Dollhouse is an action-adventure series in a science fiction framework that strives to be much more than it actually is. Created by whiz kid Joss Whedon and produced by its star, Eliza Dushku, the beautiful and well acted series jerks all over the map while consistently delivering fun, action-packed stories that mostly work toward a semi-coherent ending.
The Rossum Corporation (named in homage to the 1920’s play about robots, RUR, Rossom’s Universal Robots) is a gigantic, powerful medical company that takes advantage of their knowledge to manipulate and control active brain function. They have created a technology that allows them to wipe a brain of all of its permanent memories, recording it onto a “wedge.” Into this vacant brain, they install an “active” architecture that allows the subject to be implanted with a temporary personality and skills, easily wiped away once their assignment is finished. They recruit volunteers who wish to forget their lives for a period of five years, during which they will be housed in a secret underground location called a Dollhouse. Located in major urban areas, there are a number of dollhouses around the world. They are also not above forcing their enemies into performing this function. Periodically, each doll is served up a new personality paid for by the extremely wealthy for purposes ranging from a night of steamy sex to enacting a personal fantasy to performing complex business moves or even criminal actions.
The series focuses primarily on the Los Angeles Dollhouse, under the leadership of Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) and Security Chief Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond). Their principal technician is the brilliant, geeky Topher Brink (Fran Kranz). Each Active is named according the Greek alphabet. Unfortunately, Alpha (Alan Tudyk) suffered an accident in which all of his past personalities were imprinted simultaneously into his Active architecture, creating a schizophrenic, homicidal maniac. He butchers many of the security personnel and some of the dolls before escaping. Their primary female doll, Whiskey (Amy Acker), survives, but with her face mutilated. Rather than waste her talents, they imprint her with the personality of a medical doctor (Dr. Saunders) and put her on the staff. Alpha also spares Echo (Eliza Dushku) who then becomes the primary female doll.
The new number one male doll becomes Victor (Enver Gjokaj), who plays a number of roles throughout the series. Gjokaj displays mad skills as an actor and his performances enhance the series considerably. His love interest becomes Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a newcomer to the Dollhouse who also becomes a major player in the series.
Discredited FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) attempts to locate the Dollhouse, aided by his beautiful neighbor, Mellie, who also turns out to be doll November (Miracle Laurie). Rounding out the cast is Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), an ex-cop who becomes Echo’s “handler,” the Dollhouse insider who watches over her to make sure she doesn’t come to harm during her assignments.
Almost every aspect of this is beautiful, from the actors to the sets to the kinetic camera work and direction. Even the title music is truly memorable. Every episode flows with a speed and symmetry that makes it almost impossible to turn away, frequently using flashback sequences to fill in the past and once using a flash-forward to show the future. The series finale takes us into that future to see the effect of the technology on the future.
Great acting abounds throughout the series. Although Dusku’s character Echo always fuels the action, terrific performances by Fran Kranz, Enver Gjokaj, and Dichen Lachman enhance nearly episode. If you like really good acting, it permeates this show, from the leads down to the smallest recurring characters. In Season Two, Summer Glau has a really great recurring role as Topher’s other half in the Washington D.C. Dollhouse.
That being said, the show does suffer from a lack of identity. Whedon and his writing staff waver between science fiction, action adventure, and character studies. They rely far, far too much on violent fight scenes, rather than serious thought, to propel the story forward. The fight scenes are all done extremely well, but after a while there is a sameness about them that proves ultimately distracting. Like many shows of this nature, there are some stand-alone episodes, but it mostly catapults forward toward its ending, building details that all come to fruition at one point or another. There are times in some episodes, however, when the viewer is led to believe that there will be major changes, only to have the show reset at the end of the episode, leaving the viewer back at the status quo when the next episode begins, so there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance about what is going forward and what is remaining the same. In terms of the style, Whedon admits on one of the special features that he had once considered doing every episode in a different style, one mystery, one crime, one science fiction, one 1940’s throwback, etc. He didn’t do it, but I think this ultimately leads to a confusion of style that keeps the show from becoming completely cohesive.
The 26 episodes that comprise the two seasons would neatly make one full season of Star Trek, either Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager. In addition to the 26 full episodes, there is a pilot included on the DVD that was never aired on Fox. A confusing mish-mash of scenes, the pilot was eventually carved up, some of it ending up on the cutting room floor and some of it wedged into the story line of Episode 1.
One thing I generally like about DVDs is the ability to illuminate a show or a movie through interviews with the creators and actors, but the Dollhouse DVD is mostly full of self-congratulatory interviews, which I never like. There’s something about creators and actors just patting themselves on the back that puts me off. If you’re going to talk about your show, please talk about the theme, the story, the style, and creative arc. I know you’re good, you don’t have to keep telling me.
The first season ends with a show that takes the Dollhouse into the future and it is extremely compelling. At first, it put me off, but the more I watched and later as I thought about it, I came to feel that it made a perfect ending. If the series had been canceled after one season, I would have been extremely satisfied. In fact, the second season, however, is quite good, if a bit jerky and it is worth waiting for the ending, when the show moves totally into the future.
I highly recommend this television show for all science fiction junkies, for fans of action-adventure and fight scenes, and, oddly enough, for fans of another television show, Quantum Leap, for having great stand-alone episodes that concentrate more on character and story than on fighting and series-building. In spite of its problems there is a lot of stuff to be found in Dollhouse and it really does get a high recommendation.