Assorted thoughts on “Dollhouse,” the new Joss Whedon series that premiered Friday night on Fox.
First, keep in mind, pilots are such a bitch. Save for the most miserable of premieres, most pilots only offer an inkling of what’s to come, for better or worse. Add to that a known entity like Joss Whedon, and a completely redone pilot (meaning somewhere there is a version that’s exactly what Whedon wanted to do floating around), and it’s really hard to tell what could be and should be versus what is.
1. So let’s deal with the premise, first: Rich, shady people who require very specific services contract this Dollhouse agency, to get The Best of The Best. The agency then grafts templates of The Best, made from a mishmash of experts in particular field, onto blank slate operatives.
But these templates are sometimes built from a particular expert’s strengths AND weaknesses (in the pilot: nearsightedness, asthma, and childhood trauma), which means the template has the potential to go haywire in the Active agent. Beyond that, the people requesting these Actives know these people are just dummy-bodies housing personality traits – and so may not keep their yaps shut around the Actives.
2. The logic behind this that the investigating FBI agent offers is, if you’re someone who has everything you want, you want something specific and perfect. But clearly, these Actives aren’t perfect. So…how’s this work, again?
3. It’s a premise I’m thinking is deliberately faulty – it doesn’t have to work perfectly, because it’s going to be broken soon enough. But still…how’s this work, again?
4. It’s hard to watch the “Dollhouse” pilot – wherein our troubled heroine plays a role while grander layers of conspiracy are revealed – without thinking about the similar, yet superior “Alias” pilot. The difference is “Dollhouse” is clearly sci-fi, while Alias had sci-fi thrust upon it as its story ideas got bigger, weirder and dumber over the years.
5. But most interesting are the similarities. Nobody seems to recall that “Alias” set up a status quo – “Young government agent leads multiple lives – as a grad student by day and multiple covert identities at night” – before breaking that storytelling engine far faster than anyone could’ve expected – midway through the first episode, in fact – to reveal that Everything You Know Is Wrong.
6. “Dollhouse” is taking the long way around, but the reveal is coming. Which is obvious to all but the dumbest of viewers. Who hopefully weren’t around on Friday nights to watch the pilot. But then…who IS around on Friday nights to watch the pilot? Ideally it’s the same audience as “Battlestar Galactica,” and not “Ghost Whisperer.” Fingers crossed.
7. Ah, boy. Eliza Dushku. What to say, what to say…I can’t really give her shit, because I’ve seen her do some good work – on “Buffy,” where she did a pitch-perfect Sarah Michelle Gellar impression one episode; and on “Angel,” where her Faith character grew beyond the Buffy-gone-wrong design, into something more damaged and interesting. But there are plenty of other moments here where it looks like she’s merely memorized lines and been given a single stage direction: “You’re at peace but stupid!” “You’re a business woman with a past!” I’m hoping further episodes will showcase the most capable Dushku there is. Fingers crossed again.
8. So I’m going to have to give it a few more episodes before I can make a real assessment of quality. I have faith in 80% of Joss Whedon – and the 20% of worry is based on the fact that “Buffy” and “Angel” didn’t get good until they threw out the storytelling engine they’d set up (“Firefly” is an exception, since Fox didn’t give it a chance to sink or swim on its own).
9. Dushku’s acting deficiencies are especially annoying when I spot Amy Acker in the background there. Amy Acker’s fucking amazing, since she essentially played like five different characters in one during her tenure on “Angel.” And frankly, her limited screentime on “Dollhouse” – playing a reserved, mysterious doctor wearing multiple facial scars – makes me far more curious about her character than about Dushku’s.
10. I can’t help but notice Echo’s “hostage negotiator” personality template is essentially the same character as the lead in “The Inside,” producer Tim Minear’s late, lamented and Really Dark serial-killer-unit series from a few years back. I wonder if that’s deliberate, or a winking easter egg, or maybe they just assumed nobody had watched that show (not a huge leap to make).
11. The ‘Dollhouse’ offices look exactly like the season 5 ‘Angel’ set, but more expensive. If I recall correctly, the Angel set was developed to save money. So…I dunno. I will say this: Fox shows look good. They clearly spend a lot of time and money on design, and it shows.