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Season One of Dollhouse: Did I Fall Asleep?

June 1, 2009

Season One of Dollhouse: Did I Fall Asleep?

-Jess d’Arbonne


EDITOR’S WARNING:  There be SPOILERS in these here WATERS!

It’s no Buffy or Firefly, and it definitely isn’t Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse is something entirely different. Like, really different, right down to the legions of different characters actress Eliza Dushku plays from week to week. It’s also a different kind of show: a sci-fi series masquerading as a primetime thriller.

Despite a dubious start while the show’s creators found their bearings, I found Dollhouse intoxicating from the start. It quickly picked up speed, racing ahead through the plot twists at speeds other shows never even consider for fear of crashing. I soon found myself stationed religiously in front of the tube on Friday nights, more concentrated than a can of orange juice, just waiting for the next secret to be revealed.

Now that it has officially been renewed for a second season (and with good reason), it’s time to wrap our brains around the first season of this unique new show… if we can.

At its core, Dollhouse is about identity. What makes a person who they are? How easy is it to erase that identity and replace it with another? The Dollhouse in the title is a very underground, very illegal organization offering a bizarre, titillating, and morally ambiguous service. The Dolls—or Actives, as they are called—are blank slates, people whose memories have been wiped, allowing them to be imprinted with any personality, any identity the client desires. The Dolls can be anyone and do anything during their limited Engagements with their filthy rich clientele. Want the perfect date to impress your friends at that class reunion? Need a blind person to spy on the religious cult living in your backyard? Looking for a chef to make you the perfect three-cheese omelet you’ve been hankering for all week? The Dollhouse has you covered. Dushku (Angel, Tru Calling) stars as Echo, a Doll whose habit of going off-mission and thinking outside the box gets her into trouble as often as it advances the juicy—sometimes creepy—plot.

Since the principle Dolls Echo, Victor (Enver Gjokaj), and Sierra (Dichen Lachman) have drastically different identities from week to week, each episode is bound to surprise. In a 12-episode season, the show has more shocking twists than a water slide. Assume nothing, and especially don’t think you know who anyone really is.

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’re wiped they say with ritual seriousness, “Did I fall asleep?” The Dolls exist in a childlike state between Engagements, perfectly innocent and clueless. Creepy? Exceedingly so. Want to see more? Yes please.

We enter the Dollhouse this season a short time after a mysterious accident, in which a “composite incident” caused a Doll to go rogue, wreaking general mayhem and murder in the Dollhouse before escaping. Alpha remains the mysterious antagonist for the entire season, popping up once every few episodes like a bad rash to muck things up for the Dollhouse according to his own nefarious plans. Defending the Dollhouse against this menace are Adelle Dewitt (Olivia Williams), a cross between the commander-in-chief and the madam, Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) the quirky genius behind the Dollhouse’s technology, and Echo’s handler, protector, and all-around father figure Boyd Langdon (Harry Lennix).

The Dollhouse is faced with another threat in the form of Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett of Battlestar Galactica), a determined FBI agent hot on their trail. Obsessed with finding Caroline, the girl Echo used to be, Ballard believes the Dollhouse to be no better than a slave trade, dealing in murder of the mind, if not the body. Yes, he’s a bit dramatic, but you’ve got to admire the guy’s pluck and tenacity. Our first earth-shattering plot twist comes when it is revealed that both Ballard’s mob contact and his girlfriend Mellie (Miracle Laurie) are Dolls, placed in his life to lead him on a wild goose chase and keep tabs on him.

But the Dollhouse has bigger worries than FBI agents and rogue Dolls. From within the plush confines of the Dollhouse, a threat is growing. Some of the Dolls are becoming self-aware in their childlike state, forming friendships and crushes. Despite Topher’s best efforts at wiping their minds, Victor falls in love with Sierra, and Echo shows an amazing ability to adapt, learn, and remember. While initially seen as a problem, Echo’s growing self-awareness helps to protect the Dollhouse when it is revealed that there is a spy in their midst. Echo not only requests to be imprinted, but snoops out the spy (head of security Laurence Dominic, played by Reed Diamond) and takes him down herself. “I’m not broken,” she declares while pummeling said spy, and we are left to wonder: Is that the imprint talking, or Echo herself?

