01.28.09

Will TV Slay Joss Whedon?

Television’s premier geek auteur, Buffy creator Joss Whedon, on why his new series, Dollhouse, isn’t another Firefly, how Eliza Dushku found her inner Meryl Streep, and when Dr. Horrible will sing again.

Ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in 1997, Joss Whedon has been creating television series, movies, and web shows that have generated cult followings and slavish web devotion. Unfortunately, that devotion doesn't always translate into programs that stay on the air—just ask Firefly fans about that. (Fox cancelled Whedon’s last cult hit after 11 episodes, but fans lobbied so hard for its return that Universal produced a follow-up feature film, Serenity.)

After turning his back on TV to create last summer’s web smash Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Whedon is back on the small screen with a new series, Dollhouse, which premieres—yes—on Fox on Friday, February 13. Buffy alum Eliza Dushku (who co-produces Dollhouse) plays Echo, a secret organization's operative whose personality is replaced each time she is sent to help a client.

Will the 9 p.m. "death slot" on Friday drive a stake into another Whedon show—or will he find serenity at last?

Watch Joss Whedon and the Cast Explain Dollhouse

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Between all the re-writes, production stops, and re-shooting the pilot for Dollhouse did you ever have a moment of panic where you thought, “Oh, no, this is kind of like Firefly all over again?”

In terms of the pilot, that was my idea. That was me listening to them and saying, "You know what, I think what you want is not in this episode. And now that I understand it, now that you have something to look at and react to, I think I can do better for you." It was very civilized. It was very upfront.

At the same time, there were some moments that were a little bit worse. Because there were moments when I started to go, "Wait a minute, I’m not sure, I don’t remember what the show is." Whereas with Firefly, I always knew exactly what the show needed to be.

But you always hear about creators rolling their eyes at network suits, listing all the dumb notes they’ve been given.

There’s always going to be tension. If you’re smart, you use that tension to create something between their desire to sell and your desire to tell. And it’s very easy for me to get so far up in my own head that I forget to invite the audience in. And it’s very easy for them to boil things down and lose some of the texture.

And do I roll my eyes, sure. Every writer does. Do I think of them as my enemies? No, never. Because with the exception of Firefly, where I felt there was some stuff that was going on that was genuinely underhanded, I have always collaborated with the people who are paying for my show. The other thing you have to remember as the show runner is that the person who wears the suit and says the dumb thing that you laugh at, or the person who brings the coffee and says the dumb thing that you laugh at, might have a better idea than you. And if you ever forget that, you’re gonna blow it.

Tell me about your partnership with Eliza Dushku.

She and I spent a lot of time talking about her career. So she told me about certain things she was interested in presenting, and I told her about certain things I thought she would need to do that. And in discussing the kind of character she thought she should play, other people thought she should play, and what was expected of her, the idea for Dollhouse sort of occurred to me. Just bang. Title and all.

So she enjoys playing a different character every week?

It’s not like it’s wigs and accents and Meryl Streep. I mean obviously she changes her mannerisms and the way she speaks, but not in a "watch me act" kind of way. You always want to keep an essence of Eliza, because she is, after all, who they hired. If they’d hired Peter Sellers, then you go "OK, your job is to disappear." But with Eliza, you want that to shine through.

There were moments when I started to go, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not sure, I don’t remember what the show is.’

Going back to the Firefly syndrome, if you will, how did you feel when you first heard Fox slotted Dollhouse for Friday nights—is that a death slot or do you think the network will genuinely give the show a chance?

What [Fox] got was a show that’s not simple, kind of cerebral; it was a sexy sell, but a complicated premise. But not complicated in the sense it’s hard to follow. Complicated in the sense it’s hard to do every week and involve the audience every week. And so what they assumed was going to be like whiz-bang-fireworks was a lot more subtle than that. And so I think they made the very wise choice. If I was in their shoes, I would’ve done the same thing.

There are rumors circulating that you’re working on a sequel to Dr. Horrible.

We are dancing around that concept. We all want to do it. We all are extremely occupied—we have other jobs. And we’re kind of trying to figure out the philosophy as well. How do we want to present it? We don’t necessarily want to do exactly what we did, part two. We’d like to shift the paradigm a little bit. But we’re sort of keeping everything open. We have a concept, and when these writers have time to really sit down with it, we’re going to see what we’ve got. It’s definitely our intention for Dr. Horrible to rise again.

It’s interesting, because what is considered a huge web audience is usually considered tiny on network television—small enough to kill a show.

Yes. The problem is, of course, that gigantic on the web doesn’t necessarily translate in terms of paying off. And the next step is really going to be to find a way to create revenue streams for the creative people involved out of something that is a web hit. Because it’s not like the Star Wars kid retired off of his residuals. You know, it’s a different animal. And ultimately, to sustain the Hollywood community, it’s not enough.

So if Dollhouse fails, you’re not just going to go "I’m done with network TV, I’m just going to go to the web and make more stuff like Dr. Horrible?"

I’m always interested in both. I’m never done with a medium. And within five years, this conversation may be obsolete because the mediums may have become the same thing. In terms of media, I am agnostic. I love movies. I love television. I love little Internet shows. I also love books, and opera, and t-shirts, and everything that you can tell a story with. Apparently, I’m fond of comedies. And all of these things begin to blend together.

But what’s important to me is how this Internet is going to affect the community. I’m in a good position. You know, I’ve always saved my money, and even though it’s an economically appalling time, I have the wherewithal to go and make Dr. Horrible. But without a guaranteed return, most people don’t have that. Most people can’t turn to their wives and say, "Honey, it’s time for my midlife crisis again…" And because residuals from reruns are going to be swallowed by things being put on the Internet instead of on television, this is absolutely a time of crisis, economically. Wherein we need to discover models for the community to thrive on. And that’s what I’m interested in, as much as "Oh I get to do it myself, so nobody gives me notes."

Joel Keller is the editor-in-chief of the AOL blog TV Squad. His writing about pop culture, food, and travel has appeared in The New York Times, New Jersey Monthly, Cinematical, Radar Online, and a number of other publications and websites.