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.




  • Jonathan Reed

    Yeah, it does seem to be a show that flashes you a quick look at a fantastic idea or story but then just as quickly hides it again and turns into something slightly more mundane. A prime example was last season’s jaw dropping reveal of who Alpha was(which I swear down had me jump out of my chair!) which turned into a slightly silly plot about him wanting to make Echo a goddess or something…
    It just hasn’t quite reached it’s potential, although the ‘missing episode’ from season one was superb and gave me real hope for this second season. Some things are definitely better as you mentioned and the storyline with Amy Acker I found really interesting(although slightly spoiled by a cliche shot of her hitting the bottle) plus Dichen Lachman still looks infinitely hotter than most people.
    I’ll keep watching purely for the ‘potential factor’ and because I think Whedon’s a fantastic writer/producer.
    I really want to love this show so fingers crossed it keeps improving.

  • bob

    Thanks for the review, Rob. I was wondering whether to bother watching or not. I am intrigued by the Whisky stuff (and Acker really is brilliant- if only she could be the star of the show) but it sounds as if the rest is the same old disappointing stuff.
    Are you going to continue to watch and review Dollhouse?

  • bob

    Thanks for the review, Rob. I was wondering whether to bother watching or not. I am intrigued by the Whisky stuff (and Acker really is brilliant- if only she could be the star of the show) but it sounds as if the rest is the same old disappointing stuff.
    Are you going to continue to watch and review Dollhouse?

  • Depends on the TV schedule. It’s on Fridays so there’s not much to clash with it, so it might be “Monday morning on the train” viewing with me. I doubt I’ll do a Dan and do a full episode by episode review, but I’ll probably – if I stick with it anyway – give a brief update of it in “What have you been watching?”

  • Depends on the TV schedule. It’s on Fridays so there’s not much to clash with it, so it might be “Monday morning on the train” viewing with me. I doubt I’ll do a Dan and do a full episode by episode review, but I’ll probably – if I stick with it anyway – give a brief update of it in “What have you been watching?”

  • iko

    FOX’s Friday night schedule of Brothers before Dollhouse was a poor one. I don’t see the two programs having much cross-over in terms of audience.

  • iko

    FOX’s Friday night schedule of Brothers before Dollhouse was a poor one. I don’t see the two programs having much cross-over in terms of audience.

  • I thought that “Vows” was a great episode to kick off the season, and I didn’t think it was noticeable at all that they had budget cuts… its really discouraging to see that the ratings suffered again. Hopefully this show just slowly picks up steam, but I think Fox has just dropped the ball in promoting this show, and also has it in a bad time slot. Such a shame.
    Also, I was really happy that they played the song “The World” by Earlimart at the end of the episode, just as Paul realizes that Echo is remembering more of her past than she should. Great song, and I thought it fit the scene real well, too. I actually posted a video clip of the scene on YouTube, but it got taken down for copyright violations, which is yet another sign that Fox doesn’t know what they’re doing when it comes to promoting the show – don’t they realize that it’s good for a show’s ratings to have YouTube popularity? Anyway, now it’s up on my own blog at : http://modestcomplexity.blogspot.com/2009/09/earlimart-on-dollhouse.html