Joss Whedon loves TV. He’s about to find out if it still loves him back.
On Feb. 13, Fox will premiere “Dollhouse,” a sci-fi/action drama starring Eliza Dushku, which marks the acclaimed writer and showrunner’s Mr. Whedon’s first stab at launching a series for the small screen since 2002’s “Firefly.”
It’s also the first project Mr. Whedon has tackled since the stunning success of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” his Internet-based musical that became a pop-culture phenomenon without an ounce of assistance from a major studio or network.
“Dr. Horrible” transformed Mr. Whedon from a television success into something of a new-media maven. It also may have lessened the pressure on Mr. Whedon to score a big hit with “Dollhouse,” since the afterglow from “Horrible” has served to significantly strengthen his already considerable showbiz clout—not to mention his stellar reputation as one of Hollywood’s most-admired writers.
“Joss’ storytelling is always that perfect storm of wit, deep emotion and passion for genre,” said “Fringe” creator J.J. Abrams, whose new take on “Star Trek” hits theaters in May. “His brilliant characters make familiar territory brand spanking new—and damn if he can’t write a catchy song, too.”
And yet, while Mr. Whedon doesn’t need “Dollhouse” to be a hit, television success is tantalizing.
“The fact is, network TV has something to offer the other mediums don’t,” Mr. Whedon told TelevisionWeek. “The Internet offers me total control, and the ability to make dozens and dozens of dollars. With the movies, the scope of them and just the joy of that kind of enormous intimacy is unparalleled.
“But with a TV show, you get to examine a story, if you’re lucky, for a really long time. And that in some ways is the most rewarding kind of storytelling—when you turn something over in your palm and look at it again and again and find new things to say about it. I love that structure … that opportunity to play with (characters) for so long.”
Of course, a show has to succeed for that to happen.
Two of Mr. Whedon’s three previous series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spinoff, “Angel,” lasted more than 100 episodes. They made money for producer 20th Century Fox TV, launched the careers of a number of TV writers and created a “Buffy”-centric franchise that still lives on in comics, on the Internet and on DVD.
And then there was “Firefly.”
Mr. Whedon took a bit of a left turn with the space Western, and Fox executives at the time never seemed to get the show. It was consigned to Friday, the night where Fox has often sent shows to die—and that’s exactly what happened to “Firefly” after its first season.
No wonder, then, that Mr. Whedon’s ardent fan base reacted in horror in November when Fox announced it had decided to schedule “Dollhouse” on Friday nights behind “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” rather than pair it with “24” on Mondays as originally planned.
The news came after Mr. Whedon had scrapped the original pilot amidst reports of network concerns over the direction of early episodes of the show.
Mr. Whedon doesn’t pretend that “Dollhouse” has been an easy delivery.
“No show has ever had an easy birthing process for me,” he said. “It’s definitely been a struggle, on both sides, to try and reconcile what the show can be.”
He admits the Friday timeslot “definitely means that what we gave (Fox) is a little more cerebral and unexpected than they thought. They thought it was going to be slam-dunk sexy and fun … and while it has those elements, at the same time, it’s very textured.”
Mr. Whedon is not disappointed by the Friday scheduling; just the opposite, actually.
“I don’t look at it like we’ve been bitch-slapped,” he said. “It feels organic, like it’s the right move for the network. … The idea of giving people a chance to find it instead of just throwing it out there in a big way so that after a few episodes it can live or die—I’m good with that.”
Mr. Whedon thinks that in the less competitive Friday slot “Dollhouse” has a better chance of finding an audience beyond regulars on the Whedonesque or SciFiWire Web forums.
“We need Joe Blow,” he said. “I’ve described my fan base as ‘300.’ They are stronger than they are large. We need to find a way to communicate to people who aren’t already fans, and Friday is a better way to do that. Expectations are different.”
Indeed, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly recently told reporters he worried that a Monday slot for “Dollhouse” would have put “enormous pressure” on the show to succeed quickly.
“We didn’t want to go through that thing where we had to … either put pressure on Joss or, worse, yank it from the schedule,” Mr. Reilly said. “We’re going to let the show play out for 13 episodes and hopefully catch on.”
While Mr. Reilly and Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori have offered some pointed creative notes to Mr. Whedon regarding “Dollhouse,” the producer seems OK with how the network has conducted itself during the show’s development.
“However frustrating the process may sometimes be, I like Kevin and Peter,” Mr. Whedon said. “They’re very upfront and down to earth. It’s refreshing to know that what they’re saying … to me when I’m in the room is probably what they’re saying in another room. They might say, ‘This isn’t working,’ but that’s so much better than having someone smile and smile and then sink your show.”
Happy With Progress
What’s more, Mr. Whedon said, he’s very happy with how the second half of “Dollhouse’s” 13-episode order is coming along.
“There were definitely times I said, ‘What exactly am I doing here? Is Angel a vampire in this one?’ I had to struggle to find the heart of the show, but you can see, increasingly through the season, we did,” he said. “Now I feel like I have a real good handle on [the show]. … We’re getting it down. We’re having so much fun.”
While Mr. Whedon’s focus during the next few months will be cranking out the final episodes of season one of “Dollhouse,” there are other projects on his plate.
Production begins in March on “The Cabin in the Woods,” a horror film he wrote with Drew Goddard (“Cloverfield”). Mr. Whedon also continues supervising the “Buffy” comic book series.
And then there’s “Dr. Horrible.”
“I definitely want the Doctor back in the house, and I have a feel for what I’d like him to be doing, besides singing,” Mr. Whedon said. “Everybody is working on it. We will definitely find the space to do it.”
Mr. Whedon said that while “Dr. Horrible” has not been a monster moneymaker for him, “We made an impact in the writing community as a step toward an understanding of a new medium.”
He said he wants to “keep exploring the idea of the independent producer on the Internet,” noting that non-aligned producers have been largely “drummed out of TV.”
That means exploring “the Internet outside of ‘Dr. Horrible.’ … I’m not a techie or a visionary, but I do have the wherewithal to see that in the coming decade, it’s going to be incredibly important.”
But will indie producers ever be able to turn Web hits such as “Dr. Horrible” into major profit centers?
“It’s going to take some meshing of the different media, so that the Internet is not the poor cousin to television,” he said. “The real question is, are the studios going to maintain control of every single penny, or can we create a playing field where the networks have to fight for attention like everybody else?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Mr. Whedon added. “But I do know that if the networks and studios get to do to the Internet what they’ve done to the television and film industries, our culture will start to rot. Completely.”