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Sweet Little Dolls: An Advance Review of Season Two of "Dollhouse"

I was largely on the fence about the freshman season of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse.

Conceptually, I felt that there were some fascinating ideas about identity and perception embedded in the series' overarching concept but I felt that these concepts were often let down by some fundamentally flawed execution on a weekly basis. In other words: I wanted to love the series but I found time and time again that I couldn't. Perhaps it was the regular occurrence of plot holes large and numerous, making Dollhouse resemble something akin to Swiss cheese.

The unaired thirteen episode of Dollhouse's first season, entitled "Epitaph One," did manage to change my feelings about the series; it offered a much darker and edgier version of Dollhouse and imbued the series with a strong throughline and narrative purpose. Given that the episode never aired in the US (and is still only available to screen on the Season One DVD boxset or on iTunes), it will be interesting to see as time goes on how "Epitaph One" reshapes the narrative direction of the series.

I was extremely curious then to watch Dollhouse's second season opener ("Vows"), written and directed by Joss Whedon, to see if they learned any lessons from "Epitaph One" or the series' uneven first season.

So what I did I think of "Vows" then? Let's discuss.

For one, I still find Eliza Dushku the least interesting element of the series, which is a bit of a sticky wicket as she is the series' nominal lead. However, she's largely outshone each week by the supporting actors, particularly Dichen Lachman, Enver Gjokaj, Amy Acker, Harry Lennix, and Olivia Williams, and that trend continues in the second season opener.

While Lachman is relegated to the sidelines in this installment (very sadly, though Sierra does get a corker of a tiny scene with Ivy), Acker gets some major attention in this episode, which largely focuses on the fallout from Claire Saunders learning at the end of last season that she's actually an Active named Whiskey. The A-storyline might revolve around Echo's latest engagement (which involves her marriage to a shady arms dealer played by Battlestar Galactica's Jamie Bamber), but it's Claire's story that packs more punch, emotionally anyway, as she's faced to come to terms with the truth about her identity. I won't say how this plays out exactly but I will say that it involves tormenting her "maker" Topher (Fran Kranz) and ties in somewhat with echoes of a Boyd/Claire relationship glimpsed in the "Epitaph One" post-apocalyptic storyline.

It's a shame that Acker isn't a series regular on Dollhouse (she'll instead co-star in ABC's abysmal mystery drama series Happy Town) as Claire brings a stark fragility and depth to the series. Acker has excelled throughout her career at playing brilliantly complex individuals and her Claire/Whiskey is no departure from this formula. Armed with the knowledge about her lack of identity in "Vows," Claire is even more dangerous, fierce, and resourceful. Whether she's out for vengeance or self-awareness, I'll let you discover for yourselves tonight.

Echo and Tahmoh Penikett's Paul Ballard are meant to be the audience's entry point into the world of the Dollhouse, but both of their characters are so distant--and Paul Ballard in particular so chilly and vacant--that it's hard to get a grasp on them or feel much compassion for their situation.

That situation gets even more trippy in the season opener as there's an unexpected twist to Echo's engagement that I didn't see coming, even as I can't quite work out some of its implications. We're meant to feel that there's a connection between them that defies identity and logic but I still don't feel it a season in. Part of that, I think is that Ballard is so unlikable and unsympathetic that it's difficult to wrap your head around their, uh, complicated relationship.

Bamber is fantastic as Martin Klar, a wealthy financier who weds Echo but whose business is just a front for international arms trading. It's a nice change of pace to see Bamber portray a villain for a change (and with his native British accent as well!) and he carries off the role with aplomb. While we only catch a quick scene with Alexis Denisof's Senator Daniel Perrin in the first episode, I'm intrigued to see just where this storyline will go; he seems hell-bent on bringing down the Dollhouse (too bad Ballard didn't know him during the first season) but I can't help but question his motives. Hmmmm...

All in all, "Vows" is an intriguing start to a season that will either broaden Dollhouse's fanbase or keep it limited to its cult audience on Friday evenings. I'm hoping that the dramatic tension of "Epitaph One" can continue to infuse the series with a new purpose and a strengthened mythology and that Whedon and the series' writers continue to focus more on the supporting characters, transforming the series into more of an ensemble drama with Dushku's Echo at its core rather than The Echo Show. Which, in my eyes anyway, isn't the Dollhouse I want to be playing in.

Dollhouse premieres tonight at 9 pm ET/PT on FOX.

Comments

Oscar Gordon said…
"Epitaph One" is also available on iTunes. It isn't necessary to purchase the whole DVD set.
AskRachel said…
It's frustrating because I loved Eliza Dushku in Buffy and Tahmoh Penikett in Battlestar but, in Dollhouse, the two of them bore me to tears! I could not care less about Paul Ballard and Echo should be interesting but she is totally out shined by some of the other dolls. I will watch the first episode of season two but doubt that it will change my mind about this sadly inconsistent show.
Unknown said…
It just figures that the two best episodes of season one (the original pilot and Epitaph One) are the episodes that Fox was least interested in. Their tampering with the show really damaged season one of Dollhouse and it will be interesting to see if the show can recover now that Whedon is being given more of a free reign.
Unknown said…
I'm surprised that the writers are sweeping under the rug the fact that Dr. Saunders is a man. Unless Saunders was gay, Topher wouldn't need to program him to be repelled by Topher (even if Saunders was put in Whiskey's body). So it's quite odd for Saunders to be so comfortable crawling all over Topher.
Anonymous said…
they didnt sweep anything under the rug. they didnt put Saunder's personality into Whiskey, kind of hard to do that if the dude is dead. they created a new personality of a doctor and just gave her the same name. anyway, this premiere episode was very good and continues the string of episodes from season 1, ep. 6 on, where there is now a strong central theme backing everything up instead of random, and mostly stupid assignments coupled with random snippets of background.

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