Dollhouse: Season One Review
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When it was announced that Fox would be airing Joss Whedon’s new series, Dollhouse, the news as greeted with more than a little apprehension. For fans of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel creator’s work, memories of the network’s catastrophic mishandling of the much-loved but early-aborted Firefly were still fresh enough to give pause. That sense of foreboding was not helped a bit by reports that Whedon had scrapped the original pilot episode and started over. When it finally premiered last year, both expectations and reactions were decidedly mixed.

The titular Dollhouse is a secret quasi-governmental institution that houses and cares for a group of young people whose memories have all been erased, leaving them in a child-like state. Each of these “dolls” can then be implanted with new memories, personalities, and skill sets pursuant to a client’s needs, ranging from espionage to personal security to more intimate concerns. The story revolves around their most popular doll, Echo (Eliza Dushku), her handlers, and an obsessed FBI agent who’s out to prove the Dollhouse’s existence.

The first few episodes do little besides establishing the setup, with Echo performing a persona-of-the-week adventure. Sad to say, while I loved Eliza Dushku’s character, Faith, in Buffy and Angel, she just doesn’t demonstrate the acting range necessary to be both believable and engaging in the variety of personas she’s called on to adopt here. She’s more than capable of handling the action scenes, but the emotional nuances vital to a role like this tend to get lost too often.

The supporting cast is a bit of a mixed lot as well. Among them, Harry Lennix stands out as Echo’s new personal handler, adopting a pragmatic attitude toward the entire operation that occasionally betrays underlying misgivings. Olivia Williams turns in a capable performance as the Dollhouse’s overseer, while Fran Kranz, as the young genius behind the memory implant technology, never quite rises above the level of smug irritation. Least convincing is Tamoh Penikett’s Agent Ballard, whose obsession with finding the Dollhouse and rescuing the woman who has become Echo never quite feels convincing, and who makes a decision in the season finale that is completely at odds with the everything he’s done so far.

And yet the show isn’t without its high points. Some of the best moments occur midseason, as the show moves from exposition to exploring some of the murky moral and psychological issues that underlie the series’s central concept. Among these are the repercussions of one of the dolls being abused by her handler and the discovery of a spy within the Dollhouse security team, who is then forcibly mind-wiped and consigned to “the Attic.”

The season concludes with the introduction of Alpha (Alan Tudyk), a doll who simultaneously accessed every personality and skill set he’d been imprinted with before going on a violent rampage. It’s in these moments—when the cracks in the system begin to show—that Dollhouse finds itself. And the show’s biggest problem so far is that there just haven’t been enough of those moments.

The DVD and Blu-Ray sets for season one will also include the unaired original pilot, as well as the unaired 13th episode, “Epitaph 1,” which was created to fill the show’s 13-episode season order after the pilot was scrapped. Unfortunately, though, neither episode was available for this review

Despite lackluster ratings and the network’s own reputation for skittishness with regards to science-fiction properties, Dollhouse has been renewed for a second season. I’ve yet to be completely disappointed by any Joss Whedon project, and I maintain the hope that this one will steady up from its somewhat shaky start and build on its strong conceptual foundation.

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