Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dollhouse — Season 1

[Contains minor spoilers]

Has it really been five years since Joss Whedon graced T.V.-land with his presence? After the twin blows of both Firefly and Angel’s cancellations only a year apart from one another, Whedon seemed to retreat from the limelight somewhat, delivering only a magnificent Firefly spinoff and one of the best sci-fi films in recent memory and some great works on a handful of comic books (including launching series continuations of Buffy and Angel). At last, he decided to return to television, and the Internet rejoiced. Until we learned that he was working for Fox.

Fox, as you are no doubt painfully aware, canceled Firefly almost out of the gate, giving it only enough time to shuffle airing orders and time slots. The resulting resentment had absolutely no effect on Fox, whose primary demographic tunes in for exploitative “reality” programs and whatever half-assed pop collage Seth McFarlane is passing off as funny. So, when Joss came out of exile, only to wind up with the very studio that crushed him the first time around, many assumed the worst. And when Dollhouse first hit the air, all the cynics’ predictions were seemingly confirmed.

Dollhouse revolves around the titular construct, a near-mythical organization that hires willing (after a fashion) volunteers, hollows out their personalities, then inserts a new personality and traits to loan out to high-paying customers. Set at the L.A. branch, the show’s central character – protagonist may not be the right word – Echo. Played by Eliza Dushku, Echo is the most-requested “Active” in the Dollhouse; she works as a high-class escort, an FBI negotiator, even the target of some demented sport hunting. When the engagement is over, a handler calms her done and takes her to have her mind wiped.

It’s a concept that opens a number of thematic possibilities; far more than ever introduced in a Whedon show, in fact. The Dollhouse clearly stands for human traffickers, but their M.O. allows for commentaries on modern society: the anonymity allowed through increasing technology and impersonal communication, the desensitization that such anonymity engenders, and the very nature of free will.

I say possibilities, because for the entire first half of the season, not a damn thing happens. Fans got their first taste of dread when Fox announced that Joss’ initial pilot was “too dark” and “confusing” and Joss offered to make a more straightforward version to prevent episode shuffling (which ended up happening anyway). So, when the neutered pilot debuted in February, anxious fans got an occasionally interesting but overall tepid offering that barely introduced its characters satisfactorily, much less established any themes.

In it, Echo plays an FBI negotiator helping a wealthy man rescue his kidnapped daughter, which is a ridiculous way to start things off. We are given no solid reason for a man spending millions on a negotiator when the actual FBI would likely have gotten involved (and for free!), and when we discover that Active programmer Topher (Fran Kanz) also imprinted Echo with the memory of an abducted child which gives her an insight, it comes off more a pathetic justification for the plot than an intriguing development.

The early episodes all suffer from this problem: useless assignments that offer absolutely no insight into why anyone would pay millions for such a service. Easily the most absurd of these is a backup dancer for a hit-prone pop star, chosen to provide security while befriending the star. O.K., couple of things: 1) Why not just hire her as a bodyguard? 2) Why not just hire a real bodyguard for a lot less? 3) Are you kidding me? And it gets even worse when we learn that the star is actually suicidal and wants to burn out rather than fade away. A Britney Spears-knockoff has dreams of immortality. The episode as a whole is the most unbearable and useless piece of preaching since Angel’s “She” reminded Americans that female genital mutilation was wrong.

The constant personality shifts also require a lot of chops, and Dushku has come under fire from a number of critics for a perceived lack of range. While the actors playing Dolls Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman) always seem to hit their marks and receive kudos, Dushku gets singled out for being too Faith-y. I presume they mean that she looks and speaks like Faith and therefore Eliza Dushku, so I'm a bit puzzled. Is Echo off in her imprints? Yes. That's the point. Truth is, Dushku has handled the majority of her imprints well, though some don't quite work. See über-writer Tim Minear’s first credit on the show, “True Believer”: Minear’s dark humor pervades the B-plot (involving Victor exhibiting emotion and sexual attraction to Sierra while in his wiped state, leading to a hilarious investigation by Saunders and Topher), but the main story concerning Echo infiltrating a cult via an imprint of a blind follower falls on its face. Even then, I'm less willing to lay the blame at Dushku's feet when the writing clearly lacked -- which, coming from Minear, was shocking.

Despite the relative ennui of these first five “Doll of the Week” episodes, their chief shortcoming is the complete failure to link the plots to the overarching mythology and thematic drive of the Dollhouse. FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tamoh Penikett) investigates the organization, but he seems to risk everything just because he’s captivated by a video of Echo with her true personality, Caroline. Ex-cop Boyd (Harry Lennix, Jr.), Echo’s handler, voices his concerns for how they manipulate Actives to branch manager Adele DeWitt (Olivia Williams), but he just sort of drops his protests after awhile. DeWitt explains it away by reminding him that people volunteer for the job and are paid well when their contracts expire, but for too long no one calls her on the hypocrisy of the statement.

When that changes, the show itself kicks off at last. The sixth episode, “Man on the Street,” intimated to us by Dushku and Whedon as the beginning of a true arc, so suddenly thrusts Dollhouse to the next level that the preceding five weeks of mediocre to downright arduous programming seem like a parody that hit the airwaves before the subject of its travesty. Apart from providing the first touching incident of Doll use (a wealthy man hiring Echo, not for sex but so he could show his “wife” the house she never got to see because she died in a wreck) as well as juxtaposing the rape of one of the Dolls by her handler with the heretofore unspoken reality that DeWitt and her employees send these people to be raped on a daily basis (just because you sign a contract doesn’t mean you give sexual consent for five years). I’m not entirely pleased that it took a “real” rape to finally put the truth out there, but it was an incredibly effective move. Also, we learned something about Paul’s neighbor/crush Mellie (Miracle Laurie) that proves that Joss could still surprise the hell out of us when he felt like it.

