Fox // 2010 // 647 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 25th, 2010
Anyone can happen.
"I try to be my best."
First of all, what is The Dollhouse?
The Dollhouse is a secretive organization based in Los Angeles. The Dollhouse finds troubled, attractive young people and then makes them an offer they can't refuse. The young person is offered a clean slate and the opportunity to make quite a lot of money. In exchange, the young person agrees to grant the Dollhouse use of their body and brain for a period of five years. The mind of the new recruit (or "active") is temporarily wiped. Whenever the active is needed for a mission, they are imprinted with the mind of an entirely different person that just so happens to have the skills required for the mission at hand. When the mission is completed, the active's mind is wiped again and they essentially become a vacant, gentle child.
Our central character is a girl named Caroline (Eliza Dushku, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Well, she used to be named Caroline. Now she goes by the codename "Echo" when she isn't using someone else's personality. In the first season, she participated in a wide variety of colorful missions, from hostage negotiation to recreating a lonely man's deceased wife. At the end of each mission, she would receive a nice mind-wipe (or "treatment") and go back to square one for next week's adventure.
As season two begins, we make an alarming discovery: Caroline is retaining the memories of the assorted personalities she has taken on during her time with The Dollhouse. They're buried pretty deep and are difficult to control, but they exist. This is cause for concern, as the last active to retain multiple personalities at once turned into a serial killer. However, FBI Agent turned Dollhouse employee Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, Battlestar Galactica) has hopes that Echo's unique new "quirks" will be helpful in his secret quest to destroy The Dollhouse from the inside.
All 13 second-season episodes are spread across three Blu-ray discs:
* Belle Chose
* The Public Eye
* The Left Hand
* Meet Jane Doe
* A Love Supreme
* The Attic
* Getting Closer
* The Hollow Men
* Epitaph Two: Return
Joss Whedon's Dollhouse is a show that felt like it was in danger of cancellation before it even hit the airwaves. The unpleasant manner in which Fox treated Whedon's Firefly lingered over the show's creation, while the original pilot Whedon offered proved so unsatisfying that it had to be re-shot. The program debuted to low ratings and was on every TV analyst's death watch list from the start, but somehow it inspired just enough of a following to win a second-season renewal. Alas, the second season generated similarly underwhelming ratings, forcing Fox to pull the plug after episode 13. If there's a silver lining to this sad story, it's that Whedon was conscious of the fact that cancellation was likely all along. Bearing that in mind, he crafted a second season that doesn't skimp on important developments and does indeed bring Dollhouse to an appropriate (if somewhat rushed) conclusion.
The first portion of Season 1 was almost universally criticized for its underwhelming, "adventure of the week" structure that played within moral gray areas but never really took the time to acknowledge that. Fortunately, the latter two-thirds of the season corrected that in fine fashion, moving away from being a show about Eliza Dushku taking on a new assignment this week and morphing into a large-scale ensemble drama that wasn't afraid of digging into challenging areas or addressing the uncomfortable questions that the premise automatically generates. Season 2 essentially picks up right where the previous season left off, continuing to tackle interesting ideas and putting the entire cast at the center of attention.
Granted, the first four episodes of this season still fall into "adventure of the week" territory on at least some level, but they're significantly better in terms of craftsmanship and in terms of the way they manage to advance the long-arc plotting in the background. The best of this opening quartet is "Belonging," a creepy and heartbreaking episode that digs into Sierra's (Dichen Lachman, Aquamarine) origin story in inventive fashion. However, the season really hits its stride with episodes 5 and 6 ("The Public Eye" and "The Left Hand"), a two-part story that attempts to accomplish a lot and succeeds on almost every level. Loaded with political intrigue, challenging moral dilemmas, comedy, romance and a delightful dollop of Frankenstein-style horror, it's vintage Whedon from top to bottom.
