The Wife:

So here’s the thing about Dollhouse: the concept is really, really cool (a group of blank humans that can upload new personalities and become anything you want them to be, hookers or heroes, depending on the situation), but the concept itself might be what ends up holding this show back. Let me explain.

Happy to see that the mannequins from Nip/Tuck's opening sequence are getting work.

Happy to see that the mannequins from Nip/Tuck's opening sequence are getting work.

I found the pilot to be very intriguing, although perhaps not a total wow. We learn enough about Echo to know that she is essentially a blank slate. She wound up working for the Dollhouse because she did something bad (I’m just assuming that this is what happened to Faith after she broke out of jail and helped Wesley save the world from Angelus), and now she’s not that person anymore. We first see her being some dude’s fantasy birthday date: the kind of girl who will kick his ass in a motorcycle race (or let him win because it’s his birthday), and then light up the dance floor. But then she gets called back to her handler and has that memory entirely erased, zapped out of her head. For Echo, this feels just like she’s fallen asleep, and she wakes up devoid of personality. Eliza Dushku, who I really only know as Faith, does a good job of creating a blank stare to represent the personality-less doll version of Echo, coupled with line readings that remind of what it must be like for a child to experience something new and confusing. (When she sees a new Active being blanked out, she remarks, confused that the girl seems to be in pain, “She’s not sleeping.”)

And when a Dollhouse client’s daughter is kidnapped, Echo is recruited to become Eleanor, a hostage negotiator – stern and scholarly and all-business. As Eleanor, Echo does everything by the book. She neatly arranges a trade of money for the little girl, but something goes wrong at the dock when she sees a man she knows, which causes her to have an asthmatic reaction that ends up getting the client shot, causing her handler, Boyd, to intervene by taking out the shooter. And why did Echo know this man? Because Eleanor did. The personalities imprinted on the Actives, it seems, are composites from real people, and real strengths come with real weaknesses. Boyd didn’t understand why Topher, the Dollhouse’s chief imprinter/eraser, would program the Actives, who should be superhuman, with any flaws at all. It is our flaws, Topher argues, that drive us to succeed. We make up for those shortcomings. Eleanor, then, is nearsighted (which he can program Echo to experience) and asthmatic, both things that ultimately drove her to become a successful negotiator. But there’s one part of her personality that really drove Eleanor, or at least one of the people “Eleanor” was composited from, to become a good hostage negotiator is exactly the thing that crippled her on the docks: as a child, she was abducted by one of the men who abducted Davina.

Clearly, Faith's life has taken a very drastic turn for the better.

Clearly, Faith's life has taken a very drastic turn for the better.

The folks at the Dollhouse want Echo to be blanked immediately, considering the mission to protect the client botched, but Boyd, who is just as personality-less as blank Echo and seems to exist merely to point out issues in the narrative, insists that they should continue their mission and help the client by getting his daughter back. Instead of erasing Echo, Topher merely upgrades her and Boyd and Echo-as-Eleanor go on to rescue little Davina with the help of newly recruited Active Sierra, who Echo saw being blanked out earlier in the episode and who entered the mission in the role of a SWAT team leader. After all of this, both Echo and Sierra are blanked out and return to sleep in their Zen little floor coffins, thinking, I presume, of nothing at all because they have no personalities.

Throughout all of this, some badass government agent is looking for the Dollhouse and Olivia Williams and Reed Diamond are busy trying to protect their clients so that the Dollhouse can continue to operate, as it would surely be destroyed should badass government agent man ever find it. Someone other than that badass government agent man might be looking for the Dollhouse, too, if that shot at the end of some mysterious murderous figure watching Echo’s video yearbook from back when she was Caroline College Girl is any indication.

Amy Acker is also around as the Dollhouse’s staff doctor, who definitely has something going on given that she looks very suspicious in every shot. She’s either a spy, or maybe an Active herself, as she is oddly fascinated with the blanking room. Or maybe she’s just like Boyd, and feels a little uncomfortable with the company she’s chosen to work for. I can’t quite tell. Just like how I can’t quite tell yet if Dollhouse will succeed or not.

As cool as Dollhouse is in concept, there is a problem with its main character actually not being a character at all. Joss Whedon is a smart guy, and I realize that this is his exact intent, to fuck with conventional storytelling and present something fresh and unique, like a show where the main character actually doesn’t have a personality at all, for instance. I want to have faith that Whedon will pull this off, but I am a little skeptical at this point. I’ve heard that Echo starts remembering things, but so far, we’ve only seen her remember what she should remember when she’s got another person’s personality. Without Echo having some of her own Echo/Caroline memories surface, she will be very difficult to relate to because we won’t know who she is. I’m sure Joss will break her out of this soon, so I’ll definitely hang in to wait and see a little longer with Dollhouse. But until Caroline starts to break though, to whom am I supposed to relate? Boyd? Amy Acker? I’m inclined to lean towards Amy Acker, because I like Fred so much, but alas, she’s only a guest star, so I doubt she’ll be around for too long.

