Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. After a half decade away from the television game, he returns with his latest creation, and it begins on a positive note.
The Dollhouse is a mysterious organization that programs their female and male agents, known as Actives or Dolls, to be whatever you want them to be for a short period of time and of course for a very large fee. The Dolls are mindwiped into a childlike state between jobs. The series follows one particular Doll known only by the code name of Echo (Eliza Dushku).
It starts off by introducing the ground rules and the characters. After the original pilot was scrapped, allegedly for being too dark and confusing, a new introductory episode was quickly filmed and some changes were made to the cast and characters. Although Whedon has publicly accepted the blame for that, it still sounds to me more like network interference. I wish I could watch the original pilot and compare it to this. There are certainly some flaws present here, but it can take time for a new show to find its identity.
Whedon wrote and directed this episode. Although the dialogue could be sharper and the characters could be better defined, it’s undeniably a Whedon creation. It’s the first step on a journey he has mapped out for five seasons. While his other shows have all been about family, this one seems to be more about alienation, loss of identity, and objectification. In some ways, this could be called his foray into arthouse territory as he explicitly plays with expected television narrative structure. People who briefly take on different personalities to meet the needs of others strikes me as a deliberate metaphor for the nature of television and its audience.
Whedon’s never hit the ground running with any of his shows, although Firefly came the closest to doing so. Buffy and Angel didn’t start to hit their stride until their second seasons. In the first season of Buffy, the characters seemed two dimensional compared to how they developed over the next six seasons. If you judge any of his shows based only on their first broadcast episodes, you get a radically different view than if you watch their entire runs.
In some ways, Buffy is an albatross around Whedon’s neck. Every time he does something else, people expect it be just like the best seasons of Buffy. I believe that hurt Firefly, even though it eventually developed a cult of its own. And now Dollhouse isn’t Buffy or Firefly, and in fact finds Whedon doing something very different than anything he’s done before.
Buffy and Angel alumnus Dushku is believable as Echo, and the three personalities she displays in this episode all seem distinct from one another. I think she can meet the challenges of the role weekly. The cast also includes Olivia Williams as the woman who runs the Dollhouse, Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett as an FBI agent investigating rumors that the Dollhouse exists, Fran Kranz as the Dollhouse’s resident geek, Harry J. Lennix as Echo’s handler, Angel alumnus Amy Acker as the Dollhouse’s physician, and Reed Diamond as the Dollhouse’s head of security.
I like Dollhouse so far. It has a lot of potential, but it needs time to build on it. This first episode is a solid base to build on, even if it’s not the immediate spectacular some might have expected it to be. If creator Joss Whedon is true to form, it will only get better as it goes along.
– Danielle Ni Dhighe