Saturday, February 14, 2009

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Has it really been six years since we had shiny new Joss on our televisions? Yes it has (not counting Dr. Horrible, of course, which started on the web but is often on my TV via the miracle of DVD), and last night we had the premiere of his new show, Dollhouse. Was it worth the wait, and could it possibly live up to the expectations of the rabid fanbase (of which I count myself a member)?

The short answer is a guarded "probably."

Pilot episodes are a tricky thing. You have to introduce the audience to the characters, to the concept and to the world in which the show will be taking place, all while moving a plot along and keeping the audience entertained. The easier the concept is to understand, the more you can focus on the other elements. For example, take USA's wonderful Burn Notice. Once you get the notion of what exactly a "burn notice" is, which takes about 30 seconds of exposition, you can jump right into the plot and start chugging merrily along. The other end of the spectrum is something like Lost, where the pilot (or "Pilot") just drops you right into the middle of this incomprehensible situation and makes no attempt to explain the larger mythology and concept right away. In fact, NOT explaining things was the whole point there; it just introduced you to characters and provided an adrenaline shot of mystery and danger. Dollhouse had a lot of 'splainin' to do to set up exactly what we were going to be watching, and for the most part, it succeeded.

We got enough information, through both "showing" and "telling," to understand the basic concept of the Dollhouse: it's a high tech, shadowy and highly illegal operation that uses blank slate "actives" who can be programmed to be anything that the well paying clients need or desire. In this regard, there's one place I felt that the script really fell down and didn't do the show any favors. Many of the early reviews and questions about Dollhouse have asked "why rent an active for sexcapades when you can just get a hooker? Why rent an active as a hostage negotiator when you can just rent a 'real' hostage negotiator?" In the scene where the FBI honchos were coming down on Dollhouse-obsessed agent Paul Ballard, they attempted to address this, and went off on a tangent about the rich who have everything, and just want more everything and the quest for perfection.

While this has some interesting psychological underpinnings, I think that was a bit oblique for a pilot episode set up and was a big missed opportunity. There's a much better prima fascia case to be made for using "dolls" rather than their "real life" counterparts: once the "engagement" is over, then all records and memory of the whole engagement are gone. Erased from existence. Wanna spend a weekend getting your freak on with a hottie, engaging in all manner of deviant and/or embarrassing behavior? If you use the Dollhouse, once the weekend is over, there's not a hooker walking around that remembers you, can identify you or could ever come out of the woodwork to blackmail or humilate you. Or take the hostage negotiation situation last night. I thought through what would be my motivations if I were the client. No police involved. No questions from the authorities on the "whys" of the kidnapping, that might expose some of my shady business practices. No paperwork or record of the kidnapping that might encourage or embolden other kidnappers in the future. If the whole thing blows up, then there are no complicated legal scenarios from which to extract myself. If the "active" gets killed, then there is no one else (such as the FBI, local police or even an independently contracted negotiator's friends and family) to ask questions. The beauty of using the Dollhouse is that once the engagement is ended, it's like it never existed, and that is one of the primary things you pay top dollar for. I don't think Joss and company did a good job of establishing that.

The other quibble I had about the pilot was the reliance on the plot contrivances of the asthma. I understand the concept of "building" an active's profile, which includes both strengths and weaknesses of "real people" to create the doll for the engagement. But having the asthma come up at the exact same moment that the exchange was taking place? And at the exact same moment that the personality programmed into Echo recognized that one of the kidnappers was a bad man from her past? It's all a little too neat and convenient, and below the standards we've come to expect from Joss.

Those shortcomings aside, I think Dollhouse was an engaging hour of television, with an intriguing and complicated (in a good way) premise that should allow for some multilayered storytelling going forward.

