TV Review: ‘Dollhouse’

02.12.09 9 years ago

Kurt Iswarienko/FOX

Even if Joss Whedon weren’t telling every interviewer in earshot that the early episodes of “Dollhouse” are a work-in-progress, you’d know from watching them. “Dollhouse” is not yet the show that it was meant to be and it’s not yet the show that it’s going to become. And just because “Dollhouse” isn’t yet the show that I want it to be, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a show that I eagerly want to follow. 

Ambivalence makes for tortured semantics and syntax, doesn’t it? 

Through the three episodes sent to critics (episodes one, two and four in air dates), “Dollhouse” hasn’t crystalized its central mythology, hasn’t validated the logic of its core premise and hasn’t really situated its regular cast members in proximately to each other. Under normal circumstances, failings like these would be enough to sink a show. But “Dollhouse” is so full of big ideas and intriguing actors and goofy (in a good way) sci fi leaps that I’m willing to go along with it for a while and not just because I know from past experiences that just because a Whedon show doesn’t premiere fully formed doesn’t mean that if won’t become “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Angel” if you watch and wait.

Hopefully the Friday timeslot that so many fans initially viewed as a curse will actually be a blessing, because it provides both FOX and programming-starved viewers the option to be patient.

Follow through after the bump for a more concrete explanation (or exploration) of my ambivalence….

“Dollhouse” is, I guess, the story of Echo (Eliza Dushku), an active or Doll working out of the Dollhouse. Echo’s own personality has been erased. She’s an innocent, a blank slate. But thanks to the technical wizardry of Topher (Fran Kranz), Echo (or any of the other Dolls) can become whoever people pay Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) and Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond) for her to be. She can be imprinted with an elaborately constructed personality making her the perfect girlfriend, jewel thief or midwife. At the end of each mission, Echo and her handler Boyd Langdon (Harry Lennix) return to the Dollhouse and she’s wiped back to nothingness.

On the outside, driven FBI Agent Paul Ballard is following a series of leads to uncover the Dollhouse, but neither his colleagues nor superiors believe it exists at all. 

“Dollhouse” isn’t anything at all like this fall’s “My Own Worst Enemy,” a show many people seem to be comparing it to, except for a shared problem: Nothing you can do is going to convince me that the mechanics of the story are, within their particular realities, worth the time or the effort.

“MOWE” had a clever idea, but I never saw how the experiment that turned Christian Slater into a split-personality spy was an efficient way to conduct the espionage business. 

I know exactly why a man with a lot of money would hire Eliza Dushku’s Echo as a high-priced call-girl and I can even see how the imprinting process, one that would make her actually believe the illusion rather than just acting, would be helpful. So many of the other different things that people hire Dolls for don’t make a lick of sense. Why would I spend a tremendous amount of money to hire somebody who can be imprinted to be the best [insert non-hooker profession here] when I could take that money and go hire an actual trained [insert non-prostitute job here], especially when the Dollhouse appears to be illegal and many (but not close to all) of the desired imprints are for legal things. As we see very quickly in the pilot, Topher may be the best in the world at what he does, but there are still bugs aplenty.

The decision to go with a revised pilot in which Echo becomes a Kidnap and Rescue expert was a bad choice in this respect. Subsequent episodes feature jobs that are less logically troublesome and catered more to Dushku’s strengths — she does tough & sassy or hurt & lost as well as anybody, but she can get lost in the middle of those extremes — and bringing viewers into this world with one of those episodes might have been a better idea, because hooking the uninitiated will be a problem for “Dollhouse.” 

Even if it took a while for the storytelling structure of “Buffy” and “Angel” and “Firefly” to solidify, certain core relationships were set up instantly. Even if they eventually changed and evolved (as such things should) the relationships of the Scooby Gang, Angel Investigations and the crew of Serenity were there from the beginning, yielding warmth, animosity, drama, familiarity and humor. In large part because of the very nature of a central character whose memory is constantly erased, “Dollhouse” has a number of interesting characters, but no interesting duos or groupings through three episodes. It’s a frustratingly chilly world in which the most obvious potential adversarial relationship — Ballard against the Dollhouse’s powers-that-be — and the most obvious potential positive relationship — Ballard and Echo are destined to help each other — are being conducted on parallel, but never connecting, paths. It’s the sort of slow build that can play successfully over a two-hour movie, but can become frustrating on a week-to-week episodic series.

And the face-to-face relationships that do exist are intentionally marred by the prickly business taking place at the Dollhouse. Boyd and Echo, for example, seem to have a sweetness to their interactions, but it’s all fake and viewers know it, so you can’t get invested. Even if there are flickers of consciousness, the interaction between the Dolls is too nascent to latch onto. The closest thing the show has to a friendship is between Topher and Boyd and since viewers are likely to build a fast dislike for Topher, it’s hard not to think that Boyd is being anything other than contemptuous toward him.

Ballard is the hero of the piece and Penikett plays him with great assurance, but he’s all alone, facing mostly hostility and advancing his investigation in only small increments.

In short (too late for that), it’s easy to be intrigued by “Dollhouse,” but it’s tough to get emotionally involved.

I mean, who do you like? Whedon has always had a gift for making you love his heroes (Buffy, Xander, Angel, Mal), but often enjoy his villains every bit as much. 

Can you really like Echo? Of course you can’t. You can like some of the people she’s been imprinted as and some of the situations she finds herself in. You can sympathize with her plight. You can even empathize with the idea of being a person whose identity is subject to the whim of outside forces (we’re all being imprinted, be it by religion, by the media, by politics, etc). In particular, you can like Dushku, also a producer on the series, who’s having a tremendous amount of fun looking great and playing three or four different characters per episode. But you can’t like the character. There’s nothing to like. 

There also isn’t necessarily a clear target for distaste. As the administrators at the Dollhouse, Williams and Diamond’s characters are either really bad guys practicing a form of techno-white slavery, or else they’re savvy business people providing a service for a cost. Topher is a bit of an immoral cretin, but he’s a geek using people as toys, rather than being truly malicious.

“Dollhouse” is awash in gray area.

And this, stepping back from it all, is very possibly (very likely? [almost certainly?]) Whedon’s game here. This is a storyteller who’s never had any problems creating worlds that are easy to embrace and he’s thumbing his nose at the idea here. He’s saying, “How long can I give you this cast, but keep them from being an ensemble?” “How long can I make you root for this blank slate without giving you anything to actually root for?” “How long can I dangle villains in front of you without ever confirming a reason for you to feel hatred?The faster you accept that “Dollhouse” isn’t an escapist lark, the faster you can tackle what it actually is.

The very first line of the entire series is “Nothing is what it appears to be” and the show is about cheating expectations — for characters, for plots, for episodic television — at every step.

Because the “Dollhouse” world is so hard to absorb, the series will begin with a number of episodes that are relatively stand-alone. Paradoxically, the repetition of basic exposition makes it easier to understand how things work in this version of the not-so-distant future (or alternate present), but harder to get hooked into the universe of the show. Amidst these various pilot permutations are hints at where the show is building and seeds of mysteries, several of which I’m eager to learn more about and several of which I’d just see wiped. 

When the serialized elements and mythology kick in, I hope the world will become less analytical and more immersive. I wonder if those elements will be introduced fast enough to keep viewers involved. Yes, Whedon and various cast members have talked about how things get really good in the middle of the season. I’ll still be there, but as you can see, I’ve got some frustration on this one.

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