TV Crush

Fox's Dollhouse Still Under Construction

2/13/2009 2:19 AM

Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s (Buffy, Firefly) latest drama, is set to debut tomorrow, Friday Feb. 13, at 9p. E/P on Fox Network.

A shiver ran across the Internet after Fox relegated Dollhouse to a fateful Friday slot. Granted, times have changed since Whedon’s other production, Firefly, was mangled by Fox scheduling and died in that lonely place way back in 2002.

DVR’s have proliferated since then and the respected Kevin Reilly took over as Fox Network entertainment prez in 2007. But the Friday graveyard placement still raised eyebrows. Hopefully, Fox will allow Dollhouse to find an audience. It’s brilliant, in some respects.

Having only screened the pilot, it’s difficult to assess the show based on so little information, especially one created by the uber-talented Whedon. Initially, I was lukewarm to negative. Then, upon rescreening the pilot for a second look, I gained a new appreciation.

Structurally, the show is complicated. It’s a story within a story - simultaneously a procedural that appears to firmly wrap each week (if the series follows the pattern of the pilot) , and a serial tale with longer story arcs.

The zen-like set is stunning. What you will see on screen is not trick of the camera. Visually the show is gorgeous.

The premise of Dollhouse: attractive young women (and some men, too) agree to play secret agents (called “Actives”) of sorts. First, they are cleansed of their personalities, stripped down to a blank slate. With every new assignment Actives are imprinted with a different identity - an asthmatic profiler, a lover, even an assassin - and hired out to assist wealthy clients. (The old Mission Impossible meets Bourne Identity meets…it’s a popular trope. Read more at one of my fave sites, tvtropes.org)

Memories are wiped at the conclusion of each mission. Dollhouse is the facility where the “Actives” are stored between engagements.

Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, a talented Active, and the series revolves around her.

The pilot blows past Echo’s back story, sprinkling breadcrumbs for future episodes. Passingly, we learn that Echo has committed an unnamed transgression. To make the problem disappear, she’s forced to sign her life away for five years and work for the murky (and apparently illegal) organization that manages the Actives.

Quickly the episode morphs into a motorcycle race and then shifts to a club where Dushku slithers around in a slinky, silvery, skimpy shift.

Probably Fox is trying to lock in young male eyeballs, since the intro is almost entirely extraneous. Dushku is gorgeous though, no doubt about that.

Then, the pilot finally settles into the mission of the week with a redemptive Silence of The Lambs theme.

Echo mutates into Ms. Penn, a profiler and hostage negotiator, facing down personal demons through her work. Dushku handles the quick change - hair pulled back into a bun, glasses, and a tailored black suit - fairly well and my thumb finally stopped twitching on the remote.

Brilliantly, in short order, Joss Whedon weaves a back story, a sympathetic arc and a satisfying conclusion to this one-off character, so much so that the audience may wish to see more of Ms. Penn.

There are little Whedon-gems of dialog sprinkled throughout. “If you have everything, you want something else..something more, something more specific, something perfect.”

Those lines were delivered by Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar’s Helo) who co-stars as Paul Ballard, a roguish, ultimate fighting (Penikett, shirtless!) FBI agent bent on tracking down the Dollhouse.

Ballard’s motivation isn’t clear yet. This is one of the longer story arcs. Another arc might perhaps be complications developing with the wealthy clients - the ones who “have everything but want something more.”

The organization behind the Dollhouse must depend on the discretion of their wealthy clients to keep their secrets. This is either a plot hole that Whedon forgot to plug or he’s deliberately building a vulnerability in the Dollhouse system that will come back to bite. Somehow I suspect it’s the latter.

The organization may have to start wiping the minds of the clients, too.

In the last few minutes, unexpectedly, an exotic character appears on scene. This is Sierra (Dichen Lachman), another “Active.”

There’s also a tech nerd who spends a lot of time speaking into a headset. Hmmm. Where have I seen this before? (Answer: Alias, Bionic Woman etc.)

Time will tell if Dollhouse’s soft spot is Dushku. The role of Echo is demanding and requires a versatility which I’m not yet totally convinced Dushku possesses. (She was quite good, however, as Ms. Penn.)

In between assignments, Echo wanders around the Dollhouse in a daze. Dushka seems more dull than blissful.

Bottom line, Dollhouse is still under construction. All the elements are in place but the pilot isn’t a stunning launch, like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Dexter.

Some of my tweetpeeps on Twitter report that the series really hits its stride by the fifth episode. So, my best advice is: stick with Dollhouse through five eps, at least. Let’s hope that Fox proves to be equally patient, this time around.

The official trailer:

September