Dollhouse: An Early Review

March 11, 2009

I just finished watching the first four episodes of Joss Whedon’s new show, Dollhouse. It’s about the very secretive, illegal Dollhouse. The Dolls (or Actives) are young people who have volunteered to have their memories wiped so they can be imprinted with entirely new personalities for limited Engagements serving their filthy rich clientele. A Doll can be anything you want him or her to be. Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, a trouble-prone Doll. Without giving too much away, here’s what I thought:

The Pros:

– The set is gorgeous. They spared no expense building the Dollhouse, and it shows.

– The relationship between Echo and her handler, Boyd, is everything you could want and expect from Whedon character interaction. Boyd, a clever and capable ex-cop is extremely protective of Echo, and in return Echo trusts him implicitly. It’s a big brother / little sister relationship that is beautifully acted.

– The routine of Doll mind-wiping is creepy and enthralling. At the end of each Engagement, the Doll very calmly goes back to their handler, “ready for their treatment.” Not a word is spoken about how their current personality is about to come to an abrupt end. After they are wiped they say with ritual seriousness, “Did I fall asleep?” The Dolls exist in a childlike state between Engagements, perfectly innocent and clueless. Creepy.

– Eliza Dushku and Dichen Lachman (Sierra) make nice eye candy.

– Tahmoh Penikett (BSG, Smallville). I could watch this man file his income taxes and love it. He plays an FBI agent on the trail of the Dollhouse, despite the disbelief of his peers.

– A rogue Doll with murderous intent is our antagonist… or is he?

The Cons:

– The opening credits and theme song, in a word, suck. It’s a montage of Eliza Dushku doing alternately sexy and innocent things behind a blue diffuse filter to the tune of a juvenile pop song, the lyrics of which are (and I quote) “Na na na naaaa.” It takes itself too seriously, and it’s far too Dushku-centric.

– In their childlike state, the Dolls wander around their Dollhouse in yoga clothes, showering, smiling vapidly, working out, and not much else. Once you get over the initial spookiness, you just get bored and try willing them to freak out or trip down the stairs.

– The clients and Engagements so far have been almost too clever. It’s as if the writers are saying, “What weird thing can we make them do that isn’t being a high-priced prostitute?” Also, we have yet to see any of the male Dolls in action (with the notable exception of Victor, who so far has only had one repeated Engagement).

– Whedon’s strength lies in an ensemble cast. Buffy, Firefly, Serenity, Angel (by season 3) all had fantastic ensemble casts with complex relationships and humorous interaction. The very fact that the Dolls don’t have the same personality from episode to episode means that they can’t have that ensemble dynamic Whedon does so well. The few close relationships (Boyd and Echo, Agent Ballard and his neighbor) stand out because we’re starved for that kind of interaction. You can only build so much pathos for characters who are basically “talking cucumbers.”

– A rogue Doll with murderous intent is our antagonist… or is he?

The Verdict:

If you go in expecting greatness, you will be disappointed. In the lineup of sci-fi shows it is average, but it has its moments. There were times when I was genuinely entertained, and when I genuinely cared about the characters. I’m willing to give it a few more episodes while the plot gears up.

~Jess d’Arbonne



  1. Joss Whedon shows tend to start off weak (see Buffy Season 1) so I’m inclined to wait and see. At least he got over that thing where he decided to make everything super dark and underexposed light-wise (see Season 7 of Buffy/Firefly sometimes). It’s an interesting aesthetic but television is a visual medium… if we wanted to imagine things we’d go hire a storyteller or listen to radio plays still. -Amanda/Seamus

  2. I tend to agree, which is why I’m willing to give “Dollhouse” awhile longer to earn my love, or at least my like.
    The lighting is lovely, and as you said, very bright! We can add that to the list of pros.

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