Over the next month, in the build up to Comic-Con, Dollverse will be running a series of retrospective features about Dollhouse.
Second season of a show can be difficult. I think we all saw at times the first season of Dollhouse had issues, so when the show got renewed I had a wee gulp.
Here’s how I think they turned it around. (I mean, aside from the pesky cancellation, but that pretty much happened as soon as 2×01 aired).
1) Build your protag
In season two, Echo became aware she… existed. This happened, of course, (very) gradually over the first season — she discovered she was Caroline — but it didn’t have an emotional hook to the audience. In short, I didn’t care about Caroline. Caroline was on the crazy end of the animal rights spectrum.
Roll on season two, and Echo realises she is something new. She’s afraid of Caroline, and the idea of being wiped. She learns and believes the environment they are in is – in her new found mind – wrong. She forms a team. She gets them out.
This was one of the biggest issues I think viewers faced with the first season, and it really cut to the core of the premise. In season two, the writers found a way to step around the premise but bring the audience back in, and that method was Echo.
2) Trust your actors
Just as season two kicked off, I broke a rule I’ve never before (or plan to again) crossed – I asked one of the people on the show for a Sierra centric episode, as I thought Dichen Lachman could more than carry it. I didn’t need to, as they already had one in the pipeline. It turned out to be the best episode of the series.
And whoever pitched the Victor/Topher stuff is my writin’ hero. Ultimately, the cast they had on this show had a great combination of being professional — the kind of people you can work with and respect — and brilliant actors. I’ve never seen a more talented bunch of people as the cast of this show. And I watch a lot of shows.
A lot of material got thrown of the cast in the second season, and the cast worked the shit out of it all.
3) Respecting Epitaph One
Epitaph One is the episode that changed everything. That’s often lame marketing hype, but in this case it’s absolutely true. Also, hilariously, you saw no marketing hype for this episode because the network chose not to air it.
By moving the series to the future and showing the weight of the technology on the world and the power Rossum wielded, it gave you amazing moments like Topher’s breakdown with Adelle. It cemented a template for a second season, showing where they could go with the universe – whilst also wrapping up the series had it not been renewed.
Upon renewal, it would have been very easy to attempt to sidestep the episode for ease of writing. It did create some elements of boxing the story in. However, they didn’t sidestep it, and that worked wonderfully. Suddenly, you weren’t just watching a show about girls and boys getting [ab]used – you were watching a growing power struggle which would cost society everything.
4) Hand things to Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Andrew Chambliss at every opportunity until they cry
Why? Well, in season one we had “Spy In The House of Love” and “Epitaph One”. Some people might think these episodes just happened to shake out well, and the reality is they didn’t just happen to fall like that – those writers are fucking talented. By giving a high number of episodes to these guys, we ended up with gems like the heartbreaking Priya backstory in “Belonging”, the conspiracy mind fuck of “The Public Eye”, the epic scale resolution of “Epitaph Two” and the drug induced nightmare of “The Attic”. Not that I’ve ever taken drugs, of course.
5) Echo’s found family
Somebody once asked me to describe season one of Dollhouse in a sentence. I described it as “about people who hate each other because they can’t connect”. This is quite a twist for a Joss Whedon created show, and I think ultimately it turned some people off. Joss is very good at connecting people – both people in real life and people to his characters – and in season one character dynamics appeared to be about divides. It’s extremely difficult to sell divide.
Season two kept these characters, but it built upon their relationships in a way which sucked people in. When Priya and Tony decided to help Echo later in the series, when Adelle joined them, when Topher was all over taking down Rossum – that’s the moment of connection between the characters, and that’s the moment the audience forms their emotional connection to the show.
By the end of season two, I described the show as “forming identity and family despite society”.