Saturday, April 25, 2009
Thoughts on "Dollhouse"
Figured I'd check in and say a few quick words about Fox's "Dollhouse," since I'm really liking it and haven't written anything on it since my initial review.
Though the show was promising at the outset, coming from acclaimed TV auteur Joss Whedon, it was a little shapeless and flimsy at first. The concept -- a super-secret business that erases the identities of human beings and implants them with new ones to satisfy the needs of wealthy clients -- was so complicated, it immediately called for a lot of mythology-heavy episodes explaining what the Dollhouse is and why we should care about any of the characters (particularly the "dolls," most of whom are just vacant shells).
However, the first few episodes were stand alones, focusing heavily on "missions" undertaken by a doll named Echo (Eliza Dushku). There was a little backstory: pre-Dollhouse, Echo was a girl named Caroline who, due to some terrible occurrence in her life, volunteered to have her identity erased. There was an FBI agent named Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) trying to track down the Dollhouse (and Caroline). There was an escaped doll named Alpha who had killed a bunch of his house-mates, but spared Echo. And there was all sorts of intrigue and shady characters. But it didn't add up to much.
Whedon and Dushku begged fans to stay tuned, telling them the mythology would kick in. Eventually, it did, with a set of excellent episodes that gave us a good bit of insight into how deep the Dollhouse conspiracy runs. We learned why Caroline offered herself up (the tragic death of her lover) and why Ballard's neighbor Mellie (Miracle Laurie) seemed so unbelievably smitten by him (she was a doll, sent to spy on him and kill him if required). We learned that Echo is, gradually, showing some signs of self-awareness that both fascinate and frighten her Dollhouse keepers.
We also got some insight into Dollhouse manager Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), and learned that she's not the cold fish we once thought she was, but a sad, guilt-ridden women who knows her life is dedicated to something awful.
Then, this week, the show gave us another stand alone "mission of the week" episode, in which Echo was inhabited by the psyche of a wealthy, murdered friend of Ms. DeWitt. It wasn't as good as the mythology episodes, but I didn't mind it as much as I would have in the beginning.
I've come to care about DeWitt somewhat, so I sensed her pain at the loss of her friend, and the relief she felt in being able to help the woman solve her own murder.
Yet I didn't like how the the storyline did sidelined Echo. I guess that's an odd way of putting it, since Dushku was on screen for much of the episode. But, through the whole episode, she was only Margaret, the dead woman, and never Echo. There were no scenes with a post or pre-implant Echo hanging out in the Dollhouse. There were no hints of Echo hiding under or in the spirit of the dead woman inside her. That's problematic. If Echo is supposed to be the main character, there should be some growth in her story (at least, as much as the concept allows) in every episode. I didn't like seeing her development put on hold.
But I loved the development in Mellie/Ballard storyline. In the last episode, Ballard learned his neighbor and new love interest was a doll named November -- but that he can't show any sign that he knows this, or Mellie/November will kill him. So this episode, he kept trying to pretend everything was OK, but was secretly torn up by the idea that he had inadvertently become a Dollhouse client. It was distressing, particularly in the scene where Mellie offered herself up to Ballard physically, saying that she could be anything he wanted her to be. Instead of turning Mellie away, Ballard proceeds to have rough, angry (and highly disturbing) sex with her. It was an intense, scary moment, well-played by Penikett and Laurie.
The episode was worth it for that scene alone, but I also liked the forward movement with Topher (Fran Kranz), the skeevy tech who erases the dolls' identities and implants their new personalities. This episode, we saw him implant one of the dolls, Sierra, with the persona of a fellow geek. The two spent the whole episode playing video games and laser tag, and talking about sci-fi. It seemed pointless, until DeWitt eventually explained to Echo's ex-handler (and new head of security) Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) that this is something Topher does for himself every year on his birthday. It's lonely being Topher, she explained. And even someone as seemingly odious as this lab rat needs a friend now and then. This revelation didn't make me like Topher, exactly, but it did make him a little more tolerable. All in all, "Dollhouse" is still promising, and still worth watching.
I know it's not doing well in the ratings, but it's apparently scoring some respectable numbers if you factor in DVR viewership and streaming. Hopefully, that's enough to buy it a second season. Though "Dollhouse" has its ups and downs, there's a lot of potential here, and I'd love to see it get a chance to develop.