From there the show builds, if not thematically, then at least literally: “Echoes” manages to balance a key insight into Caroline’s past via a thrilling main plot and a simply hysterical side story involving a gas leak in the Dollhouse. “Needs” fizzles with its end reveal, but we learn what drove our Actives to sign up for the Dollhouse and it explains some of their earlier behavior, even if its hard to count it as character development when the purpose of the show is to suppress identity. “Spy in the House of Love” trumps even MotS in its gripping plot and story advancement, only for the late-game standalone “Haunted” to kill the momentum.

Happily, things rebound with force with the season enders. Whedon’s shows have never lacked for strong season finales, but Jane Espenson’s “Briar Rose” is the first definitive argument for the potential greatness of Dollhouse as opposed to sixth and ninth’s episodes, which simply argued that the show actually deserved to stay on the air. At last, we met the Big Bad Alpha, an Active that went insane when he “composited” all of his prior imprints and slashed his way out of the building, including giving Saunders her scars. Sadly, his identity was revealed long before when Fox’s constant meddling resulted in a number of spoilers hitting the web; nevertheless, Espenson and Whedon structured the episode in a way that kept it completely pulse pounding.

It’s so good that even the mighty Tim Minear (the man behind every almost every great episode of Angel in the first three seasons) cannot match it, though I suspect he was hindered by the fact that Dollhouse has rested on the bubble of cancellation since the get-go. Thus, the first 40 minutes, in which Alpha imprints Echo with an imprint of his old Active partner (whose identity was rightly guessed by me and many others before we learned it) and attempts to “awaken” the person who drove him to his rebellion. Then it ends with a whimper that leaves the story open and thankfully doesn’t box the series in, but it also clearly sets up the possibility that these 12 episodes are all we’re going to get.

Taken as a self-contained product (which it happily isn’t), “Omega” contains the best and worst of what Dollhouse has given us so far: it’s got flashes of too-rare Whedon humor (seriously, where were the jokes for most of the season?), the suspense that defined its best episodes, and someone finally gets to the bottom line of the Dollhouse’s hypocrisy: “You can’t sign a contract to be a slave.” On the other hand, it displays the show’s shallow side (Sierra and November get imprinted as bounty hunters to track Alpha, then are never seen again); its clumsy – especially for Whedon shows – dialogue; and the fact that it never gets around to explaining the actual purpose of the Dollhouse. I imagine that’s something that Whedon wants to take entire arcs to explain, but it’s frustrating that he wants us to just buy such an organization. And at the end, as with all things in the Dollhouse, all epiphanies are seemingly wiped away in an instant, leaving us wondering "What was the point of it all?"

At this stage, I like Dollhouse more for what it can be that what it is, which is a silly reason to like something I’ll grant you. Even a show that centers around a lack of identity must give us a reason to care about its characters, through its direction if not its lines. Dollhouse, to put it mildly, fails to do this; at this stage the only character I give a toss about is Saunders, which is almost entirely attributable to Amy Acker, who buoys the scarce writing devoted to the character with mystery and humanity. Characters like Ballard, DeWitt, Topher and Boyd should have been fleshed out, and only Ballard and DeWitt got any development at all. Combined with its skin-deep analysis of a handful of its many potential themes, it makes Dollhouse a show that you really have to will yourself to like rather than grabbing you with its interesting characters and its unique universe.

Still, when Dollhouse hit its stride, I found myself glued to the screen in a way I haven’t been since The Wire. It’s a far cry from classic Whedon, but he’s never tried something so ambitious. I attribute its lack of character development and its weak first half to Fox; remember, Firefly was nothing but character development, to the point that main plots really only served to advance its characters and its universe. It could have been Whedon’s magnum opus, but Fox canned it. Therefore, I believe that Dollhouse is Whedon playing to Fox’s M.O., though not in a subversive but desperate manner. On the other hand, a part of me believes that Joss made the show to challenge himself: I mean, who does character growth better? By forcibly removing character evolution, he's thrust himself into a bold, new territory that could reap big rewards.

Nevertheless, that does not excuse him for letting the show stumble along for weeks without even attempting to find a voice and the rest of the time laying the foundations that should have been established after a few episodes. The biggest mistake fans can make is to lay the blame solely at Fox's feet (somewhat hypocritical coming from the guy who devoted space in each of his first three paragraphs to disparage them, I know). The simple truth of it is: Joss himself admitted he wasn't sure how to proceed at first, and he acknowledged that he failed to tie in the plots of the early episodes into the larger story. I've seen some fans give it a pass, saying, "Well, Buffy was shaky its first season, too." But that notion ignores the glaring fact that Buffy was Joss' first foray into television, before he found the writers best suited to his vision and his style. This is his fourth series; by now he's accumulated some of the finest writing talent around, most of whom put in their best work with Whedon. I will agree with the comparison, however, when you consider that, like Buffy, Whedon and co. have a show with more potential than they perhaps realize at the moment, and only when left to their own devices and allowed to stretch the boundaries will the show grow.

As of this writing, I don’t know whether or not Dollhouse will come back for a second season, but, if we get lucky, I can only hope that someone lights a fire under Joss’ ass that forces him to build on these last few episodes and to carve a television program truly worthy of his name. Fingers crossed, everyone. [Ed: It is coming back! Huzzah!]


  1. Do you plan on reviewing the second season when it comes out on DVD?
    It's kind of depressing that it'll pretty much be the last of Whedon television. (I can't help but slightly blame Joss for going back to Fox.)

  2. Ya know, you really drive me nuts sometimes.