As much as we all fervently and loyally love Joss Whedon, it's time to face facts: His mojo is off. It's not gone -- I'd never suggest such a thing. One look at Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and the better episodes of Dollhouse prove that the magic is still there. However, it has lost its focus, writhing in the ether, struggling to gain the fame of his earlier television work -- fame that while never massive, was solid, loyal, and passionate.
With Dollhouse canceled, the question on everyone's mind is how can he get back to the success of Buffy? How can he shrug off the pain of two battles for ratings and second seasons, and present a show that ushers in a fandom rivaling what came before with Buffy, Giles, Willow, and Xander?
Hit the jump for 5 sure-fire ways to get Joss back on track.
1. Start with a Simple, Well-Thought-Out Concept
Dollhouse is confusing. It's not easy to relay to outsiders, and even as a fan, I would have a hard time truly boiling it down to its essence. But even more troubling -- it seems to constantly change as if the PTB aren't truly sure what the series should be, what path it should take. That is something that's clearly not Whedonesque. We're talking about the guy who slid references to Dawn and Buffy's death two years before they were slated to happen with the line "Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0."
The thing that made Buffy different than the shows that came after: Joss had time to mull it over and come up with a concrete plan. There were 5 years between the massacred film and Whedon's show. Five years to solidify his own ideas for the premise after it got turned into a fluff flick; five years to decide exactly what he wanted to say, and how.
Furthermore, while supernatural, the concept was simple: Discuss the growing pains of high school and other social issues with the help of demons. Real life in a surreal world. There wasn't a big cast and a convoluted plot to keep straight. We had Buffy, Giles, Willow, and Xander (and, increasingly and briefly, Cordelia), and as supporting cast members made their mark on the show and fan base, their contributions increased. That way, extra players were never confusing and never detracted from the plot because they'd already claimed their stake, and the audience wanted more.
While the show did, indeed, grow, Buffy never needed time to get good. Episodes like "Angel" and "Prophecy Girl" hinted at the greatness to come, and the second season was an all-out powerhouse.
Very few people want to wait around while a show finds out what works.
2. Add a Solid Lead and Talented Co-Creator to Reign in the Crazies
When Joss is on, he's on. There is little in television that rivals the sheer awesomeness of Hush, Once More, with Feeling, or the felt-like-the-series-ender The Gift. These were the moments where a strong show became spectacular, and almost every awe-worthy moment came from Joss himself.
But there are times when you hear his vision and just don't get it. Having a demon take over Cordelia so she gets it on with the son of her love? Too soap opera terrible. Although sometimes, I admit, the weirdness is a case of fan short-sightedness. Initially, I didn't get his adoration of Amy Acker, but that was due to my dislike of Fred. Then Illyria came on the scene and things just clicked. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Eliza Dushku.
As Faith, she breathed new life into Buffy, but she's just not the malleable actress Joss makes her out to be. "I got frustrated with all these crappy horror movies she was making like Wrong Turn and Soul Survivor... That last one broke me. I literally said, 'Eliza, let's have tea. I'd like to talk to you.' And I said, 'I love you. I think you have something that no other actor that I've worked with has. What the f**k are you making these movies for? Why are you doing this to me? You're killing me. I just think you're better than this.'" [IGN]
Good in certain roles, yes. A female Gary Oldman? No. If your lead, who you wrote the show around, doesn't seem SO. DEAD. ON. for the part, there's something wrong. A strong lead is essential, and having a co-creator there to act like a voice of the people can smooth the wrinkles. He needs someone who can spot when his adoration and admiration for his actors doesn't match with fan opinion, who can say hey -- it's not a good idea to go soap opera and add in the whiny character -- or who can spot the potential confusion in a premise and hone it to precision before filming. Like all of us, he needs an editor with a sense of the audience.
3. Start with a Small and Relatable Cast
Buffy was magic from the get-go because there was a small, endearing, and manageable cast to grow attached to. It was easy to move that into Angel -- the main characters were already established. Firefly got it half right -- some of the characters got their chance to be fleshed out and thrown into the halls of adoration while others couldn't even begin to compete -- too many, too soon. But Dollhouse -- how can you care for the stars of a show when half the cast plays automatons wiped on a daily basis?
Joss needs to start simple and small and expand from there. If he found actors who can give the powerhouse performances -- like Alyson Hannigan's heart-breaking tears -- and give them the meat to make those talents shine, that would be half the battle right there. If you can't root for and love the show's characters, you're not going to stick around every week. You need a killer lead and a manageable supporting cast that can cover all the bases.
We need to care! Even in those filler episodes where swim dudes turn into fish or eggs take over people's brains, we've got to give 2 sh*ts about the people involved.
4. Find the Killer Dialogue
Dollhouse was also missing the great dialogue Joss was known for. Sunnydale, Los Angeles, and Space were all places for Whedon to mix the funny in with the serious, and there were always enough one-liners to go around.
... Well, it involves a feather boa and the theme to A SUMMER PLACE.
I have frog fear.
You can't open the book of my life and jump in the middle. Like woman, I'm a mystery.
I'm a rogue demon hunter now.
... Wow. What's a rogue demon?
We need to laugh and we need to cry. Dollhouse took itself too seriously. Funny moments were rare. That cup of pithy dialogue wasn't overflowing.
5. Get on a Good Network!!!
After Firefly and Dollhouse, I think we can say one thing for certain: the show is doomed if the channel steps in and starts changing around the order of the episodes. Influencing content is one thing (still worrisome!), but I still can't fathom why Fox likes to reorganize Joss' shows. This is not like The Twilight Zone, a series of stand-alone stories. You don't start at number 3. You start at 1. That's basic Kindergarten counting, Fox!
Joss needs a network that will let him do his thing and not interfere (let the guidance come by way of super awesome co-creator). It's not like the interference works anyway. All it does is irk the fans who will be watching and make a show trying to find its footing fall before it ever has a chance to walk ... let alone run.
So, what should Joss take on next?
This is a tough call, but there are some options:
- Make Dr. Horrible into a bigger show with more villains and zaniness.
- Zombies: A metaphor for the working class? Other forms of the undead could come in as the power behind the scenes that must be defeated.
- Give us more magic, but in a Giles/Ripper sort of way (yet with new characters and storyline).
- Anything that lets Amy Acker get dramatic. She is a great potential lead from Whedon's world.
What do you think the problems in the Whedonverse are, and how would you fix 'em?