Friday, February 13, 2009

Dollhouse

Tonight was the premier of Joss Whedon's new show Dollhouse. Stuck in the dreaded 8:00 central, Friday night time slot on Fox, nobody expects it to last. But maybe we'll all be surprised.

The concept of the show is that Echo, a character played by Eliza Dushku, is a an operative whose memory is wiped clean after every job. She is a blank slate. Her handlers can program her to be whatever someone pays for her to be: friend, assassin, negotiator, lover. As the season progresses, she begins to become aware of a unique identity.

According to Joss Whedon,

The arc of the show is really her not remembering so much as becoming self-aware, knowing things in a more complex way than she should, knowing that she exists and eventually knowing that she used to be different than she is now. We as an audience are searching for her identity, but she is more searching for the concept of identity, at first.

So, how was the first episode? Well, it kept my interest. I'm not a huge fan of Eliza Dushku, there's something about her voice that grates on me. But she did a good job with the various personalities she had to play.

The original Echo (the real Echo, who I think was named Caroline) is not really tough but she is assertive and obviously not used to being intimidated. She is distraught and being pushed into doing something she doesn't want to do.

The next time we see Echo she is an operative who is a fantasy figure. A beautiful woman who can race a motorcycle like a man and then step into her sequined mini-dress and dance the night away. We don't see the rough sex she previously had with the "client" except in a brief flashback. She seems to be very happy. But, like Cinderella at the ball, the "date" ends at a set time and she leaves for her "treatment".

After "treatment" we see the wiped Echo who is almost childlike. Dushku makes the wiped Echo very trusting - you can see where she's going to go with the characterization as the season progresses and she, perhaps, stops trusting.

The main "character" of the episode emerges next and is involved with most of the episode. Dushku becomes "Eleanor Penn" a trained profiler and negotiator who is to help negotiate the release of a kidnapped child for a desperate millionaire father. But part of the personality that she is imprinted with is that of a woman who had been abused as a child and in the midst of the plot she encounters that the child abuser - older but clearly the same man. This throws the Echo character into an extreme state as that character has to work through these personal issues. Choosing this type of character who operates under extreme psychological conditions and manages to complete the mission was a good way to explain to the audience exactly how the personality imprinting process is supposed to work, and how it can go wrong.

Finally we see an unidentified man watching a video yearbook entry of Echo as her real self in college. Dushku plays her as a typical college student, fun, babbling and excited about life.

The rest of the cast was fine, but there wasn't much to judge. There is a side plot with an FBI agent named Paul Ballard who is tasked with finding out if the rumored "Dollhouse" really exists. He has a theory that it might somehow be related to a crime family that runs a prostitution ring. He also has the dialog that explains why Dollhouse has customers, why a millionaire who can have anything he wants would pay for this. He says, nobody has everything they want, because if you get everything you want you'll just want something else. It’s a survival pattern.

On the whole, I liked it. I was a little bothered by the fine line they ran between making this a thoughtful show and a typical Fox TV sexploitation show - the commercials with Dushku and Summer Glau were a little much I thought. But I tend to trust Whedon so we'll see how it goes.

Whedon has set up mysteries for us. Who was Echo before she was Echo? Who was Mrs. Dundee, who told the younger Echo she should take her place in the world? What went wrong? How did whatever went wrong cause Echo to be forced into agreeing to "volunteer" for this project. Will she really be let out after five years? (What if the series is a hit and runs longer than five years?)Who is running the Dollhouse? What is the deal with Dr. Saunders and the scar across her face? Will Mr. Langton, Echo's protector, protect her from Dollhouse?

Seeing how it goes, though, depends on how long Fox lets the series run. Whedon has tried to make light of the bad time slot:

It’s a tough time slot if your expectations are to take over the world. If your expectations are to hold your own in a tough time slot, then it’s not a tough time slot. Knowing that genre shows have a life outside of their airing and that so many people are watching TV at a different time than it airs anyway, it’s certainly not the same as it used to be.

I hope he's right.