Why Defying Gravity Needs to Not Get Canceled

When I first heard about Defying Gravity, I was surprised to see another space show, following the dead-in-the-water Virtuality which went from pilot to TV-movie backdoor pilot to TV-movie that everyone knew wasn’t going to become a series.

Defying Gravity had a number of similarities to Virtuality — ensemble-sized crew on multi-year mission deep into space, their efforts being made into a reality show for people back on Earth, driving off of interpersonal conflict exacerbated by the enclosed space and mission stress.

However, Defying Gravity has a far milder version of the ‘reality show’ aspect, and lacks the virtual reality material featured in Virtuality.  As a result, the show is much more focused — it’s serial SF with episodic interpersonal plot — originally pitched as “Grey’s Anatomy in space” — the show released on ABC over the late summer, but was only aired for episodes before it dropped off of the schedule — ABC has stated that they they are looking for the best time to air the remaining episodes — meanwhile, the episodes have been airing elsewhere, due to the show’s status as a multi-country, multi-network production.

I hope to see the remainder of the season on television, but I have doubts about the show getting picked up.  It’s likely rather expensive given the sets and FX required, and the show’s ratings were lukewarm when aired — though that’s far from unexpected from a relatively un-advertised mid-summer show with a high concept.  Depending on how its ratings fare elsewhere, it’s possible that even if ABC drops its support, it might continue on.

Here’s why Defying Gravity is cool, for me:  It’s probably the best new straight-up SF show (recently) on television.  The show addresses advanced speculative elements (deep-space missions, plus other SF-inal spoilery things that are very intriguing).  It also sustains and develops strong interpersonal drama, throws in good doses of comedy, and includes the best use of flashbacks since LOST, using a parallel structure depicting the mission crew and other personnel in the years-long training that served as the characters’ introduction to one another and informs their relationship with one another in the ‘now’ segments.

Unlike LOST, the characters are deeply interconnected with one another throughut their flashbacks, meaning that instead of revealing a ‘small world’ setting where disparate characters were more connected than they suspected, the crew of Defying Gravity are shown working through years of interpersonal relationships — it’s two stories that are one and would theoretically come together by the end of the series, when the flashbacks lead up to the start of the ‘now’ part of the show and provide (10-11) years of contiguous storyline.

Back to the title of my post:  Why this show needs to not get canceled — Defying Gravity depicts a future where space exploration brings us into a larger universe, valuing both science for science’s sake; also the love of exploration.  It also introduces and explains SF-inal elements unseen in television, if well established in SF literature.  The SF writing world talks about how film/TV is two decades behind prose.  The ideas get investigated in prose, and go from brilliant innovation to discussed and debated trope, and once well known enough, if the materials that lead into the trope are established in the popular imagination, then it can reach a broad audience to be digested.  Shows like LOST took several years to build up to and introduce SF elements, and Fringe is popularizing parallel/alternate universe theory.  Dollhouse is a possibly-too-complex-for-tv meditation on the possibilities of interfacing with and modifying memories through technology.

It’s all well and good for the SF community to investigate ideas and develop discussion, but it’s a small world, and for those ideas to reach the majority of the populace, either you need a massively popular novel on the level of Stephen King or Dan Brown, or you probably need to make a movie/TV show.   And if shows that further the collective understanding of the culture-shaping ideas that SF produces keep getting canceled, it serves as a barrier to that dissemination of ideas.

For these reasons and because I think it’s engaging on an interpersonal level with strong performances by a fairly-ethnically diverse cast, I would really like Defying Gravity to continue long enough to tell its story, to convey its speculation about a possible future.

Whither The Whedon?

