Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dollhouse: Season Review

Eliza, please reward my faith in you! Since Dollhouse has been renewed for next season, I have decided to do a review of the first season as a whole.  I will admit, I have found Dollhouse to be a difficult show to review.  I found most of the first half of the season to be merely mediocre.  If Joss Whedon hadn’t built up such good will with me on shows like Buffy: TVS , Firefly , and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog , I probably wouldn’t have stuck around past the first few episodes.  I am glad I did though, since the quality of the show improved dramatically over the second half of the season. 

Still, I would qualify the second half as "good but not great”.  What is frustrating is that I really think that there is a great show inside struggling to get out.  You see flashes of brilliance shine through every so often.  The dialogue, which often seems strangely wooden, will occasionally show the wit and humor I have come to expect out of Joss. 

It still seems to me that the basic premise is has flaws.  Namely, that it seems that there are much more logical uses for programmable humans then those presented on the show.  The rich should be able to get sex a lot cheaper than the Dollhouse charges for it.  Even a high-end dominatrix can’t cost as much as having Topher make Echo into one for you.  Don’t even get me started on the concept of hiring an illicit organization to program a person to be an expert midwife rather than simply hiring an expert midwife!

Lets ignore this for the moment though and talk about what I thought about the individual episodes:

Ghost: The pilot episode.  Sadly, I felt that this was a rather lackluster outing.  While I thought Eliza Dushku did pretty well at portraying Echo’s numerous personalities, I didn’t care about any of them.  The high point of this episode was Harry Lennix’s portrayal of Boyd Lagton.  He managed to convey an awful lot of complexity into this character without a whole lot of screen time.

The Target: Echo is pimped out to a outdoorsman looking for some sex in the woods.  Turns out he is looking to re-enact The Most Dangerous Game .  Sort of advances the Alpha subplot since he turns out to be behind everything.  Boyd Lagton continues to be the most interesting character on the show.

Stage Fright: The implausible premise of hiring the Dollhouse to build you a backup singer to act as a “sort of” bodyguard for a pop singer makes me nominate this as the worst of the season.  This feels more like an episode of Quantum Leap than of Dollhouse.

Gray Hour:  Alpha wipes Echo in the middle of a bank job.  I begin to worry that Alpha is going to be behind everything.

True Believer: Another Quantum Leap episode.  This time she is a blind cultist.  I called that Echo would suddenly regain her sight and be hailed as a miracle as soon as the “eye camera”  introduced.

Man on the Street: I consider this to be the turning point where the episodes start to improve.  The show finally begins to tackle the rape issue head on.  Agent Ballard begins to become interesting.  I do wonder what ever happened to the expos√© of the Dollhouse though.

Echoes: This episode is more important for the exposition it provides than the plot.  We finally learn about Caroline Farrell and why she signed up with the Dollhouse.  It also introduces the Rossum Corporation, which is revealed to be the parent organization of the Dollhouse.

Needs: This episode was a letdown for me.  I thought the basic premise of certain actives waking up with their original personalities was a fun one.  Unfortunately, they hit the reset button at the end, revealing that it was all planned by the Dollhouse in order to let them “resolve” the issues they were having.  WTF?

Spy in the House of Love: This was a fun episode.  It uses the inventive storytelling technique of following each active through their day from the time they are imprinted.  As a result, the full story, including  who is the spy, is revealed in layers.

Haunted: A dead woman who has been backing up her personality is placed in Echo’s body.  She decides to use this extra time to solve her own murder.  A decent episode, mostly because Eliza Dushku manages to pull off being an older woman in a younger woman’s body.

Briar Rose: A very good episode.  I enjoyed the parallels between Sleeping Beauty and Echo, especially as it foreshadowed how hollow Paul Ballard’s efforts to save Caroline would be.  While I felt it was fairly obvious early in the episode that “Stephen Kepler” was Alpha, Alan Tudyk was fun enough in the role that I didn’t care.  The final shot of Alpha and Echo strolling out of the Dollhouse, in a manner reminiscent of Spike & Dru at their best, had me waiting impatiently for the season finale.

Omega: Perhaps it was inevitable that this would be a bit of a let down after the high expectations of the previous episode.  While Alan Tudyk did an excellent job with Alpha, I felt that Eliza’s portrayal of Omega was relatively bland for someone who was supposed to have dozens of personalities.  I also felt that Paul Ballard agreeing to join the Dollhouse as a consultant was completely out of character, even in exchange for freeing November.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t a bad way to end the season, and I am hoping the revelation that Dr. Saunders was an active will lead to an interesting character arc for her next season.

Looking over my episode reviews, you probably wonder if I actually liked the show.  I’m not sure if I did either.  One thing I am sure of though, is that the show has a lot of potential.  Looking back, I was not a huge fan of the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer either.  While I would watch the occasional episode when I could, it didn’t become “must see TV” for me until season two.  Now that Dollhouse has been renewed, lets hope it can pull off the same trick!


Scafloc said...

With all the talent behind Dollhouse, I am astounded that it has such a hard time growing into it's self. Given the excellence of the writers and production staff (and the fact that there is no lack of acting talent either), I think we can safely blame corporate interference.

Medraut said...

Re: I think we can safely blame corporate interference.

Perhaps. However, I would like to note that sometimes even very talented people can struggle to find their stride.

Or to put it another way, Dollhouse is a very ambitious TV show. Making people care about a protagonist who changes personalities every week is difficult. It is a credit to the people involved that they can make it work at all.

Joss Whedon has stated many times that they struggled to make the original pilot work before giving up, and that it was his decision to table it. That combined with the fact that the season has gotten better as it went along makes me think that it might be a case of them struggling to find the right tone.

That being said, I do think some choices Fox has made, like deciding not to air Epitaph 1 were probably bad decisions. However, I just haven't seen evidence of the kind of meddling (rearranging show order, pulling it from its timeslot) that Fox pulled on Serenity.

Who knows? We probably won't get the full story of how involved the network was until after the show is off the air (if then).