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Cast and Crew Dish on the Dollhouse

April 17, 2009

Joss Whedon, Fran Kranz, and Eliza Dushku prepare for an imprint. Photo via

Anyone looking at my calender this week might be misled into thinking that I have a social life, but it isn’t true, I tell you, it isn’t true!  This week just happens to be PaleyFest ’09 at the Paley Center for Media, and on April 15th, I and my fellow Whedon fanatics gathered in the Cinerama Dome at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, waiting for the panel on Dollhouse to begin.

Before the q&a, the Paley Center screened a clip from The Twilight Zone specially selected for the crowd: it featured a dollhouse, with a miniature living piano player inside.  The feature presentation was Dollhouse episode eight, “Needs,” in which actives Echo, Sierra, Victor, and November regain their personalities, but not their memories, and escape.  When the lights came up I remember thinking, ‘Damn, that’s a good hour of television.’ My initial reaction to Dollhouse was indifference, but after episode five “Man on the Street,” it got a whole lot Jossier, and a whole lot more of my attention. Now it’s really hit its stride, and I really hope it isn’t too late.

Though by now, thanks to Twitter, Facebook,, telepathy, and whatever else, you’ve probably heard the news: “The show is not cancelled.” Straight from Joss’s mouth. Of course, it hasn’t been officially picked up for a second season, but Joss is trying something new – hope.  He says the ratings may not be stellar, but Fox is pleased with the target demographic and the DVR numbers.  No doubt DVD sales will hit the roof when the time comes, especially given the furor surrounding that mysterious thirteenth episode.

The news that the thirteenth episode will not air is not the sign of the inevitable apocalypse we thought it was.  Apparently that episode was originally written to fill the 13-episode order and not really meant for television, after Joss’ suggestion of a clip show was shot down.  Though Joss is incredibly proud of number 13 and calls it “unbelievably strange,” he says episode twelve, “Omega,” written by Whedon-verse alum Tim Minear, is right for the finale.

Also on board at the panel were Eliza Dushku, Fran Kranz (Topher), Dichen Lachman (Sierra), Miracle Laurie (November/Mellie), and producers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain (Women’s Murder Club).  Moderator Matt Roush of TV Guide obviously has a bit of a fan-boy crush on both Joss and Eliza, and it took him some time to remember there were other panelists.

Though I’m not usually one to comment on fashion, I loved Eliza’s lavender dress, and Miracle looked great in jeans and a blazer – none of Mellie’s floral housewives dresses for her!  Since some of the actors scheduled to appear apparently couldn’t make it, the panel was a little lacking in testosterone, though Joss made up for it by continuing to sport his scruffy beard.  Fran Kranz, who claims he doesn’t have to try too hard to play Topher, dresses like his character, but his hair has a life of its own.

Among the night’s revelations was that the unaired pilot will probably never be seen because it was cannibalized and spread throughout the thirteen episodes.  No episodes were shot in order, which was difficult for the actors playing actives, as they never knew how much they were aware of.

Not that any of them were complaining.  Eliza said she loved the episodes where she has multiple engagements, and Miracle was thrilled by the fan freakout over Mellie’s evolution after promising her family that, yes, she did more than bake lasagne.

Though Dichen Lachman was the quietest of the group, she did mention getting a scar from the last week’s episode – running into a dolly.  She admitted that her favorite character to play so far was the dorky fan from episode three, since it was like playing herself.

Everyone agreed that the Dollhouse pods were “way comfy,” as Miracle put it, though Dichen revealed that Enver Gjokaj (Victor), who was absent, suffered from claustrophobia. Roush asked if it was challenging to play the actives in their serene state.  The actors said it was, though it was also fun, and thought it was interesting that even when they were wiped, each doll still had its own personality.

Fran stuttered through his defense of Topher, calling him “a kid playing with his toys.”  He believes Topher’s genius isolated him from people completely, so that he formed no connections beyond a vaguely motherly one with Adele DeWitt.  Morality is irrelevant to him because he doesn’t operate according to standard society rules – they have no meaning in the Dollhouse, which he apparently never leaves – though Fran says he’d love a scene of Topher grocery shopping, and running into Tahmoh Penikett’s Agent Ballard in the frozen food aisle.  Us too!

When asked if any of the characters changed because of the casting, Joss pointed to DeWitt, whom he said he imagined as more of a “dragon lady” before Olivia Williams came along and inserted her humor in the part.  The auditions for the actives were kind of a free-for-all, since they needed to be able to do just about anything.

For the first time, I think I may have to thank Fox for something: the greater Purpose of the Dollhouse was their idea – or at least, their idea that there is a greater purpose. Joss said he originally conceived the show as a “confessional” for people and their darker fantasies. Though he believes he could write those stories forever, I have to say that adding the larger conspiracy alleviated some of my fears about the longevity of the show.

On this topic Joss appeared to let something slip – a possible spoiler?  He started to say what sounded like, “Having the actives collect information-” and then changed the subject. Hm… So perhaps that’s why the Dollhouses exist – to collect information and then, what? Blackmail?  We’ll see. (I hope.)

From there Roush moved on to questions from the audience, and the first was a multi-part complicated one that boiled down to: Are the actives named according to the order they arrive, possibly leading to a male Juliet?  It was at this point that it seemed to occur to Joss for the first time that there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, and clearly more than 26 actives in the house.  Though code names are recycled when dolls are retired – such as the current Sierra, who replaced another in the pilot – it was clear that Joss didn’t realize he’d run out of names before he’d run out of actives.  I’m still waiting until we meet actives Hotel, Papa, Quebec, Whiskey, and Zulu.

Though now that I think about it, “Papa” is probably that vaguely middle-aged doll we see in the background sometimes, particularly during “Needs.” He’s the only one over the age of 35.

When someone asked why he didn’t just make all television the way he made Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, Joss replied that while he thought web television was the future, and he loved it, he still loved the scale of television, and needed those sorts of budgets to make something as large as Dollhouse.

A fan who’d commented on the PaleyCenter website with this question brought up Joss’s obsession with human experimentation – which was news to him, though he realized that, hey, it was true.  He said he likes the robot mythos, and the ideas of what society programs us to be, calling Artificial Intelligence: AI and the character of Gigolo Joe a big influence on Dollhouse.

“I don’t like people, and I don’t trust them,” said Joss, deadpan as always.

Watch Dollhouse Fridays on Fox 9/8c

(Except tonight, because apparently they’re closing up shop on Prison Break)

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