From Joss Whedon, the creative mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer
and Angel, comes the provocative Dollhouse, a sexy, suspenseful thriller
starring the stunningly talented Eliza Dushku. As an Active, the mysterious
Echo (Dushku) serves as an unwitting agent of Dollhouse, an illegal
underground organization that provides its elite clientele with programmable
human beings. Actives receive personality imprints, allowing them to
temporarily become anyone or anything- the perfect burglar, lover, spy, or
assassin. Now, with the FBI and her own shadowy past closing in, Echo must
face a rogue Active who will stop at nothing to bring Dollhouse
If Dollhouse doesn't shatter your faith in Joss Whedon, nothing will.
Granted, a disturbingly large number of his fans live with permanent
blinders on, convinced that (1) anything that dribbles out of his word
processor is a work of unadulterated genius and (2) any problems in his
shows are solely the result of evil network interference, unfair
competition, or hostile naysayers oblivious to the wonders in their midst.
It was enough to buy Dollhouse a second season despite low ratings
and steadily hemorrhaging viewers. Shorn of its "watch it or die" urgency,
the Season One DVD provides abundant reasons why so many people left.
The problems start with series lead Eliza Dushku, playing
an imprinted "Active" named Echo in the titular organization. The majority
of the series displays her undertaking various missions while infused with
new memories and personalities each episode. The thespian acrobatics require
a range which Dushku simply doesn't possess, resulting in bad accents, blank
facial expressions and periodic deployment of the dreaded Smart Chick
Glasses?. Moreover, her constant shifts in personality demonstrate one of
the show's multiple Achilles Heels.
Dushku's character has a past as a
"real" person . . . and yet it appears just as superficial and shallow as
her various imprinted personalities. Not only does that divorce the
proceedings from a needed sense of empathy, but it further obscures
Dollhouse's central conceit of probing what it means to be human.
More distressing is the show's eager willingness to treat
its female characters like pieces of meat, making a lie out of Whedon's
pro-feminist reputation. The central premise entails periodic shots of women
in filmy undergarments, writhing and moaning on medical tables with diodes
attached to their temples. Specific plot points involve girls kidnapped by
crazed stalkers, girls becoming Actives after being raped and - my personal
favorite -- girls set loose in the woods and hunted for sport.
lingers lovingly on such moments, capturing the women's fear, pain and
horror at the hands of leering male tormentors before delivering an eleventh
hour comeuppance somehow intended to excuse it all. I'd be more inclined to
forgive such ugliness if its feminist credentials weren't being trumpeted so
sixth episode was supposed to "change everything," and it does . . . in that
it's merely smug and pretentious instead of outright hateful. The plot
becomes more complex, veering away from a mission-of-the-week format into
the inner machinations of the Dollhouse, but it remains hobbled by dreadful
narrative blunders and plot holes you can drive a truck through.
deploys his trademark clever dialogue in an effort to paper over some of the
problems, but as is so often case, it serves more to demonstrate the
screenwriter's wit than the characters' personalities. Granted, it creates
its share of chuckles, but in so doing, it blurs the figures onscreen
(particularly supporting characters) until they become little more than an
interchangeable array of wise-asses. Dollhouse lacks the assets to
support such antics, underscoring the need for a stronger foundation beneath
the empty quips.
And that remains the show's real tragedy. For all its
skeeziness, it holds an excellent concept at its core - the Kantian
identity crisis which helped propel the likes of
Blade Runner and
The Matrix to sci-fi immortality. Dollhouse
never presumed to bat in their league, of course, but it still carries the
potential for a nifty variation on their themes. Fans believe that it made
good on its promises, and their devotion guaranteed the show a future. But
from a less passionate perspective, the show neglects the steak in favor of
the sizzle, allowing its numerous difficulties to ultimately doom whatever
noble intentions it might have realized.
Dollhouse desperately wants
to wow us with its brilliance (well, that and convince us that exploitation
somehow equals empowerment), but it hasn't put in enough thought to let its
central premise thrive. In its place, it features nothing but cardboard
struts: a pleasing fa?de that looks great as long as you don't poke through
it to the empty void beyond. There's nothing wrong with shallow
superficiality of course, except when you're trying to be much more.
Dollhouse clearly does, which makes its semi-total failure as a television
show all the more disheartening.
THE DISC: A good transfer augments a fairly meaty
array of extras. Of particular interest to Whedonites is the unaired 13th
episode, as well as the original pilot which prompted extensive
modifications before the show went on the air. Whedon and Dushku provide
commentary on several episodes, and an extensive (though standard issue)
cocktail of behind-the-scenes specials rounds out the set. Fans of the
series (at least those who haven't turned away from this review in an
apoplectic fit by now) will find their loyalty well rewarded by the
WORTH IT? The Cult of Whedon needs no further
prompting to pick up the DVD, and those among them angry at Fox for not
supporting the show may be more willing to forgive after seeing the
respectful treatment here. Those who haven't drunk the Kool-Aid yet can
safely skip Dollhouse knowing that its so-called genius is as hollow
and empty as its central characters.
RECOMMENDATION: If you have to ask whether it's
worth it, it isn't. Whedonites, on the other hand, will gobble it up with a
spoon . . . and, to be fair, it's strong enough to justify such excitement .
- Rob Vaux