Here we see an open letter to Joss Whedon from The  TV Addict —


Rumors from last year have already presented the possibility that Whedon could give up TV and return to an internet-based model as seen in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Dollhouse has been assured a full 13-episode run for the season, but there is no word of picking up the back 9 (ordering more episodes to make a full 22-episode season), and there’s also a rumor from Brian Ausiello that Dollhouse will be benched during November sweeps.  All of this seems to point to Dollhouse not surviving past its second season.  Only time will tell, but the show’s renewal last season was a big surprise to many, and seemed to revolve around the fact that Whedon proved he could make the show for less money (see the post-apocalyptic “Epitaph One” for his example of lower-budget Dollhouse)

TV Addict does some quick math to speculate that a core audience of 2 million viewers buying straight-to-internet downloads at $.99 a pop yields a revenue of just under 2 million dollars per episode.  Add in merchandise sales, DVDs and possible syndication, it seems pretty reasonable.  There are also some other possibilities for budget-cutting, including shooting in video vs. digital (which then reduces the max quality of the material for DVD, a trade-off to be sure).   There’s also the fact that a pilot episode can cost several times as much as a regular series episode due to start-up costs.  Whedon and Mutant Enemy are a reliable entity, known for producing fan-favorite, intriguing material but recent lack of success with TV properties on network TV, which makes them an ideal case study for considering this change in model.

My girlfriend is more knowledgeable and interested in industry/funding/marketing than I am, but she’s in class in California right now — and I’m thinking out loud at least partially as a creator.  Plus, this is my blog.  However, she’s likely to come around and correct some of my numbers and/or add her opinion. 🙂

For Whedon, using a model adapted from/close to Felicia Day’s The Guild may prove as a starting point (and likely informed his approach with Dr. Horrible).  Find investors for start-up costs (Pilot + 8 episodes) and make it go.  Whedon’s fan community would reliably do vigorous viral marketing without having to be asked. Everyone in the geek-o-sphere (amusing name, TVAddict)

A show like this would probably live and die on the efficacy of its marketing campaign.  Dr. Horrible was free to watch for a short period of time, and then became digital download only — it later ended up on Hulu for free and then became available by DVD (with extras, natch).  If this new Whedon show were available online for free for X period of time (a week per episode?), and was also sold via iTunes/etc., would enough people pay to download it to sustain the show’s budgetary requirements?  DVD sales of Whedon/Mutant Enemy material is consistently strong, but without the advertising revenue as a primary source of funding, it’s intriguing to ponder if a high-ish-budget show could survive in this model.  Felicia Day’s The Guild is free to watch/download and pays for itself off of advertising and alliance with MSN (to by knowledge) — but it also appears to be a very cheap show to produce, with less than 10 minute episodes and little to no special effects.

If one production company can do it, doesn’t mean that any others could.  Auteur/Star Power goes a long way in the digital world, but it goes as far as those consistent 2-million-ish viewers, not necessarily further.   The Long Tail Theory probably applies here, where a figure/group famous within a subculture (geeks) can serve as a sufficient base for demand — without being The Next Big Thing like LOST or Heroes.

What Abut Going Cable?

An alternative would be shopping shows to cable networks — where the ratings demands are lower (and therefore, so are budgets, often times).  Cable networks have been making critically-acclaimed shows for a number of years, and in recent memory, challenging shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Rome, The Shield, Mad Men and Breaking Bad have all come from cable networks and enjoyed popularity, critical praise/awards or both.

Whedon’s shows Buffy and Angel survived on 2nd-tier broadcast networks (UPN and WB) rather than the Big Four.  The lessened ratings demands of these 2nd tier networks allowed the shows to survive.  Right now, the descendent of UPN/WB — the CW) occupies that median position, but is strongly branded towards teen girl dramas (Gossip Girl, 90210, One Tree Hill, or dramas that appeal strongly to the 18-25/49 female demographic (SF shows such as Smallville and Supernatural (which help court the beloved male 18-24 demographic).  It’s uncertain if a Whedon show would find a place in the current CW brand — certainly possible, given Whedon’s feminist-friendly approach (for certain brands of feminists, that is — debate continues on the ultimate standing of Whedon’s feminism), but not necessarily an instant match.

There’s a few issues with the ‘Go Cable’ approach.  Here are the big two for me:

1) If a show is on cable, it automatically cuts out a portion of the potential audience.  Some dozens-ish millions of viewers have/watch TV but not cable.  This reduces potential viewers (likely reducing ratings) but also can be seen as inherently elitist — if you’re making shows for cable and have a social agenda (like promoting feminism or critiquing the capitalist system, etc.), you’re already always speaking to a more affluent population (we’re speaking in generalities here — there are better-off households who never watch tv, and there may be less affluent households that still decide to have and watch cable).

