Monday, August 29, 2011

Is it all in your head?

DollhouseLast spring, I finally got around to watching the second season of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse on Netflix streaming, while I was also watching the fourth season of Chuck in real time.  I really enjoy both shows, but this experience of watching them together drew my attention to something that I'm not sure I would have noticed otherwise.

The main characters of both shows, Chuck and Echo, both flash.

For those of you unfamiliar with either show, "flashing" is accessing information that has been uploaded to the brain through computer technology.  In Chuck's case, the information that is uploaded is both government secrets and skill sets (like kung fu, foreign language skills, and even ballroom dancing).  In Echo's case, she has been uploaded with imprints of many different people, and she can switch between these personalities to access the skills and personality traits that each imprint has.

But in both cases, both Chuck and Echo make a distinctive face and then we see a representation of what is going on in their minds.  Here's what it looks like when Chuck accesses his kung-fu skills:

Chuck Kung Fu Flash

Here, then, is what it looks like when Echo accesses one of her other personalities:

Echo Flash Face 

What struck me when watching these two shows closely together was how similar these representations of accessing hidden information were.  Both have lines converging on a central point.  Both show other blurred pictures embedded in the converging lines.  And both take the viewer away from the reality of the show and into the character's mind.  It suggests that these two shows are tapping into a larger concern that we as a society have--the relationship between human intelligence and computers, and even more specifically, what role humans have in a society so clearly dominated by technology.

While both shows use similar imagery and address similar themes, the overall tone of each show is quite different from each other.  Chuck is a comedy with bits of action sprinkled throughout.  Dollhouse is a drama.  Chuck is set in the present day, while Dollhouse takes place in both the near future and then the farther, post-apocalyptic future.

But perhaps the biggest difference between Chuck and Dollhouse is the way in which each show responds to the question of how humans should respond to increasingly powerful computer technology.  For Echo, this technology enables her to be self-sufficient.  By carrying multiple personality imprints inside herself, she is able to do everything, all on her own.  Throughout the show, this solitary focus on Echo is a continuing theme.  And in the final episode of the show, [spoilers] Echo uploads the imprint of the now-dead Paul Ballard.  While he was alive, she resisted opening up to him and showing her vulnerability, but now, she is able to open up to him inside her own mind.  The series ends with Paul and Echo talking against the dark blackness representing Echo's mind, and then Echo getting up and walking past all her friends to lie down in her bed--alone.  The imprint technology has enabled her to bring even interaction with others inside herself, so that she no longer has any external dependencies.

Chuck Season 4But in Chuck, the focus of the show is radically different.  Rather than cause him to retreat inside himself, the Intersect technology in Chuck's head creates the need for him to be surrounded by others, most notably, Sarah Walker and John Casey, his handlers.  These relationships with Sarah and Casey are incredibly strong, and the focus of the show--rather than just being on Chuck--is on the interactions he has with those closest to him, including Sarah, Casey, his best friend Morgan, and his sister Ellie.  The show seems to be saying that what makes humans stronger than technology is not what exists in our minds, but rather, the connections that we have with others.

And this all makes me wonder--both Dollhouse and Chuck struggled in their ratings, with Dollhouse getting cancelled after two seasons and Chuck being in perennial danger of being cancelled, with it finally being announced in May of 2011 that Season 5 (which starts this fall) will be the last.  But every time that Chuck was in danger of getting cancelled, its fans banded together and made some noise, writing letters and eating lots of Subway sandwiches.  While petitions were written to save Dollhouse as well, it seems that the biggest headlines were made before the show even aired, when fans of Joss Whedon's work preemptively started a petition to save Dollhouse. Once the show actually aired, though, efforts like this were much quieter, and didn't garner nearly the attention that the "Save Chuck" efforts did.
And so my speculation is this--I wonder if the respective attitudes of Chuck and Dollhouse toward human/technology interaction somehow influenced the way in which their fans responded to the shows.  While Dollhouse is a show that champions individuality and self-sufficiency, Chuck is a show that celebrates the value of building community.  And Chuck is the show that was saved, at least twice, by fans banding together and creating a community.  Even more importantly, as Joshua Gomez explains in this video about the efforts to save Chuck, it's technology that provided fans with the means to come together in this way.

I realize that this is all a lot of speculation, without looking too carefully at facts about Nielsen ratings, demographics, and time slots.  But it does make me think, as does the popularity of smart phones, MMORPGs, and Twitter, that we respond best to technology when it enables us to come together, rather than isolates us.  And that's a thought that for me is very comforting indeed.