One of the hardest things to determine when coming up with a serialized TV series is figuring out where to start the story. Some stories suggest, automatically, where to begin. There was pretty much nowhere else to start the story of "Lost" than on that beach immediately after that plane crash, and "Battlestar Galactica" needed the horror of the nuclear holocaust of the miniseries to kick off its story. But most series end up caught up in trying to decide what is the perfect point to balance having just enough backstory (but not too much!) and just enough room to move forward (but not too much!). This, honestly, is kind of an underrated component of the whole serialized TV machine, since it's hard to judge these things from just the pilot and the first few episodes. But it often seems like the serialized shows that suck viewers and critics into the world of the show straight off are the ones that manage this balance, and the ones that don't suck us in are the ones that never quite figured out the best place to begin.

[Full recap of Friday's (Dec. 11) first "Dollhouse" episode after the break...]

Finding the moment when your serialized world is going to both feel fully formed and yet still approachable is pretty difficult. Think, for example, how much less rich "The Sopranos" would have been had it started with Tony's rise to power instead of documenting that mostly in the background and starting with his first visit to Dr. Melfi. Contrast that with something like "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," an enjoyable series but one that never quite made the leap up in quality it needed to and also a series that perhaps started its story too late, particularly if you'd never seen the movies. The machines' plan in that series could seem obtuse at times, perhaps because it had been in motion for so long in the story's universe that there wasn't a good way to spell out everything that had gone before.

Joss Whedon series have a problem that's rather unique to the serialization game. Where most series start their story too late, his series tend to start the story too early. This is an easier problem to fix (since he usually just ends up accelerating the story to a point where it catches up with what might have made a good starting point), but it often leads to early seasons of the show that seem a little repetitive and lifeless. For my money, the only of his series that has started in the optimal place as an overall storyline is "Firefly," and even that got bogged down in some episode-to-episode repetition. Whedon's series thrive on complication, and even his two hits - "Buffy" and "Angel" - began rather too simplistically, with premise pilots that maybe didn't need to be premise pilots. Both of those series got much better in their second seasons, and, surprise!, "Dollhouse" has too. In fact, I dare say that "Meet Jane Doe" might have made a pretty fantastic pilot for the series and maybe even one that would have been more inviting to a large enough audience to keep the show going.

Basically, "Meet Jane Doe" largely re-imagines the show "Dollhouse" as the mid-90s NBC series "The Pretender." You've got a super-smart and mysterious figure out in the world at large. She's able to figure things out on the fly, from her massive banks of knowledge in her head. She's also being pursued by a shadowy organization who made her the way she is, an organization that doesn't have the best interests of the world at heart. At the same time (and here this proposed new "Dollhouse" would differ from "The Pretender"), she has plenty of help from within that organization, including the man she's living with, who's purportedly her handler but is also helping her to bring down that organization, from within or without. Had "Dollhouse" began at this point, with the tale of how a woman who was seemingly a nurse was working to help break an unfairly imprisoned woman out of jail out of a sense of duty, and then gradually filled in the backstory, occasionally cutting to the Dollhouse proper in the midst of its own chaos, I think it would have been a more interesting story. The basic problem with the beginning of "Dollhouse," then, was that we simply knew too much and simultaneously not enough. "Meet Jane Doe" tosses that element of mystery back into the mix.

In some ways, "Meet Jane Doe" is a frustrating episode, and not just because it continues the general trend of awesome episodes post-cancellation. One of Whedon's trademarks is his love of jumping past the events most shows would spell out painstakingly and expecting the audience to catch up. To that end, it's not unusual to have one of his shows seemingly skip an act after a major event and hope the audience will catch up. It's one of the things that means he'll never be a mainstream favorite, but it's also one of the things that keeps we Whedon cultists happy and feeling vaguely smart. Honestly, though, "Meet Jane Doe" was in danger of losing even me, when we cut randomly from Echo fighting off a deputy to ... Echo working as a nurse in a hospital. The episode filled in a lot of this much later, but it honestly felt like Fox had somehow completely forgotten to air a segment of the show for a while. It made the early going perhaps more frustrating than it needed to be until it became easy to piece together what was happening.

That said, for as much as it felt like Whedon and his writers (this episode credited to the rapidly-becoming-some-of-my-favorite-writers-on-TV crew of Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Andrew Chambliss) had recently reread "Nickel and Dimed" and understood the pain of the working poor in America from time to time, Echo's adventures out in the underclasses of America felt oddly poignant for this show. It was also a nice acknowledgement that times is tough out there for even the gang in the "Dollhouse" universe (though the fact that the next Dollhouse will open in Dubai was a little amusing, considering how Dubai's financial woes have been so much in the news lately). TV has gone out of its way to avoid dealing with the recession. That "Dollhouse" does even obliquely made for a strong undercurrent for the episode's main plot.

While Echo, Paul and Boyd were continuing her training out in the real world, things were headed south back at the Dollhouse, as Adelle was reduced to being Harding's servant, seemingly, after her questionable behavior (from Rossum's point of view). This plot often seemed like it wasn't going anywhere until the final two acts, but once it got to where it was going, it was both heartbreaking and thrilling. For starters, Sierra and Victor are going to be split up. Dolls falling in love happens all the time, Harding said, so one would have to be sent to Dubai. For another, Topher figured out that Rossum was building a machine to imprint any person at any time (hello, "Epitaph One"), and his design to do just such a thing was taken by Adelle to give to Harding, that she might get back in the good graces of Rossum. At the same time, Echo was returned and Adelle refused to treat her, to remove the headaches, choosing instead to see just what she was capable of.

"Dollhouse," then, is clicking along on all cylinders, yet it also manages to invite, in every episode, a chance to Monday morning quarterback just how the show might have become a hit. One of the advantages of Whedon's preference for starting these stories early is that it gives him room to develop his world and characters before breaking apart everything he's built. At the same time, that creates a sense that the same thing is happening over and over until he starts breaking it down. It's possible that the central premise of "Dollhouse" was too unsustainable to ever build even a demographic hit. But in "Meet Jane Doe," we caught just enough glimpses of a show that could have been to make me sorry we won't get to live in that alternate universe.

Some other thoughts:

*** I honestly did not realize that I was invested in the Sierra/Victor thing at all until Harding decided to break them up. Some nice, stealth relationship building there.

*** Because of an error with the method I was watching this episode, some portions of the scene where Ballard and Echo hang out in her apartment and eat macaroni and cheese were garbled. I think I got most of it, but if I messed anything up, please correct me.

 

So is Adelle unambiguously bad again? What's she playing at? Talk about that while I write up the second episode.