My TiVo may be on life support, but the DVD player still works, and midseason TV is starting to come in fast and furious. Among the screeners I’ve received is a little show by some guy who did something about vampires once. You don’t want to hear anything about it yet, do you? I didn’t think so. Ignore me as I write more after the jump.
OK, a little preface. I’ve watched the Dollhouse episode (given the history of remakes on this show, I don’t know whether I can properly call it the “pilot”) once, casually, without taking notes. I reserve the right to change my mind after I’ve watched it and marinated on it more. And I wasn’t crazy about Firefly when it first debuted, in retrospect one of the worse calls of my career.
It was both better and worse than I expected, in different ways. One of my concerns about it was that—given Joss Whedon’s talent for making absorbing serials—the case-of-the-week nature of the show would make it harder to grow attached to. (I’m assuming that anyone who cares at this point knows the premise already, but in case I’m wrong: Eliza Dushku plays Echo, an “Active,” which is a person who has agreed to let a secretive organization erase his or her original memories and personality and implant new ones in them for “assignments” involving rich clients.)
Yes, this is certainly Joss Whedon trying to do What People Think Works on Broadcast TV Today—the legendary serial-procedural hybrid. But the first episode—in which Echo is imprinted with a kidnapping-negotiator’s personality to secure the return of a rich man’s abducted daughter—is well enough written to be absorbing. Writing a crime hour doesn’t seem like Whedon’s thing, but the episode is tight, suspenseful, with intriguing psychological twists and flashes of Whedonesque humor.
And the more serial elements of the show seem promising, at least. At the same time, an investigator (Tahmoh Penikett, BSG’s Helo) is looking into the rumored existence of the illegal “Dollhouse” where the Actives are housed. A scene with a skeptical colleague addresses head-on a basic implausibility of the premise: why the hell does a billionaire need to turn to some kind of bizarre sci-fi brianwashing whorehouse to get the perfect date, or the perfect crime investigator, or the perfect whatever, when they can perfectly easily go out and hire one who hasn’t had their personality wiped? His response: when you have everything, you want something more—more exotic, more perfect, more specific. Not so persuasive on the surface, but if the show is well enough done, hopefully we won’t care.
Now the minus. Dollhouse as conceived (a heroine plays a different “person” every week) is less a series concept than an actress’ showcase, a sort of extreme version of an Alias undercover premise. (In fact, the reports of how the show was conceived have said that Dushku essentially broached the idea as a showcase.) And the actress being showcased is Eliza Dushku. Now, I have nothing against Dushku. I thought she was fine on Buffy. But she’s not exactly Toni Collette (who’s playing a multiple-personality case on Showtime’s The United States of Tara, which I have not seen). Watching her inhabit her imprinted “personality”—a tough negotiator with secret vulnerabilities—I did not see her becoming another person. I thought: Oh, look! There’s Eliza Dushku with glasses and her hair in a bun!
If it weren’t for Whedon’s pedigree, I’m not sure I’d be dying to see a second episode. But for me, the main draw now is not seeing Dushku become a different person every week, but getting to see Joss Whedon become a different writer every week.