Nerdy TV: Hangin’ in the Doll House

Dollhouse Episode 2 – Where the Series Shows Promise

I might as well just admit it: I wasn’t really impressed with the first episode of Doll House. Although the premise is quite interesting, I felt like there was a little too much emphasis on cheesy action. Dear Mr. Whedon, please never do another motorcycle chase again. They’re boring and dumb. For the most part, if Evil Knievel isn’t involved, I really couldn’t care less about motorcycles, and in fact I think they detract from the show. But I digress. Before I go too far in, I’ll add this note: Dollhouse Episode 2 was much better than the first, so I think there’s still plenty of hope for the series.

If you haven’t tuned in yet, Dollhouse is the latest Sci Fi series from cult icon Joss Whedon, who’s behind two of the greatest Sci-fi (and let’s face it, fantasy) television series of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. He’s also the man behind the excellent (and prompty cancelled) series Firefly, which was inarguably the most “Sci” of his “Sci fi” series. The premise of Dollhouse is in some ways much more low key than any of Whedon’s previous works. Buffy and Angel were filled with vampires, demons and evil lawyers; Firefly had cowboys on space ships; but Dollhouse is conspicuously devoid of the more fantastical trappings into which its creator has historically tapped for his metaphors. Now, that’s not to say that DH doesn’t have a fantastical premise, it certainly does. But though the premise is extraordinary, everything surrounding it is amazing in how ordinary it in fact is.
The Dollhouse itself is a business–apparently a very large, rich, well funded business, and what it does is pretty amazing. The company has a stock of people they refer to as “Actives” or “Dolls”, whom they lease out to the very rich on a contract basis to facilitate various needs (meaning that no, you and I probably can’t afford to rent Eliza Dushku for a night of hot lesbo threesome action. Dammit). So far these have bordered on the mundane (a weekend in love with the perfect girl) but have also reached into hostage negotiator and most recently, hot date with a side of “I’m going to hunt you down and kill you now“.

The thing that’s fantastical is that when they’re not on assignment, the Actives are in a state of “Tabula Rasa“, their personalities and memories erased after each mission. They basically walk around in a safe environment where they exercise, swim, and get medical attention when they need it. Once assigned to a new client they’re “imprinted” with the necessary skills and experience to perform the task to perfection (or damn near it, we gather), all for a very high price that the DH’s wealthy clients are apparently willing to pay. Of important note is that these high end skills are apparently culled from real people. This is explained to us in the first episode when Echo “remembers” being kidnapped and raped by one of the men she’s supposed to be negotiating with for the release of her client’s daughter-a memory she was given during the imprinting process for the job, from a scan taken off the actual woman (who’d later committed suicide, which is interesting from a story perspective in that it brings some closure-albiet belated-to the victim who’s memory Echo possesses).

The first episode, called simply “Echo” after the show’s lead “Doll” character (played by Eliza Dushku, whom I’m not at all sure has the chops for the role, but time alone will tell and Whedon has yet to disappoint me with his casting choices), introduces us to the Dollhouse and its occupants. We’re  then lead  through the end of Echo’s previous assignment as a hot date, and finally through her next assignment as a negotiator in a kidnapping case. We’re only given glimpses of how Echo came to be involved with the Dollhouse, but so far it appears that she was in some kind of legal trouble, which the company that runs the Dollhouse was able to “take care of” in exchange for 5 years of service as a Doll. While it’s not made clear, the implication seems to be that when her terms of service are up, the girl’s original memories and personality will be restored and she’ll be free to go. How this pans out in the end will hopefully work out very interestingly, but for the moment there’s no reason to believe that the folks in charge of the DH would reneg on their deal.

Beyond just Echo we’re introduced to some interesting characters. Echo’s handler, Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), who is, for lack of a better frame of reference, a “watcher” sort of character. He accompanies Echo on her missions and surveys her from a nearby van in case anything goes wrong. His job function is described as being, in essence, her protector. He’s there to make sure nothing goes wrong that would put her at risk. If the job goes sour, he’s there to extract her from the situation.

