Dollhouse: Season One (2009)

Actors: Eliza Dushku, Stacey Scowley, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, Tahmoh Penikett
Directors: Allan Kroeker, David Solomon, David Straiton, Dwight H. Little, Elodie Keene
AC-3, Box set, Color, Dolby, DVD, Widescreen, NTSC
Language: English
Number of discs: 4
Twentieth Century Fox
DVD Release Date: July 28, 2009
Run Time: 694 minutes



Description: 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 down forever. -

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.

Dollhouse 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 loudly.

The 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.

Whedon 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 collection.

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



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