So you think you might be interested in Dollhouse, the Joss Whedon-created series about human drones programmed with disposable serial personalities by a shady underground organization dedicated to fulfilling the most precious needs and desires of the very rich. The first thing you need to know is that it’s gonna take a while.
To say Dollhouse gets off to a slow start would be an understatement. The first few episodes play like mediocre Alias knock-offs, with poor Dushku struggling to enliven what amount to lame undercover-agent scenarios — one week she’s a hostage negotiator, another she’s an expert safecracker, another she’s infiltrating a cult compound — as the information relating to the show’s mythology getting parceled out by Whedon gets buried under the bland narratives. It’s not that having Dushku’s character, Echo, dress up in different sexy outfits each week is a terrible idea on paper. (I mean, yowza.) But the adventure-of-the-week scenarios keep the show from establishing a tone or maintaining a mood across these early installments. I admit that I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, but the show’s third episode, “Stage Fright,” in which Echo poses as the backup singer (really bodyguard) for a Beyoncé-like pop star with — spoiler alert! — a death wish, is just one of the worst things I’ve ever seen — badly conceived, poorly written, and riddled with clichés. By the last commercial break you might be wishing Fox’s executives had pulled the plug on this show in mid-season, just to put the poor lumbering beast out of its misery.
The second thing you need to know is that yes, you may well be interested in Dollhouse. The germ of a good idea that’s floating in and out between the narrative threads of those first episodes is too tantalizing to resist completely. The Dollhouse of the title, located somewhere beneath Los Angeles, is one of a number of facilities of its kind around the world where a small army of fit young men and women walk around with spacey looks on their faces, a rudimentary grasp of the English language, and the emotional range of grade-schoolers. When the Dollhouse gets a client, one of these blank slates is tapped for duty, seated in a dentist’s chair, and embedded with a new personality — a set of experiences, mental skills, and muscle memories — that will help them best serve the needs of that client. Essentially, another person’s consciousness has been cloned into their body. (If I felt like being flip, I might describe it as a cross between Blade Runner and Freaky Friday.) Sometimes clients want protection. Sometimes they want companionship. Sometimes they want sex. If you’re able to pay, the Dollhouse is eager to please.
All this is pretty cool because it opens up multiple readings. On one level, Dollhouse is a science-fiction piece about the doors that are unlocked once it becomes possible not only to download a human consciousness, in toto, onto a 1 GB hard disk, but also to upload that personality into another brain that’s been flash-formatted and readied for data. It’s a morality play about the ethics of exploitation, even in the special case where the people being exploited are ostensibly willing victims. In that, of course, it could be read as a metaphor for the sex trade, where unscrupulous pimps can leverage a girl’s socio-economic status against her so that she thinks she’s making a choice only not really. If you find that reading too much of a downer, Dollhouse crosses it up by making sly meta-references to the similarity between Echo’s position — she’s called an “active” in Dollhouse parlance — and that of the actress Eliza Dushku, who’s dressed up in outfits not necessarily of her choosing and sent out to perform different tasks every goddamned week of the new fall season.
Because Echo seems trapped in an endless loop of brain-wiping and re-recording, the story gets its forward momentum largely through the efforts of Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), an FBI agent with a square-chiseled jaw and a photograph of Echo’s real-world alter-ego, Caroline, whom he plans to rescue from the Dollhouse, perhaps with the help of his across-the-hall neighbor and love interest Mellie (Miracle Laurie). His efforts earn him scorn and laughter from his colleagues. What makes the Dollhouse itself tick is a whole host of characters, most of whom are a little off in one way or another. Certainly, no matter how appealing they may seem, their choice of vocation is unusual. There’s the well-dressed alpha-male security man Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond); there’s the near-ethereal Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker), her delicate face criss-crossed by unsettlingly fresh scars; there’s goofy boy genius Topher (Fran Kranz), essentially a talented IT guy with the power of God at his fingertips; and there’s Echo’s “handler” — that’s a term describing a sort of personal bodyguard who keeps track of the dolls while they’re on assignment — Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), a stand-up guy who seems always to be on the verge of shouting out “You know what? Fuck all you creepy people” and heading for the surface, though he never quite musters the gumption. And everyone there has had the piss scared out of them by someone called Alpha, who became a sort of Frankenstein’s monster among the actives, went on a doll-slashing rampage and then disappeared, but still lingers in the collective consciousness. He may well plan on making a return trip.
