Created by Joss Whedon
Fox Television 2009-2010
Dollhouse is sort of the unloved child in the Whedon family of entertainments. Which is not to say that Whedon himself didn't love it, but amongst Whedon's fans, it seems to be the most unappreciated. Joss Whedon, for those fingers not quite so on the pulse of modern media culture, is the writer and director behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and a little arthouse number called The Avengers. The first four tend to be referred to in proximity to the term "cult favorites" while the latter often comes paired with "blockbuster." Dollhouse carries neither of these descriptors, though it shares "ill-fated" with Firefly. Unlike Firefly, however, it actually gets where it's going. This isn't a dig at Firefly (although it might be a dig at Firefly's overly abbreviated cinematic follow-up, Serenity) but a credit to Whedon for having open eyes when dealing with Fox again.
The concept of Dollhouse can be a little complicated to explain, but once you've had it explained then witness it in action, it all makes sense. You can tell someone what it's about, but like Wheedon's other shows, the greatness is in the execution ("It's about a high school girl that fights vampires!" "It's a western in space!" "Uh, those sound dumb, dude." "No, you have to SEE it!")
The Dollhouse is a super secret company for ultra-rich clients. They take the young and beautiful and wipe their minds clean, so that they can be imprinted with any identity their clients desire. A "doll" or "active" may be a dream lover one day, a super spy the next, and a dead spouse the day after that. While they're in the Dollhouse, however, they are essentially blank slates; docile children. Part of the fun of the show is seeing how they come up with ways to use the dolls that don't amount to an endless stream of prostitution gigs. That's the premise, but that's not what the show is about. The pattern is established right off the bat, but that pattern begins to change. Things don't always work the way they're supposed to, but there's also a lot more going on under the surface, both of the characters and the plot.
The central character is Echo, a doll played by Eliza Dushku (Buffy's Faith). She does a more than serviceable job in the role, although her characters tend to end up being versions of herself, so we get all-business Boston girls, super-excited Boston girls, quiet or scared Boston girls, brash and sassy Boston girls -- you get the picture. For me, the real scene stealer of the show is another doll, Victor, played by Enver Gjokaj. The fact that he has no other star credits for me to explain to you where you've seen him is a dead shame. He plays each personality as a whole new character -- Russian mobster, suave British ladykiller, US Marine, other cast members -- each with absolute conviction, so much so that I was left with no idea who the actor really was. He perfectly embodied the premise of the dolls. I can only assume that the reason casting directors aren't calling him more is that they don't know how to say his name.
Victor eventually begins to develop feelings for another doll, Sierra; something they are not supposed to be able to do. Therein lies much of the fabric later in the series. The show isn't about the Dollhouse, but about being human in the environment of the Dollhouse. Beyond the dolls, which don't (or aren't supposed to) have personalities of their own, there is the supporting staff. Another strong performance comes from Olivia Williams as Adele DeWitt, the director of the house. She, in her very professional way, has completely skipped over moral compromise to convince herself that the Dollhouse does good things. She delivers some real pressure-cooker moments. The scientist in charge of the lab that programs and deprograms the dolls is an unsurprisingly spazzed-out young geek who comes to develop more dimensions through the course of events he considers himself removed from -- literally above it all in his glass-fronted lab above the house's living environment.
We are introduced to much of the Dollhouse's operations through the eyes of Echo's new "handler" who is responsible for her well-being when she's away from the house. Rounding out the core staff is the ruthless head of security, Mr. Dominic. The fly in the ointment is FBI agent Paul Ballard. After a divorce and the loss of a partner, Ballard has become obsessed with a dead-end, probably-just-an-urban-myth case; the Dollhouse. Mysterious information has sent him in pursuit of a missing college student named Caroline, whom he believes to be trapped there. This character, while deeply important to developing the plot, is one of the weakest. His obsession doesn't seem to be as well explained or supported as it should be for such a pivotal character. I'm not altogether sure whether this is due to poor development on the writing end, or if he's just not that interestingly played by Tahmoh Penikett (Helo from Galactica). The character seems like a trainwreck, and not the appealing kind. I have to assume it's intentional, since characters in the show actually comment on the weirdness of it. Nevertheless, a lot of the most interesting story beats depend on him.
As an informant tells Ballard, "That's what the Dollhouse does, but that is not its purpose," and indeed, what the show is ultimately about is what happens, not what it is. Developing its plot in similar territory as X-Files and Lost, Dollhouse is a big birthday cake of conspiracy and double-cross. Unlike those other shows, however, Dollhouse knows what its conspiracy is from the very beginning and sees it through to the end. Upon rewatching, there were elements in the very first episode that would only make sense in the context of the finished product. Lasting only 2 half seasons, there was no need to overstuff the series with meaningless sidetracks and dead-ends (yes I mean YOU, Lost).
Virtually every character surprises us at one point and/or another. There are double and triple-crosses and distinct arcs of personal growth for everyone in what becomes a very, very screwed up sort of family. All of Whedon's series deal with themes of family, but Dollhouse is probably the most mature and dysfunctional of the lot. Characters start at-odds but grow together out of respect or understanding, expedience or love. They discover not simply who each other are, but who they are themselves, and what that means. Among all the changing directions in character, the last and most surprising is also the hardest to swallow. This seems to have been the biggest single concession to fitting everything in before time runs out, or simply an afterthought, because a repeated viewing yields no signs that [character in question] has been anything other than [character in question] had appeared to be, even in [character in question]'s private moments. Ironically, [character in question] is the first one who really sees their group as a family.
Speaking of Ebert, in the Ebert & Roeper review of one of the Hellboy films, he raised the question of what would really happen if the bad guys won, if the great threat came to be. Time and again in films there's the moment where characters discuss the unimaginable consequences should the good guys fail. Joss Whedon must have been paying attention too. There are two episodes set years after the main body of the series that show the aftermath of the conspiracy come to fruition (yes, I'm being deliberately vague). As is Whedon's way, there is penance and redemption to go around, as well as love hard-earned.