Dollhouse review


Zach takes on the Dollhouse, after the jump…


Dollhouse is created by Joss Whedon, my favorite television writer. He created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most influential and richest dramas of all time. He also created Firefly and co-created the Buffy spinoff Angel. The excitement in nerds everywhere was off the charts when it was announced in late 2007 that Whedon would be making a new series with Buffy cast member Eliza Dushku, his first in, at that point, close to three years (but if felt like forever), by the time it premiered, closer to five (it felt like forever and ever). Due to the caliber of the creative staff (Whedon wrangled up many of the best writers he has worked with) Dollhouse was easily one of the most heavily anticipated series in recent memory.

The series focuses on the Dollhouse, an organization that turns people into blank slates (they supposedly volunteer) and programs new personalities into them based on the desires of a client. For instance, if someone wants a perfect date, or an impeccable thief, or an absolutely superb secretary, they go to the Dollhouse, shell out an unbelievable sum of money, and presto, there he or she is. Of course, they only have the dolls for a limited amount of time. After the “engagement,” the “actives” are returned by their “handler” to the “Dollhouse” and they walk around like children waiting for their next assignment. The Dollhouse is completely illegal and underground (perhaps literally as well). While many people believe it exists, the government doesn’t, except for one persistent FBI agent who may just bring the whole operation down with the help of his cylon wife. (Wait—no…) The protagonist is an active named Echo (Dushku), who is slowly becoming a lot more self-aware than the Dollhouse likes.

This is an interesting premise, but it doesn’t quite work on a week-to-week basis. So far, the episodes range from the more arc-based, as in the inner-workings of the Dollhouse, the FBI agent coming closer to bringing it down, Echo regaining her memory, etc., and the “monster of the week” episodes (the term for an episode of a sci-fi series in which a new villain or situation is encountered and is dealt with by the end of the episode, even if it doesn’t involve any literal monsters), with Echo having a completely new personality and doing something with a client. Those MOW episodes are the weakest. They follow a character we have no attachment to (since Echo just gets an entirely new personality slapped onto her) into a world or situation we have no familiarity with. Since the writers have to invent a new protagonist and setting for each of these episodes, the results are predictably mixed, and even the better ones (“The Target”) feel inessential. The arc episodes are far better, but by nature they’re a lot less frequent. (The first five episodes were MOWs.)

So let’s take this in: the protagonist is a new person each week, which doesn’t bode well; the people surrounding her are, for the most part, either villains or dolls, which may not work in the long run; the FBI agent, Paul Ballard, is pretty awesome, and the show’s best character and easiest to root for; there’s lots of deep, fascinating fighting; there’s lots of thrilling, action-packed philosophy; also, the show keeps getting better and better. At this point, the MOWs are mostly out of the way, so the back part of the season should be almost entirely arc-focused, which is what Dollhouse is best at.

But ultimately, it’s still a little disappointing, especially coming from Joss Whedon. The premise is antithetical to what Joss is about – usually a close-knit group of characters trying to save the world, or, quite often, just stay alive. This show is about a corrupt organization and the individuality that may send it crumbling. The show can be exciting and pretty darn good at times, but it doesn’t feel like Whedon. I don’t mean to say a writer should never try to do something different from what they usually do, but Joss is perfectly good at setting up challenges for himself within his normal output, and it is with shows like Firefly, Buffy, and Angel that he can truly create great television.

Dollhouse certainly isn’t a bust – more and more it’s proving to be one of the best shows on TV – but it doesn’t play to Whedon’s strengths. It only works when it picks up speed and gets really exciting, whereas his past series have worked equally well in a relaxed, more character-focused state. I hope Dollhouse gets a second season (his two series that actually had second seasons improved dramatically on their weaker first seasons), because I don’t want to say goodbye to this world and I don’t want to say goodbye to Joss Whedon, who has pledged to be done with television when this is over. But it stings my heart a little to know that this is the final TV show Whedon is likely to make, when it’s feels so tonally inconsistent within his body of work.


(Yes, from now on we grade in Radio Raheems.)



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