There are equally excellent episodes throughout the remainder of the season, but from episode 7 onward Dollhouse feels like it's barreling towards the finish line. The frantic pacing is a problem at times, but that's more than compensated for by the fact that Whedon tries to stuff as many great ideas as he can into the show's sprint towards its conclusion. Ideas he may very well have been saving for a third season and beyond are dispensed liberally in the brief second half of this season.
"A Love Supreme" offers the alternately chilling and touching return of two small but important supporting players from season one: the psychotic former doll Alpha (Alan Tudyk, Firefly) and heartbroken client Joel Mynor (Patton Oswalt, Ratatouille). Both are used in inventive, effective ways, and the episode generates enormous suspense before delivering a strong surprise ending. "Stop-Loss" movingly examines the life of a doll released from duty and returned to his former personality, while Echo explores her own subconscious in the unnerving sci-fi/horror tale that is "The Attic." From there, the show rushes to its ending in action-packed fashion, concluding with the resonant "Epitaph Two: Return" (a direct sequel to the apocalyptic unaired "Epitaph One" from the first season). The conclusion is a surprisingly satisfying one under the circumstances -- certainly bleak for the specific characters of this program, but honestly optimistic for humanity in contrast to the generally pessimistic worldview of Dollhouse.
The series benefits from having a very solid cast, and everyone seems to raise their game a bit this season. Dushku may struggle a bit at times with some of the characters she's asked to play, but she handles her challenging role more effectively this time around (and she's perfect as both Echo and Caroline). Fran Kranz (Matchstick Men) does superb work this season as Topher, and hits new heights when sharing scenes with Summer Glau (whose four-episode guest turn is one of the highlights of the show). Olivia Williams (The Ghost Writer) continues to do sublime work as the terse Adelle Dewitt, while Enver Gjokaj (Lie to Me) continues to demonstrate that he can do just about anything he sets his mind to (his Topher impersonation is remarkable; he's even better as a dim-witted Valley Girl).
Dollhouse: The Complete Season 2 arrives on Blu-ray sporting a handsome 1080p/1.78:1 transfer that nicely spotlights the film's stylish look and appealingly icy aesthetic. The level of detail is strong (particularly facial detail), blacks are deep and shading is solid. For cost-cutting purposes, Whedon switched from 35mm film to digital for the second season of Dollhouse, but the image doesn't seem to have suffered as a result. This is still a very handsome-looking program, and despite the noticeable difference between the cameras it still has the same visual feel. The audio is strong, with particularly aggressive bass and a surprisingly nuanced mix. Dialogue is clean and clear, the moody music comes across nicely and the occasional action scenes tend to pack a significant punch.
Supplements kick off with a trio of audio commentaries: "Vows" with Joss Whedon, "Belonging" with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen and "Getting Closer" with Tim Minear (the last track is a BD-exclusive). Another Blu-ray exclusive is a 28-page comic book entitled "Dollhouse: Epitaphs," which bridges the gap between "Epitaph One" and "Epitaph Two: Return." "Defining Moments" (13 minutes) is a brief featurette which mostly features Whedon talking about how sad it was to get cancelled, while "Looking Back" (16 minutes) is a fun but all-too-brief roundtable retrospective with Whedon, Dushku and other members of the cast.
I don't have many complaints as far as this season is concerned, but I will re-assert that this season does have severe pacing issues. Good as the episodes are, the manner in which Dollhouse has to wrap things up at lightning-speed is pretty jarring. Also, "Instinct" gets pretty silly after a while. It's an interesting idea (it seems maternal instincts are hard to wipe), but the execution is fumbled. Finally, I was quite disappointed at the way this season almost completely wastes the excellent Harry Lennix (Titus) as Boyd. They do provide an explanation for this towards the end, but the actor is too good to be sitting on the sidelines so often.
Dollhouse: The Complete Season 2 is consistently as good as the strongest portions of season one. It's a flawed show, but quite thoughtful and (finally) a lot of fun. Whedon fans should pick this one up without hesitation.
Review content copyright © 2010 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 647 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes