Trapped in the Dollhouse

Shined to a high gloss for Fox, Joss Whedon's long-awaited new drama still boasts enough flair and smarts to overcome its damning time slot.

Published February 12, 2009 11:30AM (EST)

"I can't remember what fell on me."

Echo, the heroine of Joss Whedon's much-anticipated new drama "Dollhouse" (premieres 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13, on Fox) sounds more curious than troubled when she utters her first self-aware statement. But from this moment forward, we sense that Echo is in for a rude awakening from her previous state of ignorant bliss.

Echo is an "Active" or programmed specialist of Dollhouse, an illegal organization that provides a wide range of services to the very rich. Having abandoned her former life and agreed to do penance for some crime or mistake -- we're not sure what yet -- Echo has had her memory wiped. New personalities and skills are implanted in her head depending on a client's particular needs. After each job, her memory of the experience is wiped from her brain completely --  or that's the goal, at any rate.

That premise may sound a little far-fetched -- and in some other writer's hands, it would be. But if anyone can sell us an elaborate, fantastical scenario and have us willingly suspend our disbelief and enjoy the ride, it's Joss Whedon, creator of long-running cult hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," spinoff "Angel," and the prematurely canceled series "Firefly." Combining intelligent layers of mystery with sly dialogue and a steady flow of action, Whedon has crafted a provocative, bubbly new drama that looks as promising as anything to hit the small screen over the course of the past year.

Just don't be fooled by the show's glossy exterior. In its premiere episode, "Dollhouse" at times resembles the sorts of slick suspense-thriller serial dramas that the networks have been trying (and mostly failing) to master since the dawn of big hits like "24" and "Lost." It's not always clear why movie-quality productions like Fox's "Lie to Me" flourish, while others, like NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" or ABC's "Invasion," fail. But the cheap tricks here sometimes obscure the fact that "Dollhouse" has the brains and flair to charm us silly.

Now if only it had "Lie to Me's" plum real estate after "American Idol" instead of its current, post-"Terminator" Friday slot. But then, "Dollhouse" has traveled a long and bumpy road for Joss Whedon so far, starting with the lukewarm reception his original pilot received from Fox. Whedon explained on the Whedonesque Web site, "Basically, the network and I had different ideas about what the tone of the show would be. They bought something somewhat different than what I was selling them, which is not that uncommon in this business. Their desires were not surprising: up the stakes, make the episodes more stand-alone, stop talking about relationships and cut to the chase. Oh, and add a chase. That you can cut to." Whedon decided to scrap his entire pilot and start over, and the show was held until midseason.

The new pilot actually begins with a motorcycle chase, followed by some sexy disco dancing and romantic intrigue. It's all very Fox -- disappointingly so, most likely, for die-hard fans of Whedon's brainy, self-conscious writing, who probably wouldn't mind more talk about relationships and episodes that don't stand alone. But try to be patient, sweet fanatical Buffyheads, for the same spirited banter and thoughtful philosophical discussions are there for the savoring. Take the moment when Topher (Fran Kranz), resident guru and wiseass, reveals to Echo's handler Boyd (Harry Lennix) that Echo's personality-du-jour, a hostage negotiator named Eleanor, is nearsighted.

"Why handicap her in a job like this?" Boyd asks.

"These personality imprints, they come from scans of real people," replies Topher. "Achievement is balanced by fault, by a lack. You can't have one without the other. Everyone who excels is overcompensating, running from something, hiding from something." Too true! Of course, some faults just make us eat more doughnuts -- but not surprisingly, Dollhouse doesn't seem to imprint its Actives with tubby doughnut-loving personalities.

And unlike the writers of its creep-out sci-fi cousin "Fringe," Whedon and Co. do a great job of selling the show's fanciful premise to its audience within the first several minutes of the first episode: They have an FBI agent who's investigating Dollhouse, Paul Smith (Tahmoh Penikett aka Helo from "Battlestar Galactica"), discuss the logic of the entire enterprise with one of his skeptical higher-ups in the department, who doesn't believe that Dollhouse exists.

Skeptical boss: [Let's say that] I'm a billionaire, I can hire anybody for anything. And I'm going to go to an illegal organization and have them build me, program me what? The perfect date? Confessor? Assassin? Dominatrix? Omelette chef? I'm paying a million dollars for that? I can get that! I have everything I want.

Paul: Nobody has everything they want. It's a survival pattern. You get what you want, you want something else. If you have everything, you want something else. Something more extreme. Something more specific. Something perfect.

Almost every player in the cast has a self-possessed air and a charismatic command of the screen, from Olivia Williams as Dollhouse's director, Adelle DeWitt, to Kranz as ethically unencumbered mind-melter Topher. Eliza Dushku captures the self-serious snippiness of her hostage negotiator almost as well as she tackles the lighthearted air of the fantasy girl. She's not a master illusionist like, say, Toni Collette, but she aces her two most important characters: the sarcastic, possibly troubled pre-Dollhouse Echo (we don't know her real name yet) and the empty, blank, Dollhouse-dwelling Echo, who wanders around like the blissed-out resident of a luxury spa every time her neurological hard drive is erased.

That said, "Dollhouse" isn't nearly as flawless as the gorgeous operatives who inhabit its oddly peaceful underground hideout. When the first episode lurches into familiar Fox territory, with guns blazing and bad guys growling, it's hard not to wish that Whedon had found a home for his show on AMC or HBO or even Sci Fi, a network where blockbuster tactics are often abandoned for the sake of intelligent dialogue, complicated interpersonal relationships, rich character development and stories that unfold slowly and sweetly over the course of 15 episodes.

But then, it would also be nice if "Dollhouse" proved to be a mega-hit, enabling Whedon to pick and choose his projects (and his network collaborators) henceforth. The show may already have more than its share of fan sites (Watching Dollhouse and Dollverse, to name just a few), but then, if nerdy fans ruled the earth, the current TV lineup would include "Cop Rock," "Wonderfalls," "Deadwood," "Lando Calrissian's Nuage Lounge" and "Buffy XXV: Spawn of Xander." Maybe a sprinkling of Fox's sensibility is just what Whedon needs to reach the "Twilight"-suckling mainstream.

So if you "Buffy" fans feel slightly disappointed on Friday night, remember Paul's words: "Nobody has everything they want. If you have everything, you want something else. Something more extreme. Something more specific. Something perfect." If the fates cooperate, "Dollhouse" will be on the air long enough to evolve from something shiny and extreme to what Whedon and an unwieldy gaggle of fans want it to be: something more specific. Something clever and layered. Something perfect.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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