Review: Dollhouse

Joss Whedon continues to fight the darkness
By SHARON STEEL  |  February 9, 2009

VIDEO: The trailer for Dollhouse

Interview: Joss Whedon. By Sharon Steel.
You know a Joss Whedon show when you see it. The director/writer/producer's plots are propelled by a dark presence, and his casts tend to feature a gang of sassy young people who are charged with fighting it every day. You can count on scenes featuring beautiful women kicking major ass, scenes so well-choreographed, they begin to resemble a kind of dance. Not to mention droll, lightning-round discussions about how to save the world today and kiss someone cute tomorrow. But the most wonderful element of a Whedon show just might be the Kurt Vonnegut–esque satire that coats it. He's always been able to inject an irresistible playfulness into stories about weird creatures, outer space, and sexy machines. To judge from its first episode, Dollhouse (Fox, Fridays at 9 pm), his latest sci-fi psychodrama series, doesn't appear to have made room for much of that levity.

There are no big baddies in Dollhouse — at least, not the usual sort. Deceptive vampires, cannibalistic Reavers, greedy demons, and the rest have all been whisked under the bed in favor of a different kind of terror: the impossible search for identity. Tough-girl actress Eliza Dushku plays ingûnue Echo, a member of an illegal, underground group of individuals called "Actives" who keep having their personalities wiped. Echo's job requires her to be both a blank slate and everything a "client" could possibly want. Need someone to fall hopelessly, furiously, forever in love with you? She's yours for the weekend. Want a skilled assassin to kill a dude in a pinch? Echo gets it done in leather pants. Your daughter's been kidnapped and is being held for ransom and you need the delicate psychological manipulation of a master negotiator? Such is Echo's mission in Dollhouse's first episode. She and her fellow Actives do all this and much more once their minds and bodies have been encrypted with the traits, memories, movements, and life experiences of several different individuals. It's a pre-mixed super-personality cocktail that involves having needles pushed into your nerves while you're semi-conscious. Fun!

"She can be anyone in the world, except herself," Topher, the Dollhouse's pompous personality architect, says of our heroine. When we meet her, she's just beginning to foster an awareness of what she's become — which leaves no time for a logical explanation and tosses out lots of weird information that doesn't yet make sense. Although this approach has tripped up networks like Fox in the past (RIP, Firefly!), Whedon is fond of asking us to work a little, to acclimate ourselves. And it feels right to trust Echo, an unreliable yet compelling narrator. Not unlike Sidney Bristow on early Alias seasons, she's responsible for acquiring self-awareness. And, when she isn't stuck inside her head, for keeping her "engagements" crackling with entertainment value.

But is playing down the capers and the silly violence a necessary growing pain for Whedon or a tragic shortfall? Taking the pilot as a stand-alone piece, a resident of the Whedonverse might well yearn for the good old days when Buffy roamed through graveyards doling out witticisms as she drove stakes through undead hearts, when Zoe cursed in Mandarin before shooting at a member of the Alliance. This is not to say that Dollhouse won't find itself. When you're battling the forces of evil in a void, it can be a little difficult to figure everything out right away.

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