Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski would like to play with Echo in the Dollhouse—if it weren't so morally disturbing.
Our review of Dollhouse: Season Two (Blu-Ray), published October 25th, 2010, is also available.
"Did I fall asleep?"
Television auteur Joss Whedon's latest series, Dollhouse, spends most of its first few moments providing viewers with a high-speed motorcycle race and ass-level shots of a hot young actress dancing in a dress that would be more accurately described as a shirt. While casual channel-flippers might at that point have dismissed this new series as more from Fox's usual bag of tricks and kept flipping, connoisseurs of smart TV knew to be patient. After all, Whedon had learned on his previous shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly that if you want to write complicated narrative arcs and ultra-quirky dialogue, you should add plenty of action and some T&A to keep the network happy. Since his shows seem to be in perpetual danger of cancellation lately, I'm happy to twiddle my thumbs through a motorcycle race every now and again, if it keeps his work on the air—and frankly, I'm more than happy to watch his leading lady dance in a shirt-dress. As it turned out with Dollhouse, patience would be necessary for longer than many of us Whedonites had hoped, but by midseason his new TV venture began to prove worthy of its heritage. The fantastic second half of Dollhouse: Season One more than justifies its purchase, and will hopefully bring viewers back for the second season now that the show has narrowly escaped cancellation.
Let's get a handle on the wacky premise and the individual episodes before I sing its praises further. Spoiler Alert! I'll be discussing plot points through the end of Season One:
The leading lady in the shirt-dress is of course Eliza Dushku, who worked with Whedon previously as Faith, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's bad girl "other" slayer. On Dollhouse she gets to play the bad girl, the good girl, and just about every girl in between because she's cast as Echo, a young woman who has signed away five years of her life and agreed to let an underground organization "imprint" her with various personalities suited to various missions. The organization hires her out to clients for a big price tag, and the clients may want anything from your standard kinky sex partner to an expert hostage negotiator. When she's not out on one of these "engagements," Echo's brain is wiped clean of these personalities and she's reset to a state of vacant nonchalance. At these times, she's free to relax in the Dollhouse, a calm and opulent facility where she and other "dolls" like her spend their off-duty hours getting massages, exercising, and eating five-star cuisine.
Echo is joined in this indoor Eden by a few other dolls that become prominent characters: Sierra (Dichen Lachman, Bled), Victor (Enver Gjokaj), and November (Miracle Laurie). Since I can't describe the non-existent personalities of these characters (and for once that's not a criticism but merely a condition of the premise!), we'll move on to the ladies and gentlemen running this bizarre business. Boastful nerd boy Topher (Fran Kranz, The Village) is there to imprint the dolls with their engagement personalities, and also to crack wise and spit out all the sci-fi exposition. When the imprint is complete and Echo sets off for her engagement, Echo's "handler" Boyd (Harry Lennix, State of Play) accompanies her and tries to keep her out of danger. Whenever he fails, Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker, Angel) is at hand to patch Echo up. They all answer to Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams, Rushmore), the icy British boss lady who oversees the Dollhouse from her impressive corner office upstairs.
Outside of the Dollhouse, FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, Battlestar Galactica) is determined to prove that the secret facility is more than an urban legend. He wants to rescue the dolls, especially Echo—whom he knows by her real, pre-Dollhouse name, Caroline. Also on the outside is Alpha, a former doll who broke out of the facility, but paused to carve up the faces of several other dolls and staff members on his way out. Signs crop up that he might be alive and plotting further revenge.
Dollhouse's first season is comprised of the following twelve episodes, plus two unaired episodes I'll get to later on:
• "Ghost" (with commentary by Joss Whedon and Eliza
• "The Target"
• "Stage Fright"
• "Gray Hour"
• "True Believer"
• "Man on the Street" (with commentary by Joss Whedon)
• "A Spy in the House of Love"
• "Briar Rose"
An early exchange between Adelle and Caroline (soon to become Echo) in Dollhouse's first episode feels representative somehow of both the central philosophical concern of the series and of the fraught relationship between Whedon and the Fox network through which Dollhouse was born. Adelle has a contract in hand and is trying to convince Caroline to join the Dollhouse:
Adelle: "I'm talking about a clean slate."
Philosophically, this dialogue sets up the show's fascinating main question: can the Dollhouse truly wipe away a person's identity, or is there something intrinsic to each human being that will survive such a process? But on a less cerebral plane, this dialogue also resonates with the behind-the-scenes production of the series. Whedon and Fox's agreement to make Dollhouse together seemed to represent a clean slate after the network broke a lot of hearts (Whedon's included, I think) by canceling his previous series Firefly after only one season. In accordance with Caroline's prediction though, Dollhouse fans did see too much of "what was on it before" with this slate: creative disagreements between Whedon and Fox about storylines and a dreadful Friday night time slot, in particular. These echoes of problems past resulted in low viewing numbers for this first season and also a marked difference in quality between the early episodes and the late ones.