The first five episodes deal clearly enough with all those characters and elements, but for every intriguing thematic underpinning exposed by the secondary plotlines, there’s an insipid, sleep-inducing main narrative obscuring it. But episode six is where everything starts to change. “Man on the Street,” guest-starring Patton Oswalt as an especially pitiful Dollhouse client and dealing in blunt terms with sex and power (and the lack of it), is the kind of virtuoso piece that could only exist on television — the reason it works so well is, in part, because you’ve been treading water for five hours to get to it and it surprises the hell out of you that, all of a sudden, Whedon managed to pull this off.
It crystallizes the Big Themes of the series and puts a couple of kinks in the plotline even as it knocks the show out of its too-comfortable orbit. Finally, in an episode that’s essentially about rape and prostitution, Dollhouse has started to zero in on its real subjects.
That’s the other thing about Dollhouse — it’s clearly marketed by Fox for sex appeal, with a campaign of promo stills that depict a black-clad (and sometimes unclad) Dushku against a glossy white backdrop in shots that make her look like something you’d pick up at the Apple Store. But though the camera leers a bit at bodies both male and female throughout the series (Whedon is nothing if not egalitarian in making sure that the heroes and villains and sex objects of his piece cross gender boundaries), the Dollhouse brand of sensuality is a bit queasy-making. For starters? When in their blank state between missions, the dolls resemble nothing so much as children, and everything that happens to them on this program must be seen through the lens of coercion. We’re told, early on, that Echo’s outside-world alter-ego — her name is Caroline — actually signed up for this duty, essentially given the choice between time in the Dollhouse and time in a jail cell. Of course, what that really means is that she had no choice at all, or at least not an attractive one.
As is made clear by Whedon’s earnest, motormouthed audio commentary for episode six — really, it’s an episode-length spoken-word essay on themes and concerns of the entire series — he’s interested in depicting the lives of characters whose subjective perceptions of the situation are in opposition, and inviting the audience to develop its own reaction to the ethical quagmire posited by the show. That dialectical approach is mirrored in the way the show is presented, at least during the first half of the season. Dollhouse looks and feels, for the most part, like a conventional TV thriller built around the ass-kicking adventures of a pretty girl with an attitude. But then there’s that opening-credits sequence, scored with an unmistakably sarcastic sing-song lullaby that suggests irony aplenty and underscores the unwholesome implications.
That’s one of the reasons why Adelle DeWitt, the elegant Englishwoman who runs the place (Olivia Williams, doing outstanding work), is such an interesting case. Williams has interpreted her as a strong, intelligent leader without falling back on easy bitch and/or CEO caricatures. She’s smart, articulate, and friendly. She makes you see why people would trust her. She’s not in charge of the whole Dollhouse organization, but she does run this particular Dollhouse, and she acts quickly and decisively to maintain order, fairness, and at least the illusion of human dignity. She doles out appropriate punishment to transgessors (this season they include a spy and a rapist) without quite occupying the moral high ground herself. (That depends on whether you read the agreements between the dolls and the Dollhouse as valid contracts or exercises in indentured servitude.) Her apparent hands-off attitude when it comes to how, exactly, the clients use the dolls is troubling — as long as the doll isn’t placed in physical danger, it seems, anything goes.
(It’s also interesting that this character is a woman. Whedon’s choice to sexually integrate the Dollhouse management as well as the dolls themselves makes the whole project more palatable. Imagine how unpleasant, if more on point, the same premise would be if it were executed featuring only women in the role of the fragile dolls, and mostly men controlling them.)
The second half of the season has its ups and downs, never quite matching the concentrated accomplishment of “Man on the Street,” which is not only an exceptionally suspenseful episode but downright moving as well. But the episodes improve greatly, and the shift of focus away from Echo lifts a great weight from Dushku’s shoulders. That’s when Dollhouse starts to finds new strength as an ensemble piece, and so much the better. By the time the climactic, increasingly frantic episodes 11 and 12 air, Whedon has succeeded in substantially, but not radically, tweaking the show’s premise as he heads for season two.
How pernicious is the Dollhouse, really? At first, the show suggests that the dolls are there by agreement — that, like Echo/Caroline, they have some problematic experience in their personal history that means they may be able eventually to return to a life that’s been somehow made better for their absence from it. But as we learn more about some of Echo’s fellow dolls — specifically the tough-as-nails Sierra and the sweet Victor — their participation in the grand experiment seems less than entirely voluntary except by loose definitions of the term. If that alone doesn’t make the Dollhouse’s promise to Echo look suspect, well, that’s where “Epitaph One,” the unaired 13th episode of the series, comes in. It’s a humdinger. If the show had been canceled, it would serve as one hell of a denouement for the series. As a bonus for the Dollhouse faithful who shell out for the DVD or Blu-ray set — and as a lead-in to the second season — it’s fairly mind-blowing. It takes place in 2019, with a whole new cast of characters supplemented by frequent flashbacks to the Dollhouse gang we know. Shot on the cheap by ace cinematographer Rodney Charters (24) with inexpensive HD video cameras, its look and feel diverges from the rest of the series, with a radically different atmosphere. Suffice it to say that Whedon makes it clear happy endings are not in the cards. The change-up thrown here is breathtaking, and despite its relative simplicity it’s a greater accomplishment than most of the more meticulously planned and crafted episodes that came before it. It’s the kind of seat-of-your-pants creative gambit that illustrates what’s possible with TV-style storytelling, extended over weeks, months, and even years, that simply can’t be done in the feature-film world.
