And now, Scary-Crayon presents... reflections on Dollhouse by: Wes

As I watched "Stage Fright", the third episode of Joss Whedon's new FOX series "Dollhouse", a realization struck me: I will never like this show. I found this realization interesting, since it's not as if I actively dislike the show. It's got a fairly interesting premise -- which involves an organization that uses personality imprinting technology to supply clients with agents, or "actives," tailor made to their particular specifications -- a (mostly) capable cast, and is the brainchild of "one of the most relevant and unbelievable writers and storytellers of our time." I have that in quotes, by the way, since it's how the show's star, Eliza Dushku, described Joss Whedon in her interview with the A.V. Club. Given that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" were two of my favorite shows and that I hung out in a Buffy forum back in the day (and that I've listened to some of the commentaries on the "Buffy" DVDs, which largely consist of cast and crew members praising Whedon incessantly), I could probably have come up with even more sycophantic quotations concerning Whedon's excellence.

For my part, I think Joss Whedon is pretty overrated. Yeah, "Buffy" and "Angel" were great, but not entirely -- in addition to the several lackluster episodes found in a given season of almost any great show, the third and fourth seasons of "Angel" (and two-thirds of the fifth, for that matter) were far from brilliant. The final two seasons of Buffy were outright painful to watch. To the extent that Joss Whedon had anything at all to do with those -- and considering that he wrote the abysmal and ridiculous "Buffy" series finale, I'm insisting that he did -- he's proven his ability to produce work that is decidedly not deserving of the fawning praise heaped upon him by the so-called Whedonites. I wasn't quite as disgusted by Serenity, but neither was I impressed; while it was a decent enough popcorn flick, I didn't find it interesting enough to warrant a second viewing, let alone to compel me to canonize Saint Joss. (I'm told that you have to have watched "Firefly" to fully appreciate it, but if a movie that's not explicitly billed as a continuation of a television show requires viewers to have watched said show in order to properly enjoy it, that's a clear sign that something is lacking.)

Welcome to the Dollhouse......I've got it all set up for you.

But while I'm not one of the ten thousand smarmy fanboys typing "HALLELUJAH!" in response to Whedon's every creative effort, I still expected more out of him with "Dollhouse." Heck, I expected more out of everyone with "Dollhouse." It really does sound like an interesting idea, but its flaws become increasingly apparent as one delves into it -- such that, by the end of the four-hour lunch during which Dushku and Whedon supposedly came up with the idea, I'd have expected them to have abandoned it. While the actors and actresses might deserve more credit here, one of Whedon's greatest strengths in the past has been the ability to create likeable, human characters (even when said characters aren't technically human). Yet the premise of "Dollhouse" sees the main character, Echo, imprinted with a completely different personality each week. I can sort of see Whedon being intrigued by the challenge of creating a likeable character who has no basic identity, but it just doesn't work. At least with "Quantum Leap", Sam retained his personality following each leap. That show also had the endearing and always entertaining character of Al, but -- given that Echo has no personality and that the people assisting her are just doing their job -- the supporting characters on "Dollhouse" are all about as likeable as hard-nosed professionals focused on the job can be. Except, of course, for the resident tech-head. While I think Whedon intends for his geeky audience to identify with that guy (and I have little doubt that Whedon himself does), I just want to knock the snot out of him.

With no characters to appeal to the viewer, the show is forced to rely on the inherent mysteries of its subplots to generate interest -- but, perhaps also because of the nature of the show, these have been fairly dull and uneventful thus far. For instance, in one of the two major subplots, a particularly persistent cop is trying to uncover the mystery of the Dollhouse operation. That's well and good, but it fails to interest me because I already know what the Dollhouse is. That's not to say, however, that his quest couldn't still be interesting -- it could be if we knew more about why he's so committed to solving the mystery (his fellow officers mostly think he's a kook) and he seemed to be making significant progress towards that end. But three episodes in, all we know is that the folks running the Dollhouse know that he's looking for them. Whoop-dee-doo.

"Graaargh, I'm gonna find that Dollhouse!"An uncommonly beautiful woman.

