I liked the final episode, though I felt as if I’d missed the episodes leading up to it (not the case)…

    I’ll buy the DVD when it comes out, Joss makes shows that make you think, even if it only with the final few episodes (okay, ‘Angel’ just madse me think it needed a different ending, a little closure in the ‘pocket universe’ that had spun off of the ‘buffyverse’ — though I found myself speculating on the ramifacations of his [Joss’s]tech through most of the series, and of course there was his signature “kill at least one major character in the final episode”.

    Eliza is always pleasant to watch. I admire Joss’s loyality, not only to his fans, but to his cast and crew.

    Thank you Joss, I look forward to your next effort; Graphic Novel, Film, Video, or Web.

    • Chris

      I rewatched Epitaph One right before I watched the finale. If you felt like you missed the episode(s) leading up the the finale, not watching Epitaph One might have been the reason. The scenes at the beginning of the finale were from that extra episode on the season 1 DVD set.

  9. Susan

    I am disappointed that this show was canceled. It was very smart, with great story and plot lines. It was however doomed by the time slot it was in on Friday’s going up against Medium, Super Nanny, etc. If they had just given it a little more time and put in on mid week it would have been a hit.

  10. nomasteryoda

    I too am older (46) and have enjoyed the show through both seasons.Acting? Yes, I agree with the superb acting of the cast. They learned to do so many characters and do them very well. The episode with Victor doing Topher was awesome as well.

    This final episode could have been longer and certainly was forcing some issues just to bring the show to a close. Doing things Joss style, the show went out with a pretty big Bang …. I won’t give up what happens if you’ve not seen it. Wait, you’ve made it down this far in the comments and you’re not a fan? Go get a copy as soon as you can.

    What will I do with my Friday nights now?

    Thanks Joss for yet another great show…

  11. pld713

    I am so upset that the season ended the way it did. Especially because it was the last of the show. I thought the show was great. Every episode had me wanting more, and i don’t think it was given enough time to grow. You could bounce so many great episodes off the plot. It really could go any which way. the one part i really hated about the finale was that Paul had too die. i know she wasnt really alone at the end but it left me a little unhappy. but otherwise, the show was so creative. It was something so original, and today that is not too popular. so many of our movies are made from books. The show also didnt say when the finale was. i just finished watching it to find out that there is never going to be any new ones. And i agree, no shows should be aired on a friday or saturday night.

  12. Mike

    I agree wholeheartedly with Lschuma! Friday night was never a killer for BSG, so that just sounds like an empty excuse from blinded Whedonites. This show was always just good enough for me to watch, but it was never great. And it actually made me start to dislike actors I had loved in previous shows – mainly Dushku and Penikett (the latter was particularly putrid in this series).

    FOX was definitely a main reason for Firefly ending prematurely. But Dollhouse? It seems like they gave it one more season than it deserved, and definitely tried marketing it (anyone else remember the attempted “hot chicks on Friday nights” promos with Glau and Dushku?) With Firefly FOX didn’t even try; at least they gave Dollhouse a fighting chance. FOX didn’t kill this one – people deciding not to watch a mediocre show when there are better alternatives killed it.

    • Lschuma!

      I love that phrase…

      Yes, Penikett started to suffer from the dreaded Boreanez Syndrome (IE becoming Captain Cardboard), and neither of them were great at communicating that quirky Whedon humor. I saw some great new talent in this show’s cast, but its biggest names became its least appealing actors. A strong EP would’ve slapped them around, but Whedon insisted on making Dushku her own boss. Michael C. Hall can do that, after three successful seasons–Eliza Dushku can’t, especially not from the get-go. They needed strong leadership and it just wasn’t here.

      I notice that a lot of people who identify as hardcore Whedon fans seem timid in their rabidity for Dollhouse. The man has SUCH a large, smart, dedicated fanbase; I thought I would wake-up one day to headlines about Browncoats swarming the FOX offices and filming a second Firefly season at gun-point. That fire just wasn’t there for this show. And I think it’s hard for the fans (in their loyalty) to admit that it was the show’s fault; instead they blame Firefly’s old enemies of the network, the rating, the marketing, and the air dates. Let it go: it was an uneven, uninspiring show that took too long to figure out what made it interesting in the first place.

  13. Rayn

    Dollhouse was on its way to becoming an awesome series. I admit, at first I watched the show and thought to myself, I like this but its not going to last (and I guess I was right). The first season was a little slow but it set the basis for the possible future seasons but season 2 was taking the show to a possibly great future. When Echo became self aware and developed the ability to access all her former imprints I saw the show beginning to take off, it just took two seasons to get there. If Fox had given the show one more season it may have survived. Unfortunately though original stories don’t tend to last long these days and the same crap keeps getting churned out and lasting much longer then it should (lost and prisonbreak for example, the latter shouldn’t have made it past the first season) not to mention the repetative crime shows like the many CSI’s. STOP TAKING AWAY GOOD SHOWS FOR MINDLESS CRAP!

  14. Dan

    I’m a huge Whedon fan and am disappointed to hear that another of his shows has been cancelled, though I must say I’ve been on the fence about Dollhouse since it started. It’s had some great moments, but hasn’t yet pulled me in the way his other shows did, including the brief but brilliant Dr. Horrible. On that note, I’m glad to hear he’ll be doing more web-based stuff.

  15. Daniel

    Going out with a whimper?! Nonsense! Utter nonsense. This was an awesome show from start to finish. Classy, twisty, intriguing, and saucy all the way. I suspect that only minds numbed by the pap usually served up on television could think such a thing.

    • Jess

      …or someone who regularly writes television critique like it’s her job and has watched and loved everything Joss Whedon has ever made. Trust me, I do not bother with “pap”, and rarely watch repetitive cop/doctor shows.

  16. alix

    im really pissed they canceled it, i admit the first season was week, but then again so are all shows. if they had given it more of a chance joss wouldnt have had to rush the second season and it would have been far longer and less confusing. the finale could have been at least 10 episodes in itself if it was so rushed. this show was getting really good, the only reason it didnt last is because fox was expecting a sexy show with superheros and prostitutes and what they got was an extreme metaphor for prostitution and all its dangers. this show had potential and it was brilliantly written and produced. i wish they hadnt canceled it… it could have been the next buffy (which if you didn’t notice the first two seasons were awful as well…)


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