It’s here. Our screens have finally been graced by Dollhouse, the latest creation from mastergeek Joss Whedon. How long it will stay there, though, is uncertain. Whedon’s last effort for mainstream television, Firefly, aired just eleven episodes before it was cancelled by the Fox network. Despite never failing to produce cult hits (witness 2008’s Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog), Whedon hasn’t managed to create a show that translates to the mainstream audience since Buffy in the late 90s. Whether Dollhouse will finally break the trend is anyone’s guess.
The idea behind the show isn’t hard to understand. Through a mysterious technological process involving blue lights, a group of beautiful, lithe people have had their personalities and memories completely wiped by a secretive corporation called the Dollhouse. This process leaves their minds free to be imprinted with whatever traits and abilities the Dollhouse’s many rich clients choose. It’s essentially a very high grade brand of prostitution – for a certain period of (very highly paid for) time, the Dolls become the property of their borrowers, who can then tell them to do whatever they want. The Dolls genuinely believe that they are the character they are playing – a mountaineer, a hostage negotiator, a daredevil or a loving partner. At the end of their allotted time with the client they are taken back to the Dollhouse where their memory is wiped, leaving them a clean slate for their next outing.
The show centres around Echo (Eliza Dushku), the lithest and most beautiful of all the Dolls who, of course, is remembering a lot more than she should do about previous missions and even her previous life. It’s a very neat let-in, and a sensible plot development, and yet there’s a ridiculous side to the premise that doesn’t go away. The problem isn’t so much that the viewer can’t believe a Doll would be able to break free from the wiping process as that it’s impossible to believe that the people who set up the Dollhouse ever seriously thought such a process could work smoothly. It’s common knowledge, stated very clearly in The Matrix, that brains are complex things designed to break through restraint and get to the truth. I can’t accept the assertion that none of the other Dolls are getting to their daily rendezvous with Topher the smug blond scientist and thinking, ‘hey, I have been here before, and it sucked then, too.’ It’s puzzling, as well, that none of the intact humans who surround the Dolls display even the slightest suspicion that this illicit mental activity might be going on. Instead, they give the Dolls huge, painful hints about what a pity it is that they have been brainwashed so that they can’t remember anything, and how if they could they would hate their creators and probably use the skills that the facility taught them to wipe everyone out. When, in the second episode, we get hints that this kind of short-circuiting has not only happened before, but happened recently, the behaviour the Dolls’ handlers display becomes even stranger. It’s either an evil plan or a massive plot hole, and, unfortunately, I’m inclined to believe the latter.
As a central actor, Eliza Dushku is a slightly iffy choice. Although she’s remembered as Buffy’s Faith and Bring It On’s Missy, her most recent (and only starring) role was on the truly execrable Tru Calling. It was show so terrible that, four years later, I still actively resent myself for having spent precious minutes of my life viewing it. The general assumption since that moment has to have been that Eliza Dushku is utterly talentless and dreadful, with mastery of only three expressions: mild confusion, mild determination and botox sorrow.
However, when placed in an environment with good writing and an enormous budget, she proves to be nothing worse than bland and ultimately harmless, like a dish of aeroplane pudding. A great actress she is not, but she turns out to be strangely perfect for the role of Echo. Eliza Duskhu was made to play brainwashed. She drifts aimlessly around the Dollhouse facility like a five-year-old on sedatives, with all the beautiful lack of expression of a glazed doughnut. Acting the parts she assumes on her missions is clearly much harder for her, but she manages to pull them off with at least partial success.
The characters who surround her are, for the most part, pretty stock at this stage of proceedings. Olivia Williams plays textbook prissy English lady for her role as Adelle DeWitt, the Dollhouse madam, and Harry Lenix is clearly channelling Alias’s Dixon as Mr Langton, Echo’s trusty handler. Possibly this lack of character exploration is a good thing, though, because the most fully developed supporting role so far is the irksome tech-whiz Topher Brink, the man in charge of the Dolls’ brainwiping procedure. His parts of the script are painfully try-hard, making it impossible to understand why any real human being would either hire him or retain his services.
All in all, Dollhouse is an arresting show at first, but one with little to make it stand out from its competition. In too many areas it’s typical – a secret corporation, beautiful women being sent on life-threatening missions and a federal officer (Tahmoh Penikett, Battlestar Galactica) working on his own to justify his hunch that the mysterious ‘Dollhouse’ exists. So far, nothing is exceptional, and while it has potential, I’m not certain that the show will get the time it needs to put that potential to use. More’s the pity.