The second big mystery involves Alpha, a Dollhouse active who -- due to a glitch in the imprinting process -- flipped out, killed a bunch of actives and Echo's previous handler, disfigured poor Amy Acker (who I honestly think is even more attractive with the scars, as they give her a kind of Edward Scissorhands vibe), and then escaped. Alpha spared Echo for some unknown reason, but toyed with her on one occasion by orchestrating a fake job in which a client romanced her on a camping trip and then proceeded to hunt her for sport. Yet as with the other mystery, which fails to be interesting because we already know more/less what it is, this one fails to be compelling because the Dollhouse management insists that Alpha is dead. He's not, of course, but it's implied that the Dollhouse heads do know something and are covering something up. And since it's their problem and they appear to be handling it, why should I care? It's not as if I have any investment in the welfare of the characters. If it were an established fact that Alpha is out there and THIRSTY FOR BLOOD, at least the collective fear of the bogeyman might make the show a tad bit more interesting.

And while I know that we're only three episodes into the show, it's starting to feel like the premise itself is strangling the advancement of these subplots -- neither of them can effectively progress because the focus is on whatever job Echo is handling that week. But more frustrating than that is the feeling that the writers are deliberately withholding information not because it's appropriate to gradually reveal it, but because they know that, once these mysteries are solved, the basic premise won't be enough to keep viewers watching every week. "Dollhouse" really feels like a show that would have fared better with a fixed length, since then there would have been a definite conclusion towards which the writers were heading. Not only do I not see these cop/Alpha threads playing out for years on end, I don't see them playing out until the end of a 20-something episode season. Something interesting really needs to happen in this show -- and it needs to happen fast.

Faith Lehane, hostage negotiator!Faith Lehane, American Idol contestant!

But sadly, the biggest problem with "Dollhouse" might be Eliza Dushku. Admittedly, she and Amy Acker are among the few reasons I'll probably continue to watch, but a show in which the actress is required to play a different character every week is not a good fit for an actress who has only played one character for the vast majority of her career. I'm not just talking about her extended role on "Buffy," either -- I mean that in every film and show in which I have seen her, Eliza Dushku has pretty much been Faith Lehane, who, background details aside, probably isn't all that different from the actress in real life. So while this show might have been more impressive or engaging with a more capable actress in the starring role, instead we get to watch little Eliza play dress up every week. That's not an especially painful experience, per se, as Eliza's easy on the eyes (though I had no idea just how thin she was until seeing her in "Stage Fright"; it's like she's trying to out bony Sarah Michelle Gellar), but still. You'd think someone involved in the production would have recognized Eliza's theatrical shortcomings and pushed for someone more qualified to take her place.

So those are my issues with "Dollhouse," which, given the established character of the show, I suspect it will be unable to overcome. I suppose that it could become better if things suddenly started happening and the show gave me a reason to care about its mysteries. It would also be significantly better (in my estimation, anyway) if the intricacies of the premise were explored in more depth. I mean, you've got characters who not only have had their selves deleted, but arguably become other people on a regular basis. In the first episode, Echo is imprinted with the background of a woman who was kidnapped and raped as a child... only to actually come face-to-face with her rapist (that is, the man who kidnapped and raped the girl whose background had been imprinted upon Echo). It was an interesting twist -- and I'd like to see a lot more of them -- but the notion of imprinting an individual with another personality, background, and memories challenges the concept of identity as many people understand it. And while identity has been explored in other media with brainwashing victims, characters with memory disorders, and the like, the premise of "Dollhouse" makes it uniquely fertile ground for further investigation of these topics. I have no doubt that there will be some discussion of identity and the self considering that Echo consistently exhibits an innate tenacity that exceeds her parameters for a given job, but I have a feeling that it will never become quite as cerebral or philosophical as I'd prefer.

She is like a golden ring.

Still, even if "Dollhouse" improves in these areas, it'll still be saddled with distant characters (and that hateful nerd, unless Alpha kills him *fingers crossed*) and a lead actress who isn't up to the part -- so unless the show becomes so intriguingly heady that I can overlook these flaws (and I suppose it's possible; I loved Waking Life), I don't think I'll ever really like it, let alone love it. In fact, if watching it forced me to be parked in front of a TV on Fridays at 9:00 PM, I'd already have written it off. But with services like Hulu allowing viewers to watch it at their leisure, I'll continue to give "Dollhouse" the chance to prove me wrong. After all, I keep watching "Heroes"... and that show hasn't been good since the first season.

-- Wes --
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