We’re briefly introduced to Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the technician who performs Echo’s “treatments” (ie, wiping and imprinting her mind). In fairly typical fashion he’s a bit of a cocky little guy, but he doesn’t seem to ask a lot of questions and is seen early in the second episode becoming quite uncomfortable when confronted with any ethical questions. Then there’s Dr. Claire Saunders (played by the amazing Amy Acker; the last time we saw one of her characters in a Joss Whedon show she presented an absolutely soul-wrenching performance as Fred Berkle died, eaten from the inside out by an ancient demon implanted in her by a coworker). Saunders appears to be the resident medical expert and doctor on site, taking care of the Dolls when they’re injured or sick. Clearly there’s something horrible haunting this character, as the scars across her face scream.

We also meet Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), the bastard love child of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (I tease, I tease, but he does appear to have elements of both characters-the “I want to believe” aspect of Mulder and the “By the books” process approach of Scully) who’s been handed a “dead end” case to find out the scoop on the Dollhouse. The problem is that everyone else thinks it’s a joke, but he’s determined to get to the bottom of things even if it kills his career. Last but not least we are introduced to the presumably “in charge” character Adelle (Olivia Williams), who arranges the contracts and assignments for the Dolls.

We’ve briefly met one other Active, the apparently bad-ass Sierra (played by Dichen Lachman; I’m sure they could have found a prettier girl for the part, but then again, I’ve always liked that Whedon doesn’t immediately hire the hottest girl in town…), who saved Echo’s ass at the end of the first episode. Whether she and Echo end up developing any sort of relationship outside their missions remains to be seen. Being that we’re only two episodes into the first season it goes without saying that none of these relationships or characters are remotely well developed. And yet, look…I just said it anyway.

One of the underlying questions the show poses is: Can you really erase a person’s memory completely? And even if you can, does that erase their personality as well? Or is the person you are something deeper, something more than mere memory and experience? These are heady questions indeed, and if there’s a single writer in Hollywood who has the potential to give us a satisfying look at this question (because let’s face it, there isn’t likely to be anything resembling a definitive answer anytime soon), it’s Joss Whedon. This exploration begins with the realization that Echo has begun to exhibit signs of remembering small details from her assignments. Some of these are from her actual experience that we witness, others are, as mentioned previously, from memories of others that she was imprinted with for performing her job.

In recent interviews Joss Whedon’s mentioned that for the first several episodes he’s promised Fox not to introduce any substantial long term storylines, preferring instead to keep each episode completely self contained. Judging by the first two episodes, the man is lying his ass off. Already there are seeds being planted for storylines we probably won’t see carried out for awhile (which hopefully means we’ll see this show be given a chance to stretch out and fulfill its potential), with references to some horrible event wherein a doll called “Alpha” (which I’ll go out on a limb and presume was probably the first Doll) slaughtered several of the other dolls but mysteriously left Echo alive, an event back to which she’s had some flashbacks. As a long time fan of Whedon’s shows (I caught Buffy on DVD after it had finished its run and became convinced it’s one of the best shows ever written) I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the mysterious Alpha character is the story arc villain for the first season (and perhaps longer, if Angel and its omnipresent Wolfram and Hart is to be a template), culminating in a showdown.

I’ll reiterate again that I didn’t feel “grabbed” by the first episode, but the second was much better and I have high hopes for the series going forward. If the exploration of the questions Whedon is positing turn out to be as interestingly told as they would be to discuss in a philosophy or psychology course, we should be in for a great ride. My sole word of warning is simply this: Dollhouse is a show for the thinking person, who considers the importance of questions like right and wrong, good and evil, true and false. This has always been a hallmark of Joss Whedon’s television shows, so folks who are fans of stories with more fluff than story development (Lost comes to mind; though that series has amazing character development, the story is increasingly hokey and apparently random). This isn’t a show for people who are content to go on faith (if you want faith, pick up the latest Jimmy Swaggart or Michael Moore swill), it’s for those who want to examine a topic and consider its meaning, and maybe learn some lessons along the way.

For now at least, I’m cautiously optimistic. Can Whedon deliver another great epic story? Only time will tell, but I think we’re already seeing some of the signs. But hell, enough of what I think, what do you think? Let us know in the comments!

One Response

  1. charlino 02/22/2009
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