2) Ad space on cable networks is going to be sold at different rate sets than ad space on network TV.  This goes back to the basic numbers of who has/watches cable vs. who has/watches network TV.  Depending on the type of cable (basic vs. premium and all permutations), this can change how your show’s budget is determined.   Whedon may be able to make quality TV on a lessened budget, but those limitations inform what kinds of shows can be made.

A modern-day+something cool show is likely to be far cheaper than a futuristic SF or historical/otherworld fantasy show (props, sets, costumes, etc.) — Whedon has frequently done the modern-day+ settings (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse) but I know as a writer/creator, I would blanche at the limitations of that reality.  Brilliant shows like Defying Gravity may fail to succeed because of budgetary problems like the above.

Wrapping it Up

These questions aren’t quite relevant for Whedon, et al. until/unless Dollhouse meets its end, but they are questions that need to be asked in general about the industry.  We should be asking What purpose do these networks serve? Has technology developed to the point where other models are viable/recommended? What will it take to make those models viable, if they aren’t there yet?

I think I might like to write for TV one day, but by the time I make it there, the landscape may be violently different, just as the publishing industry is going through a major shakedown (price-wars at big-box stores, Borders teetering on the edge, increasing technology for e-readers and digital distribution, etc.)

Dollhouse Renewed: Fox Spared Whedonites’ Wrath

Variety.com and i09.com are reporting that FOX has renewed Whedon’s Dollhouse for a second season (information points at another 13-episode season order, and staying on the Friday timeslot).

This means that Whedon’s declaration about swearing off television in exchange for doing internet-based work will probably wait for a little while longer, though Joss has been known to have more than a few projects at any one time.

Execs apparently enjoyed the last couple of episodes (as I did), and were convinced by strong DVR/TiVo numbers and the unaired “Epitaph One” as proof that the show could run on a smaller budget.

No word on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, its Friday night mate. While Dollhouse can run on a smaller budget, Terminator requires CGI/elaborate makeup cyborgs, and may not fare as well, despite/because of its willingness to break format/formula and experiment with structure.

Tid-Bits From Not-To-Be-Aired Dollhouse ep.

Dollverse has some stills from “Epitaph One,” the 13th episode of Dollhouse that was filmed on spec and FOX has chosen not to air, as it was not part of their season order.  With the series’ fate in question, even more in question is this episode, which guest-stars Felicia Day and looks all post-apocalypty.

Dolls look great in Mad Max gear

Dollhouse — Hitting Stride

In the first few weeks of Dollhouse’s life, Whedon and others associated with the show said ‘wait for episode 6 — that’s when it gets really good.’

The reason given for the change in Ep. 6 is that FOX high-ups stopped having as much direct input as of the episode, which means that less was done to make the show fit the exec’s ideas of what the show was supposed to be. At least, this is the story that is told.

Whatever the reason, “Man on the Street,” “Echoes,” and “Needs” are stronger, tighter episodes, with more ongoing momentum and more of the humor we expect of a Joss Whedon property.

The themes of the show all ramp up in these episodes, most especially the degree to which the Actives/Dolls are treated as not-human.

Using a documentary frame that might have been useful to implement right away in the Pilot, the unseen documentarian/reporter gets a variety of responses and commentaries on the idea of a Dollhouse, ending with a validation of the redeemable qualities of the Dollhouse concept, which goes hand-in-hand with the engagement-of-the-week with Patton Oswald as the grieving widower who contracts an Active each year to be imprinted with the memories of his dead wife so that he can have the day/weekend with his wife he was denied by fate.

In “Needs,” Lawrence Dominic tells the powers that be in the Dollhouse to think of the Actives as pets rather than people. We also get several data points which suggest that manner in which the Actives come to the Dollhouse are less altruistic than Adelle DeWitt would have us/the Actives believe. If the rapist client is to be believed (not exactly a reliable witness), then Sierra was sent to the Dollhouse not because she wanted to be there, but because the client wanted to make her go away, or at least, her personality and memories. We see that Caroline coming to the Dollhouse was in no small part to learning too much about the Rossum Corporation, also known as the People In Charge, owning/sponsoring not just one, but twenty Dollhouses.

