Dollhouse brought with it an almost overwhelming level of expectations, making disappointment almost inevitable. The show was the creation of acclaimed show runner Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly), and his first major project since Firefly, his much loved space western, and its cinematic followup Serenity. People would have been excited for any Joss Whedon TV show at that point, and in the eyes of many the man could do no wrong. All of this was the perfect setup for what Internet pundits now see as Whedon’s first critical failure on TV, as Dollhouse has been much maligned ever since its pilot aired. I believe it’s worth a second look, however, and the show has much to recommend it, even amongst its flaws.
The show follows Echo (Eliza Dushku), a ‘doll’, a person who is kept as a blank slate, before being imprinted with temporary personalities and skillsets for sessions with private clients, which range from the obvious romantic trysts through to more action packed fare. When not on assignments, she’s kept in the titular Dollhouse along with fellow dolls Sierra (Dichen Lachman) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj). They’re controlled by the head of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), techie Topher (Fran Kranz), and Echo’s handler Boyd (Harry Lennix). Finally, the main ensemble is rounded out by Tahmoh Penikett as Paul Ballard, an FBI agent trying to bust the Dollhouse and rescue Echo.
The cast is one of the strongest things that the show has going for it, by and large. Regrettably, Eliza Dushku is perhaps the weak link as the lead, never quite showing the range necessary for the role. Olivia Williams is as superb as one might expect, balancing the character’s coldness with her sympathetic side, and keeping her intentions suitably mysterious. The real standouts, though, are Enver Gjokaj and Frank Kranz. Gjokaj is almost criminally underused, but occasionally blows away with his uncanny ability to inhabit almost any character, including those of his castmates. Kranz sees more screen time, and shows off his superb comic timing and wit. If you’ve seen him in this year’s The Cabin in the Woods, you know what I’m talking about.
The setup is unique, to say the least, and suggests promising themes of slavery, prostitution, free will, personal identity, and more, and Whedon does his best to tackle all of this across the show’s brief two season run. This makes the show one of the most thematically interesting efforts in years, and it was always sure to provoke discussion. Unfortunately, some areas proved a bit too dark for American network TV, and so some of the darker aspects of the Dollhouse are glossed over, but there’s still plenty of interesting discussion when Whedon is given free reign to address the issues.
The bigger problem that the show faced was network wrangling over how serialised it should be. Whedon had grand story ambitions that he wanted to slowly unveil across a complex arc. Fox, on the other hand, wanted a neat episodic show that people could drop in and out of without missing anything. The result is a messy compromise. Season 1 especially suffers from a bizarre mix of episodes devoted to expanding upon and advancing the show’s complex mythology and some that were very weak ‘assignment of the week’ affairs. The show excelled when Whedon explored the plot, but dragged painfully when he tried to fit Echo into neat episodic adventures.
The writing was strong for the most part, replete with the typical Whedon witticisms, and a fair few moments with genuine heart. As is often the problem with a premise like Dollhouse’s, the show occasionally slipped into exposition dumping and some of the dialogue was pretty damn cheesy. However, all of this improved as the show went on, and by the end of season 2 the writing was consistently excellent.
These problems drove viewers away in droves, as the show lurched back and forth, too complex to drop in and out of, and too variable in quality to follow closely. Thankfully, the network listened, and season 2 was a marked improvement, with a renewed focus on the overarching plot, perhaps driven by Whedon suspecting this second season would be the show’s last. By the end of season 2 the show reached a satisfying conclusion, and those who’d stuck with Whedon and Dollhouse had been rewarded for struggling through the first half. Unfortunately, many never made it that far, and so the show is still remembered as a creative failure for Whedon, and one that drove many fans to suggest that Whedon leave network television for good. Fingers crossed he doesn’t.
Dominic PrestonPin It