Review: Dollhouse 2×1

Better but still not must-see TV

Dollhouse 2x1

In the US: Fridays, 9/8c, Fox
In the UK: Sci Fi. “Coming soon” apparently

Dollhouse was a show that everyone wanted to love when it first came out. It was by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy. It starred Eliza Dushku – Faith off Buffy. It had that nice Tahmoh Penikett from Battlestar Galactica as an FBI agent. It was sci-fi…

The list could have gone on for a while, but despite all these plus points, there was always something missing from Dollhouse. To a certain extent, there was a problem with the format: lots of pretty people give up their bodies for five years to the mysterious Dollhouse, which then implants them with new personalities to suit particular jobs, usually sexual. It just sounded icky. Or like a porn version of Joe 90.

Then there was the question of what it all meant. Was there a message to it? Not an obvious one. Could we care about the characters? Not so much, when their personalities changed from episode to episode and we never found out what they were truly like.

So while some people watched it, it didn’t garner great ratings or great fervour from many people, other than the true dyed in the wool Whedonites.

But now we’re back with season two. There have been format changes aplenty and Whedon is slowly pushing for something a bit deeper than he was before. I’m still just not sure it’s a programme with any real point other than to give Eliza Dushku a chance to dress up every week.

The basic thrust of this episode is a little creepy. After spending most of season one trying to prove the Dollhouse exists, FBI agent Paul Ballard joined the Dollhouse to help Echo aka Caroline and bring it down from within.

Except, for episode one, what he’s decided to do is to try to get her to marry an arms dealer (Jamie Bamber from BSG – ooh, a reunion), and have lots of sex with the arms dealer, so that he’ll be able to get the arms dealer sent to jail.

Huh. That doesn’t mesh up well with his raison d’etre, does it? And how long does it take to make an arms dealer want to marry you then? Three weeks, it seems. Hmm.

Ultimately, though, this is just a long-winded and slightly unpleasant way to get Ballard to become Echo’s handler in the Dollhouse. It seems natural enough and is pretty much the only decent way to get some interaction between the two characters into the show, something sorely lacking in season two.

Echo, in fact, now has a personality. Lots of them in fact. In an effort by the producers to make her not such a blank slate, she’s starting to remember her previous personalities and to have her own ideas about things, including her relationship with Ballard. This, again, is a step forward, since at last we can start rooting for her.

Meanwhile, Whisky – aka the Dollhouse’s doctor – is breaking down because she now knows she’s also a doll, except one programmed to think she’s a doctor. Since Amy Acker – who turns out this episode to be a much better actress than I ever gave her credit – is off to ABC’s Happy Town that leads to the exit, stage right, of her character – at least for now. However, we do get to enjoy some really quite interesting philosophical musings on the question of identity. The doctor personality doesn’t want Whisky’s original personality reimplanted because then she’d die, even though she knows she’s been constructed by Topher the lab technician.

And since it is a Joss Whedon show, we have the arrival of yet another Buffy alumnus: Alexis Denisof, aka Wesley. Denisof, whose own American accent never sounds convincing compared to his British accent, is a senator investigating aptly named Rossum, the organisation that owns the Dollhouse, in what looks like a season-long arc. Where that’s going remains to be seen.

These are all minor improvements to the show that make it more interesting, both intellectually and emotionally. But it’s still not must-see TV. As even the new title sequence suggests, in many ways this is a low-key version of Alias still, and the thin veneer of intellectuality about the show doesn’t really amount to a cogent argument yet. Maybe over time, it’ll build up into one, but it feels more like Whedon occasionally coming up with ideas then dropping them into scripts on impulse (“Ooh, if identities can be implanted, do we really have souls?” “Does a ‘natural’ identity have more rights to a body than an ‘implanted’ identity? They’re all people with an equal right to life.” and so on).

But neither is it bad television. It’s well put together, Penikett is always good to watch, and Dushku is actually starting to vary her performance when she changes character.

I just wish it had a bit more chutzpah and a bit more to say for itself – about something.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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