The plot, it thickens. In “Echoes,” Sam, the scientist who conspired to steal the memory-altering drug to sell to Rossum’s competitor is brought in by DeWitt and is given the same ‘offer’ as Caroline/Echo. This leads directly to a reading where the ‘offer’ given to would-be-Actives is far more morally compromised. November may have wanted to escape the grief of her dead daughter Katie, but for Caroline and Sam, going to the Dollhouse was much like Taking the Black in George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire — the only option given to someone who would otherwise (likely) be killed.

When I saw the preview for “Needs” and then the one-line description of the episode following it, I was afraid that the plot was going to be completely irrelevant to the overall story, much the same concern that I’d had since the beginning of the show. If the events of the episode and each engagement are wiped away for the Actives, those episodic plots become even less relevant. But for “Needs,” where Echo, November, Sierra, and Victor have their original personalities (but not memories) restored as a therapeutic release valve, we learn not only that the whole plot was a deliberate control technique implemented by Dr. Saunders and Dollhouse executive staff, but also that Caroline was cagey enough to contact Agent Ballard, making the events of the episode moreover relevant to the overall story.

Ratings have not been good, but haven’t been so abyssmal as to immediately call for cancellation from FOX. FOX put at least enough confidence in the show to include shortened commercials, allowing episodes to clock in at around 50 minutes rather than 43-45. Its timeshifted (TiVo, DVR, etc.) numbers are good, however, which makes sense for a Friday night snow.

Time will tell whether the show will make it past one season and develop its threads, from a confrontation with Alpha to a possible composite event for Echo/Caroline. In the course of three episodes, Dollhouse has found a stronger voice and is a stronger show. If the first couple episodes didn’t quite do it for you, it might be worth your while to watch through to episode 6 and beyond.

Dollhouse “Target” — This is more like it.

Dollhouse’s second episode (third if you count the ill-fated pilot, which since I haven’t seen it, I’m not) “Target” guest-stars “The Middleman” Matt Kesslar as a hardcore outdoorsmen/hunter who engages Echo to be his Perfect Outdorswoman Girlfriend who he rafts with, climbs with, teaches to shoot, sleeps with, then chases across the wilderness trying to kill her.

“Target” was a great improvement over “Ghost” for me, and while it was just as packed as the pilot, it flowed better, was less over-burdened by exposition, despite the fact that it featured Boyd (Echo’s handler)’s introduction to the Dollhouse and explained what happened to Alpha, presumably the first of the Actives in the Dollhouse (given that the Dolls named sofar follow the NATO phonetic alphabet — Alpha, Echo, Sierra).

There’s some creepy-touching bonding between Echo and Boyd, as well as quickly moving towards the ‘Echo’s multiple lives smashing together’ point, which for Alpha was called a ‘Composite Event’ also known as Very Bad.

The episode had more Whedon-esque dialogue, like Topher’s quip to Langdon — Anything for you. Because I love you. Deep, deep man love.”

Or Not-Middleman’s “Is this the best date ever, or what?”

“Target” also features a welcome move with Agent Ballard investigating the events of “Ghost” — if Echo’s assignments become Ballard’s bread-crumb trail, the events of previous episodes stay relevant rather than being one-off engagements that are forgotten once Echo’s memories are wiped.  By having both Ballard and Langdon as POV characters on the series while Echo lacks subjectivity/self-awareness, we get a variety of views on the Dollhouse and the lives of Actives — Boyd’s already forged a personal connection with Echo (which I’d argue goes beyond the individual person she became for the episode, as she’s already compositing and going beyond the personality matrix she’s been programmed with).

The recurring theme of Echo’s adventures on assigment involve overcoming victimization and finding inner strength, which I imagine will be shown as a resurgence of Caroline’s personality or the center for Echo’s emergent individuation.

“Target” gives me more hope for Dollhouse from a critical standpoint, though the premise is still very tricky and much of Whedon’s trademark patter and cleverness is subdued moreso than in Firefly or others.  And even if it does manage to deliver more consistently, I’m not sure it’ll last past the initial order ratings-wise.

