If you're interested in reading the rest of this post, it's probably because you already know what Dollhouse is, but just in case... It's the new TV series by Joss Whedon, the head writer and creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly. As I write this, six episodes of Dollhouse have aired in the US and I've watched them all with great interest. And despite massive bias on my part in favour of everything Joss Whedon does, initially I've struggled to find much to praise. In fact so strong is my bias, that before I offered any verdict on Dollhouse I waited until a) I had someone other than Joss to blame for the things I didn't like and b) I had a reason to think the show was about to really start getting good. The rest of this post is only very mildly spoilery; if you know the basic premise of the show then I won't be giving too much away. I watched the pilot, really didn't get that excited and reckoned, well, pilots are difficult. When that lack of excitement continued all the way through the second, third, fourth and fifth episodes, I was really starting to worry. The sixth episode was a huge improvement and I'm hoping it's a turning point in terms of quality. What do Joss fans like me think is so great about his shows? Lots of things. He's very competent all round, but in terms of what sets him apart, I'll go with three things. His dialogue is fantastic: original, witty and intelligent. Dollhouse eps 1-5 really don't have any of that. Joss also creates surrogate families: tightly bonded groups of people who you love to care about. Dollhouse doesn't have that either. All the characters are either unlikeable or a total mystery - no charm, no instant favourites. And finally, Joss serves up surprises. Where the rest of network television likes formulas, Joss likes to innovate and catch you out. Well, nothing in the first five episodes seemed very original to me. It was glossy, competent and professional, but nothing you felt you hadn't seen before. If you've watched Alias, or even The Pretender, you're used to the idea of the hero playing a different role each week to accomplish their mission. Except in the case of Dollhouse, you knew the hero, played by Eliza Dushku, would forget the whole thing as soon as her brain was wiped ready for her next outing. And that seems to me to be the big flaw with the premise. The central character, Echo, has no memory and no personality besides what she is given for each mission. You can't really get to like her, because there's no her to like. Each week she's a stranger who you know will cease to exist before the end of the episode, so in a way it's like there's no central character. Or worse still, a central character who, in a sense, will die before the episode is done. Now, Joss obviously foresaw some of the problems he'd encounter here. Even in the advanced publicity blurb for the series there were hints that the brain wipe might not be total, that the dolls in the Dollhouse might not lose all experience and personality. To quote a snippet from the Fox website: "Echo acts with no memory of before. Or does she?" And if she starts to grow or rediscover a personality, that will make it much easier for us to care about her. But until that process is well underway, there's a vacuum at the heart of any story that centres around a doll rather than a regular human. So my first excuse on Joss's behalf - my first attempt to let him off the hook a little bit - comes from the fact that the network apparently pushed him towards showing a few actual missions before getting into the knotty questions of who was running the Dollhouse and what was really going on. It's easy to see why they pushed for that because things could get very complicated very quickly and viewers coming to the show late might find it impenetrable, but it was a terrible decision. For the reasons I've outlined, we just don't care about those missions, because the personality at the centre of them is a stranger who will soon cease to exist. The second problem is Joss's fault, but more indirectly. And perhaps it's a matter of taste, but I just don't think Eliza Dushku's acting is as good as it needs to be. Attentive readers of this blog know that I believe weaker actors can only do confusion and anger (the first by furrowing their brow and the second by shouting) and while Eliza isn't bad, there's an awful lot of brow-furrowing. I just don't think she's quite strong enough to play the lead. The proof for me is that another doll, Sierra, does similar things and really grabs you. For me, Sierra is interesting and Echo is not and I can't think of an explanation apart from the actresses involved. But I hope I'm not giving too much away when I say that in episode six we start getting into all that complex, tangled behind the scenes stuff. Echo's mission that week is almost incidental; the show is all about revelations and twists and intrigue, and that elevates the episode into the realm of proper Whedon-level quality. (I hope it's partly coincidence that I happened to really like the episode in which Eliza Dushku has the least screen time so far.) And episode six is also the first time characters say witty, original things. Why that should be, I have no idea. I can't figure out how to blame it on the network. But for some reason, we've had five weeks of no humour despite the show's head honcho being one of the funniest writers on the planet. We're still spending a lot of time with characters who are either irritatingly unlikeable or destined to be wiped soon, but things are really looking up. Tahmoh Penikett (who you may remember from Battlestar Galactica) is fantastic, and kicks ass (literally) to a superb standard. Joss has been giving interviews saying that episode six is where it gets good and claiming that they've hit their stride - he also hints that he's got the network off his back to the point where he can get on with the stuff he wanted to do all along. I hope he's right. But episode six (and my sycophantic devotion) makes me inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don't think the show has a UK launch scheduled yet, but the DVDs are bound to be available in a month or two, and your favourite BitTorrent site will be able to hook you up immediately (assuming I'm allowed to say that). If you decide to watch, why not let me know what you think... assuming it's both positive and optimistic of course.
asses are kicked