Things come to a head when Ballard finds the Dollhouse and breaks in, unwittingly helping Alpha in his dastardly plans. And who plays the enemy rogue Doll? None other than Whedon veteran Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Arrested Development), pretending to be the paranoid designer of the Dollhouse before revealing his true identity as the scalpel-wielding evil mastermind. The two-part season finale becomes a race to save a life—Caroline’s life, Echo’s old life, the person she used to be and the soul she can never be separated from… it’s all very existential. Old enemies become allies, secrets are revealed, and the delicate existence of the Dollhouse is thrown into peril! Intrigue and excitement abound!

At the end of the day, Echo saves everyone with a little help from the unlikely team of Boyd and Ballard, and we get season two, so everybody wins.

Visually, Dollhouse is jaw-droppingly beautiful. No expense was spared in constructing the set of the luxurious, feng-shui Dollhouse, and it shows. But besides the décor, the actors provide a delectable menu of eye candy. Seriously, there are an unusual number of uniquely beautiful people in this phenomenal cast. It’s almost unnatural. Whedon’s strength lies in his ensemble casts (just watch Buffy and Serenity), and despite the range of characters each actor plays, together they form a dynamic, fascinating troupe. The Dolls show extraordinary range, playing characters with not only different personalities and life stories, but vastly different nationalities, abilities, and ages. Dushku makes a surprisingly good 50-year-old society woman, and Gjokaj is breathtaking when imprinted with Dominic’s personality: an actor playing a character playing another actor playing a character. How’s that for complex?

Even the non-Doll characters give multi-layered performances. But it’s the relationships between these characters that truly drew me into the show. There’s the father-daughter relationship of trust, pride, and protection between Echo and her handler Boyd, touching for its sincerity and heart-breaking when they are separated. The budding romance of Ballard and Mellie is adorable in the crush stage, and deeply disturbing when he realizes she’s a Doll sent to spy on him. And in a truly gratifying twist, ice queen DeWitt only shows her true vulnerability to Victor’s Roger imprint, whom she engages for a secret rendezvous on her day off.

Getting renewed for a second season was never a sure thing. From day one, there was talk of Dollhouse getting cancelled. For fans of Whedon, the feeling of dread and anticipated disappointment was all too familiar, after his cult series Firefly was cancelled with only 11 of the 14 episodes aired. News of a season two in the works means fans of Dollhouse can breathe a sigh of relief, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Season one moved unusually fast for a plot of only 12 aired episodes. This might have been a sign of the show’s creators preparing for the possibility of cancellation, trying to bring closure to the show after a single season. Since so much was revealed in the first 12 episodes, we have to wonder: What’s left to tell in the Dollhouse’s story?

News of season two is still relatively recent, so there’s a lot of speculation as to what we have to look forward to. Season one left us with a few unanswered questions: Who inside the Dollhouse has been feeding Ballard information? What will happen to Victor as a Doll now that his face is scarred? Will Doctor Saunders stay with the Dollhouse now that her past has been revealed? Have we seen the last of Alpha?

Season one of Dollhouse feels like a roller coaster ride. It starts of slow and unsure of itself, then quickly picks up speed and hurtles its viewers through hairpin turns. By the end you feel breathless and a little frazzled, trying to understand what just happened in front of your eyes. The opening credits is dreamlike and creepy for its watery images and the theme song that sounds more like a lullaby. Though the repeated shots of Echo make it seem like the All Dushku All the Time Show, anyone who sticks with it past the opening will realize that Dollhouse is not just about one woman and her strange quest for identity, but about the cast as a whole, flaws and complex relationships included.

If you’re looking for a healthy dose of ass-kicking and sexual tension, Dollhouse has your prescription. If you like complex interpersonal struggles, thrilling heroics and savory intrigue, come to the Dollhouse. If you’re looking for the guy or gal of your dreams, give the Dollhouse a call. If you want to know how what happens next…wait for season two.

WORDS: 1,615

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