We shall see.

Dollhouse — “Ghost”

“Ghost” was not the original pilot for Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s new show on FOX.  Like Firefly before it, Fox asked Whedon and Mutant Enemy to produce a new, more accessible pilot than the first one delivered.

Dollhouse is centered on a business known to urban legend as the Dollhouse, a business that can offer clients an Active, a companion/servant/lover/etc. with any skills, any personality, any memories needed for the situation.  In “Ghost,” the Active called Echo (Eliza Dushku) is at first a 21st-century Cinderella, the perfect woman for a weekend-long, no-strings love affair for one client, and then becomes a by-the-book hostage negotiator for another client.  Between her ‘engagements,’ Echo lives in the Dollhouse as a childlike tabula rasa, unaware of what happens when she ‘goes to sleep.’

Olivia Williams plays Adelle DeWitt, the owner/operator of the Dollhouse business.  She speaks of the organization as being one that helps people, but tries to keep the business side above all else.  Her tools of control over the Actives include Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), who programs the Actives, and Dr. Claire Saunders, the staff Doctor for the Actives.  Echo’s handler in the field, there to take her to her assignments, protect her there, and bring her back is former policeman Boyd Langdon (Harry Lennix).

One of the questions I’d had leading up to the premiere was if and to what degree the show would address the lives of the “actives” before they signed on with the Dollhouse.  “Ghost” does just that, opening with Echo (before she becomes Echo) in conversation with DeWitt.  DeWitt is offering Not-Yet-Echo a five-year contract as an Active, and promises that when the term is over, the organization will help clear up the Vague But Important trouble that Not-Yet-Echo has gotten herself into.

Providing a counter-point narrative is Agent Paul Ballard (Battlestar Galactica’s Tamoh “Helo” Penikett), who has been assigned to the Dollhouse case for the last 14 months.  Ballard has bent and broken the rules chasing the Dollhouse, which has drawn the ire of his immediate superiors — however, it’s made clear that someone high up in the organization believes in the Dollhouse, since Ballard is kept on the case.  Ballard tracks and confronts Victor, one of the other actives (played by Enver Gjokaj).  The Actives know nothing of their special nature or the Dollhouse while they are being ‘engaged,’ which stymies Ballard’s efforts.

The premise makes for a show that pushes the normal boundaries of the episodic drama.  Not only will there be a new problem and new guest-stars every week, Echo will be a different character each episode, spending most of her time not as Echo, but as the person her client needs her to be.

The show’s momentum is built off of the fact that Echo begins to remember flashes from between engagements and from her time in the Dollhouse.   The first of these memories is seeing a new Active called Sierra (Dichen Lachman) in intense pain as her original memories are being wiped. Echo’s growing self-awareness and memory will allow the engagements to retain ongoing meaning, but the show faces the problem that in any given episode, a classic “What happened last episode stays in last episode” effect will occur, one that tends to bespeak lazy writing.  This problem cannot have eluded Whedon and the creative team for the show, but it remains to be seen if audiences will respond positively to this unusual format.

Fortunately, there is more than enough eye candy to go around, for everyone.  Between Dushku, Penikett, Lachman, Gjokaj, Williams, et al, the pretty doesn’t stop.

The thematic center of the show is well-established by Not-Yet-Echo’s comments to a video yearbook being played in front of a mysterious character in “Ghost”‘s tag — Not-Yet-Echo is a recent graduate with her whole life in front of her.  She wants to be every person, travel to every place, have every experience.  We’re asked to think that while no ‘normal’ person can actually have every experience or be all of the people they want to be, as Echo she can.  The irony there is that in order to become every person, have every experience, she has to give up her own identity, her sense of self.  Whedon has explicitly said that the show also focuses on objectification, the way that we make other people into who we need them to be rather than who they are.  The Dolls are ‘perfect’ objects in that way, until of course the perfection breaks down and the object achieves/reclaims subjectivity outside of their ‘engagements’

At that time, the memories building up and Echo may either remember who she was before or build a new sense of self.  Will she spark the same reactions in Victor and Sierra?  How will her chemistry with Ballard feed into this growth, where Echo is a different person every time she and Ballard meet?  What did Not-Yet-Echo do to get in so much trouble?  What happened to the people surrounding the mystery man watching Not-Yet-Echo’s video?  There are a lot of dramatic questions established right away, which should give viewers more reasons to keep watching week to week, as answers get doled out in a manner probably reminiscent of LOST, Battlestar Galactica and the other top contemporary dramas.

