Until last year, it probably kinda stank to be Joss Whedon. Seriously, imagine yourself in this guy’s career arc: after years puttering around as a screenwriter, you finally get your passion project movie made…and the director and producer completely ignore your story and make a campy comedy that nobody really cares about. But a few years later, a production company asks you to develop it into a TV show and have your say of things; you say yes, it gets made…and it winds up airing on a network that, until this point, hasn’t had a single hit show.
But you get everything made exactly your way, the show becomes a hit, and you’re even allowed to launch a spin-off show that delves more into the mythology of the world you’ve created. Unfortunately, the star actress of your first show decides not to come back after her contract expires, forcing you to wrap things up after seven seasons; also, your spinoff show gets cancelled after five seasons when you decide to straight up ask the network head whether or not he’s going to renew it rather than waiting for him to tell you. So that stinks.
But you pitch another show, and a really big-concept one at that, to one of the four major networks and they say yes. Everything looks like it’ll be OK. But then, that show gets aired out of order in a crappy timeslot, some episodes aren’t even aired, and you get cancelled after one season. That stinks. But a few years later, the fanbase for that show has become so rabid that you’re able to get a big-budget movie made to wrap up the rest of this universe.
And with that confidence, you conceive of a TV show as a starring vehicle for another actress you like to work with. The same big network says yes, but you have a low budget and, again, get stuck in the same crappy timeslot as your last show. Also this time, you have to make 13 episodes for your first season, but the network only airs 12. Despite that, you get renewed for another season, but it’s your last one.
But then, you get hired to make what turns out to be one of the biggest, most successful movies ever so it’s all good. (For more specificities, please visit Joss Whedon’s Wikipedia page.)
Dollhouse is that last show I mentioned and yes, it was conceived pretty much as a starring vehicle for actress Eliza Dushku. (Whedon had also proposed the idea of another Buffy spin-off series based on her character Faith, but she didn’t agree to it.) It aired on FOX on Fridays from 2009-2010–the traditional “death slot” for American television, and not coincidentally where most sci-fi shows wind up–and was cancelled after two seasons. And yes, only 12 episodes aired on TV, but 13 were made in order to help sell the show in foreign markets (as well as an exclusive for the DVD set).
I just finished watching the first season on Netflix and while it has its stumbles, overall it’s a smart, clever and intensely absorbing show.
So in an alternate present day, the Rossum Corporation has developed the technology to backup people’s personalities to computers. With this, they’ve developed a series of places known as “dollhouses,” where the very rich can pay money to have another person’s mind imprinted to help them do whatever they want. The other person is what’s called a “doll,” someone who has volunteered–either for money or for the chance to resolve personal problems–to have their original personality completely wiped from their mind and, for a certain amount of time, they’re left as a blank slate, able to function and speak but without any sort of personality, the easier with which to implant new identities for clients. After the job is done, they have the imprinted personality, as well as all their memories of having that personality, removed. To sum it up, they’re programmable people.
Dollhouse follows one of those “dolls,” Echo (Eliza Dushku), throughout her various assignments for the dollhouse located underground in Los Angeles. She does a variety of things ranging from being someone’s date to being a criminal, all of it monitored by her dollhouse-appointed handler, ex-cop Boyd (Harry Lennix), who’s uncomfortable with the ethical and moral implications of the services the dollhouse provides. Dollhouse director Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), chief of security Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond) and Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) who actually programs the doll’s minds for assignments, however, don’t feel the same way, with DeWitt and Dominic viewing it as just giving people what they need and completely amoral and scientific about the whole thing respectively. Meanwhile on the outside, FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Pickett), assigned to investigate the “urban legend” of the dollhouse, becomes more and more obsessed with proving its existence and destroying it, as well as finding a missing woman named Caroline, who is the true identity of Echo.
Beginning with a high concept that its pilot episode, despite being written and directed by Whedon, manages to muddle somewhat with a slightly convoluted story, over the course of its 13 episodes, Dollhouse manages to turn itself into an ongoing serial about the questions of identity and the abuse of technology. Much like Fringe, it offers self-contained stories centered around a mission involving Echo or one of the other dolls, but because of its shorter number of episodes, it has to ramp things up faster. (Incidentally, both this show and Fringe premiered the same year and both had 47-50 minute episode times rather than the traditional 44 as part of an initiative by FOX to make sure viewers wouldn’t change channels during commercial breaks.)
Despite the condensed story, Whedon’s gifts of unique characterization, a well-balanced yet conflicted ensemble and quirky dialogue still shine through. The cast obviously relishes it; Williams and Diamond turn out to be more than just a stuffed shirt and a hard-nosed jerk, Lennix gets to play John Luther if he was more stable, and while Pickett is stuck playing a completely uninteresting schmutz for most of the season, he at least commits to it.
Special mention must be made for Kranz, who absolutely steals every scene he’s in by being funny, quirky and ridiculously likable, and Dushku, who has to adopt a different persona each and every episode–sometimes more than one–and handles it all elegantly and gracefully.
So yeah, little bit different from the other stuff Whedon is known for, but still very much worth your time. Enjoy!