Last night finally brought the premiere of the eagerly-anticipated new Joss Whedon series, Dollhouse. Thanks to previous creations Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and, to a lesser degree, Firefly, Whedon has developed a small but devoted fan base that will follow him anywhere (something that he shares with J Michael Straczynski and J.J. Abrams, but which is far from the norm in TV circles). I like each of those earlier Whedon-vehicles enough that I'd try practically anything that came out with his name attached, and so I was there, butt in seat, for last night's 9:00 debut on Fox. (I continue to be amused by the rather-clever marketing move of combining Summer Glau from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles with Eliza Dushku in promoting Fox's Durable Dame Doubleheader.)
Many of the reviews that I'd read beforehand were pretty rough on Dollhouse. One of the most common complaints expressed - that the audience can't bond with or invest in a main character who's essentially a cipher in terms of personality (i.e. she doesn't have one of her own) - is something that I think probably will hurt the series, over time, if it's not addressed. Sure, it's going to be fun to see Eliza Dushku take on vastly different characters as Echo every week. In the premiere, she first plays a lovestruck party-girl who's convinced that she's just met "the one" in the person of some spoiled rich brat (ironically named "Matt") who really just wanted a perfect weekend of sex and adventure with a disposable hottie. When the clock runs out on Matt's birthday present to himself, Echo's de-programmed and then later re-built as a super-competent, no-nonsense hostage negotiator who's being rented by an ultra-wealthy Mexican expatriot whose 12-year old daughter has been kidnapped. The two Echo imprints couldn't be less alike (although even an all-business attitude, updo and glasses do little to diminish Dushku's hotness in the latter role) and so the show very quickly establishes its premise. But we're still stuck with the original problem: we want to, but can't, get to know the real Echo. (In story terms, there is no "real Echo," but you know what I mean!)
We do learn that Echo is far from unique in her existence as a new rewritable memory format, though. When not out "on assignment," she resides with the rest of the "agents" in "the Dollhouse," which is some shadowy organization that's run by Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams, who you may remember as Bruce Willis' wife in The Sixth Sense). Ms DeWitt's motivations, as well as her resources and credibility, are suspect as the show begins, but her stated stance, at least, is that she's "helping people." We see other men and women in various stages of "dollification" (I just made that word up!), making it clear that having your original memories and personality ripped out of you and tossed in the garbage isn't actually as easy a process as... well, a really stupid person might believe it to be! Each agent gets "dolled up" in a high-tech chair that's (I'm sorry) way too similar to the one used in NBC's My Own Worst Enemy (which not only beat Dollhouse out of the 2008/09 gate by about 5 months but also managed to get canceled before the Fox show had even debuted!). They also get reset to semi-blankness in the same impressive-looking recliner after completing their assignment, at which point they apparently get to wander around the Dollhouse aimlessly, engaging in coed showering and mindless chatter until climbing into slots in the floor and going night-night.
There's a line early on about how the authorities would surely shut down the Dollhouse and toss its management into jail if its existence was ever found out, which of course means that there's already an FBI hunk Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, "Helo" of Battlestar Galactica fame) on the case. Whedon's sometimes a little too "by the book" for my tastes, and the pilot of Dollhouse suffers more than a little from that weakness. Besides the various points of conflict being immediately established and beaten over the head with a hammer - not only is the FBI agent in conflict with his own superiors over his pursuit of the mysterious "Dollhouse" urban legend that he's tracking with unprofessional zeal and career-limiting tactlessness, but as that conversation plays out, we're shown shots of Ballard in a boxing ring with another man! and no, I'm not making that up! - there's also one flashback scene with a pre-Echo Dushku voicing the Whedonistic refrain, "every action has consequences." It's the sort of thing that seemed fresh and exciting on TV 10 years ago but which comes across more like a crutch when I see it used by the same guy, over and over again. (One bit of Whedon schtick that was mostly absent from the pilot, and which I didn't miss at all, was the use of humourous dialogue to undercut, and sometimes undermine, tension. I personally hope that it makes no more than cameo appearances as the series progresses, as I find that it takes me out of the scene more often than not.)
There are also some credibility gaps that need to be filled, if the show is really going to last. We need to find out why these people would agree to essentially commit suicide in order to become tools-for-rent (which I imagine we will), how any private organization could ever expect to pull off an operation of this size in total secrecy when they're renting their services out to anyone who'll pay (not exactly a top-secret approach, that!), where the ground-breaking technology itself comes from (and I'm hoping that we're not really expected to believe that it's the work of the one annoying hot-shot genius that we've seen so far) and why anyone wealthy enough to afford the Dollhouse's services wouldn't simply hire actual experts instead of "dolled-up" ones.
Those criticisms aside, I actually quite enjoyed a lot of what Dollhouse offered up in its debut. Amy Acker (Fred Burkle/Illyria in Angel, as well as Kelly Payton in Alias) plays Dr Claire Saunders, a scarred woman with what's certainly going to prove to be an interesting backstory. I'll freely cop to being a big fan of the actress, as I think she's lit up the scene every time I've come across her. Rather than trading on her good looks to play the same character each time, Acker has ranged from Southern small-town science nerd (Fred) to cold-blooded killer (Kelly) to other-worldly god-in-human-form (Illyria), and I've bought it each time. I can hardly wait to see what Dr Saunders has in store for us in future episodes.
I also liked that there's some moral ambiguity in place right from the start. One of the handlers (played by Harry Lennix), for example, is already beginning to question the neutral stance that the organization takes in matters involving innocents in harm's way. That sort of thing may get tiresome quickly, though, if there isn't any evolution. And as I said to my wife at one point, viewed one way the Dollhouse is really nothing more than a high-priced whorehouse. If I'm rich and can therefore rent Eliza Dushku to use as my sex toy before tossing her back, how is that anything other than prostitution? Hopefully the show will deal with that angle before long.
Overall, I'm intrigued enough by what I saw, as well as trusting enough in the Whedon track record, to sign up for more Dollhouse. I think I read that 13 episodes were ordered by Fox, so we'll at least get that much. Whether the show follows in the footsteps of Buffy (7 seasons) and Angel (5 seasons) or goes the way of the late, lamented Firefly (13 episodes) remains to be seen. I think that it needs to step its game some to stick around, but at least it got off to an interesting start.