Dollhouse has promise

Joss Whedon, the genre-splicing pop culture messiah behind such works of genius as Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, just launched a new series on the FOX network. The first episode of the show, called Dollhouse, aired last week to mixed reviews and less than stellar ratings. As I’m confident that the show could develop into something good, I thought that I’d post something here, encouraging people to start tuning in Friday evenings at 9:00… Anyway, I was getting ready to write something, when it occurred to me that my friend Patti Claydon was much more eloquent than I am on all things Whedon. So, I asked her for her thoughts. And, the following is her response.

I really wanted to love Dollhouse, the brainchild of the critically acclaimed and cult worshipped Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly). I was excited by the intriguing, and more than a little creepy, premise. Rich people hire a morally-corrupt corporation to create an “active” or “doll” for them. The actives are imprinted with unique personalities, skills, and attitudes for their “engagements” or missions, and when the missions are over, the imprints are wiped clean. This idea is a lot darker than any Whedon has worked with before, normally he starts with an impossibly cheesy supposition such as a petite teenage girl killing vampires, a vampire with a soul, or cowboy pirates in space. I understood this show would be different, less snarky, less funny. And I was even pleasantly surprised to find some Whedonistic sarcasm bleeding into the show (a kidnapper named Mr. Sunshine).


I was also aware that the pilot episode that aired last Friday had been retooled heavily after network (FOX) interference. So I cringed through all the overwritten and hamfisted dialogue. Seriously, the first line of the show was “Nothing is what it appears to be.” (Really? On TV?) And I winced while the FBI agent assigned to the Dollhouse case awkwardly explained why a rich person would bother paying millions of dollars to buy a doll—because rich people never stop wanting, “wishing for something more extreme, something more specific, something more perfect.” (Wow. Overwrought much?) And I felt slightly sick as the show spliced entirely superfluous shots of the FBI agent, named Paul Ballard, kickboxing (shirtless, for the eye candy) throughout this scene to show us—while they were already telling us (remember to dumb the show down to a 7th grade level for all the idiots out there)—that Ballard is fighting to keep the Dollhouse case. 

And, I’m sorry to say, I hooted very loudly at every plot hole. The biggest being: why would a rich dude who desperately wanted to get his kidnapped child back alive and unharmed go to the Dollhouse for a doll imprinted with hostage negotiation skills? When, you know, he could just hire an actual hostage negotiator? Especially since he proceeds to mistrust the doll and her skills immediately. I’m on board with the idea that a rich guy would want to buy a three-day weekend with a beautiful doll that “loves” to race motorcycles, dance in micro-mini dresses, and have kinky sex. That may be a combination difficult to find in the real world. A hostage negotiator? Yeah, not so much.

In the end though, I’m firmly on board to watch more episodes. I thought Eliza Dushku, as the doll named Echo, turned in a surprisingly solid acting performance and I’m intrigued by the little bits of back story we got on her character. Apparently, Caroline (Echo’s real name) was an idealistic college grad who wanted to change the world and instead ended up in some sort of trouble that sent her to the absolution that only the Dollhouse and a complete mindwipe could provide. Her doll programming seems to be cracking slightly as well—she flashed on a real memory, not a programmed memory, during one of her assignments.

I’m interested in seeing more of the other dolls in action. We were introduced briefly to another female doll named Sierra, who kicked some serious kidnapper ass. I’m already half in love with Echo’s “handler,” an ex-cop named Boyd, who’s saddled with a moral code that seems vastly out of whack with the immoral Dollhouse executives. I like the typical Whedonesque mad scientist character (Topher) who quotes Hamlet and feels zero remorse for what he’s doing. And despite the problems in this episode, I want to see more of the FBI story. I suspect the Russian mob and the human trafficking they are investigating really play a key role in Echo’s story.

But the last few moments of the show were decidedly the best. They set up an ongoing mystery surrounding a male doll named Alpha (yes, they’re using the military phonetic alphabet, I’m waiting on pins and needles to meet the dolls named Hotel and Uniform) who’s apparently gone rogue. We see him sitting naked in a dark room watching Caroline’s yearbook video while packaging up a photo of Caroline for FBI agent Ballard. Oh, and also? Surrounded by two brutally shot up corpses. While sitting in the dark naked.

Okay, I’m hooked.

I wish I had the money to bring Patti on full-time. I think it would be cool to have a pop culture reporter.

As for Dollhouse, I agree completely with Patti. There were huge holes, but there was also a lot of promise. And that’s why, having suffered through the cancellation of Firefly, I’m asking you to watch the first episode online, and tune in on Friday night… The universe needs good TV.

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  1. Steph
    Posted February 20, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    It seems difficult to build an audience for a series built around a main character that’s a different person from week to week. It’s ambitious though.

  2. Robert
    Posted February 20, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Expect to see a Juliet and an India soon. Foxtrot, Whiskey and Zulu should be interesting dolls. For the ladies, Mike, Oscar and Papa will all be forthcoming.

    Based on Patti Claydon’s review, I might actually catch an episode of this thing. However, I am already almost certain I’m going to like it less than Patti’s review.

  3. Brackinald Achery
    Posted February 20, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I dug Buffy and Firefly in general, but my problem with Joss Whedon is that most of his characters have the same college nerd sense of humor — i.e., Joss’s sense of humor. If all the characters you write speak in your voice in some way, that’s not very strong writing in my opinion. Same beef with Kevin Smith.

  4. Kristen
    Posted February 20, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Mark, maybe you should fundraise to hire Patti. Or Patti, maybe you should start your own blog (you know, in your spare time…).

  5. ChiZ
    Posted February 20, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    I love The Dollhouse so far. Fran Kranz (who also does amazing character videos on is so awesome!

  6. Posted February 22, 2009 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    My favorite line from episode two: “Four brothers, none of them Democrats.”

  7. KP
    Posted February 22, 2009 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I love Buffy. And Angel. And Firefly. Mostly Buffy. So I’m willing to ride it out with Dollhouse. There need to be some fluffy episodes. It can’t be all peril or it will annoy me. I like the look of next weeks episode!

  8. Posted April 13, 2009 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Joss Whedon apparently accepted an award at Harvard and talked about Dollhouse… It seems as though he thinks it’s being cancelled too (just as it’s getting good).

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