OK, side note here, before we even get into "Dollhouse", but I wouldn’t blame Joss Whedon for being pissed. I mean, the guy basically reinvents genre TV with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The blonde kick-ass girl character has become a cliché on every TV show now, leading millions of young women to believe they can roundhouse their way to empowerment. You could argue there would be no "Lost," no "Fringe," and especially no "Twilight" without the steps Whedon took to bring geek into the mainstream. And his new series is stuck on a Friday night... on Fox, the same network that tanked his brilliant series "Firefly".. in the time slot where "COPS" usually runs an endless parade of shirtless losers.
Yeah, not exactly how you welcome the return of the conquering hero.
But screw that, we’ve got two hot chicks talking to us, the at-home viewers now. Summer Glau, from the "Terminator" lead-in, and a Whedon alum, and Eliza Dushku, both in tight clothes and spouting double entendres about making this a "date night" with their shows. (Sadly, there are guys who will take this quite seriously.)
[After the bump, on to "Dollhouse"... with spoilers.]
And one more interruption before we get into the show. Fox informs us that this comes with "LESS COMMERCIALS – MORE TV." Aside from the grammatical error, this just means they can’t sell the damn airtime, which is another bad sign.
Now we’re into the show. Eliza Dushku angsts over signing a contract with a British woman. FYI: British accent plus contract almost always equals evil. She signs anyway.
Jump to Eliza on a motorcycle (she removes her helmet after she crashes, which is definitely not something you should do at home, kids), racing some hair-gel trust-fund kid. They dance, kiss, refer to sexual bondage, and look like they’re in love.
Then she walks away and gets in a van with an authoritative black guy named Boyd, and gets carted back to the Dollhouse, which is like a combo pilates studio/torture chamber designed and furnished by IKEA. She sits in a chair, as directed by resident science geek Brink, and gets a flashing-light lobotomy.
(Pet peeve: we don’t actually learn these guys’ names until three-quarters through the show. It’s not like Whedon to miss the small stuff like this.)
We see a montage of everything Eliza did with the trust-fund boy, including the ropes and foreplay.
And then the Girl Gone Wild is gone, replaced by a placid, dull-eyed airhead named Echo, who has no memory of anything she’s done in the past three days.
That’s the premise of the show in one sequence: a shadowy business that supplies programmable, living dolls, or “actives” in the show’s terminology. Like a rewritable DVD, Echo and her friends at the Dollhouse can be programmed with any number of personalities or skills.
In other words, hot, compliant chicks who will do anything they’re told. (Quick check: is this the Spice Channel?)
From there, we see an adorable 12-year-old girl kidnapped and held for ransom. Her rich dad is a client of the Dollhouse, so British Boss Woman – actually, her character’s name is Ms. DeWitt, but again, this simple piece of exposition is nearly passed over – offers to help.
Cut to: FBI agent Paul Ballard, getting chewed out by his superiors for not going by the book in his investigation into this Dollhouse place. This would be a standard good-cop-gets-reamed-by-desk-jockey scene if it weren’t intercut with Ballard (played by the ridiculously cut Tahmoh Penikett, also on "Battlestar Galactica") beating the living snot out of a guy in a muay thai boxing match.
Echo is tuned up by another doctor, Claire Saunders, better known to Whedon fans as Fred from "Angel," only sporting big fake scars on her face. Echo is programmed to become a hostage negotiator so she can help the Dollhouse’s client get his daughter back. We know this because she’s given glasses and a short skirt. because apparently kidnappers are terrified of women sporting the hot-for-teacher look.
Whedon is usually at his best when turning clichés and tropes like this on their heads. Ballard’s FBI superiors ask the obvious question: why would any billionaire need to go to all the trouble of using some unproven sci-fi technique to get laid when Donald Trump has been doing just fine with nothing more than his obnoxious wealth? Hell, Joe Francis is a total d-bag, and he gets girls to take their tops off for a T-shirt.
The show tries to answer these concerns – it even makes fun of the librarian glasses Echo wears – but when it comes to the Dollhouse, and its reason for existence, it feels forced. Ballard says people are never satisfied with reality. While that’s true, it seems like electronically rearranging someone’s brain to be a perfect prom date would be way down on the list of uses for this technology.
Echo’s memories start to blur after she sees another active undergo electroshock acupuncture in the doll-making process. This becomes a problem during the hostage exchange, as one of the personalities used to create Hostage Negotiator Barbie recognizes one of the kidnappers as the same man who abused her as a child.
Confused? Yeah, so is Echo. Boyd has to save her, and then has to go against DeWitt and her snotty, Smithers-like assistant Dominic to let Echo keep her implanted memories long enough to save the kidnapped girl.
The actual rescue is nicely played, with Echo using her knowledge of the kidnapper to track him and turn his pals against him. She pulls the kid out of the refrigerator where they stashed her – another big no-no. Didn’t Whedon watch PSAs as a kid? The same active we met earlier on the shock table, now programmed as Killer Bitch Barbie, blasts in and takes out the remaining kidnappers.
The girl goes home, Echo and her new friend shower together (Seriously, is my wife going to find this on our cable bill?), and Bennett stays on the case.
And then we get a glimpse of the girl Echo used to be, on a videotape being watched by a naked guy who apparently has just murdered two other guys. WTF?
Still. Nearly naked chicks, kickboxing, and sinister super-science. It might be off to a slow start, but there’s a lot of potential with a recipe like that.
What'd y'all think?