Dollhouse Pilot

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse premiered on Fox last Friday (9/8C). Episode title: “Ghost.”

dollhouse_logo by you.

Of course, I’m a big Joss fan. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Serenity. I’ve seen some of Angel and liked it pretty well. I had high hopes for Dollhouse when I first heard about it; we all did. Eliza Dushku plays the super fun bad-ass Faith on a few early seasons of Buffy, and her storyline is one of the coolest parts of the entire show. Plus, she’s pretty. Like, crazy pretty.

dollhouse eliza by you.

But then we all heard about the issues with the pilot—the reshoots, creative bickering, production delays, etc. And let’s be frank here: when have Fridays on Fox ever done Joss any favors? Seriously, man. Try the SciFi Network. They’re not embarrassing anymore! And they’ll keep your shows around FOR ETERNITY. Did you know Stargate SG-1 was on for TEN seasons?

So all of the network interference was most likely the cause of the underwhelming nature of the pilot. And pilots, by and large, suck. (Although none of Joss’s ever has before). I’m trying to keep all of that in mind as I weigh the obvious difficulties presented in the pilot. Most of these issues can be ironed out if Fox and the viewers actually give the show a chance. Give it a chance, y’all! But one of the major challenges is something a little more substantial than the various plot contrivances: Eliza herself.

Guys. She can’t act. Did you know that? I didn’t! I mean, Faith wasn’t exactly a stretch (be a sexy rebellious tomboy in leather pants!), and Bring It On probably didn’t present much of a challenge either (be a sexy rebellious tomboy in a cheerleading uniform!). The premise of Dollhouse puts a LOT of pressure on Eliza. And pretty though she is (look how pretty!),

eliza pretty by you.

I’m not entirely convinced she’s going to be able to deliver. In Dollhouse, Eliza plays Echo, an “Active” in the black market for…you know what? The pilot really didn’t do the best job of explaining this in a non-laborious way, so I would be fibbing if I pretended to have gleaned this information entirely from the show, rather than simply reading it from the Fox website. I’ll let them speak for themselves:

“ECHO (Dushku) is an “Active,” a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don’t just perform their hired roles, they wholly become — with mind, personality and physiology — whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time.”

(How’s that for tortured syntax?)

So! The entire premise of the show rests squarely on Eliza’s ability to “wholly become” hundreds of wildly different personalities. A further complication is that Echo gradually begins to regain her own memories and piece together her true identity, so her burgeoning humanity will add another complex facet to the role. It’s a tall order, no matter how many times you’ve been on Maxim’s 100 Hottest Ladies list.

eliza maxim by you.

On to the pilot! Let’s get this out of the way–I love Summer Glau, another Joss alum who’s now starring in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and despite my above skepticism, I love Eliza Dushku, too. But their Friday night Fox promos? FAIL. Massive, massive fail. They’re rather tediously libidinous. Here are some outtakes, if you dare (although the outtakes are more palatable than the actual promos were).

After an over-explainy intro that lets us know Echo was once a real person who was coerced into an ambiguous five-year contract (followed by real credits! With a song and actual cast images! It’s like the 90s!), our first introduction to Echo-the-doll is… Eliza playing the part of a sexy rebellious tomboy in a motorcycle jacket! She does fine here, naturally. She’s racing (sans helmet) some bland guy to his birthday celebration, where she promptly loses the pants and starts dancing in what is, I kid you not, the tiniest dress known to woman. SO TINY. I couldn’t find any screen caps on the Fox website to exhibit, and my vocabulary is tragically failing me when it comes to describing the tiny nature of this dress, so you’ll have to make do with the pictures I took on my phone:

dollhouse new 1 by you.

dollhouse new 2 by you.

You’re welcome! We learn that the Dollhouse isn’t above pimping their Actives out for actual mind-wiped robot sex, no matter how lofty their mission statement is. So after her “engagement” ends, Echo meets up with her handler, That One Guy You Totally Recognize:

dollhouse31 by you.

