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Paper (Thin) Dolls: An Advance Review of Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse"

"'The doer' is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything." - Friedrich Nietzsche

Joss Whedon's latest television series, Dollhouse, seeks to explore the shifting nature of identity--how we perceive ourselves and how others do--through a complex story involving a clandestine organization called the Dollhouse, which wipes the personalities of volunteers (or so we're told) and imprints them with various personas specifically selected for an array of missions or "engagements." Clients with money to burn can pay these Actives (or dolls) to engage in a variety of tasks and everything, from the criminal to the sexual, is on offer at a price.

The service is expensive, confidential, and highly exclusive (or so we're told). It's also highly illegal. Which is why the the bosses at the Dollhouse--embodied by the icy Adele DeWitt (Olivia Williams) have a particular interest in one of their Actives, Echo (Eliza Dushku), who is allegedly the best of the best (or so we're told). Once an Active completes an engagement, they're programmed to immediately return to the Dollhouse, a cross between a luxury spa, military barracks, and Wolfram & Hart, where their memories are wiped and they are returned to a fugue state.

(Still with me so far?)

Echo, unfortunately, has begun to remember things about her life before the Dollhouse and about events that transpire during her engagements. Is she becoming self-aware? Is this a good thing? Or is it placing her in grave danger? It's these questions that the early episodes of Dollhouse seek to answer as Echo unwittingly finds herself on a crash course with a dogged FBI agent named Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) who is searching for the mythical Dollhouse.

I had the opportunity to watch three of the first four episodes of Dollhouse, which launches this Friday. Longtime readers of this site will remember how I waxed enthusiastically for creator Joss Whedon's original pilot script when I read it last April. So what did I think about the finished product, which has gone through a rather, er, difficult birthing process? Let's discuss.

I'll start by saying that I loved the themes that Whedon sought to explore in his original pilot script. The notion of identity is a fascinating one and Whedon seeks to use the Actives' experiences on engagements to make a statement about the roles we all play in our daily lives, our own programming, and our own quest to understand our true natures. And these themes still exist in Dollhouse's finished product, albeit in a more jumbled and surface way. There's a nice symmetry between both Echo and Paul's quest for understanding as one seemingly seeks to escape into oblivion and the other searches in order to bring this dark thing into the light.

There are little things that I love about the series: that the Actives' codenames come from the NATO phonetic alphabet (i.e., Alpha, Echo, Sierra, Victor), the hints at some Big Bad that came out of the Dollhouse's naïveté and hubris (the creation of Alpha), an ambitious metaphor that's a dark mirror to our self-obsessed society, and the strength of the series' supporting cast: Olivia Williams, Dichen Lachman, Amy Acker, and Harry Lennix. (Lachman in particular is such a standout that I couldn't help but imagine what Dollhouse would be like with her as the lead.)

However, one of the main things hurting this project is its reliance on a more self-contained style of storytelling. With a concept as rich and challenging as this one, it just screams out for serialized narrative, but that apparently was never on the table at FOX, which was looking to develop a series in the same mold as Fringe: one with an overarching mythology but with episodes that wrapped up their procedural plots each week.

The result is that there's very little throughline to keep the audience invested week after week, a real major issue in a series where the series lead is in fact playing a different character from week to week as well. It's difficult to root for Echo because we know just as little about her as a character as she does herself. In the first few episodes alone, she's imprinted with the personality of a near-sighted asthmatic negotiator named Miss Penn (more on that in a bit), then she's an extreme-sports-loving girl, then she's a kick-ass master thief named Taffy in "Grey Hour." While it's interesting to watch Dushku attempt to play such a wide array of characters, it's not easy for the audience to associate with a character who's as shifting and quixotic as mercury.

And as much as I loved Dushku on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, I don't feel that she's able to carry off the burden of carrying a series by playing an infinite number of characters. Dushku seems to work best when she's in Bad Girl mode (i.e., Faith or Taffy) but otherwise she seems more or less to be channelling the same personality imprint the rest of the time... and she also doesn't quite pull off the "blank slate" aspect of the Actives either. (Unlike Dichen Lachman, who as Sierra, nails it in her first scene.)

Which is a shame as Dollhouse as a concept has definite potential. But there's a real messiness to the execution, which leaves itself open to significant head-scratching criticism. Why does the client, in the pilot episode, hire an Active to serve as a hostage negotiator in order to get back his kidnapped daughter... when it would be easier, not to mention cheaper and less problematic, to hire an actual negotiator? Why does the super-wealthy couple in Episode Four ("Grey Hour") hire Echo to be their midwife when they could use an actual midwife?

