During Rutherford D. Actualperson's hard-hitting interview with Joss Whedon (yes, it was Joss "interviewing" himself), Joss talked about how tough it is to develop a show into the vision you want. This applies to Dollhouse, which has a premise that's tough to relate to: a girl who is programmed to be anyone except herself. He got an order for 13 episodes, but notes the pilot episode isn't enough to get people to make a program "must-see".
When I was given seven episodes, I referred to them as the "seven pilots" cause you always have to lay out the premise one way or another in those early eps.
This means Dollhouse will start as seven stand-alone episodes, before we get to story arcs. Joss isn't a "procedural" guy. He prefers making a big picture. While that's a great philisophy, networks don't think so. They prefer procedurals because each story has a beginning, middle and end that ends in one hour. It's the modern version of a bedtime story complete with an ending that's happy enough. It explains why next season will have lots of knockoffs of Without A Trace, The Mentalist or ER.
If Joss says a TV show should start with seven pilots, would that apply to his previous three shows? Let's take a look.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
This show had a 13-episode order. The premise is a high school girl fighting vampires, demons and assorted hellspawn with the help of fellow students and unlikely allies. It's basically "high school is Hell". The first seven episodes showed that premise well. "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest" showed Buffy coming to town and battling a few vampires while trying to make friends. Then we had the story of witchcraft and cheerleading (The Witch), a boy being attracted to a teacher who's really a big praying mantis in disguise (Teacher's Pet), problems of dating while fighting demons (Never Kill a Boy On A First Date), joining the wrong crowd of people (The Pack), and first love being very dangerous (Angel). There was still a story arc, with an old vampire trying to escape from his underground lair to cause general mayhem. He succeeded, but only for a couple of minutes.
Starting just after Buffy's fourth season, it looked at the next step: a young adult striking out into the world. It only looked like a vampire with a soul looking for redemption in Los Angeles. It also looked at Cordelia, who left Sunnydale to become an actress. Just like Buffy, it's also about good and evil, with evil being Satan's lawyers, Wolfram and Hart. This show didn't really have an overall arc because it was supposed to be an anthology. We start with "City of...", with Angel getting his mission from Doyle and meeting Cordelia. "Lonely Hearts" looked at murder and the singles scene, while "In the Dark" was a continuation of a Buffy story with Spike and the Gem of Amara. "Fall to Pieces" was about stalking, while "Room with a View" was about Cordelia moving into a haunted apartment. "Sense and Sensitivity" was about being PC in police work, and "Bachelor Party" was about Doyle and his ex-wife. Again, there was no overall arc. It's just about Angel trying to battle evil and hopefully be redeemed. Longer arcs involving Lindsey, a resurrected Darla and Pylea would come later. Angel was seen as the companion piece to Buffy for two years until it went on its own when she went to UPN.
This space western features another example of a man striking out on his own, with a loyal crew behind him. They have a simple mission: do a job, get paid, keep flying. Throw in some intrigue, double-dealing and occasional Chinese phrases, and you have a good show that suffered a fate that was one of Fox's most embarrassing decisions...and not just the fact that they showed the pilot last instead of first.
When I first saw "The Train Job", I was very interested in Malcolm Reynolds. He looked like an outlaw, being willing to do what he could keep flying. Stealing an Alliance cargo from a train is the type of job he'd do. However, when he realized the cargo included drugs that would have saved lives, his better angels got the best of him. The rest of the first seven episodes touch on the Serenity's mission, to keep flying no matter what.
Just like Buffy, however, there were two story arcs. First, there's the Alliance wanting a certain girl named River Tam for some unsettling reason. We later find out it's because they wanted to turn her into a weapon. She had some interesting skills, and the Alliance would do anything to get her. Her brother, Simon, is just as determined to protect her. The other arc involves Shepherd Book, who may look like a man of God, but apparently has an interesting past. An I-D card, for example, got him first aid very quickly in "Safe". He later shows some knowledge of criminal activity when they ship heads towards a trap in "Our Mrs. Reynolds". The hope was that Firefly would have have a long life, like Buffy and Angel. Sadly, that wouldn't be the case.
So what could happen to Dollhouse? Will it last five years or so, like Buffy or Angel, or would it be one of those Brilliant but Cancelled shows, like Firefly. Joss says the first seven pilots touch on the premise, but they will also determine whether the show will last. The days of giving a show time to develop and attract an audience, even a year or so, are long gone. Fox has said it will give Dollhouse 13 episodes to prove that there should be more. Let's hope the episodes will be very convincing.