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Gather Up the Dolls: The End of FOX's "Dollhouse"

I've had a very complicated relationship with Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, the metaphysical action series that wraps up its troubled run tonight on FOX with "Epitaph Two: The Return."

While I felt that there were moments of genius among the forced procedural element, the convoluted storylines, and gaping plot holes, Dollhouse often just left me pounding my head against the wall in frustration at times.

I never felt like Eliza Dushku's Echo became a gripping enough central character to anchor the series, which was always much more interesting when the focus shifted to that of Dollhouse's supporting players like Dichen Lachman, Enver Gjokaj, Olivia Williams, or Fran Kranz. (The latter of which grew on me exponentially as the series wore on.) But rather than shift into a full-blown ensemble, the action continually circled back to Dushku's Echo and Tahmoh Penikett's Paul Ballard, easily the two least interesting of the bunch. (Lachman's Priya/Sierra and Gjokaj's Anthony/Victor remain easy favorites.)

Additionally, while I thought that the early second season storyline involving Amy Acker's Whiskey was profoundly moving, it was quickly undone by the eleventh hour reveals of the last few weeks, which turned Dollhouse's compelling post-apocalyptic storyline (begun in last season's unaired and fantastic thirteen episode, "Epitaph One") into a bit of a mess.

Dollhouse has always been creatively uneven: the serialized aspect of the series has always tended to take a backseat to the procedural in both seasons and when the overarching plot has come into play, the results have been less than stellar. Season One's Alpha plot, which had such promise, degraded into a hodgepodge of soap operatics, truncated subplots, and metaphorical mustache-twirling. (It also revealed a shocking lack of security at the Dollhouse, a plot hole that has been used about a dozen or so times over the last two seasons as dolls, prisoners, and clients seemingly can wander in or out of the premises at will.)

The coming apocalypse gave Season One's "Epitaph One" such promise and emotional resonance; the Active technology, used for nefarious purposes via the doll's engagement, took on a portent of doom as it was the advancement of this tech that seemingly brought about the end of civilization. But some truly odd plot twists that come off as glaring retcons--such as the reveal that Harry Lennix's Boyd was in fact one of the founders of Rossum Corporation and that he'd kept the LA Dollhouse employees alive because he "loved" them--remove any sense of strong throughline here. To use one of the complaints of Lost-phobes, it seems like they are making it up as they go along.

Dollhouse will end tonight and that ending will be the ending of this narrative. It's highly unlikely that there will be any spinoff feature films, comics, or tie-in novels. And I'm glad about that. Not every one of Whedon's series can click with a huge audience nor can it find the same sort of obsessive adoration and respect that even the short-lived Firefly engendered.

I've stuck with Dollhouse against my better judgment at times; sometimes I was rewarded (the gripping Priya arc and Summer Glau's appearances as Bennett) and other times I wasn't (the lactating episode). I can't fault Whedon for trying something different and creating a series that asked some deep and dark questions about the nature of identity and reality.

But, ultimately, Dollhouse was a television series that no one--not Whedon, not FOX, not the series' writing staff--seemed to be on the same page about; it was as though everyone's agendas were at odds with one another and that was felt and seen on the screen each week. I'm hoping that Whedon lands somewhere more suited to his talents (FX, anyone?) and that his creative instincts and vision gel better with those of a future network.

In the meantime, I am more than ready to say goodbye to Dollhouse. Here's to hoping that some of the series' stand-out talents land on their feet after tonight's final future-set showdown.

The series finale of Dollhouse airs tonight at 8 pm ET/PT on FOX.


Anonymous said…
Great post! Whedon is overrated and it's nice to see that you can see past the wool unlike most of your peers.
Tonya Ricucci said…
You summed up the problems with the show magnificently. My favorite characters though would be Topher and Adelle, but any of them were more interesting than Ballard and Echo. I hated the doll engagements and just fastforwarded through all those bits. I want my Firefly back.
John said…
Enjoyed the final episode and it's a pity the series has gone. When it was good, it was stunning and it saddens me that it was under-appreciated and scarcely watched. You may not like Whedon's writing or ideas but his work has produced television of a worth which transcends its "genre" label and puts most other network slop to shame.
Jace Lacob said…
"You may not like Whedon's writing or ideas..."

John, did you read what I actually wrote? I've been a huge fan and supporter of Whedon's work for over ten years. I think he's an extraordinary talent. Doesn't change the fact that Dollhouse was an absolute mess.
John said…
Sorry, Jace, I had 'Anonymous' and his/her ilk in mind rather than yourself! I don't agree that Dollhouse was an "absolute mess" - it had great performances from an excellent cast and more ideas in its short life than some shows have in seven seasons. What it didn't have, though, was a particular identity. Its style and tone were all over the place, especially in the first series, and it threatened to do the same in the second run. The 2nd series opener was so business as usual, I was stunned, particularly as there was no audience for that kind of episode in the first place. However, from the midway point in the series, watching a bunch of, on the whole, likeable people edging towards the destruction of civilisationasweknowit was superb. Can't wait for Fox to cancel Torchwood, too!
Cory said…
I think Dollhouse is one of Joss's better shows actually. I definitely prefer it to Firefly. I enjoyed how it could shift tones because the nature of the show allowed for it.

I also don't think it was that big of a mess - you could the conflicting views took it's toll but it still turned out to be a pretty great show regardless of the fact it could have been done even better. It was still good enough to be one of my top favorite shows on TV.
Dennis said…
While the show was uneven, and it was hard to bond to a character that kept changing, I believe the last seven or eight shows where Josh was more involved were great.
Unknown said…
I'm consistently disappointed with Whedon's endings. I'm not sure if he's trying to rattle the viewer (not a good idea) or doesn't understand what I want. I won't be so arrogant as to say it's what everyone wants, but I think most people want the characters they've enjoyed to be content. Buffy's ending stunk (and most were happy). (Oddly, I preferred season 5's ending.) Angel's ending stunk. (I didn't like Firefly at all.) Dollhouse's ending stunk. After all that, Caroline is ... gone? And Paul's dead. November's dead. Feh. Not sure I'll bother watching anymore Whedon projects.

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