There are times where an Active would be the ideal candidate for a job--especially when dealing with anything illicit or illegal--but I couldn't wrap my head around these fairly innocuous assignments where other professionals would have been much more suited for the task at hand. And the fact that Topher imprints the Actives with real people's personalities--and their innate flaws--is worrisome, especially as those very flaws seem to undo Echo in the field. Miss Penn's asthma actually leads to the client getting shot and the kidnappers getting away with the kid AND the cash. This is a problem when the clients are meant to be hiring someone better than anyone in reality... why would anyone pay for a vessel that seems as cracked as this?

These Actives are supposed to be the best, embodying a Nietzschean ideal, yet three engagements go haywire when the imprints fail Echo (as in the pilot), the client isn't properly vetted (as in the second episode), or the Dollhouse's allegedly unbreachable programming is hacked (as in the fourth episode). I understand that things need to go wrong somewhat in order for there to be dramatic tension, but the Dollhouse seems so fallible on more than one occasion that it's difficult to take them seriously as a impenetrable and shadowy organization that only seems to employ one programmer (FranKranz's Topher) to imprint the dolls and where things keep going Very Wrong indeed.

Additionally, "Ghost," the series' new pilot (which was written and shot after the original was scrapped) doesn't set up the scope of Dollhouse's clientele especially well. We're shown Echo's first engagement, as a motorcycle-driving perfect date for a guy celebrating his birthday weekend, but it doesn't seem as if this guy is a multi-millionaire with the cash necessary to hire Echo for the weekend; instead he seems a run-of-the-mill frat-type who probably would have been more likely to hire a hooker than an Active with a billion-dollar personality imprint. And the Dollhouse's main adversary, Paul Ballard (Penikett) is terribly under-developed in the early episodes. We're told that he's dogged and won't back down (hell, a turgid kickboxing montage painfully proves it) and that he's not well-liked by his colleagues but that sadly seems to be the extent of his character for now. He seems as much of a blank slate as Echo or the others.

Dollhouse's second episode, entitled "The Target" (which, as Joss Whedon said last week, was meant to be the series' fifth or eighth episode), written by Steven DeKnight, is at least a step in the right direction as it features flashbacks that explore how Harry Lennix's former cop-turned handler Boyd Langton came to the Dollhouse and flesh out the Incident with rogue Active Alpha. Lennix adds some nice shading to the role and lends a much needed gravitas to the series; it's through his eyes that we see Echo emerging as a more fully developed character and it's obvious that he cares for her in his own way.

But there's definitely a kitchen sink mentality to Dollhouse that's more than a little offputting, especially as the series seems to tread water for far too long, offering up what could be construed as a series of putative pilots in its first few episodes that don't advance the characters or plot more than a few inches, rather than feet. In just the first few episodes, there is a creepy naked man, a Deadliest Game hunt, a vault heist, that kickboxing montage that seems to go on endlessly, a scarred doctor, haywire machinery, a shadowy employer, conspiracies and fabricated identities, group showers, threats of being sent up to the Dollhouse's secretive attic, etc. There are so many MacGuffins, red herrings, and technobabble thrown in to the mix and so little actual characterization that the end result is a jumbled feeling rather akin to the Actives' own mind-wiping sessions.

Ultimately, it feels as though the early episodes of Dollhouse are lacking Whedon's trademark blend of wit, humor, and emotional depth that marked his other series. Despite being intrigued by
the series' overall concept initially, I found it extremely difficult to accept Dollhouse's numerous conceits and obvious flaws and, like an old moth-eaten sweater, Dollhouse seems to unravel the more you pull at the loose strings. What's sad is that if you look at it in the right light, you can see the traces of something that could have been far better constructed. A shadow or an echo, if you will, of something bolder and better.

Dollhouse premieres Friday, February 13th at 9 pm ET/PT on FOX.


joy said…
Well, I can't say that I'm totally surprised.

Obvi, I'll give it a shot. The only thing that sells it for me is the Joss aspect, but if the show doesn't deliver, I've got too many other Friday night shows to DVR. Plus, the premise for me was always a little too close to Christian Slater's now defunct My Own Worst Enemy.

