Dollhouse

Dollhouse 01Dollhouse 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.

Dollhouse 02Dushku is forceful in driving the series, not only as the leading actress, but also as the producer.  She has matured into a fine actress and her beauty is simply stunning.

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.

Dollhouse 04Great 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.

Dollhouse 05The 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.

Dead Like Me

Dead Like MeThe Afterlife for a Grim Reaper is a pretty bizarre place in this terrific little Showtime television series that lasted two seasons.  Laced with dry, dark humor and peppered with expletives, Dead Like Me is full of fascinating, sometimes hilarious characters going about the process of reaping souls.  Sometimes, along the way, there are serious moments and a few solid observations about life and death.

Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth) is an 18 year old girl who has just dropped out of college.  She is bored with life and avoids unhappy situations by affecting an attitude of not caring what happens.  She is living at home with her mother, Joy (Cynthia Stevenson),  who is frustrated by her daughter’s apparent lack of love, father Clancy (Greg Kean), a professor at the University of Washington who is having an affair with a student and simply going through the motions at home, and her little sister Reggie (Britt McKillip), who worships her and is upset that George has cut her out of her life.

Upset with George’s lassitude, Joy sends her out to the Happy Time employment agency to get a job so she can get an apartment and move out.  At the Happy Time agency, she is a little freaked out by the receptionist, Crystal (Crystal Dahl) and the almost overbearingly happy Delores Herbig (Christine Willes), but she takes a part time job there and begins work as a file as a file clerk.  On her very first lunch break, unaware that the Mir Space Station’s deteriorating orbit is breaking it into pieces, she relaxes in a plaza when the Space Station’s toilet seat comes hurtling through the atmosphere and blows her into a hundred little pieces.  Although she wasn’t aware of it, a Grim Reaper (they look like normal people) shucks her soul from her body with a simple touch.  Standing around watching the fallout from her death, George is approached by Rube (Mandy Patinkin) who tells her that the man who just reaped her soul has filled his quota and she must take his place as a Grim Reaper.  She will also have a quota of souls to reap before she will be able to move on, but she won’t know what that quota is until she reaches the magic number.  Rube heads up a small group who work the External Influence Division, assigned to reap the souls of violent deaths, suicides, murders and so on.  She has a new body now that doesn’t look like her old one and, unfortunately, she must get a job and a place to live because there is no paycheck for reaping.

An English reaper, Mason (Callum Blue) takes her to a penthouse where an execution-style multiple murder has taken place and he tells her she can live there temporarily as he goes through pants pockets removing money.  The other reapers in her little band include Betty (Rebecca Gayheart), a carefree soul who takes pictures of the people whose soul she’s about to reap, and Roxy (Jasmine Guy), who works as a meter maid and has a no-nonsense approach to reaping souls.  There are also little creatures called Gravelings that scurry around arranging the accidents or situations that actually kill people.  In general, the reapers try to avoid these ugly little creatures as they cause a great deal of mayhem when their patience is tested.  This little group meets at various times at Der Waffle Haus restaurant, where Rube hands out their assignments on yellow Post-It notes, giving only initials, last name, place and ETD (Estimated Time of Death).  The waitress, Kiffany (Patricia Idlette), the cooks, the patrons, and even the food play a major role in the comedy.

George rebels against her new state of being at first, testing Rube’s patience as she tries to save a little girl who is about to die in a train crash.  However, Rube tells her that if the soul is not reaped, it will wither and die, leaving a hollow, unhappy person.  If the person does die without their soul being reaped, it continues to live on inside the dead body, which is a terrible thing to do to anyone.  Gradually, George begins to accept her state of being, but she can’t seem to let go of her family, repeatedly visiting them and watching as Joy grieves and Reggie acts out her sorrow by stealing toilet seats all over town.

The creator of the series, Bryan Fuller, brought a wicked sense of humor to the show and if you don’t like dark humor or if you take death too seriously, this is probably not the show for you.  I thought it was awfully funny and developed a serious addiction right from the beginning.

Ellen Muth Mandy PatinkinThe casting is excellent, beginning with Ellen Muth who was born to utter droll, witty, ironic comments, yet has the vulnerability to pull off the more serious moments, too.  Her character drives all of the action and she handles it deftly, leading us through the entire series.  George’s foil is Rube, played brilliantly by the multi-talented Mandy Pitinkin, making his character into a father figure for all of the reapers, a man who is much deeper than his surface appearance.  Blue, Gayheart, and Guy all offer sharp, well-rounded characters, although after the fifth episode, Gayheart’s character is replaced by Daisy Adair (Laura Harris), a former actress with a seriously sexy history, but who brings a deeper level of vulnerability than one might expect.

Cynthia Stevenson, who is always terrific, comes through again with a deep, well-layered performance as Joy and Brett McKillip is endearing as the angst-ridden Reggie.  Christine Willes is hilarious as Delores Herbig “as in, her big brown eyes” and so is Crystal Dahl as the spooky receptionist.

Clever, creative scripts keep the story moving along and even though each episode could be taken as a stand-alone episode, the story, especially during the first season does move forward from one episode to another.

Quirky, extremely funny, and very well written and directed, Dead Like Me is a terrific series full of dry, dark humor.  I highly recommend it for mature viewers.