Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Look Back at "Dollhouse"

As another television season comes to an end and we say goodbye to another crop of shows, including the end of "Lost" this Sunday, I want to take a look back at one of the most overlooked shows of this year, Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse." I've watched many of FOX's Friday night "Death Slot" shows, including "Space: Above and Beyond," "VR.5," and all three of Chris Carter's attempts to launch a successful follow-up to "The X-Files." I knew from the outset that "Dollhouse" wasn't long for this world, especially after Whedon's previous effort, the cult favorite "Firefly," had a notoriously botched run back in 2002. Unlike many of the other fans, I'm actually impressed that FOX devoted so much time and effort to promoting "Dollhouse," even though there is a strong indication that they mucked up a good chunk of the first season's storyline. And though the ratings were never very strong, they went ahead with a truncated second season, and gave the creators enough time to hash out a decent ending to the series.

"Dollhouse" isn't an easy show to watch, and I don't think it really hit its stride until very late. The story centered around the concept of Dolls, people contracted to have their conscious minds and personalities temporarily removed from their bodies, leaving them blank slates. New personalities could then be imprinted to the Dolls, essentially creating artificial people to suit the needs of their clients. Now add the sinister Rossum Corp, which developed the technology to create Dolls, and secretly controlled underground (literally) Dollhouses to cater to the rich and powerful. Most of the Dolls were women and many of the engagements were of a romantic nature. Even putting aside the fact that many of the Dolls' contracts are signed under coercive circumstances, the premise had all sorts of sexual exploitation parallels and uncomfortable undertones built into it. I'm not surprised that many viewers had trouble with it.

The series focused on one Dollhouse in Los Angeles, and our main character was a Doll named Echo (Eliza Dushku) who used to be a young woman named Caroline Farrell. The first half of the first season was mostly spent following Echo on her various "engagements," playing a new character with a new skill set and new personality each week. In one episode she was a backup signer and body guard to a pop starlet, in another a safecracker, and in another a hostage negotiator. The trouble was that Echo returned to a blank slate at the end of each episode, leaving us without much in the way of a compelling central protagonist to follow from week to week. The most intriguing characters were the supporting ones - Echo's handler Boyd Langton (Harry Lennnix), the Dollhouse's director Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), staff doctor Claire Saunders (Amy Acker) and the techie genius responsible for programming the Dolls, Topher Brink (Fran Kranz).

It wasn't until the engagement-of-the-week formula gave way to a more serialized format, and the creators stopped dancing around all the darker issues raised by the Dollhouse technology, that things started to get interesting. Minor characters like the Dolls Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman) got more attention, and a subplot involving FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tamoh Penikett) and his neighbor Mellie (Miracle Laurie) had some important developments. The real game game changer was an episode that was never aired during the show's run on FOX, an epilogue to the first season titled "Epitaph One," which looked in on the "Dollhouse" universe ten years into the future. A DVD-only release that was created to fill overseas broadcast agreements and serve as as a potential finale in case the show wasn't picked up for a second season, it generated renewed interest in the series from a lot of corners.

The second season of was where "Dollhouse" finally came into its own and fulfilled the potential that had only been teased at in the first year. Echo gained a separate consciousness that could incorporate the skills and memories of her imprinted personalities, finally giving us a strong heroine to root for. Morally ambiguous characters like Adelle and Topher were forced to reevaluate their roles. The Rossum Corporation became a major threat, along with other outside pressures that threatened the Dollhouse's existence. Most importantly, the pace and tempo of the story were cranked up to eleven. Perhaps sensing that their reprieve was only temporary, the creators packed major developments that other shows would have stretched out over multiple seasons into only a handful of episodes. It was thrilling to watch new concepts and ideas being introduced on a weekly basis, the show's mythology expanding at a terrific rate, and then the mad dash to cobble together a meaningful ending once the cancellation was announced.

Certainly "Dollhouse" would have benefited from more time to tell its story. The final few episodes were incredibly rushed and left giant holes in the narrative. Several good characters were shortchanged and there were an awful lot of unanswered questions left over once the dust had settled. And yet the show delivered a lot of good hours of television, and successfully examined many hard science-fiction concepts with intelligence and insight. The accelerated pace forced out nearly all the extraneous filler and padding, with maybe only an episode or two in the second season that didn't advance the main plot. And unlike most of the previous Whedon series, we got a fully executed endgame that resolved the bulk of the show's conflicts and character arcs. When all is said and done, "Dollhouse" rivals "Firefly" and "Buffy" as one of the best long-form television show's he's produced.

And as longtime lover of the genre, with full acknowledgment of the joys of spaceships and time-travelers and mysterious islands, I'd say "Dollhouse," even with its bad start and its chaotic ending and all the bumps in between, turned out to be one of the best science-fiction shows of the last decade.

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