Dollhouse: the review

I want to like the new Joss Whedon series, "Dollhouse." I am still sincerely disgusted by the untimely demise of the fantastic "Firefly," Whedon's most recent foray into series television after "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel." Not only was it conceptually brilliant, but it also had fantastic writing and an excellent, talented cast. That it lasted less than a year on Fox shows what a lousy job that network does at nurturing quality programming. His writers' strike amuse-bouche, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog" was similarly entertaining and well-crafted (though I didn't care for the ending). So I had high hopes for his new offering.

In brief, "Buffy" alum Eliza Dushku (who also executive produces) plays Echo, a young woman employed (possessed? leased?) by a shadowy corporation, run by the crisply efficient Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams). She spends her off time wandering around a luxe, sunny condo with her fellow "Actives," awaiting assignment. When the services of the Dollhouse are retained, Echo's brain is imprinted with a composite of memories and skills that suit her to the needs of the particular client. After three episodes, she's been a hostage negotiator, an outdoorsy survivalist chick, and a back-up singer-cum-bodyguard. Following succesful completion of the assignment, Echo's wind is wiped clean and she returns to yoga and massages in a state of placid stupefaction.

Unfortunately, after seeing as many episodes as the critics were allowed to see, I am just not all that into the show. There are no "good guys" to root for, first of all. Echo is a cipher, so while you don't want to see anything bad happen to her, neither is it her interests that are being served by her success. Her handler/protector and the FBI agent trying to crack Dollhouse's (presumably illegal) business are both good, after a fashion, but they are both peripheral.

Similarly, there is little vicarious pleasure in watching the characters interact. In both "Buffy" and "Firefly," the central characters had affection for each other, and created a sense that it would be fun (if dangerous) to be a part of their group. There are hints that Echo and another Active may have begun to emerge from their inter-assignment stupor and formed a bond, but so far that's all we've got. Otherwise, the only thing binding the characters together is a menancing threat posed by a homocidal rogue Active, a plot point I think is too dark to have been introduced so early. Who wants to identify with a bunch of mindless puppets that might, for all we know, get knifed by a psychopath?

And that's my last and most damning beef with the show. It's too dark, and not nearly enough fun. More specifically, it's not funny. All of the other Whedon series have been an artful, if sometimes cheesy, mix of the sinister and the glib. His characters banter and kid, even when beset by demons or cannibalistic deep-space brigands. Hardly anybody on "Dollhouse" has a sense of humor, and so the show misses a signature Whedon element.

I'm curious enough at this point to stick around for a while. But it's hardly the kind of response I imagine Whedon is hoping for from one of his legion of ardent fans.


  1. I've been giving it a chance, too, and have wanted to talk to someone about the implications around Free Will.

    Did she entirely abdicate her free will when she signed on (as Carolyn), thus making anything she does when programmed as Echo amoral?

    Is she not being entirely 'wiped clean' every time because she believes it's not possible to wipe a slate completely clean (from pilot episode)? And if so, what are the Free Will implications?

    I have found that Joss Whedon seems to stumble into interesting theological conversations without realizing he's doing it.

  2. I think Echo abdicated her free will when she first signed on with the Dollhouse, though it's pretty clear her abdication was coerced. Her particular actions can be judged within the framework of each persona's moral system, but the primary question of whether her abdication was moral in the first place supersedes.

    The Free Will implications of the completeness of the mind wipes depends, I think, on what is retained from assignment to assignment.

    And, if you're the Nancy I think you are, you should talk to Paige about theology as reflected in "Buffy." (It is my understanding that Whedon is a staunch atheist.)