Renovations Needed on Whedon’s Dollhouse

“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” says Echo and that’s funny because. . . well. . she hasn’t. She’s actually been doing this for about two hours. The “life” she speaks of is simply an imprint that’s been embedded in her brain so she acts, talks and thinks like whomever the client wants her to be. Kind of fun, in a Fantasy Island sort of way, that is until someone gets hurt.

Dollhouse is the much talked about brainchild of Buffy creator Joss Whedon and there in lies my first problem. Being a fan of Buffy and of Firefly, I went into Dollhouse expecting a certain style and I came up empty. Most notably missing from the Dollhouse pilot (the second one shot) is Whedon’s signature witty banter and wry humor. I saw a few lame attempts, but not one word of this script came close to the brilliance that is Buffy. Maybe it’s not fair to compare a person’s work to their earlier successes, but people are going to do it, so let’s face facts, Dollhouse isn’t Buffy. I kept thinking Alias or Dark Angel but Eliza Dushku simply isn’t pulling it off.

In order to carry the weight of this series, Dushku has to do two things. She needs to be able to play serene “blank slate” Echo (oh, where is Summer Glau when you need her) and more importantly, she needs to carry off each of her imprinted characters as if she’s been playing those roles all of her life. I had a problem with both of these.

As far as her imprints in the pilot go, it might be the director who’s to blame and not Dushku. The second persona she takes on is that of a practiced kidnap recovery pro but she comes off as FBI Barbie. She’s flat and entirely unbelievable and I had to wonder if that was the plan, to make her look like a blank acting out a role. If so, then it falls on bad directing. If, however, this is Dushku trying to handle multiple personalities in a single episode, then I don’t think she’s up for the job.

It’s hard enough for an actor to hit the ground running with a new character, it’s near impossible to be a new character every week (or two in the case of this episode.) That’s why in shows such as Alias and Dark Angel, the undercover characters were purposely played a bit over the top – you were supposed to see the “real” people underneath the cover even if the mark didn’t.

The structure of the pilot is terribly unwieldy. It begins with a short scene that has, what we must assume is Echo in her real personality, signing herself over to the Dollhouse program. She’s done something terrible, we don’t know what, and this is her only out. This idea is revisited in the final scene, which left me so confused I couldn’t explain it to you if you asked — but then, I’m sure that was the point.

In between these bookends, we see Echo as a weekend dream date, we see the mind wiping process and we get a lecture on how Dollhouse is doing good things for all mankind, but oh, don’t let the cops catch on. We’re introduced to Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) – the technician who runs the Dollhouse lab (the only bright spot in the series) and Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) an FBI agent obsessed with shutting down the program. (Me thinks he has a personal stake in this.)

The main plotline has to do with the recovery of a kidnapped child, a rescue that blows up in their faces due to a huge coincidence. I know that freaky coincidences happen all the time in real life, but when you need one in order to make your pilot plot work out right, that’s a bad sign.

The biggest question is where do they go from here? Are we doing Fantasy Island with a scifi twist? Obviously, Echo, like Dark Angel’s Max is headed for a level of self-awareness that will endanger the project. (See Manticore go boom) And there are the outside threats to worry about and maybe even traitors within. As I see it, the internal storyline could make for interesting TV but this has to be balanced with Echo’s missions. And frankly, though I can understand a lonely guy buying himself a Stepford wife for the weekend, I don’t understand why a person of power would hire a programmed robot to negotiate for the life of his daughter. Don’t they have “real” people who do stuff like that?

My prediction: Dollhouse will last half a season and then all knowledge of the shows existence will be wiped from our minds and replaced with memories of Hole in the Wall.

Dollhouse premieres on Friday, February 14 on Fox, meanwhile visit the official website at Fox.com.

Cr: Isabella Vosmikova/Adam Taylor/ FOX

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