A look at the poster child for TV's niche age

In his observations during a recent conference call to promote his show “Dollhouse” — with listeners largely from publications and websites I hadn’t heard of — Joss Whedon sounded like a guy who had somehow gamed the system.

“The nature of the fanbase,” Whedon explained last week — referring to his loyalists, who approach cult-like zeal in their admiration — “is they’re in it for the long haul. … The long haul is how my work pays off. I don’t make hit shows; I make shows that stick around.”

By “stick around,” Whedon didn’t mean “draw big ratings for five years and then make a crap-load of money in syndication,” like “Two and a Half Men.” He meant series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — which college professors teach courses about — and “Firefly,” which yielded just 11 episodes in its initial run on Fox but generated enough of a lingering following that Whedon wrote and directed a theatrical follow-up, “Serenity,” in 2005, three years after the show was canceled.

Creatively speaking, Whedon has become a sort-of poster child for TV’s niche age, where success is gauged by a yardstick that measures a couple of feet short of a yard. With apologies to the Beatles, he’s a real narrow man, playing to a narrow land.

In this environment, “hit” is a subjective term, with the real question being how passionately one’s “fanbase” feels about one’s work –enough to go buy DVDs and every other piece of merchandise related to it? — and where ancillary considerations like song downloads can factor into Fox’s quick-trigger pickup of “Glee.”

Of course, you have to know where to look to find the afterlife for some of Whedon’s projects — whether it’s the “Buffy” comicbook or “Serenity” videogame.

Now he’s back with a second season of “Dollhouse,” a show that once would have been canceled evaluated strictly on its ratings. Yet Fox renewed the program and left it on Fridays — normally not deemed a plum night for attracting younger audiences. Fortunately, one suspects that Whedon’s most devoted acolytes — those who erect websites to him and inspired a session at Comic-Con actually titled “Bram Stoker: The Joss Whedon of His Day?” — might have fewer social distractions than most of their peers.

“When ‘Firefly’ was canceled, a small part of me died,” reads the featured recap on the IMDb, reflecting the near-messianic reaction — or if you prefer, “get a life” quality — that Whedon frequently elicits. “With ‘Serenity,’ I’m feeling wonderfully whole again.”

Relying upon cultish constituencies can impose certain limitations budget-wise, perhaps, which may explain why the “Dollhouse” opener features precious little action beyond the Barbie-like game of marveling at star Eliza Dushku’s spectacular outfits.

Still, Whedon has exhibited economic savvy as well, as highlighted by the clever “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” one of the few Web-based creations that might appear to actually have a future beyond the online realm.

There’s surely a Pee-wee Herman-style “I meant to do that” element in Whedon’s “I don’t make hit shows” comments. Nevertheless, at a time when concerns about broadcasting’s demise have grown prevalent enough to prompt conspicuous (if tongue-in-cheek) mention during the recent Emmy ceremony, the Whedon formula speaks to a nagging anxiety — fueled by the financial calculus behind “The Jay Leno Show” — that TV has become a business of 2 ratings. Amid such fragmentation, whatever’s capable of achieving the deepest imprint upon its puny share of the audience can emerge as a winner or at least a survivor.

Some more seasoned TV producers seem perplexed merely by the level of hoopla surrounding Whedon. The guy’s obviously talented, but if you aggregated the average audience for everything he’s produced, it probably wouldn’t equal an episode of “Dancing With the Stars.”

But Whedon’s not trying to be Steven Bochco, Aaron Spelling or anybody else commonly associated with a fading vision of what were previously labeled hits; rather, he’s perfectly calibrated to the rhythms of Web denizens and pop-culture enthusiasts who sounded plenty thrilled just to interact with him on that conference call.

“I love each and every one of you very much,” Whedon quipped with mock sincerity as the chat ended.

He really should.

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