Sunday, February 22, 2009

Debating Dollhouse

Joss Whedon's new show Dollhouse premiered last week. You know, I love Joss Whedon. I love Eliza Dushku. I love Amy Acker. I love Tahmoh Penikett. I didn't really like Dollhouse. If it was not a Mutant Enemy production, I would not have watched it again. But sometimes Joss needs time to get the REAL story of a show going, so it pays to hang in there for a while. This week's episode was much better than the pilot, but there are still a few problems that seem like inherent design flaws that will hold the show back. Despite liking the creative team involved here, I don't see how the premise can sustain itself over a series.
Let's have wikipedia and TWOP do most of the heavy lifting in explaining what's going on: In Dollhouse, Dusku plays a young woman called Echo, a member of a group of people known as "Actives" or "Dolls." The Dolls have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas, including memory, muscle memory, skills, and language, for different assignments (referred to as engagements). The new persona is not an original creation, however, but an amalgam of different, existing personalities. The end result incorporates some of the flaws, not just the strengths, of the people used as templates. The Actives are then hired out for particular jobs -- crimes, fantasies, and the occasional good deed. On engagements, Actives are monitored internally (and remotely) by Handlers. In between tasks, they are mind-wiped into a child-like state and live in a futuristic housing unit/laboratory nicknamed "The Dollhouse." Although the Actives are ostensibly volunteers, the operation is highly illegal and under constant threat from Paul Ballard, a determined federal agent who, for unknown reasons to the audience, wants to be like Mulder and risk his reputation as an FBI to prove the Dollhouse is more than just an urban legend. The truth is out there, Helo!
But the main focus of the story is Echo, who over time, seems to be retaining bits of her wiped personas. Beyond Dushku's doll, we also have met the people who run the mysterious Dollhouse, and a rogue Doll, named Alpha, who had what they call a "composite event," which means he was able to hang onto a real (and as it would seem, psychotically violent) personality, and went slasher flick on the facility, killing a bunch of staffers and his fellow Dolls. He left Echo alive for unexplained reasons, but continues engaging her from outside the facility.
So that's the story! Confused? Intrigued? Here's my problem with it. The people running Dollhouse aren't likable characters. They mostly run around bickering with each other about how to stay a secret organization. They are not fun. Fran Krantz as the guy who imprints and mind-wipes the dolls is almost unbelievably a creepy jerkwad. My distaste for this character is extreme. If we don't like the Dollhouse staff, we won't root for them or want to know more about them. It's like a show about the combined staffs of the Initiative and Wolfram & Hart! Where are the white hats? That leaves us wanting Echo to break free of her mind-wiped restraints and for Agent Ballard to expose the Dollhouse. And how long exactly is that going to take? Thirteen episodes, max? Where does the show go after that? Why, as a viewer, should I want the Dollhouse to exist? I don't really get it. But I'm willing to spend a few more weeks with Joss and the cast trying to explain it to me. Grr... Argh...

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