Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Are you creeped out by the raunchy marketing for the mind-slave-peddling show Dollhouse? Then creator Joss Whedon is very, very happy. Whedon explained his show's take on the skin trade, in a call with reporters.

Dollhouse is about a company that hires out people who can be programmed to have any personality or skillset, and these "Actives" are blank slates when they're not being used by a well-heeled client or pro-bono case. One of these "Actives" is Echo, played by Eliza Dushku. The show launches on Friday, Feb. 13, along with the midseason premiere of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The show has been releasing a never-ending stream of sexy photos of star Eliza Dushku in various states of undress for weeks now, and a new flood of Eliza porn came out yesterday. (See below, but some gallery images are borderline NSFW.) One caller asked Joss how he feels about the live nude Dushku marketing, and he said he was okay with it. Mostly because Eliza was okay with it, and Eliza is very comfortable with her body. Joss was there for the photoshoot.

And the marketing reflects the fact that sexuality is woven into the fabric of the show — and it goes to some very creepy places on purpose. The show is about men and women being brainwashed and hired out, and some of their assigments have to do with sex, says Whedon. The show goes into some situations that make Whedon himself intensely uncomfortable, even if they don't bother any of the show's other writers.

Dushku was adamant that whatever TV show she made next should address sexuality, "not just by virtue of being all hot, but by talking about sexuality: why it drives us and how it works." One of the show's goals is to "get the audience to ask what of their desire is acceptable, and what is creepy. In order to ask that we had to go to kind of a creepy place," says Whedon. "We may have crossed the line."

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Dollhouse's Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

The show definitely does the standard cute-babe-in-a-hot-outfit come-on, but then it also subverts and examines that idea. But Whedon was quick to add that it's not so ironic that it lets him off the hook. His only real huge disagreement with Fox over the development of the show was how much to deal with issues of sexuality in the show's human-trafficking context. The network, as always, would have preferred to have tease the audience with sexy images and perhaps pay lip-service to deeper questions, but didn't actually want to go any deeper. But Whedon insists that the show shouldn't, "by virtue of playing it safe, become offensive."

Where's the army of super-ninjas?

I had to ask exactly how far this show's technology stretches. If anybody can be imprinted with any personality and skillset, are there tons of people wandering around L.A. who are living a lie? Also, could I kidnap a hundred people, plug them into the machine, and have an army of loyal super-ninjas an hour later?

Whedon said the show won't be addressing those issues in the first season, but will hopefully get to them later. "What you can accomplish, and what you can destroy, with this technology is something wer'e going to be asking increasingly toward th end of the season," Whedon said. "But for this first season, we did keep this premise fairly simple, and the Dollhouse is fairly strict about what they'll allow this technology to be used for. No ninja armies just yet."

The philosophy of Dollhouse

It's almost a foregone conclusion that someone will be doing a book on The Philosophy of Dollhouse — I think similar books already exist for Whedon's earlier shows Buffy and Firefly, and when they do, they may want to look at a transcript of today's conference call. Whedon geeked out a lot about the philosophical underpinnings of his show. (We already asked him about nature versus nurture at Comic Con.)

Today, Whedon talked more about the idea that people's identities are already becoming more customizeable, thanks to the Internet and "extraordinarily specific medications." This is something that wasn't really true even a decade ago, and it gives you new ways to talk about very old questions. "Who am I? What am I as I get older, and what's really sticking? What's the part I can point to and say, 'This is me,' and wha'ts just coming and going? And what has been imposed on me? Who the hell am i? Why aren't I prettier?" But also, what do people expect from each other, and how do we use each other?

Joss sort of gave a mini-seminar about "identity and objectification" in response to a few different journalists' questions. If you weren't already pumped for Dollhouse, you'd at least have realized this is very much a show about ideas.

Oh and speaking of exploitation, this Grindhouse-style promo annoyed me at first, but now it's growing on me:

What changed in the battle with the network?

