As Topher pointed out to Boyd, we're programmed every day, by the media and by our social interactions; does it really matter how the programming is done?
I'll start by saying I think it does matter because the personal and direct intention in doing so makes it a different act, especially since people like Boyd and Topher are making a living at it. After all, these days we are all "the media" (with a small m) and all have the potential to influence one another, but I know that when I write a blog post I am not thinking about how, or even if, I am influencing anyone else with my thoughts. I do think that what the Media does (big M) is more intentional and more culpable because, like Boyd and Topher, they are profiting from it in some way, even if it is less direct and a desired outcome from the programming is vaguer.
But also on the topic of how people are influenced by the media as well as blogging, there was an article in Macleans, which suggested that Dollhouse was set up to fail in its premise because no one would want to be a Doll since they couldn't recollect anything in their experience which might be enjoyable:
"But without an upside, there is no temptation for us to get drawn into wanting that kind of life for ourselves. We can relate to it in a sort of intellectual way, asking ourselves whether we really know if we are who we think we are, or whether our personalities and memories are in some sense constructed by others. But emotionally, we never think: 'gee, that might be cool.'"
On the one hand, I have a certain sympathy for the point of view that for a show to be compelling it has to form emotional connections in the viewer as well as stimulating them intellectually. But I don't think that this needs to be found in a character. I think of my continued viewership of Mad Men for example, which is almost in spite of many of the characters rather than because of them. My interest in that show from the beginning has been almost entirely intellectual, although I do think it has an emotional component in that I am sometimes moved to want storylines to go in certain directions.
At the same time my interest in SPN has been decidedly non-intellectual but almost entirely emotional as I became fascinated by (more the potential, than the actual exploration of) its lead characters. And so I would particularly agree that for fannish appeal to exist, the emotional connection to either the characters or that verse must be there. I saw several of the Potter movies recently and I was distinctly unimpressed in the way the storylines were so painfully "All About Harry" as if nothing else in the verse existed without him. Also, all the characters were (at least in the movies) pretty one-dimensional, there more to say lines and have things happen to them than to actually exist in any meaningful way. However, especially as seen through film, the verse itself seemed fascinating and imaginative and I could easily understand why people might feel moved to explore and expand the verse in new ways. (Also Richard Harris and Maggie Smith are so wonderful in their roles, and I could see why Alan Rickman's portrayal of Snape would make the character so intriguing.)
But in none of these cases do I think my personal interest in being that person or being in that world was necessarily a factor. For example, I find nothing cool about the idea of being Sam or Dean Winchester – I'm rather thinking "Wow, that must really suck." Similarly, while the idea of having Buffy's strength and resilience is probably something most any woman would find beneficial, it seems to me that the point of the series as a whole was the same. Not only did her skills also make her subject to crushing demands on her young self, but outside of her specialized world she was not the most competent or successful person. My life is loads better than hers, if decidedly less interesting to discuss. And as for Angel, well, the whole point of the character seemed to be to make everyone aware of how rotten his life was! (I exaggerate, but you get the drift). My interest was not driven by some sort of wish fulfillment but by getting to know complicated characters, being told clever or humorous stories, and seeing them interact in entertaining ways.
Also, I must assume the Macleans' writer was speaking of dramas only because how many people would find it cool to be a sitcom character or in their lives?
My larger point in bringing this up is that the most fascinating thing to me about that article is how differently we all obviously approach entertainment (and how we seem to assume everyone shares our approach), and how difficult it would be to predict how people are affected by what they are exposed to and in what ways. And this issue seems to be at the heart of the Dollhouse series as we see Echo increasingly defying expectations about what should be possible behavior for someone who's gone through the programming she has.
Part of the problem with the series was Eliza Dushku herself. I liked her as Faith. I thought TruCalling was not a good enough show to watch so I only saw a few episodes, so I can't judge there. But I think that what was demanded of her here was beyond her. It occurred to me that the casting might have gone better if she had been Ballard, and Ballard had been Echo. In fact, the whole series might have been better had it focused on her hunt for the Dollhouse, rather than the Dollhouse itself. With us knowing much less about it, getting only bits and pieces of the different dolls' assignations, I think that it could have been a slowly unraveling mystery. I'm sure that part of what is supposedly going to bring Echo and Ballard together is that they are similar people at heart. A role reversal and change in series focus would, I think, have served everyone better. For one thing, there would have been no need for the first two episodes to be spent largely on exposition. We could simply have been following her own discoveries.
One thing that would likely get lost in such a change are many of the characters we're getting to know. Victor and Sierra's story has been getting an increasing amount of time which is, I think, well spent. But I think we could have gotten more from other characters outside the Dollhouse to compensate. Boyd, for example, could have been a fellow investigator who became her partner. Dominic could have been someone in the bureau hostile to her investigation, etc.
Because one of the other common complaints is that the premise of the Dollhouse is baffling. For example, there's the suggestion that what the clients want is privacy. Ok, but let's compare the privacy you get with having to deal with one person (and perhaps their agent) compared to having to deal with a number of them as you do at the Dollhouse. There's DeWitt, Topher, the handler, security guards, all of whom have different levels of knowledge as to what's going on. This makes no sense for anything but very specific roleplaying type of stuff. In fact, Nolan's motivation in the most recent episode is the only one so far that has really rung true for me (and maybe also that of Patton Oswalt in episode 6).
I think the big problem with Dollhouse is that the network just didn't want to make it as horrific as it should be. What goes on in our real world is far, far worse than anything in this show. Granted there are limits to what can get shown, but we see stuff on the news and in procedural shows these days that get at it pretty graphically. If, on the other hand, the Dollhouse is this veiled mystery that we only get to see bits and pieces of, it is easy to mask the horror and ugliness of it, leaving a lot of it unsaid. That was something that worked (in as little as we got of it) for Blue Sun in Firefly and also, to some degree, Wolfram & Hart in Angel or the Watchers Council in Buffy. Rather than learn too much about the organization, our protagonist is instead the outsider or the rebel. Buffy managed to tell a story for 7 seasons while still revealing little about the Watchers, even though, in the final episodes, we learn that the organization was very crucial to her story. Maybe Joss avoided this structure exactly because it was too much like what he'd done before. But I think it would have worked better and have been a more feminist show to have his protagonist be a woman in charge of righting this wrong without making her an exhibitionist victim.