Review: Dollhouse Season 1
I started on this show after it was talked about on AfterEllen, after two episodes had been aired already (they were interested in Eliza Dushku, the star of the show) The premise was intriguing: an underground company which has the technology to imprint their employees, or rather as the show refers to them, actives/dolls, with specific personalities and skills tailored to the requirements of their clients. After the mission is complete, the dolls are wiped clean of all their memories and exist in a child-like tabula rasa state where they await the next engagement.
My first response to the show was, “this is so Alias 2.0”. Anyone who has watched Jennifer Garner carry off a hundred different disguises speaking a hundred different languages with a perfect accent knows exactly what I mean. One season has gone by, and I am still afraid of the show contracting the deadly Alias syndrome – and anyone who watched the show flounder after SD-6 was destroyed knows what I mean too.
The beginning of the show was intriguing, but it was not really that strong. At the end of the show, I was left wondering where the show was going. It is one thing to have an idea, but to sustain that idea across several seasons of a story arc requires a hell lot more than a good idea. Fortunately, the show got way better in the coming episodes, and acquired additional layers of complexity. The characters are identifiable and likeable, and not remotely one-dimensional.
Eliza Dushku plays the central character in the show, Caroline (known as Echo in the dollhouse) a woman who has apparently “volunteered”, though how much of a voluntary basis there is left to sign away one’s soul for 5 years after being practically coerced into it by circumstance, is highly questionable. And it is indeed questioned throughout the entire show. Joss does not let us forget that the Dollhouse is inherently exploitative, and is simply a higher form of human trafficking – a fact evidenced by the constant stream of rich clients who pay for “romantic” engagements. The Dollhouse, of course, possesses the technology to program a doll to be your perfect partner, to satisfy all your fantasies. Echo, our favourite character, however, seems to be becoming self-aware, even though her memories have been wiped – we are constantly told she is special in many ways and is evolving, and thinking outside the box, outside her programming.
Agent Paul Ballard is an FBI agent who has been working on the Dollhouse case for years – much to the ridicule of his colleagues and superiors, who do not believe such an institution can exist. He learns of the existence of Caroline, and becomes obsessed with saving her. Ballard’s journey is hardly that of the knight in shining armour, and I am grateful Joss did not make the story a “save-the-damsel-in-distress” one, and neither did he entirely crown Ballard in a halo, exploring the real motivations behind his desire to save Caroline.
As the short season progresses, no character is left untouched – except for Langdon, the man who started out as Echo’s handler. Why an ex-cop who obviously has a strong moral compass and is constantly heard to be denouncing and disillusioning the idea that the Dollhouse is altruistic, would actually work for the Dollhouse, still has not been explained.
I am glad I did not spoil myself, because Joss Whedon, the creator, wrote some very interesting twists into the story, which, had I read the spoilers, would have completely ruined the show for me. Joss Whedon is indeed a gifted storyteller and writer, and I am sorry I ever doubted him. There are of course, many moments where you wonder the plausibility of the story (nevermind the technology, it is sci-fi), and there are some let-down episodes (like Ep 10: Haunted). But in serialised dramas, it is quite futile to do episode-by-episode analysis. Though I am told the Whedon-istic humour is not in full evidence, it does come out now and then to wave to the audiences and disappear behind the curtains again.
But it seems Whedon might still be carrying the Whedon curse, which, given his history with Firefly (which was also broadcast on Fox on a Friday night and died a quick painful death), may cause Dollhouse to meet a similar fate. The ratings are way down, and while ratings are not remotely an indicator of how good a show is (just look at American Idol), it is what networks pay attention to, in deciding whether to carry on with a show.
Overall, the show is engaging and has great potential, if only Fox would give the greenlight to air a second season, which is looking doubtful given the ratings and the economic crisis. But meanwhile, I would strongly encourage people to order the season 1 DVDs on Amazon to drive up the numbers. Even if it goes the way of Firefly, it is still 12 hours of good entertainment.