The show’s initial order was nine episodes, two of which seem to be taken up by the shelved pilot.  Whedon has had bad luck with FOX, a network notorious for cancelling beloved shows.  It remains to be seen if Dollhouse will survive long enough for its answers to unfold.  Tune in to find out.

On the Horizon — Mid-season

Here are three speculative and/or genre-inclined shows coming up soon in TV-land. Dollhouse, Castle, and Kings.


Joss Whedon’s anticipated new tv drama, starring Eliza “Faith” Dushku as Echo, one of a number of ‘Dolls’ — people who have had their memories wiped, live in an idyllic but infantile ‘Dollhouse’ facility, and who, when they become ‘Active,’ are implanted with memories and skills to serve as whatever the Dollhouse’s clients want them to be. This will allow Whedon and the show to explore Dushku’s range as a leading lady, explore the theme of memory vs. spirit/soul, exploitation, human experimentation/human trafficing, etc. The show also stars Tamoh “Helo” Penikett as James Ballard, the FBI agent who investigates the urban legend of the Dollhouse. Dollhouse has been troubled by production delays, disagreements about creative direction, and other issues, but it is on track for at least a nine-episode initial order.

Dollhouse premiers February 13th on Fox.

Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion, of Firefly and Dr. Horrible fame) is a famous best-selling mystery novelist who is tapped by the NYPD as a consultant when a copycat killer starts committing murders in the same manner as Castle’s books. This creates what seems to be a very promising meta-genre component for the series, since we’ll have Castle interpreting everything through the filter of a crime/mystery writer, and provides a variation on the ‘expert consultant protected by bad-ass detective/agent’ dynamic of shows like Fringe, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, Bones, etc.

Stana Katic (Heroes, 24, Quantum of Solace) plays Castle’s detective handler/inspiration for the protagonist for a new series of books. The show is likely to make good use of Fillion’s range, injecting comedy (From the video preview — “Did you see that? That was so cool!”) and romance (Castle asking the detective out, and her brushing him off while acknowledging the chemistry) into what seems to default to a prime-time hour-long crime procedural drama.

Castlepremiers March 9th on ABC.

An alternate-present America re-telling of the story of King David, Kings gives us David Shepherd (Christopher Egan) rescuing the son of King Silas (Ian McShane), ruler of Shiloh, a city in the Kingdom of Gilboa, David is welcomed into the court and turned into a hero of the people, wrapped up in politics and power. NBC’s promotion has highlighted the alternate-history aspects of the world, focusing on the monarchic nature of the Kingdom of Gilboa (Shiloh, the center of the story, appears similar/evocative of a New York City or the like).

UNN Breaking News

This show appears to be high-production value, since there will not have to be much in the way of SF special effects, focusing on costuming, graphic and set design to highlight the subtle but fundamental differences between our world and that of Kings. The story of King David should provide enough material for several seasons, depending on how close of a re-telling is planned and how quickly the story is to unfold. Early responses to the pilot script paint it as “bold, bizzare, fun”.

Kings premiers March 19th on NBC.

A Critique of Pure Whedon

On February 13th, we will be introduced to Joss Whedon’s newest television series, Dollhouse.

I’ll be watching it, for my own interest as a general fan of his work, but also to discover if Whedon is able to get out of his rut.  I’ve been a fan since the first season of Buffy, continued on with Angel, and am one of approximately 37 members of the Original Flock (also known as people who watched Firefly on FOX during its original run).  The Church of Firefly now sports many thousand devotees, whose rankings might as well be determined by the number of DVD-loaning-genertions one is removed from the original TV run).  I’m a Whedon fan through-and-through.  But it is a natural part of subcultural fandom to critique that which we love.  One could say that Indie Rock fan culture is entirely composed of such critique (or that might just be my intense reading of Questionable Content speaking).