If we think back on past Joss pilots, they've been kind of a mixed bag. Buffy set up the concept pretty well, but the dialogue and characters probably needed to be dialed down a notch, and as good as that series was (one of the best ever), it really took until the second season for it to find its groove and start firing on all cylinders. Angel was dark and noirish, with a sprinkling of humor (hi, Cordy!), but didn't truly settle into what it was going to be for a while. Firefly, when viewed in the intended order, did have a spectacular pilot that expertly laid the appropriate groundwork for what was to follow. So all things considered, I would put Dollhouse somewhere on par with Angel as a pilot, ahead of Buffy and behind Firefly.

Other than the inevitable hand wringing over the ratings, the only other concern I have going forward is the versatility of lead Eliza Dushku. Now, I loved, loved, loved Eliza as Faith. One of my alltime favorite characters from any series, Whedon or not. And Eliza is absolutely gorgeous (definite Top 5), fiercely intelligent and eminently watchable. Hell, I'd tune in for a weekly show where she sits on a stage and does nothing but read various recipes for guacamole dip. And I hate guacamole dip. (It would help if there was dancing, though). But there's a lot of sass and attitude and personality that's uniquely Eliza, and I'm not sure that she, as an actress, can always sublimate that for the various and different "roles" she'll be playing each week. The counterbalance to that is twofold. One, in Joss We Trust, and he lurves her. He's had a magic and long running genius when it comes to casting and characterization, and if he's hitching his wagon to Eliza for this show, then I think we can give him (and her) the benefit of the doubt to see where it's going. And Two, who is to say exactly how the "imprinting" process works? Yes, a doll loses all their memories and major points of identity before being imprinted, but does each "active" retain just a thread of their personality or mannerisms under all the programming? So perhaps the loving "biker chick" and the "hostage negotiator" were completely different personalities, only personalities filtered through what remains of the Echo/Caroline true identity. (For comparison, each week Jennifer Garner put on a different wig, outfit and ridiculous accent, and was supposed to fool master spies as Sydney Bristow, and we all went along and suspended disbelief). Still, it would have been interesting to see what someone like Amy Acker (who here is playing the scarred and mysterious Dollhouse doctor Claire Saunders) would have done with the role. Her ability to completely be Fred Burkle, or Peyton Reed on Alias, or amazingly, ancient god Illyria, was astonishing.

The rest of the cast was uniformly excellent. We didn't see much of Dichen Lachmen as Sierra, but she was appropriately convincing kicking ass coming to the rescue at the end. Harry Lennix did a fine job acting as the "handler," and kind of our surrogate into the workings of the Dollhouse. I already mentioned Acker, who is just spectacular in anything she does. Fran Kranz did the morally questionable, nerdy, quippy thing well. We had Homicide's Reed Diamond as the no nonsense security chief. And in my opinion, the best casting of all was Olivia Williams as Dollhouse head Adelle DeWitt. She was brilliantly icy, menacing, fascinating and engaging. She took a lot of basic line readings and twisted them into something far more than was on the page with her voice and face. Just wonderful.

And finally, we have Tahmoh Penikett as FBI agent Paul Ballard. Obviously, Penikett comes from another television masterpiece in BSG, and as a person, I've always been impressed with him. I've heard numerous interviews and podcasts with him about both BSG and Dollhouse, and he's an actor that truly "gets it." He loves the fans, loves the material, and is endearingly earnest in his appreciation of getting a chance to work on complicated programs with genre kings like Whedon and Ron Moore. It goes without saying that he's just as much eye-candy for the gals as Eliza is for the guys. But I've never really loved Helo as much as some of the other characters on BSG, and I'm not sure whether his acting can be kind of one-note, unnuanced and stiff, or that's just the way Helo is written. So IMHO, the jury is out on that one until we see more of Ballard.

So, overall what did I think of Dollhouse and the pilot episode "Ghost?" A few misses, a lot of hits and a provocative set up for what will surely be a fascinating series, given time to breathe. A solid "B" to start. What about y'all?

1 comment:

  1. I liked it. I think you pointed out some of the early problems with it. I'm having a hard time separating "Faith" from Echo though - seeing her wander about saying "something fell on me" looking so vacant was disconcerting.