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Dollhouse Series One – some thoughts (part 1) 13 August 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in TV Review.
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There’s no doubting Joss Whedon is a hero among genre fans. Buffy and Angel were groundbreaking horror TV shows with mainstream appeal, which in some ways foreshadowed the current Twilight craze and which ran for more than seven years and 250 episodes. Firefly on the other hand is widely recognised as having been cut down in its prime. A fantastic concept (the space western), remarkably well rounded characters and an epic scope all negated after Fox made a mess of airing the show in the States. If the quality of Serenity was anything to go by Firefly would have gone down in legend.

But now we have a new show, Dollhouse, which recently finished its 13 episode run in the UK (including the ‘lost’ 13th episode – ‘Epitaph 1’). And the initial reaction, even from Whedon fans, hasn’t been good. There’s no doubt the show got messed about by the network again (much like Firefly the show didn’t air with the pilot Whedon intended) but it’s managed to hold on for a second season despite being the lowest rated show to do so in over 20 years.

It’s been said that Whedon has a five-year story arc planned for Dollhouse; however there are fundamental problems with the concept which would require a radical reinvention of the series if it is to survive past year two. Elisa Dushku plays the lead character of Echo – a ‘doll’, a shell of a person who has signed up (but not necessarily voluntarily) to have all of her memories stripped for five years so she can be imprinted with new memories to fulfil the needs of Dollhouse clients. These range from hostage negotiator (‘Ghost’) and master thief (‘Gray Hour’) to loving wife (‘Man on the Street’) and high class escort (‘Echoes’). Meanwhile FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is looking for the Dollhouse, ridiculed in the bureau for chasing an urban myth but much closer to the truth than he could possibly know. Series one’s best plot arc however is the mystery surrounding Alpha, a rogue doll who has gone on the run after an error imprinted 48 personalities into his mind at once.

The fundamental, and near fatal, problem with the concept is that Echo isn’t a character. It’s impossible to relate to a person if they completely change from week to week and unfortunately Dushku as an actress just doesn’t have the chops to instantly draw you in no matter what the new persona might be (unlike Jennifer Garner in Alias for example). The concept also lends itself to a ‘mission of the week’ format and unfortunately, for at least the first five episodes of this season, the writers have done just this, inserting brief arc moments here and there to underwhelming effect.

The series picks up dramatically from episode six (‘Man on the Street’) however with a memorable and moving cameo from Patton Oswalt (the voice of Remy in Ratatouille) as a computer entrepreneur who uses the Dollhouse to spend one last day with his dead wife, a surprisingly dark sub-plot involving the sexual abuse of one of the dolls and the moment Ballard and Echo finally come face-to-face. One thing Dollhouse does have going for it is that the fights are spectacular – visceral, brutal and all in-camera – putting many big-screen bust-ups to shame, with Ballard and Echo’s kitchen confrontation being one of the best.

Check back tomorrow for part 2, including a review of ‘Epitaph 1’

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