Dollhouse: Season One
by Jason Coffman
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For a while there after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it looked like Joss Whedon couldn’t catch a break. Fox torpedoed his excellent space western Firefly following a series of reschedulings and episode shuffling, and the film sequel Serenity failed to catch fire at the box office despite the show’s growing cult of fiercely loyal fans. It seemed a little crazy for Whedon to return to Fox, then, for his next series project, Dollhouse. After its stormy first season, though, the network rewarded Whedon by ordering a second season, even though the series had extremely low ratings. Maybe Whedon knew something the rest of us didn’t.
In any case, Fox has now released the first season on DVD so anyone who missed it can get caught up before Season 2 starts in September. And Dollhouse is certainly a series that rewards faithful viewing— after a rough start, the series finds its footing and ends its first season as one of the most intriguing network sci-fi shows in some time.
Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, an “Active” who works for an underground organization called The Dollhouse. Actives are basically blank slates, having had their personalities and memories wiped so they can be “imprinted” with new identities for different jobs. Dollhouse clients are the rich and powerful, who can afford to pay the company’s exorbitant fees for Actives to fit their needs: an “Engagement” may be as simple as imprinting an Active to be a “beautiful nobody” for an evening, or as exotic as an expert thief and safecracker who can run a complicated theft job from the inside. Each episode focuses on Echo and her Handler Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) as they are sent out on different engagements.
The “b” story for each episode varies, but usually involves FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett). Assigned to the Dollhouse investigation by higher-ups who may or may not even believe it exists, Ballard finds himself in the difficult position of carrying out his duties while trying not to upset similar investigations in human trafficking. Ballard’s very much on his own, his only help coming from a jittery inside man named Lubov (Enver Gjokaj) and a sweet neighbor named Mellie (Miracle Laurie) who may be Ballard’s only anchor in his increasingly paranoid world— if he’ll let her be.
The concept of the Dollhouse is rife with possibilities as well as sticky moral issues. One episode, “Man on the Street,” gives literal voice to some of the conflicting ideas people may have about the Dollhouse, if it actually existed. The head of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) maintains that the purpose of the Dollhouse is to help people, and indeed we see them doing just that. But in other episodes, we catch glimpses of a more sinister side— not all the Actives are volunteers, and not all of the Clients are forthcoming with what they really want. One of the ongoing mysteries of the season is the Dollhouse’s lone rogue Active, Alpha, a dangerous, mysterious force whose actions loom over several episodes while his intentions remain cloudy.
Whedon assured fans in the early going that the show got better as it went along, and watching all the episodes on DVD bears that out. By the end of disc 1 (the first four episodes) the basic ground rules and characters are established and the action is free to take over, and the series starts to weave a compelling web. The worst episode is probably the third— “Stage Fright” sees Echo in action as a backup singer for an angry pop diva— but the fourth episode, “Gray Hour,” is a strong comeback, and the first season reaches its arguable peak with the previously mentioned episode “Man on the Street.” This episode features a fantastic guest role by Patton Oswalt as a dotcom billionaire whose Engagement leads to the most poignant moments of the season.
Everything from then on moves pretty quickly, with Ballard’s investigation heating up and some intrigue in the Dollhouse itself giving what’s already a seriously gray area several darker shades. The show improves dramatically as the season progresses, although even the early episodes feature the signature of Whedon’s other work. Dialogue is clever and well-written, with new catchphrases seemingly generated every five minutes or so. Whedon is adept at balancing the show’s slick mix of ass-kicking ladies and thoughtful sci-fi— think of it as “Charlie’s Angels meets Philip K. Dick” and you won’t be too far off, but added to the cocktail is Whedon’s unique style and the requisite excellent supporting cast of characters.
Hopefully the second season can live up to the high points of the first— there are certainly enough provocative unanswered questions to go around. We’ll just have to wait and see. But until then, you might want to get caught up on Dollhouse’s unsettling universe before it catches up with us.
Fox released Dollhouse: Season One on 14 July 2009. DVD is a four-disc set including the 12 aired episodes of the season on the first three discs with commentary by Whedon and Eliza Dushku on the pilot and another commentary by Whedon on “Man on the Street.” The fourth disc includes the unaired pilot and 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” as well as deleted scenes and featurettes on the making of the show.
Jason Coffman is a critic living in Chicago.
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