Reportedly because of Fox's insistence, the first five episodes of the season are stand-alone outings, what we might call "engagement of the week" adventures. Echo gets a new mission and a new imprint, she does something (maybe) thrilling for 40-odd minutes, and then she returns to the Dollhouse ready for next week's similarly isolated mission. While most television used to be this way, we've entered a TV age in the past decade that's much more focused on serial narratives—complex stories that carry over and build from episode to episode. That's been a change for the better, in my view, and Whedon has already proven himself a master of the complex serial format with the later seasons of Buffy. Dollhouse cries out to be that kind of show, and it's a bit painful to watch it floundering in its first five episodes, as even for one-shot stories some of these are mediocre.
Then, to use the language of the series, it's as if Dollhouse sits itself down in the chair and gets a whole new imprint in "Man on the Street," the Whedon-penned sixth episode. "Did I fall asleep?" Yes, and we nearly did, too—but then you woke up! In this episode, Ballard's scavenging for clues about the Dollhouse finally kicks into high gear with a duo of fantastic encounters with Echo. The second features an expertly choreographed fight scene that's big fun to watch as well as information tantalizing enough to get us more curious about those arranging the dolls in their house: Echo tells Ballard that there are over 20 Dollhouses operating around the world and that "The Dollhouse deals in fantasy. That is their business, but not their purpose." Sounds like mystery enough for a second season and then some, no? His first encounter with Echo, earlier in the episode, was equally impressive in a different way: it demonstrated that Dollhouse actually could create totally compelling, isolated engagement-of-the-week stories, too. In this scenario, Ballard busts in on an engagement in which Echo is imprinted as the wife of internet mogul Joel Mynor. With his romantic date ruined, Mynor sits down with Ballard to explain what his seemingly seedy scenario was really all about and to make Ballard question some of his own motivations for investigating the Dollhouse. He accuses Ballard:
"You have a fantasy. We all do. We need it to survive. And I think your fantasy is about my Rebecca [Echo]…Then the brave little FBI agent whisked her away from the cash-wielding losers and restored her true identity, and she fell in love with him."
This little chat is one of the season's most inspired scenes, peppered with wonderful lines of dialogue, benefitting from funny-man Patton Oswalt's (Ratatouille) great guest performance as Mynor, and offering up a surprisingly moving engagement scenario that pays off sweetly at the end of the episode.
Once Dollhouse finds its footing with this episode, the rest of the season comes alive in every way. Again, even single-episode stories no longer seem to be the problem they were earlier in the season; my favorite episode thus far, "Haunted," fits that profile. Here, the writers set up one of those great sci-fi premises that uses imagined technology to give us an illuminating human story that couldn't be told without it. In this case, a dead woman gets a loaner body with her own memories and can witness how people she knew react to her death. It's a common, if morbid, fantasy, but one that Adelle reveals to have dark possibilities:
Margaret: "See my own funeral? Who wouldn't want that?"
Of course, this dark side of life after death rears its head in a big way in "Haunted," but the writers and actors balance out the true sadness and poignancy of the scenario by writing Margaret as a particularly brisk and chipper dead woman, and by unfolding a fun little murder mystery (and also by including a great, character-developing subplot about Topher's birthday treat). This pitch-perfect engagement-of-the-week episode seems to be just a way to pass the time before the big finale, but it's the sleeper hit of Dollhouse: Season One and not to be missed.
While I've highlighted the quality of these two episodes, almost everything from "Man on the Street" through "Omega" is skillfully written and compelling. A big part of what sustains the momentum of this stretch of episodes is the surprisingly good performance that Dushku delivers in Dollhouse. I don't mean to slight her previous work—she was great as Faith on Buffy—but I was skeptical about whether she could pull off such a ridiculously demanding role. Indeed, it would be difficult to write a part more challenging than this one. During the course of these episodes, Dushku has to inhabit the base characters of pre-Dollhouse Caroline and Echo the doll, as well as more than a dozen short-term imprints, including personalities as varied as a kidnapping negotiator, an arctic midwife, a safe cracker, a social worker, a dominatrix, and a blind religious fanatic.