There's a part of me that thinks that the gobbledygookness of the show is probably directly related to network notes. Is that wrong of me?
Anonymous said…
I love, love, love this concept but know (from your intelligent review and the general buzz around the show) that it will never live up to my expectations. Shows like Dollhouse and Fringe need to be serialized to live up to their full potential. Fringe is decent but it could be so much better and I can see that it will be the same with Dollhouse.
Anonymous said…
Great review, Jace. I am glad that you are not one of those people so in love with Joss that you're unwilling to say when does something wrong. I'll watch the first ep but I have very low expectations.
Mazza said…
Fantastic review. I agree that alot of people are blinded by their love for BtVS and Angel before seeing this show. I don't have good feelings about this based on this review and the problems that the show had since it was bought. Think that Joss should have pitched it to a cable net like SciFi or FX.
Unknown said…
Thanks for a thoughtful review, Jace!

It's worth noting that Joss has said the first 7 or so eps are standalones, in order to attract casual viewers, but then the serialization aspect will kick in.
Asta said…
a cross between a luxury spa, military barracks, and Wolfram & Hart

Thank you for the Wolfram & Hart mention. That was where my mind immediately went the first time I saw photos of the set.

I was and am a fan of Joss, but I think he might have finally found himself involved with a clunker. From the premise to Eliza being cast in the lead, I've been underwhelmed by the prospect of the series. You're review solidifies my fear that 'Dollhouse' is a mess. The reason I'm still giving it a chance is to see Tahmoh in something other than BSG. Unfortunately, he won't be in the series much until midseason...assuming it lasts that long.
Page48 said…
This is the rainy season for serial TV. If DH can stay on the air for 2 years, serial television will be back in vogue and FOX can get real about how a show like this should unfold.
Anonymous said…
The saddest part of this for me is Tahmoh is being under-utilized in this show. He is so fantastic in BSG. Hopefully that will improve.
Peter Eng said…
"Why does the client, in the pilot episode, hire an Active to serve as a hostage negotiator in order to get back his kidnapped daughter... when it would be easier, not to mention cheaper and less problematic, to hire an actual negotiator?"

Based on what I saw, the Dollhouse's "negotiator" imprint takes up the skills of several negotiators, and somehow integrates them. Echo achieves a level of expertise that might be difficult to obtain in a single person at any price.

"Miss Penn's asthma actually leads to the client getting shot and the kidnappers getting away with the kid AND the cash."

The asthma was just a convenient way to represent the psychological trauma of being kidnapped, raped repeatedly, and thrown in a river, then meeting the guy who did all that. The Dollhouse apparently doesn't check its imprint sources for potential problems like that, and that actually makes sense. What are the odds of such a meeting?

"it's difficult to take (the Dollhouse) seriously as a impenetrable and shadowy organization that only seems to employ one programmer"

I suspect that the Dollhouse technology is a lot closer to version 0.9 than it looks. They only have one programmer because he hasn't perfected the equipment.

Why are they using technology that is barely ready for use? If my speculation is correct, the imprinting technology was meant for something else, but the prototyping cost too much, and there was a demand for return on the investment.

"things keep going Very Wrong indeed."

So, is this the Dollhouse at fault, or is Echo just the unluckiest Active alive?

I don't know what the time between episodes is, either. Do engagements go south all the time, or does this happen an average of once every four weeks, and we're just skipping all the nice, nothing-goes-wrong engagements?

"...he seems a run-of-the-mill frat-type who probably would have been more likely to hire a hooker than an Active with a billion-dollar personality imprint."

It's possible that some imprints are cheaper than others. Dancing, motorcycle racing, kinky sex, and general flirting are all skills that don't require a college education. Pick the right person, and the Dollhouse could get all of that in one scan. That would be much cheaper than scanning three to five highly trained experts, and integrating the personalities.
Anonymous said…
Speaking as a serious Tahmoh fangirl, the Muay Thai scene was okay by me. I mean, it hit the metaphors with a HAMMER, ("Clang, clang, clang went the trolley, ding, ding, ding went the bell") but I will say this; I think the entire DH production was pretty solidly screwed up by Fox's notes. They wanted The Mentalist, he gave them Lost. So they made him make it something it was never supposed to be for the first six episodes.

Also, I saw a panel, where Tahmoh, the most professional of human beings, would not badmouth FOX no matter what was thrown him, but he did say that Joss gave him very little info on Paul for the first three eps and he was afraid to make any strong choices for fear of conflicting with what Joss had going on.

I'll stay with the show for a while (with BSG ending, it's not like I have anything else I will be watching) and at least the supporting characters are interesting to me in a way that the mains aren't. I, too, think Dichen Lachman is getting the idea and executing it better than Eliza is.

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