When Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse debuted in February, I was mildly intrigued to see what the man had come up with. I never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer but was a huge fan of Firefly and its companion film Serenity, and so Whedon’s name alone was enough to get me to watch the premiere. The show didn’t look all that great from the previews, as the Fox marketing team had once again failed to present it as quality material (when Firefly first came out, I also thought it looked incredibly stupid). The show also stars Eliza Dushku, a sexy woman who I like to look at but have always equated with B-grade television.
The first episode, Ghost, sucked. This is the way Whedon and Fox chose to hook people? In this day and age, you have to grab audiences by the throat and hold them to a wall to get them to sit through a single episode of a new show, let alone to get them to come back week after week. We’re introduced to the premise of the show and learn that the dolls – humans whose memories have been wiped clean so that a secret organization can implant new memories and personality traits so they can go undercover for any purpose whatsoever (anything from covert missions to sex games) – can take on more than just traits, but also symptoms such as asthma. In the first episode of a new show, you’re really going to deal with a boring hostage negotiation and a lead character who suddenly has massive asthma attacks?
Needless to say, after a boring and uninteresting first episode, I was done. Gone. Badmouthing the show.
But Dollhouse: Season One comes to DVD on July 28, 2009 and subsequently Fox sent me the first season to review (well, just to be kind, they sent me the first three discs out of four). Give it another chance, I told myself, and so I did.
The second episode kicks ass. Echo (Dushku) is implanted with memories and a personality to be an adventurous, crazy, sexy girl (so, pretty much like most characters she’s played) and is sent to go canoeing, rock climbing and camping with a rich client, who presumably wants to have his way with her (and she is more than willing to give it to him). But then he picks up a bow and several razor-pointed arrows and tells her she has five minutes to run before he starts hunting her. That’s pretty bad ass, and it just gets better from there.
Eight episodes in so far, it appears as though Dollhouse is going to be a mix of individual and story arc episodes; several early on deal with a specific, isolated story, such as Echo having to protect a diva from a crazy stalker or infiltrating a polygamist cult. But even in these episodes, and several others more devoted to the underlying premise, Whedon is laying the groundwork for a much more complicated plot, which asks such questions as: is it morally ethical to be doing stuff like this? What is Echo’s true past? Who is Alpha? Are the dolls really wiped clean every day, or are they able to remember?
Clearly, over time, Echo is going to become more and more complicated, as she’s already showing signs of recurring memories and flashbacks. This, coupled with flashbacks that, unlike in Lost, are not cued to the audience, the show becomes hard to follow quickly. You have to pay attention otherwise you’ll be confused, and having watched several episodes while at work, I probably have missed a few key elements.
The bottom line: Dollhouse is a surprisingly complex and intelligent show that is only going to get more so as it builds its characters and storylines. Aside from the first episode, it is deeply immersive, entertaining and at times action packed.
That being said, it isn’t perfect. Some elements are a little heavy handed. The episode where Echo is assigned to protect a singer from a stalker is a little cheesy and cliche; the doll programmer, played by Fran Kranz, is morally complex but extremely annoying at times – it’s hard to tell whether we’re supposed to like him or despise him; and Dushku herself, while fine for the role, is probably going to have to stretch her acting ability to the limit to play the various “characters” demanded of her. Dollhouse also doesn’t have the gritty authenticity that some other modern shows have, which may hurt it in the long run; it certainly feels like a Fox action-drama versus, say, something produced by CBS.
The show does have its faults, and it starts off in a horrific way, but if you can forgive the first episode, Dollhouse is an engaging and interesting show that is unique on many levels. It’s going to be interesting to see how long Whedon can carry it before the house of cards caves in (more happens in the first eight episodes of Dollhouse than what happens in the first three seasons of Lost, for instance), but I’m there to watch it until the fiery end.
The four-disc DVD set (it also comes in a three-disc Blu-Ray set) includes commentary for select episodes, an unaired episode and the unaired pilot, deleted scenes and several featurettes.