Don’t get me wrong. Taken hour by hour, Dollhouse can be frustrating. The happy news is that the good stuff is very good, there’s more of it as the series goes along, and there are sizable pay-offs along the way. And if you think you might be interested in Dollhouse, you may as well catch up now. It’ll be that much more fun to watch Whedon figure out what the hell he’s going to do next in real time.
I reviewed Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse: Season One on Blu-ray Disc, which was a big improvement over my viewing of the first few episodes in HD via Xbox Marketplace but not a huge upgrade from the 720p HD broadcast on Fox. A big chunk of the series is shot on a set that represents the interior of the Dollhouse, decorated in soothing blues, golds, browns and reds, with an indistinct Asian influence — if you threw some tables and chairs into the room it would look like a really big P.F. Chang’s — and part of the visual strategy is to allow lamps built into the set to provide spot lighting for other decorative elements in the background of the 16×9 frame, or to turn into soft blobs of color behind the plane of focus. The enhanced color-reproduction capabilities of HD give those high-contrast shots a luminous quality that would be impossible to do justice in NTSC color space, and the high-resolution image makes it easier to appreciate the detail that’s gone into building and dressing that elaborate set. In other settings, cinematographer Ross Berryman often shoots exteriors as well as windowed sets with overexposed highlights, giving the scenes an almost dreamlike quality, and the often intensely saturated colors that result, especially in the greens and yellows of background vegetation, are tamed easily in HD. There’s a smattering of grain, though not as much as I’d expect, and my guess is the picture has generally been noise-reduced — the level of fine detail is adequate but not exceptional.
The 5.1 soundtrack is encoded in lossless DTS, and it’s solid enough but, again, not a stand-out as these things go.
Extra features on DVD and Blu-ray include the aforementioned audio commentaries — Whedon and Dushku provide a jocular, largely uninformative track for episode one; Whedon goes heart-on-sleeve solo for episode six, offering a refreshing degree of insight into what makes him tick as a show-runner; and his brother Jed and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen (writers, both of them) describe the run-and-gun style of that crazy episode 13 — and about 30 minutes worth of deleted scenes in pretty solid HD quality (there are some obvious digital artifacts, and some of the material doesn’t seem to have been finished in terms of color) with a two-channel production sound mix. There’s nothing of special interest here beyond another opportunity for Dushkuspotting, as she portrays a clingy-bloused nightclub bouncer named Max in a jettisoned subplot from the pilot episode. (Many of the other scenes are really extended versions of existing scenes or fragments.) The centerpiece documentary, “Making Dollhouse,” offers the best overview of the behind-the-scenes process, including the decision to scrap the original pilot (also included here) and the thinking behind “Epitaph One.” Other features take a look at the Joss Whedon stock company both before and behind the camera, casting, and production design.
Back to that scrapped pilot episode. It’s inclusion here is noteworthy in its own right for the peek it provides at the creative process for television. Whedon delivered an hour of pretty good TV to Fox that not only set up the premise of the show but got the ball rolling right away. Actually, that’s part of the problem. That ball was rolling too fast — it’s easy enough to follow what’s going on if you’ve already spent 500 minutes or so in this universe, but first-time viewers may have gotten winded trying to keep up. In this version, for instance, Ballard and Echo/Caroline come face to face during the first hour of the program — a meeting that the final version wisely withheld until it could be used to great effect in episode six. As Whedon and company rethought the show’s pacing, they moved too far in the opposite direction, delivering a series of lackluster episodes before they managed to regain their bearings. In a business that can seem awfully secretive and ego-centric, the release of all this material, which essentially gives fans a chance to second-guess decisions made by the show’s creatives, is remarkable.
Dollhouse isn’t completely successful, but it’s hardly a failure. This three-disc Blu-ray package is the best way to catch up with the show, and the supplements provided in the Blu-ray set as well as the four-disc DVD collection open a fascinating window on the creative process. It’s a solid release of a show that still has a ton of potential.