“Have you ever tried to clean a slate? You can still see everything that was written there.” (Echo pre-Dollhouse)
I never got to play with dolls. Sure I had “action figures,” which are basically dolls for boys, but the key difference is that GI JOE doesn’t ever change his or her outfit. From the moment they come out of the package they are dressed and equipped for combat. A dude named Cobra Commander in painted on military garb wearing a reflective helmet isn’t suddenly going to put on an apron and open a bakery. Although I think this very thing happened in GI JOE‘s second animated iteration.
Dolls, however, are chameleons. They can be anyone depending on how they’re dressed and the needs of the person playing with them. They’re kind of creepy in that way. This is the central and equally creepy premise of Joss Whedon’s sexy new serial Dollhouse, which combines the kinky wadrobe changes of ALIAS with the memory wiping shenanigans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In Episode 1 , we meet Echo (played by Buffy‘s fiery Faith, Eliza Dushku) one of several dolls or “actives,” who has had her original memory wiped and, presumably, week in and week out gets new ones implanted to suit the needs of the clients of the mysterious Dollhouse, the clandestine organization that acts as a sort of firehouse/spa for the inactive dolls until they are needed. It’s all basically an excuse to parade around new fetishes each week. In the first episode alone we got Echo, the wild motorcycle-riding party chick in the short short slip dress, and Echo the no nonsense hostage negotiator/schoolmarm with glasses, and for those with this bizarre fantasy, an inhaler.
I liked Dollhouse but it’s not a homerun. I’m thrilled to see Eliza back on TV but I can’t shake that this role needs a good character actor like Tara‘s Toni Collette. Eliza just doesn’t seem to have the range to make each implant its own unique personality and even if she’s moderately successful this week, how long until she runs out of ideas. Or is that point? The premise has a lot of potential, but the danger is apparent. The protagonist is never the same person. The audience can’t connect with the heroine because we don’t know who she really is.
Elsewhere, there are signs of a struggle between the creative department and , whatever the fuck FOX executives are. To use a Buffyism, things get very explain-ey, and sometimes it feels like the show is scared that you might not be following the bouncing ball so they have the characters spell it out with clunky exposition. The worst scene in the show is between the cop assigned to bring the Dollhouse down and his superior officers. We get it, the Dollhouse is immoral (or is it?) Let’s not play to the backrow, this is television.
Where Dollhouse shows a lot of promise is in the big mysteries, some of which are tantalizingly suggested in this first episode (which was originally supposed to be the third.)
What did Echo do that landed her in a position for the Dollhouse to bully her into a five year contract? How did Amy Acker’s (good to see you, Winnifred!) Dr. Claire get those scars? If personalities are assembled from various people’s memories, are they technically ghosts? Does Echo have a soul? How exactly do they get these memories? What happens when Actives’ become aware of their reality? And is that what happened to Alpha (likely the first “doll,” possibly gone rogue?) Who really runs the Dollhouse and what is it’s ultimate purpose? Is it to make the world better? What was up with that video at the end and the house full of bodies?
Due to its crap ratings I don’t know if Dollhouse is long for this world, but in spite of its shortcomings, it was an intriguing 45 minutes of TV that I’m eager to follow up with. Just don’t expect any Firefly like devotion out of the gate. This one needs time to grow.
P.S. I really want to smack that cocky young lab tech. Good casting?