The Ineffable Effect of Art Direction
As I mentioned on Twitter, I've been re-watching the first season of Dollhouse, primarily because it's a) on Netflix streaming and b) it's a show I liked but never finished watching when it aired. I saw almost all of Season One, but missed the end of Season Two, and I was intrigued enough to want to give the whole thing a go.
Last night I watched Episode 5, which featured a particularly credibility-straining plot involving Echo going undercover in a cult to act as an unwitting mole for the FBI. (For those of you who don't remember or never saw Dollhouse, the short version of the premise is that a secret organization houses mindwiped young attractive people who it "imprints" with specific personalities and skills for paid missions (which more often than not seemed to involve sex--it occurred to me last night that the entire series could easily have been spawned by a bet Whedon made with someone that he could get a network to greenlight a series with a prostitute as its main character), rewiping them anew after each mission and keeping them at the ready as blank, child-like slates).
The cult Echo infiltrates is situated on a dusty compound in the middle of nowhere, with all of the cult members dressed in Amish-like garb. As soon as we saw the compound, I was reminded heavily of Big Love's Juniper Creek compound--same dusty, frontier-like milieu, same plain, prarie-esque clothing.
But on Dollhouse, the set and costumes looked like . . . sets and costumes.
Where on Big Love Juniper Creek looked like a real community, populated by real religious fundamentalists. Not actors playing dress up.
And of course, I wondered why. And I couldn't really tell. What's interesting to me is not that the money spent on production (which I am assuming to be the differentiator here, Dollhouse being a network show given a short leash and Big Love an HBO show, where production value is king) makes such a difference, but that it makes such a difference in so subtle a way.
If forced, I couldn't point to a prop, or a hat, or a blouse, and describe what made it authentic-seeming, or not. But the overall effect was very clear.