Despite the urging of many friends, I have yet to become of one Joss Whedon’s many followers; Buffy never interested me much despite the presence of Alyson Hannigan. The ads for Firefly never excited me enough to check it out. The only work of his prior to this I sat through was _Dr. Horrible. I respect his abilities as a writer, but his work has yet to really "click" with me.
When the ads for Dollhouse first aired, my curiosity was piqued by its concept of a mystery based around a woman whose identity has been stripped and replace with one a client orders. OK, yes… having a scantily clad Eliza Dushku certainly drew me in as well. Would this be the series that converted me to the cult of Whedon?
An intriguing concept
The series opens and introduces us to the character of Caroline, a young woman who appears to have been backed into a very difficult corner. Her only viable option is an offer from a woman named DeWitt; trade in five years of your life to be an "active" and have your slate wiped clean. Flash forward a bit, and we learn who and what the actives are. The Dollhouse provides their clients their ultimate fantasies by imprinting actives, attractive young men and women, with tailored personalities. Each active has had their original personality removed and stored on a hard drive; when not on an engagement, they are imprinted with a naive, childlike personality that is easily controlled.
Most of the initial episodes deal with Caroline, now code named Echo, going out on engagements ranging from baby sitting a depressed pop diva to negotiating the release of a hostage. Over time, we see glimpses that her original personality may not be as wiped as thought; we are also introduced to "Alpha", an active that experienced an "episode" that led to a rather bloody escape from the Dollhouse, along with a number of other characters.
Ballard, you so crazy!
What I found to be the weakness of the series are the characters developed, and there is no better example than FBI agent Paul Ballard. From the start, we see him as the laughingstock of the agency, an agent obsessed with chasing what everyone believes is a myth. His obsession grows when he receives a mysterious envelope that introduces him to Caroline and urges him to rescue her from the Dollhouse. But why was he so obsessed and driven originally? The writers did some brilliant things to his character over the course of the season, but it was difficult to connect and care about him without some clue as to why he was willing to persevere.
Many of the characters suffered from this flat, stereotypical portrayal; Topher the geek… Dominic the uptight head of security… the stoic but self-righteous DeWitt trying to keep the Dollhouse running smoothly… The series had thirteen episodes to help flesh these characters out and make the audience care about them, yet it seemed to only push them along to hold up the plot.
Really? That’s who Caroline was…
What is worse is that the glimpse into Caroline’s past completely turned me off on her plight; she basically got into the mess through her own naive stupidity. This could have been tolerable if they had not reduced her past self to a boring caricature of a young adult railing against corporate greed. Also, her revealed past makes it difficult to reconcile why she would suddenly choose to accept an offer she would find morally repugnant and become a doll.
The bright spots
There were some bright spots in the series other than Eliza’s scantily clad, toned body cavorting on screen. Echo’s "handler" Boyd is an example that the show can build an interesting character. Boyd is clearly from a law enforcement background, but we know little about why he is at the Dollhouse. He manages to fit in with the Dollhouse yet seem completely out of place at the same time. While most of the staff tread carefully around DeWitt, Boyd feels no compunction about voicing his concerns or doubts about DeWitt’s decisions or slipping in a carefully worded remark to make a point.
The other bright spot is that the series seems willing to budget money for a brilliant fight choreographer. Episode six features an amazing sequence between Echo and Ballard; this is what an actual fight for your life should look like – grabbing anything and everything at hand and using it to take your opponent down hard. Pure, brilliant choreography I have not seen on television other than 24. Ballard gets another brilliant sequence against Boyd in episode twelve.
Will I keep watching?
The key question is if this will remain on my DVR schedule next season. Yes, I am currently assuming it will be back for a second go; not sure it will actually make it through a second season though. Really on the fence on this one; it has done little to change my opinion of Whedon – good writer, just not for my tastes. If they keep it on after Sarah Connor Chronicles, I’ll likely let it record only to see if they reveal more about Boyd. Otherwise, I could let this series pass by without regrets.