In addition to developing a reputation as one of the poets laurate for Geek Culture, Joss Whedon, writer of witty banter, producer of an ongoing line of bad-ass skinny super-powered adolescents/young adults, has become painfully predictable in his approach to romantic relationships.

Whedon’s ouvre spans over a dozen seasons of television, dozens of issues of comics, several films, and a troublesome through-line.

In Joss Whedon’s universe, happiness in romantic relationships is inevitably followed by catastrophic death/dismemberment/disaster.

Let’s do a quick roll-call of Whedon’s Greatest Relationship Hits — I won’t be pulling any spoiler punches here, so stand ready:

Buffy/Angel — Fated Doomed Lovers.  A Slayer and a Vampire, it really is poetic.  And ended the first time with Buffy stabbing Angel through the heart and shoving him into a hell dimension just as his soul was restored to him.  Ended the second time when Angel moped off to LA to get his own show.  Failed to start again when Buffy fell in love with Spike.

Xander/Anya — A strange-but-stable relationship ended by cold feet and then kept from re-uniting by a random death in the Buffy finale because, from a dramatic standpoint, a heroic finale isn’t powerful enough unless someone dies.

Zoe/Wash — Happily married, not without their issues, but those issues proved that you can portray a happy long-term relationship realistically and still have it be interesting.  Or it did, until Wash took a Reaver-spear through the middle after having his Big Damn Hero moment.

Colossus/Shadowcat — Pete comes back from the dead and Kitty comes back from being a bartender so they can have a joyous reunion, only so that Kitty can be killed off in the Only-Uncle-Ben-Stays-Dead Marvel universe.

Cordy/Angel — Cordelia Chase, who wins the award for Buffyverse character who has the greatest amount of actual character development (barely beating out Wesley), finally achieves something resembling a happy relationship with Angel before being possessed, killed, returned, then ascending, only to return to bid farewell to Angel.

Fred/Wesley — The sexy and badass nerds of Angel finally get together, only to have Fred hollowed out by a Hell Goddess and used as a vessel.  Strangely, the romance continues with Illyria messing with Wesley’s head in ways that alternate between poignant and sadistic.

Dr. Horrible/Penny — Not that it was hard to see this one coming, given the whole Supervillain thing, but Penny’s death serves as a almost self-referential response to criticism of Whedon’s tendencies.

Most if not all of these dramatic twists make sense within the context of their narratives.  What is troubling is not that any one of those romances ended in PAINDEATHDRAMA! instead of Happily Ever After, but that Whedon’s ouvre seems to intimate that PAINDEATHDRAMA is the inevitable fate of any and all romances.

Certainly, we have a proponderance of narratives that pat us on the head and say ‘Everything will be alright, you’ll meet the right person and it will be beautiful!’, but appreciating and recommending Whedon’s work is harder to do when you take his Love Interest in Refrigerators approach to writing romance.  In discussions of his own work, Whedon is fairly clear that he prefers to show the nuance and darkness in the world, wrapping darkness in a comfy hoodie of whimsy and witty one-liners, but it’s making him into a three-trick pony — and one of those tricks involves the rider getting thrown and stomped to death.

The result of this prediliction is that any savvy viewer/reader would have to approach all of his stories knowing “No matter how much I want these people to get together, if they do, it will probably in one of them getting killed/possessed/turned evil/mauled” — which induces a level of self-aware viewing that can work at counter-purposes with immersing yourself in a show and enjoying it on its own terms.

It’s gotten to the point where the ending of any given romance in a Whedon property seems to have become predictable, which is not something that an artist devoted to developing their art wants to be.  Ask M. Night Shyamalan, who has watched his star fade as he delivers “twist” endings one after another.

So I’ll be watching Dollhouse, but I might as well put my money on Dushku and Penikett’s character’s getting together and then something horrible coming along like clockwork to end the relationship and/or Penikett’s character’s life.  And any relationships between secondary characters are not only just as likely to end in PAIN, but they’re also fairly likely to end in character death.

I’d love for Whedon to prove me wrong.  I’d enjoy his work even more, then, which is saying a lot, because he speaks loud-and-clear to my aesthetic.