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All photos © 20th Century Fox
Reviewed by David Medsker
When word first broke that Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”) was developing a new show for Fox about a group of memory-wiped “dolls” for hire, the reaction from the Whedonites, to quote another Fox TV character, was a “Woo hoo!” quickly followed by a ‘D’oh!” Whedon’s last go-round with Fox, “Firefly,” only lasted 14 episodes, and when rumors started swirling that Fox was meddling with “Dollhouse” before the show had even made its broadcast debut, prognosticators were already sharpening their axes. Worse, Fox decided to air the show on Friday night, a dead zone for youth-oriented programming. How would the show fare under these harsh circumstances?
In a word, eh. The ratings spiked here and there, but were not much to brag about overall. The show itself suffered a similar number of creative peaks and valleys, but when it was on – i.e., the episodes that Whedon wrote himself – “Dollhouse” was a hell of a lot of fun. Of course, it took roughly half of the season before the peaks presented themselves, and by that point, it was difficult to put any emotional investment in the characters. Whedon didn’t help matters by playing his hand a tad early in his casting choices.
The show focuses on Echo (Eliza Dushku), one of the top agents at a top-secret location that is merely referred to as the Dollhouse. Echo is recruited for assignments as diverse as hostage negotiator and a blind religious fanatic who unknowingly infiltrates a dangerous cult. Her memory of these jobs is erased upon completion of the assignment by the person who programs her various profiles, a tech named Topher (Fran Kranz), but after a while, Echo and her fellow dolls begin to remember small aspects of their assignments, which arouses the suspicion of Dominic (Reed Diamond), the head of security. If this weren’t enough for Dollhouse director Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) to worry about, she also has Federal Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) obsessed with uncovering the Dollhouse once he identifies Echo as Caroline Farrell, a political activist in college who fell off the grid. And they still haven’t figured out what happened with Alpha, the doll that went berserk and killed or maimed everyone in sight, but curiously left Echo unharmed, before he went rogue.
Fox allegedly had a very hands-on approach to “Dollhouse,” and this makes sense when watching the first few episodes, which are self-contained and do very little to advance the show’s mythology. That’s great that Echo can think outside the parameters that Topher sets for her – especially when one of her engagements hires her in order to hunt and kill her – but the stories behind the dolls are the show’s real hook, and it isn’t until halfway through the season (Whedon didn’t step into the writer’s chair until the sixth episode) that the show finally offers the viewer more than a crumb of information. Until then, the show rests on the shoulders of Dushku and Kranz, and that, my friends, is a sucker’s bet. Dushku is lovely, but she’s one of the lesser actresses in the Whedon universe, while Kranz is simply annoying as the aren’t-I-clever Topher.
Bet let’s not lay the weaknesses of “Dollhouse” at the feet of the actors. They’re not the problem here, and in fact Olivia Williams turns in a quietly menacing performance as Adelle. The problem is the writing. The Whedon-written episodes are easily the show’s best – the scene where Adelle activated a “sleeper” doll over the phone with verbal commands was the highlight of the entire season – but they also trip over themselves to move things forward, and the other episodes contain rather poorly hidden “clues”. (When Dominic screams for whiskey, you just know that he’s not asking for a drink.) In the season’s final episode – the final one broadcast on television, anyway – Whedon brought in an old favorite for a guest appearance, who should have had “ALPHA” tattooed on his forehead from the moment he appeared. In fact, the needlessly snarky wise people on Reddit figured out who would play Alpha a good month before the episode aired. Whedon should have seen this coming.
Despite the studio micromanaging and shortcomings of the content, “Dollhouse” was renewed for a second, 13-episode season. It will be curious to see how Whedon handles things this time around (bet on him to write more episodes), not to mention how he’ll cope with the loss of Amy Acker, who plays Dollhouse physician Dr. Clare Saunders (she signed on to star in “Happy Town” when “Dollhouse” was rumored to be cancelled). As it currently stands, “Dollhouse” is the weakest of Whedon’s four big shows, but then again, “Buffy” needed a couple seasons to get rolling as well. Whedon may be down, but do not count him, or “Dollhouse,” out.