Whedon also talked about his process of developing the show with the network, including some of the stuff he'd said before about adding more high-stakes suspense and action stuff — which he feels add to the show. And he reiterated that it's still basically the show he wanted to make. But he also added more details about the compromise he reached with the network.

For example, the first several episodes of the show will be entirely stand-alone episodes with no long-term plot developments. He referred to the first seven episodes as "the seven pilots," meaning you could watch any one of them without needing to have seen the show before. The first five episodes, in particular, take great care to reintroduce the characters and the storyline, with some progressions from episode to episode. Pretty much every episode will have the same structure: Echo gets programmed to be a new person and goes off on an assignment, with complications that ultimately get resolved at the end of the episode. It was tough for the show's writers to get that jazzed about a show that resets every week, with no longer story arcs at first, but then they got better at it.

Also, the Most Dangerous Game episode (co-starring Matt Keeslar) was originally going to be episode five or six, but the network heard "bow-hunting" and wanted it to be the show's second episode. And some people have asked why it wasn't the show's pilot, because it's so great.

He pointed out that all of his shows have had a difficult gestation process: Buffy was held until midseason, and was reshooting parts of its first episode during the filming of its season-one finale. Angel was originally much too dark for the WB, and the producers had to rethink their original vision completely. (David Fury's original unfilmed Angel script, "Corrupt," is well worth reading, and a link to download it is here.)

The Friday night timeslot:

Of course, people asked Joss how he felt about having his show stuck on Fridays, and he sounded genuinely upbeat. The placement gives Dollhouse a chance to build an audience over time, insteadiof having the tremendous opening-night pressure that would have come on other nights. Whedon seems to have decided that his shows always win over viewers over time, and that they often take a while to find their audience and become addictive viewing. He wants it to get plenty of attention right away, but not so much that it burns out under the spotlight. "

Some minor spoilers:

Whedon also mentioned a few minor spoilers for the first season. In particular, episode six is told from the point of view of a random bystander on the street who gets drawn into the Dollhouse's world. Other episodes tell the story of one of Echo's assignments from Echo's point of view, or the client's, or the point of view of another "Active."

One of the big threads, even in the early standalone episodes, will be Echo's nascent sense of identity, and her developing friendship with her fellow "Active," Sierra.

Meanwhile, Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) will mostly be five steps behind in his quest to find answers about the Dollhouse, but will run into it in unexpected ways from time to time. And he's not going to be "the reporter in The Incredible Hulk," always too late to learn anything. He'll be picking up more clues over time.

There's a "creepy naked guy" at the end of the first episode, and we'll get answers about how he fits in fairly early on.

The show "becomes a bit complicated" after the first seven episodes. By then, we'll have a clear picture of how helpless the Actives are, with very little ability to deal with the outside world. Starting around the midpoint of the season, everybody gets put through the wringer.

Other random stuff:

The show isn't inherently as silly as Buffy or Angel, because it's not subverting an established genre, and with this concept it would be easy to go too campy, says Whedon. "This has to be more grounded."

The show had a couple of really interesting scripts that didn't make it into the first season. One was about the boy soldiers of Rwanda, contrasting real-life programming of people with the Dollhouse's fictional version. And another was a weird and powerful story about sexual perversion and shame, and people's inability to deal with other people, which didn't quite make the cut this time around.

There are some new challenges to doing a show nowadays: there are six commercial breaks instead of four, and the "remote-free viewing" feature means each episode is 15-20 percent longer with the same amount of time for filming.

Someone asked who would win in a fight: Faith or Echo? Whedon said Faith would win, unless Echo had been programmed with Faith's personality and skills. In that case, it would be a draw.

There will be more Dr. Horrible webisodes at some point, but everybody's terribly busy. Likewise, Whedon's thinking about doing more Serenity comics, and is already thinking about a "season nine" of the Buffy comics. There might even be some comics tie-ins with his horror movie Cabin In The Woods. But he reiterated that there will be no Dollhouse comics, because the show doesn't lend itself to the comics form.

Dollhouse promo pics from Fused Film.