FOX's "Dollhouse" returns for its unlikely second season on Friday (Sept. 25) night in an unusual situation. 

"Dollhouse" is still stranded on Friday nights and FOX has given it what may be the worst and least compatible lead-in in TV history with "Brothers" and "'Til Death." The network has produced a terrific series of outdoor ads for the show, but on-air promotion has been minimal (as befits FOX's roughly 20:1 ratio of "Glee"-to-everything-else advertising). 

But if those are the bad side, there has to be the assumption that FOX's neglect is benign. The network may not be pushing "Dollhouse," but FOX still brought the show back and it's fair to guess that what's premiering on Friday is closer to the seres that Joss Whedon wants to be making than it was last spring.

For the first five weeks of the first season, every episode was basically a stand-alone re-pilot, greeting viewers each week with "Hi, welcome to the party! Grab a drink!"

The Season Two premiere is more like, "Hi, welcome to the party. We're out of booze, but there's plenty of yummy, crunchy Chex Mix." Oh, there's substance still to be gleaned from the premiere and there's fun to be had, but if you haven't already quaffed from the Whedon Kool-Aid, it may be hard for you to catch up with everybody else.

After only 12 episodes and one "Epitaph One" (more on that later), "Dollhouse" has already reached the point "Lost" arrived at in Season Three or Four, where the writers decided, watching casual viewership dwindle until only the die-hards (lots of them still) remained, that the show was closed to new business. Since FOX isn't soliciting new business anyway, that's probably OK for "Dollhouse," which begins this new round of storytelling with "Vows," certainly one of the show's better hours and representing a strong focused direction.

[Review after the break, with some minor spoilers, but more context than anything...]

The concern from some viewers that "Epitaph One," available on DVD and various places online and screened at Comic-Con, would be required viewing for the new "Dollhouse" season has not come to pass. I can't guess how many hardcore "Dollhouse" fans haven't already seen "Epitaph One," but it isn't essential. At least not on Friday night. Nothing in "Vows" really touches on anything in "Epitaph One," or not on any of the superficial levels on which I understand things.

What isn't optional is "Omega," the first season finale. If you don't know about Claire/Whiskey, if you don't know what happened with Alpha and Echo and the uploaded personalities, if you don't know about Ballard and his deal with Adelle, if you don't know about Boyd's promotion, if you don't know about Victor's scarring, if you don't know about three or four other things, you're really not going to have much luck fathoming where things went at the end of last season and where they're going this season. 

"Vows," written and directed by Whedon, begins with the situation back to normal at the Dollhouse, only not really back to normal at all. Echo (Eliza Dushku) is back in circulation, but the Alpha incident has left her glitching even worse than she was at the beginning of last season. In this episode's imprinting, Echo is the bride-to-be of a British businessman (Jamie Bamber), with arms-dealing ties. It's a mission that Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is very involved in, but what Ballard's level of employment is is a conundrum as the episode begins. The only important thing is that folks call him Mr. Ballard now, as he's Agent no more.

Meanwhile, Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) knows she's Whiskey, but she's dealing with her Active self-recognition in a wonderfully Whedon-esquely oblique way which causes her to banter extensively with Topher (Fran Kranz).

The Saunders/Topher scenes were my favorite part of "Vows." They aren't merely wonderfully written (I love it when Whedon just decides to do little theatrical conversations in prose unlike anything else the characters have ever spoken previously), but they bring out the best in Kranz (who I'd never much cared for) and Acker (whose upcoming departure for ABC's midseason "Happy Town" saddens me). These scenes develop the show's bigger themes about the construction of human identity, plus they're fun to listen to. And they have nothing to do with Eliza Dushku.

It was repeated plenty during the first season that while Dushku may be the star and creative inspiration for "Dollhouse," she's also often its least compelling aspect. As Season One progressed, viewers became more and more intrigued by the dolls played by Dichen Lachman and the insanely versatile Enver Gjokaj and by the time "Omega" rolled around, Dushku was regularly a secondary figure in her own show and "Epitaph One" negated her even further. 

Although "Vows" spends almost no time reminding viewers of what dolls are, what imprinting is and why anybody would use the services of the Dollhouse, the one way in which it resets the series is that it moves Dushku and Echo back to the center of things. Fortunately, it's a more interesting and aware Echo than it was last year. She's definitely changed since her run-in with Alpha, very much moving in the direction we thought she was going last season before the writers turned to Ballard's discovery arc as the story they could tell in 12 episodes.

It means that Lachman's Sierra gets one very funny scene at the beginning and then doesn't reappear and that Gjokaj's Victor is still in the midst of a recovery process and doesn't factor. If you like those two characters and actors, "Vows" isn't fulfilling, but at least it pushes the story along and the episode represents narrative progress, which rarely happened for the first half of last season.

Some fans are going to miss the presence or acknowledgment of the "Epitaph One" universe. Me? Not-so-much. To me, "Epitaph One" felt like a lark. The creative team made the episode knowing that FOX had no plans to air it and Whedon and company couldn't have been blamed for suspecting/fearing that by the time anybody saw it in any form, "Dollhouse" would have been cancelled. "Epitaph One," with its apocalyptic future and dazzling distance from the series that spawned it, would have been a tantalizing tease of the show's potential, without any requirement for fulfillment. Maybe it would have acquired the requisite cult following and it would have given Whedon the chance to do a "Dollhouse" movie in a couple years. 

I don't think anybody working on that episode expected they'd be back or that anybody would expect them to live up to or feed into that "Epitaph One" world. But fans do. I'd kind of rather they wouldn't. "Epitaph One," while a great hour of television, is a trap. It makes promises and sets a timeline and foretells actions that Whedon and the other writers shouldn't need to be bound by. Who lives? Who dies? How does the technology evolve? "Epitaph One" gave one version, but will fans hold Whedon to that as an absolute and immutable future history? I'd rather he have free rein to do whatever he wants and not be bound by any end-point, however cool and filled with Felicia Day.

Anyway, HitFix will be recapping "Dollhouse," starting on Friday night, with the excellent Todd VanDerWerff doing the honors. I'm sure he'll be getting more into issues of the show's mythology, where it's going and keeping an eye on how "Epitaph One" fits into things.

 

"Dollhouse" returns to FOX on Friday, Sept. 25 at 9 p.m.