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Dollhouse Watch: New and Improved

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Carin Baer/FOX

Carin Baer/FOX

 

Spoilers for Friday’s Dollhouse coming up after the jump: 

Today’s the day of NBC’s “infront” fall-programming announcement—I’ll be attending it early this afternoon—on which everyone is sweating whether or not Chuck will get picked up. (About which: the network may not make a decision for a week or more, and don’t put faith in the various early reports until you hear something official.) But at this point, I’m more eager that Dollhouse get renewed than Chuck. 

I know I suggested last week that Fox renew the show for a second and final season, and I still hope for that if (1) the alternative is no second season at all and (2) setting a finish date—however far away—lets the show commit to what has become, now that we’re moving away from Echo’s assignment of the week, a fascinating story.

Like many of you, perhaps, I had the reveal and identity of Alpha spoiled for me online long before “Briar Rose” aired. I can only guess how surprising the reveal would have been had I not known, the process of the revelation was still satisfying and impressive. (Which is part of my evolving General Theory of Spoilers: Yeah, I hate getting spoiled and try to warn and/or or avoid gratuitous spoilage here, but any fictional work—as opposed to a game or sporting event—that does not work if the Big Shocking Twist is revealed is not that good to begin with.) 

Alan Tudyk’s shift from faux-nebbish to slasher menace was awesome enough (especially after getting to know him as Serenity’s nice-guy pilot on Firefly). But it was when Ballard and Lennix Boyd tussled on the staircase that it hit me what an incredible challenge Joss Whedon has set himself up with on this show. It’s a dark, entertaining but cerebral series in which (1) he not only does not have the assistance of his usual comic relief, (2) central characters can change personality at the touch of a button and (3) a lawman can battle the muscle for a human-slavery outfit and you still do not know whom to root for. 

This revival comes after a disappointing first half of the season, in which Dollhouse seemed to be handcuffed by the need to give Fox a procedural show and by the conviction that Eliza Dushku could carry the show week after week. Maybe it was by design that the show shifted gears midway—if so, it seems like unecessary design in retrospect—but now, as an ensemble where we divide our time between Ballard’s egocentric quest and the Dollhouse’s cynical machinations, it is utterly mind-blowing. 

Should a good run of a few episodes toward the end of the season be enough to earn Dollhouse a renewal? Absolutely, from where I’m sitting. Like a team going into the playoffs on a winning streak, momentum matters here; I care more about Dollhouse’s forward motion than its past consistency. And consistency is overrated anyway: I’ll take a show that swings for the fences and is occasionally amazing over one that is reliably satisfying any day. 

So keep your fingers cross for Chuck today (and if necessary tomorrow); but I’ll be directing my good vibes toward Dollhouse. A small hail of bullets:

* So just what—or rather who—did Alpha download into Echo at the end of the episode? It didn’t seem like Caroline. (And that, by the way, is an advantage to using Dushku more sparingly—she can show different characters more convincingly in small doses, I think, than in hour-long showcases.)

* Topher was so asking for a super-tasing. 

* Another advantage of going more ensemble: the other Actives are doing an impressive job of showing a range of characters, in turn allowing Whedon, Jane Espenson et al. to show off some of the truly chilling things the Dollhouse can do. The resurrection of Dominic may be the creepiest thing I’ve seen on this show yet. 

* Are we agreed it’s looking like Dr. “Whiskey” Saunders is also an Active? 

* I’m probably as guilty as anyone of spreading the “Dollhouse is not funny Whedon” as anyone—but this was a funny episode as well. “It’s a small world, right? I went to grade school with Jenna Elfman!”

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