Though she stumbles on occasion with some of these roles—the negotiator in "Ghost" being the most egregious case—Dushku should be commended for putting so much energy and charisma into these various characters. Fortunately, she does her best work with her two most important personas: Caroline and Echo. As the woman who signed away five years of her life, Dushku's Caroline remains something of a mystery by season's end, but in her intermittent appearances she is both sympathetic and interesting—particularly when she yearns to save her fellow dolls in "Needs" and when she has a fascinating conversation/confrontation with herself (hard to explain!). As Echo, the woman Caroline is forced to become, Dushku exhibits a talent for playing the kind of extreme vacancy coupled with sweetness that Whedon seems to enjoy assigning to his lead actresses (remember the Buffybot?). The hefty challenge for both writers and actors with these doll characters is, how do you create character development or consistency when the dolls' minds are wiped clean after each episode? Dushku gives the writers a big helping hand by ably layering a bit of individuality into Echo's blankness. Like the not-so-clean slate Caroline describes that still reveals "what was on it before," Dushku makes Echo a palimpsest, retaining just the smallest traces of the women she has been but forgotten while she wanders around the Dollhouse, wide-eyed and empty. The cathartic release after all this vacant helplessness arrives in the season finale when Dushku comes to embody all of her past imprints at once. Apparently when you add up all these personalities you get one truly awesome individual, because this character crackles on screen. Filled with self-assurance and moral righteousness, she whacks the knife-happy bad guy in the head with a pipe and convincingly explains to him why he's such a bastard: "And don't hand me any more of your crap about you being some superior, ascended being. To ascend to anything, at minimum you do not cut up women!"
And speaking of that knife-happy bad guy, I want to touch on a few other great performances in Dollhouse: Season One, starting with Alan Tudyk's Alpha. Both in pretending to be the stoner environmental designer Stephen Kepler and in embodying the psychotic ex-doll Alpha, Tudyk excels, first bringing lots of comedy and then somehow retaining that humor and mixing it with a generous helping of terror. Tudyk and the writers take particular comedic advantage of the character's 48 personalities which compete for dominance inside his brain, as when he threatens his captives and promises: "I'm not fooling. He's not fooling. We're not bluffing. I'm bluffing. But the rest of us, we mean business." Tudyk's stay is brief, but of the regular cast the standout for me is Olivia Williams as Adelle. Her delightfully sharp wit and overwhelming Britishness made many of her lines the most memorable, such as this curt exchange when Boyd gravely walks into her office with a criticism in "Haunted":
Boyd: "Eternal life."
Of course Whedon and his writing staff are experts at building up imposing characters like Adelle and then breaking them down with inevitable hilarity. For Adelle, this moment comes when she's infected with the inhibition-losing drug in "Echoes." Conversing with the also-infected Topher (another source of reliable wit and laughs on the series), she loses her composure considerably as they try to work through a new development in the engagement:
Adelle: "What the sun-dappled hell is Echo doing at Fremont?"
Further hilarity and a mountain of inappropriate starches follow:
There are plenty of wonderful aspects of Dollhouse—nearly all the performers, the beautiful and dynamic Dollhouse set, the opening credits and theme music, the moral questions it raises—and I heartily recommend the season, despite its slow start. Fox has ordered a second season and Whedon has certainly left tons of narrative possibilities open for further development. But as relieved and grateful as I was to hear that Fox had renewed Dollhouse for more episodes, I'm wise enough not to expect a clean slate…
Now that we've had the good news in this review (Dollhouse is great), let's get to the bad news. The screener copies of Dollhouse: Season One that Fox sent out for review so little resemble the DVD set you'll be able to buy that there's little I can tell you about technical quality or bonus features. Though the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack was robust on my screener discs, the picture quality was marred by compression, resulting in lots of unsightly artifacts that made the ever-so-pretty Dollhouse a lot less fun to look at. It's doubtful that such large-scale image problems will exist on the finished set, but I can't tell you anything about its picture quality. More disappointing is my inability to review the bonus features, which will reportedly include two unaired episodes: the scrapped pilot "Echo" and the post-"Omega" thirteenth episode, "Epitaph One." Since these are the features fans are most excited about, it's unfortunate that I can't report on their quality. Our screener discs also left out the deleted scenes and featurettes that the finished set will include. From what I've been able to glean, there aren't any extras exclusive to the Blu-ray release, so buyers will be shelling out the extra bucks for a presumed upgrade in picture and sound quality only. The features I did have access to on these screener discs were two commentary tracks, on "Ghost" and "Man on the Street." Other TV releases have raised the stakes on commentary tracks lately, with Mad Men: Season Two, for example, offering two per episode, so this little duo felt a bit insufficient in quantity. The quality, however, was quite good on both. For "Ghost," Dushku and Whedon banter charmingly and humorously. Dushku drools over several of the actors who appear on screen (as does Whedon, actually) and Whedon pokes fun at the show's lackluster popularity: when Echo repeats her line "Did I fall asleep?" after having her brain wiped, Whedon says, "Our catch phrase. 'America: you'll fall asleep!' We had to work on that campaign." Doing a solo commentary for "Man on the Street," Whedon is characteristically insightful throughout. When Ballard sprints to save his girlfriend from a Dollhouse assassin, Whedon comments: "This is more like the kind of show I like to do, where the hero comes to save the day and the girl has already saved it for him." That's the kind of show I like to watch, too, and Joss Whedon has my eternal gratitude for creating so many of them, including Dollhouse.
Dollhouse the series is not guilty, but the court has insufficient information to properly rule on Fox's DVD release of Dollhouse: Season One.
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