I don’t like butting heads with the Whedonites. They’re good people — a little myopic, perhaps, and occasionally humorless. But good people. So, I decided to watch at least two “Dollhouse” episodes before offering a verdict, hoping to avoid some potential ugliness. In fact, I watched the pilot episode twice, hoping that I’d somehow missed something the first time around — something that would endear me to the show, something that had the underpinnings of a cool mythology, or at least something that distracted me from how godawful Eliza Dushku’s actressin’ is. The second viewing, unfortunately, only hardened my dislike. It was better, if only by a little, but it also validated Fox’s decision to move “Dollhouse” to the Friday night wasteland. “Dollhouse” probably won’t make it to a second season, but it’s not because of Fox, and it’s not because of the bad time slot. It’s because it’s not a very good show.
The premise: Eliza Dushku plays Echo, one of several personality vessels in the Dollhouse. She is programmed to be whoever the client wants her to be, and after each mission/adventure, Echo’s memory is wiped clean, until the next episode, when she’ll be reprogrammed for another client. Essentially, she’s a very high paid call girl/mission operative controlled by a mysteriously sinister corporate organization. In the first episode, she’s programmed to be someone’s dream date, and then as a hostage negotiator, secured by a wealthy businessman whose daughter was kidnapped. In the second episode, she’s again programmed to be some guy’s ideal outdoor date/lay, but that client is a little on the psycho side and decides to take her on a bow-hunting adventure, where Echo is the prey.
Meanwhile, there’s also a government agent (Tahmoh Penkiett) of some sort who is trying to uncover the secret Dollhouse, though his motivations — which seem well-intentioned — aren’t exactly clear. Meanwhile, the show’s mythology, shades of Jason Bourne, revolves around why Echo decided to give up her civilian life and become one of the Dolls, which is being revealed slowly through a scant few flashbacks, since Echo has no trace of her former personality left. Also, it appears that someone — either from her civilian life, or a former Doll who went HAL — is trying to kill or save her. Echo’s only real ally, so far, is stoic stock black character (Harry Lennix), who is channeling the vibe of “Alias’” Carl Lumbly. All the while, Echo also seems to be recovering, albeit slowly, some of her past memories, full recovery of which would make this show even more pointless than it already is.
So far, anyway, “Dollhouse” feels similar to the less than mediocre and cancelled Christian Slater show, “My Own Worst Enemy,” only “Dollhouse” is even less compelling, as Echo has no home life to conflict with her prostitution work. When she’s not programmed for one of her clients, she’s vacant — she walks ethereally around the Dollhouse offices with a bored, oblivious expression. In other words: She’s Eliza Dushku, the dimpled female version of Keanu Reeves. Dushku (who is also a producer) is the show’s weakest element — she can barely act, and while you’d think her robotic nature would work well in the context of the premise, it’s hard to tell the difference between when Echo is the listless vessel or when a programmed personality is inhabiting her. Even her “personalities” have no personality. She looks pretty, but the pebble rattling around in her head must have knocked out the light.
Dushku is not, however, the show’s only problem. The entire cast is wooden and flat. In part, it’s because the characters are supposed to be sterile corporate types or government agents, but there’s more to it than that. There is nothing about anyone on the show that might give you any reason to care about them. “Dollhouse,” like its residents, is empty. The dialogue is clunky, and the mythology is shallow. Whedon may have been better served, in fact, to fully reveal Echo’s human side at the outset, so at least there’d be something familiarly human the viewer could cling to.
Indeed, it feels as though Whedon — who has been burned too often by the lack of commercial appeal in his shows — is overshooting now. He’s trying to create a J.J. Abrams mythology and merge it with the preposterous action elements of “24.” What Whedon’s forgetting, however, is his greatest strength: Character development. There are no Captain Reynolds in “Dollhouse” or a Jayne Cobb or Captain Hammer or a Willow. The show has zero humor, and nothing in it resonates either cerebrally or emotionally. The show is inert, catatonic. It’s a program that deserves to be on Friday nights, where maybe it can skate by unnoticed long enough for Joss Whedon to flesh it out and turn it around.
He might want to start by getting rid of Eliza Dushku.
"Dollhouse"/ Dustin Rowles
TV | February 24, 2009 | Comments ()