Most television reviews are based, largely, on the pilot episode. Even when the pilot episodes aren’t particularly decent, you can often tell if the ingredients are there for a decent show (see, e.g., “Better Off Ted”). And while I’ve never received a complaint for basing a review on a pilot episode alone in the past, I got an unrelenting amount of crap for not giving “Dollhouse” a chance, even if I did wait until two episodes had aired, out of respect for Joss Whedon’s past work (and the folks over on Whedonesque said nasty things about me; and not the good, dirty kind of nasty, either). Readers complained that I had not given the show a proper chance, and that “Dollhouse,” by Whedon’s own admission, wouldn’t find its way until the first episode he wrote, which was episode six (not exactly a sage marketing decision).
I’ve now seen seven episodes — more than half of the first season — and I stand by my initial assessment. “Dollhouse” isn’t a very good show.
Lookit: I understand where the Whedonites are coming from. I’ve been there, and I truly appreciate their blind loyalty to Whedon. It took me months to admit that the new Ben Folds album is a pale comparison to his former work. I watched “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” until the bitter end, hopeful that it’d eventually find its legs (it had its moments, but never approached anything close to Aaron Sorkin’s previous forays into television). It took me almost a year to fully admit to myself that Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown was a terrible movie. Hell: I was one of the few people in America who convinced himself, out of dumb devotion, that Bill Clinton had not had an affair with Monica Lewinsky up until hard evidence proved otherwise. I know what it means to completely blind yourself to a show’s many, many flaws because you want so badly to believe that someone you admire and respect would never let you down.
But “Dollhouse” is a tremendous letdown, and I think in years to come, even Whedon will come around to that acknowledgment. I realize that I’m preaching to a hostile choir, one that’s very likely screeching at me from in front of their computer screen. But I just hate the idea that, in a few weeks, when FOX announces that “Dollhouse” won’t be coming back for a second season (it finished fourth, behind the incredibly low-rated “Friday Night Lights” this past week) that so much energy and passion will go into a campaign to save a show that doesn’t deserve saving. But it doesn’t mean that Joss Whedon’s a failure, of course — he’s still one of the most creative, brilliant voices out there (you need only see “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog” to remind you of that). He just botched a show that he was more or less persuaded to do out of his own loyalty to Eliza Dushku.
It’s OK to pick your battles. This is just not one worth fighting.
Granted, it has gotten better, if only by a little, although even some of the more faithful viewers must have lost some of that faith after episode three (“Stage Fright”), one of the worst episodes of television I’ve seen in months. That one, where Echo was imprinted with the personality of a back-up dancer in order to save a pop-singer who wanted a stalker fan to kill her, was the embarrassing low-point of “Dollhouse.” It was cheesy, poorly acted, poorly scripted, and did nothing to advance the show’s mythology. Episode four (“Gray Hour”) was a poor attempt at a heist episode that wasted the talents of Anson Mount and completely crumbled, limping toward an unsatisfying, illogical and too-easy conclusion. Episode five (“True Believer”), where Echo was programmed to go undercover as a blind woman in a Waco-like religious cult, was silly and tedious, an entire episode written, seemingly, only to further demonstrate what we already knew: Laurence Dominic doesn’t like Echo and was willing to try to kill her to make that point.
Episode six (“Man on the Street”) has been the best episode so far, but for an episode where we all expected the show to turn the corner, it was immensely disappointing. Yes: The focus turned more toward Paul Ballard’s (Tahmoh Penikett) investigation of the Dollhouse, and we did learn that there was someone on the inside of the Dollhouse trying to surreptitiously uncover its existence by programming Echo to offer Ballard some strategic advice. But, the big kicker — that Ballard’s neighbor/girlfriend, Mellie (Miracle Laurie) was a doll — seemed kind of obvious given Mellie’s series’ long awkward demeanor (but then again, given Penikett’s performances so far on the show, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he, himself, is a Doll). Moreover, the documentary wrap-arounds were lame and gimmicky, and below Whedon, and the whole Doll erection subplot was kind of weird and pointless, except to ultimately reveal that one of the handlers wasn’t handling his Doll properly.
What worked? Eliza Dushku wasn’t in the episode that much, and Patton Oswalt ever-so-briefly breathed some life into the show by, at the very least, providing a small dose of humor that mixed well with pathos. Oswalt was outstanding, and his screen time has been the best part of the show so far. Episode six also dug a little deeper into the mythology, providing a nice segue into episode seven.
Episode seven (“Echoes”) could’ve been the best episode of the season, were it not marred by several huge flaws that have been plaguing the show from the outset. First of all, Whedon attempted, finally, to bring out some full-fledged humor by introducing an airborne drug that screwed with people’s inhibitions. It might’ve worked, too, but for the fact that it was so out of character for the show. It felt stilted, awkward, and cheap; it only really worked with Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), who finally got to reveal something beneath her icy exterior, with humorous results. It didn’t work as well with the other characters (particularly Echo’s handler, Boyd (Harry Lennix) and Dominic, who were both laughably bad, like something out of a Dan Schneider Nickelodeon show). The episode also repeated the mistake of some of the earlier episodes, drifting toward an easy end (in this case, the effects of the drug simply wore off).
But what was really telling about the episode is that, the further it dug into Echo’s backstory, the less I cared. Eliza Dushku not only plays the show’s lead character, but the least exciting one. We got a fairly strong hint as to why she entered the Dollhouse program, and how long her contractual commitment is (five years), but there is absolutely nothing compelling about her former life. She was an animal rights activist / college student whose boyfriend was killed by the very organization that funds the Dollhouse? That’s it? Where’s the grand conspiracy? The layered, philosophical backstory were so accustomed to from Whedon?
What was even more dispiriting, however, was that episode seven revealed more of Echo’s former life than any other episode, and it was still difficult to tell Echo and her true identity (Caroline) apart. They both have that vacant, icy glaze about them, and they are both being played by Dushku, so what we’re getting is the same character. Thankfully, James Contner (who directed episode seven) used different filmstock for the flashbacks, otherwise I’d have never known.
Oh, and another thing: They’ve been threatening to put Echo in the attic since episode three. How long can that threat carry weight when 1) Echo is the show’s main character, and 2) they threaten it in every freakin’ episode?
In sum: Unfortunately, “Dollhouse” is a lousy show that’s managed to become slightly less lousy over the last few episodes. However, it’s got very little room left to maneuver. These imprint-of-the-week episodes are clearly not working, and the show’s empty mythology has backed Whedon into a corner. Presumably, Echo will turn double agent in subsequent episodes, feeding Ballard more clues, until Echo eventually snaps out of it and goes rogue, but that will belie the show’s central premise. However, given the almost certainty that Whedon only has five more episodes to work with (all of which have already been filmed), I hope that he at least has a satisfying conclusion to wrap up the series. And yes: I’m enough of a sucker for Whedon to stick out the entire season/series in the hopes that there’s a little of that Whedon magic at the end of the run. I’m stupidly optimistic that way.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can yell at him via email or in the comments below.