Harry Lennix plays Boyd, an ex-cop who’s in charge of supervising Echo on all of her missions. He’s constantly suffering a crisis of conscience about the ethically and legally opaque nature of the Dollhouse. How the company defines precisely who Boyd is supposed to be to the various personalities Echo inhabits, the show does not elucidate. Nor does the show explain what Echo-as-someone-else thinks she’s doing when she heads back to the extravagant Dollhouse to receive her “treatments”:

dollhouse28 by you.

dollhouse23 by you.

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Ambiguous relationship and tiring moral code aside, Boyd is a cool character and Harry Lennix does a great job with him. He empathizes with Echo and genuinely cares for her, while being fully aware that she’s nothing more than a puppet. It’s a complex dynamic and Lennix pulls it off nicely.

Once Echo has her treatment and her most recent personality has been wiped, she lives in a childlike, vacuous state with the other Actives, kind of wandering around with a sweet, vacant expression on that pretty, pretty face:

dollhouse20 by you.

At the Dollhouse, we also meet head honcho Adelle Dewitt,  played by the luminous Olivia Williams:

olivia by you.

I’m definitely into this character. She’s seemingly ice cold and all business, but exhibits subtle hints of humanity throughout the episode. She’s super professional and collected and just hot and awesome. I love Olivia Williams and I think the casting is perfect here.

Then there’s Resident Tech Jackhole Topher Brink (Fran Kranz). He’s the wunderkind behind the imprinting technology, which unfortunately makes him indispensable to both the company and the show. I’m not really a fan.

tech by you.

But he’s got the whole icky, mad scientist, these-people-are-my-playthings persona down pat. And he’s also got some of the few lines that made me laugh in the pilot. Which brings me to another issue that I hope will be improved in eps to come. Where’s the hilarity? Joss’s pithy one-liners are notably missing here. Even in the saddest, most dramatic Buffy episodes, like “The Body,” there are a few lines that have you giggling while you’re sniffling. This show needs some levity tout de suite, and Joss is the man to do it. He’s a seriously funny writer and I missed that in the pilot.

We’re also briefly introduced to mysterious medic Dr. Claire Saunders, played by Angel alum Amy Acker. She’s got a very compelling thing going, with her beautiful face marked by scars and her gentle, tender way with the dolls:

dollhouse18 by you.

Another brief introduction leads us to brand new Active Sierra (Dichen Lachman), who has one line but seems like she might be awesome:

dollhouse8 by you.

Away from the hermitic elegance of the Dollhouse, we meet FBI agent Paul Ballard, played by Tahmoh Penikett or IT’SWESFROMSMALLVILLE!, as I squealed when I saw him.

dollhouse16 by you.

I like this actor a lot, and his character could go somewhere interesting. He’s a rogue agent who’s obsessed with finding the Dollhouse and freeing the Actives, whose own personalities must be completely erased before they can be imprinted. His superiors think he’s crazy, but if the heavy-handed Agent-Ballard-as-Rocky footage is any indication, he’ll NEVER GIVE UP.

dollhouse3 by you.

dollhouse4 by you.

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So those seem to be all the components that make up the arc of the show. It has promise, and some of the pacing/tension was really great in the episode. Echo’s primary engagement for the pilot shapes her as a ball-bustingly efficient hostage negotiator…*snerk*. Yeah, she didn’t really pull off the coolly brilliant professionalism as handily as she did the tiny dress and motorcycle racing:

dollhouse15 by you.

But again, very pretty!

So I worry that the fuzziness over certain plot details isn’t the good kind of ambiguity, where Joss has an answer but he wants US to figure it out first. And, as I said before, I worry about Eliza Dushku’s potential to pull off the complex, multi-faceted and challenging role of Echo. But I gave the ep a B+ because I was entertained and occasionally riveted, the cast is pretty, the camera work is quite stylized and it ended on a really intriguing note: the alpha Active that appears to be on the lam and obsessed with Echo and with making trouble:

active by you.

(Okay that picture really sucks. You can actually see my Chipotle veggie bowl in the lower left! Blame the Fox site)

I tried not to spoil any plot points, so if you haven’t seen the pilot, I urge you to check it out on Hulu and judge for yourself.

The second episode airs on Fox tonight, and I think this show has definite potential—potential it will never reach if no one watches it. I intend to come back in 4-5 episodes to reevaluate my impressions. I hope I have that chance!