Some random observations:

  • I do not know what the fuck was up with Badass Government Agent Guy’s Raging Bull sequence, but he was fighting Toa from American Gladiators, and that’s wicked cool. Toa, by the way, is The Rock’s cousin and stunt double.
  • I really hope we learn about some of the male Actives, and I hope that the male Actives are hired for sex missions just as often as the female Actives are.
  • I’m glad that every Active is named in accordance with the military alphabet according to when they arrived at the Dollhouse. We know there’s an Alpha, an Echo and a Sierra (the 19th, and therefore, newest member), so I also assume there’s a Bravo, a Charlie, a Delta, a Foxtrot, a Golf and so on. The twentieth Active will be Tango, and that’ll be a totally sweet name.
  • Even though Echo is just Echo because she was the fifth Active to join the Dollhouse, I like that her name also holds an expectation that she will indeed experience some echoes of her former life. I also like the mythological implication that she’s merely doomed to parrot back information that people supply to her, devoid of her own thoughts and feelings. Joss Whedon is so smart.

The Husband:

I think I’m coming down on the show in the same way. I think it’s much better than the half-assed critical drubbing it got last week, but I have to chalk a good deal of that up to people so used to the perversely quippy glee of Buffy or the remarkably deep mythology of Angel that nobody was really going to be sated. Hell, I know several Buffy fans who outright do not like Firefly.

But here’s the thing. I think in its half-season, Firefly is an overall better show than either Buffy or Angel. No, it wasn’t allowed the depth of either of those two, but had it continued into seven seasons (like Buffy) or even five (like Angel), we would be worshipping at the altar of the Browncoats.

My relationship with Whedon is strange. I fully admit that I might like Firefly the most because it was my true introduction into the Whedonverse. Sure, I had seen an occasional episode of Buffy throughout the years (once I heard “musical episode” when I was in college without a TV, you better believe I Limewired that shit immediately), but it never hooked me, and it wasn’t even until two years after it was canceled that my cousin Gabe handed me the Firefly boxset, watched the first two episodes with me, and let me pretty much mainline it for the following week. I’m also far more into sci-fi than fantasy/monster stuff, so that worked against me, too.

Finally, I watched all of Buffy over the course of a year, some with my wife and some without. It took me a long time to really dig it, because it had been so hyped as one of the greatest shows ever, and it’s hard to live up to that. But I nearly hated the first season, and feel that s2 has some major issues and is saved mostly by the presence of Spike, still the best Buffyverse character by a mile. Something just wasn’t working. Even now, after seven seasons, I don’t think it’s brilliant. I’m sorry. I didn’t care about the ascension, I didn’t care about the Lindsay Crouse experiments, and I really didn’t care about Tara.

However, when the show is on, it is fucking amazing, but there are far too many lame/boring/outright terrible episodes to truly classify it as one of the greats. It has so many flaws, but in the end the mythology is so immersive and the characters so focused that I now admire the show like hell. It just isn’t all there for me. But that’s the price you have to pay when you have 144 episodes. Some of them are just going to be bad.

My wife and I are not done with Angel, but we only have one full season left to go, and so I can say that while Angel takes itself far more seriously than Buffy (something that always bothered me about the more female-driven show), I think it sometimes gets up its own ass in all of its mytharcs that it forgets to be enjoyable. But I appreciate that the show is different enough from Buffy that I can enjoy aspects of each.

But Firefly speaks to me. It shows a matured Whedon, a more economical storyteller, somebody with a better understanding of when to tone down the comedy and when to really up the pathos, and a better director. And yes, I fucking love Serenity. That may be one of the purest science-fiction films since A New Hope.

Dollhouse, I fully understand, is a bit of a compromise between Whedon and the network, and technically, this is okay. People underestimate the usefulness of a savvy producer, one who knows how to draw in bigger audiences, but I’m also surprised with how mysterious everything still seemed even with the re-shot pilot. Did I understand everything that was going on? No. It needs a bigger injection of energy (that’s not saying it desperately needs comedy, because I’d rather the show have its own personality), but I’m extremely intrigued, and, like always, I try not to judge a show until at least six episodes in.