Greetings to the New Show: Dollhouse

“Hi, I’m Joss Whedon. You may remember me from such shows as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Angel,’ and ‘Firefly.’ Or perhaps my internet sensation, ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.’ Or, of course, my role as Douglas the car rental clerk in the famous ‘Rat Saw God’ episode of ‘Veronica Mars.’ And let’s not forget that I also wrote the screenplay for ‘Toy Story.’ Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I’m awesome, and you should watch my new show, ‘Dollhouse,’ because I created it, and everything I create is genius. And also because Eliza Dushku is hot.”

The above is, in fact, not an actual quote from Joss Whedon. It is, however, a nice summation of the things that Fox is hoping you’ll remember and keep in mind when tuning into “Dollhouse.” There are a lot of rumblings about how the show is only “meh,” and how if it was by anyone else, it wouldn’t inspire anyone to watch beyond the pilot episode. I’m here to tell you that this isn’t…well, okay, I can’t say it’s completely untrue. In fact, there’s some stuff that goes down during the first 15 minutes of the episode that will make you feel like you’re being hit over the head with a hammer, so obvious is it attempting to set up the show. Survive beyond that, however, and you’ll probably find yourself intrigued enough to come back next week.

“Dollhouse” begins with Echo (Dushku) and Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) sitting in an office, with the latter trying to pitch an opportunity of sorts to the former. DeWitt is having limited success with her attempts to sell Echo on her offer of “a clean slate,” with Echo arguing, “Have you ever tried to clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.” (Foreshadowing, ahoy!) We quickly determine, however, that DeWitt’s suggestion that Echo might want to volunteer for this mysterious project – which comes with a bonus plan of providing Echo with her freedom after a mere five years – is really just an example of the British being incapable of impoliteness. In truth, Echo has no real choice in the matter…and, frankly, she’s a little pissed off by that.

“I don’t deserve this,” Echo snaps. “I was just trying to make a difference, trying to take my place in the world, y’know, like she always said.”

The question, obviously, is…who is this “she“?

Well, presumably, Echo knows, but as we soon learn, just because Echo knows something doesn’t mean the memories are there for the long haul. And thus begins the lengthy stage-setting sequence, where Echo rides a motorbike, burns up the dancefloor in an incredibly short skirt, and then heads back to the Dollhouse – as her new home is colloquially called – for a quick memory wipe. Yes, it certainly gets the job done as far as introducing the viewer to the show’s concept. The only problem: it’s really, really heavy-handed. C’mon, wasn’t there some less leaden way of tackling how short-term Echo’s relationships are without forcing us to endure this exchange…?

Dude: Listen, I know at the beginning of the weekend, we said no strings…
Echo: We also said no ropes, and look how long that lasted.
Dude: Yeah, I remember. I remember it all. I always will.
Echo: What, like I’d forget?

Oh, God, that’s bad. It’s so bad that I feel like I have to blame its inclusion on someone at the network, because I just can’t believe Joss is responsible for such a God-awful chunk of dialogue as that. Thankfully, nothing else in the pilot ever plummets to the depths of this scene, but it’s still a memory that you won’t soon forget…which, come to think of it, is kinda ironic.

As soon as Echo leaves her boy-toy behind, we begin to be introduced to the team at the Dollhouse; first, there’s Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), who serves as Echo’s “handler,” and then there’s Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the scientist responsible for the imprinting and removal of the personalities of the Actives, as they’re called. Boyd is a man with a heavy heart, who clearly isn’t thrilled about this whole memory-wiping thing, especially on occasions like this one, where Echo feels like she’s found the perfect guy. Topher, meanwhile, is a smart-ass with the potential to become a complete jack-ass, but at least he’s given dialogue that can truly be called Whedon-esque. Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond), meanwhile, is the Dollhouse’s head of security, and he apparently answers directly to Ms. DeWitt. This, we soon learn, is not necessarily the best position for one to be in; although Ms. DeWitt might have been polite to Echo, she clearly has no problem being rather bitchy to just about everyone else who works beneath her.

When we first meet Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker), there’s a brief moment where it seems quite clear that Joss is teasing the fanboys out there, by having the woman who once played Winifred “Fred” Burkle ask the woman formerly known as Faith, “Would you like a massage?” But before the fantasy can be fulled, Doc Saunders ruins everything by adding, “I’ll set that up.” Dammit! Also in the mix: the exotic-looking Sierra (Dichen Lachman), who’s the most recent addition to the team of Actives and the one who’s getting her indoctrination, such as it is, when Echo follows the screams of agony to their source. She successfully fights through the pain, though, as she turns up later in the episode as part of Echo’s mission, essentially playing the bad cop to Echo’s good cop.

The last series regular is Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), an FBI agent who’s assigned to investigate the Dollhouse. He’s been on the case for 14 months and describes his progress to his superiors as “slow,” but in that time, he’s physically threatened a senator, disrupted a seven-year human trafficking investigation, and been arrested for trespassing on a prince’s yacht…so, you know, at least he’s keeping busy. His supervisor doesn’t even believe that the Dollhouse exists, referring to it as “a joke,” but for his lack of accomplishment, Ballard is still dedicated to the case, and he knows full well that it must exist…or, at least, that someone higher up the food chain thinks it exists…or else he would’ve been given a new assignment a long time ago.

Once we get past that awful introductory segment, things do begin to get interesting. We see Echo in her “blank slate” state, but we see that, despite the fact that she should be clean as a whistle, she has more curiosity than the average Active. We also get a good idea of how this whole implanted-memories thing works…both for good (how perfectly she takes on the traits and abilities of her new identity because, well, as far as she knows, that’s who she is) and for bad (each identity is apparently based on a real person, which means that she has their flaws as well). It does strike me as a bit odd that people with enough money to hire an Active wouldn’t just get a professional, i.e. someone who really does do this stuff for a living, to get the job done better. But I understand: if I don’t buy into the concept, then I’m never going to enjoy the show. So for the time being, I’m trying to buy into it.

I just hope Joss doesn’t let me down…and, for that matter, I hope Eliza doesn’t, either. The show is really going to live or die by her ability to pull off a credible performance of a different personality each week. We really haven’t seen all that much range from Ms. Dushku over the years, and there are a lot of folks out there who are skeptical that she can carry a role which requires as much diversity as Echo does.

But, hey, Joss is awesome and Eliza is hot, so I’m in. For now.

  

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