10 Responses to “Dollhouse Pilot”

  1. Okay, first of all SG-1 was on for 10 seasons?!?!!? They must have money to burn over there at the Sci-Fi channel. That was the worst McGyver rebound series ever!
    And since when is cleavage a useful tool in hostage negotiations?
    Lovely recap! I will try to follow this one on the internet, but I really enjoy these meaty reviews you do! Keep up the good work.

  2. I agree, there was just something missing from this pilot. It could just be because it was the pilot but I don’t know. I’ll definitely keep up with it to see what happens. You never know, Eliza could realize that she has a big role to fill and really stretch her legs. Either that or Joss starts writing her as characters resembling Faith more. As you said, there are a lot of pretty people on this show. We’ll see what happens.

  3. meredith, i love yr reviews cos they are clever, well-reasoned and, most importantly, not afraid to embrace the Pretty Factor.

    you guys, being pretty makes up for a lot of things! i know that’s kind of obnoxious (esp. in real life) but when you’re dealing with high levels of beauty on the screen (eliza), you just can’t help but bow down to them. people are doctors cos they’re smart, people are actors cos they’re incredibly good-looking (ok and sometimes charismatic).

    anyway, yeah, i’m gonna keep on watching dollhouse, but i’m not as excited as i should be about a “new joss show.” like you said, where’s the humor?!!! but i do like girls kicking ass, so the show will hold my interest for at least a little while longer.

  4. Meredith, I’m really glad you watched this so that I didn’t have to. I don’t join in on the Buffy love with you guys but I did like Serenity and Firefly an awful lot. I also sit through The Sarah Connor Chronicles every week, hanging on to the bits of the show that don’t completely suck while the rest of the 45 minutes does a crappy impression of Lost.

    Eliza Dushku is GORGEOUS, but I lost enthusiasm for this show when they started releasing still images of Eliza Dushku looking, um, gorgeous. And nothing else. I am also delighted you mentioned those promos, weren’t they awful? Too much makeup and some seriously propped up boobs. I’m a boy and I felt awkward.

    And Posh D, I will not bow down to people just because they look good. People become stars because they’re good looking and charismatic, they’re not actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman is proof that talented people can get into films!!!

  5. Ok, this is my new favorite blog and may become my leftover-lunch-at-my-desk companion. ;) I was really expecting great things from the show, and was let down as well. However, IMHO, Joss is not capable of a crappy show… so I’m determined to hold out for a while in hopes that it gets better.
    Ps. You may have caused problems at my house because I am now inspired to re-watch all of Buffy & Angel in its entirety!

  6. i’m like a week or two late on everything. :(

    OKAY. so here is my hope: Eliza will pull a SMG and realize it’s okay to start being a good actor. Cause, guys, SMG sucks. She really really does a terrible job in every thing she’s ever been in that’s not Buffy. But if you watch her in Buffy – esp. the Joss-directed episodes like The Body – it turns out, she’s really good? When she’s directed well, that is.

    So I’m hoping that Eliza will do the same. I’ve watched three episodes now and she’s at least engaging me, if not compelling me. I just need her to realize that vulnerability =/= a pout and a slightly vacant look in the eyes.

    But, for the most part, I feel like we cannot hold this to the standards of Buffy and Firefly (I actually think Firefly is a better show than Buffy, but it also only had 13 episodes. No oppurtunity for magic = drugs storylines.), or even Angel, which I’m not too fond of but was, in its earlier seasons, a pretty good procedural. This show marks a new venture for Joss, which he’s as much as admitted: he’s trying to be commercial. So I’m trying to think of this show more as a new sci-fi/fantasy procedural, and not a Mutant Enemy production. And I like it a lot more that way.

  7. Only want to say your article is astounding. The clarity in your post is simply spectacular and i can take for granted you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your rss feed to keep up to date with succeeding post. Thanks a million and please keep up the effective work

  8. Wow, thank you, what a wonderful comment! You just made my whole week!

  9. I love it, I would love for you to be a guest writer on my blog sometime, let me know.

  10. Hey, excellent job on writing this Dollhouse Pilot « Danny Isn't Here, Mrs. Torrance up, I am going to link this from my personal blog!

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