Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Maureen Judge’s documentary Living Dolls is a surprisingly engaging look at four people who, each for their own reason, obsessively collect dolls. Unlike other documentaries that fasten onto people who take their hobbies or special interests to an extreme—such as the movie-addict film Cinemania—Judge’s film never feels exploitative or condescending toward its subjects. It doesn’t go especially deep, and Aaron Davis’ musical score is a little twee, but Judge looks at her subjects with nonjudgmental, sympathetic interest.
That’s sometimes a bit of a feat, such as when she’s interviewing 58-year-old David, who has amassed a sizable harem of “love dolls.” His favorite is Bianca, whom he bought through the mail—only to discover that she was not anatomically correct. “I just spent $4,500 for a mannequin!” he recalls. (David believes in precise terminology, pointing out at one point that “A blow-up sex doll is one thing,” but his love dolls are a whole other, presumably more elevated, kettle of fish.) Happily, he was able to get in touch with the seller, and after taking Bianca with him on a cross-country drive, David was able to have him “put the real” back into his RealDoll. David, who is married, tells the camera that, if he were to lose his wife, Bianca could never take her place, but she would be able to console him for his loss. In most respects, David seems like a sane and reasonable fellow. But he does sound as if he’s put a lot of thought into it.
Judge skips back and forth between David and her other subjects: Michael, an eccentric animator who looks like an Edward Koren cartoon; Debbie, a young Englishwoman whose compulsive doll-buying imperils her family’s finances; and Mike, a Barbie fanatic who still lives in his family home with his mother. Michael is the hardest to pigeonhole: With his untended beard and hoarder’s abode, he looks like the least socialized of the four, but he’s also the most creative, and both distinctions probably have something to do with the fact that he’s not trying to split the difference between tending to his obsession and the responsibilities of living with a family. “I’m not really a doll collector,” Michael says, “but I buy old dolls to remake in the form of robots, and I’m sort of a robot collector.”
He collects dolls in order to transform them into something else, and has spent years working on an animated film starring his creations. “One day, I thought, we’ll do some sex jokes, and the movie sort of took a right-hand turn.” It’s now an ongoing study of the sex lives of robots; the clips shown within Living Dolls are beautiful-looking, funny, and eerie, with a suggestion of the work of the Quay Brothers. “It’s simple,” he says of his magnum opus, which he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to complete, “because there’s no dialogue. Or no understandable dialogue. They talk, but it’s robot gibberish.”
Judge touches lightly on the sexual element that seems to connect all the men to their doll worship, and which takes many forms. For Mike, his love of all things Barbie is tied up with his identity as a gay man. Before he came to terms with his sexual orientation, he tried to keep his dolls hidden away; now he’s proud of the care he’s lavished on his collection, and as signifiers of his self-acceptance, they actually seem to be the healthiest thing about him. Debbie is at the opposite extreme: Her doll love seems like her means of escape into an asexual, childlike world, free from adult responsibilities (and adult urges). If David’s cheerful indifference to the feelings of his wife—who appears in the film just long enough to cast a sideways glower at the camera—makes him the most off-putting person here, Debbie is the saddest, for the way that her fantasy life is cutting her off from her husband, Colin.
Colin—who says that his marriage to Debbie and the birth of their child saved him from a future that he’d only been able to foresee as “a riotous mess of drink and violence”—is pained by his wife’s quality time with the dolls, which she likes to project her own personality onto. Debbie thinks he’s jealous of them, but he thinks she’s using them to fill some hole in her life, and he doesn’t know what that hole is or how he can help her with it. The documentary doesn’t seem to know either, but it’s hard not to agree with him. “Whatever it was that she wishes were different about her life,” he says, “I wish she had it.”
Judge doesn’t seem to have any idea what that hole might be either. Living Dolls is fun to watch but a little frustrating, because the light, surface approach that makes it entertaining also prevents it from probing the subjects’ psyches very deeply, so it’s hard to gauge just how troubled they are. The viewer has to pick up cues from things like the reactions of Mike’s mother to his decision to go to Hollywood for a Barbie convention; the impression is left that it’s a real event for him to even leave the house. During his trip, he tries to get a picture of one of his dolls at Barbie’s star on the Wall Of Fame. He’s a little distraught to learn that Barbie doesn’t have a star on the Walk Of Fame, but then he settles for taking her picture at Liberace’s star.