While I love Joss Whedon, for the longest time I neglected to watch some of his works. I tried Season 1 of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and although I finished it, I wasn’t interested enough to keep going. It took me ages to jump back into “Firefly”, which I originally started watching with my fiance. And this week, after years of putting it off and having only seen the pilot episode, I decided to give “Dollhouse” another chance. Since I just finished Season 1, I’m only going to share my general, non-spoiler (you never know) thoughts on it. I’ll probably talk about Season 2 next week or the week after.
The basic premise of the show is this: A secret facility known as the Dollhouse provides various services to wealthy clients. They do this by the use of Dolls or Actives, as they’re sometimes called. These are people who have relinquished their personality and memories, making them a blank slate. They are then imprinted with the personality of whomever the Dollhouse needs to fulfill a client’s request, such as a dinner date, forensics expert, or any number of other identities. The show mostly focuses on a Doll named Echo, formally known as Caroline (played by Eliza Dushku), as she’s sent out on these engagements while also starting to develop a personality of sorts on her own.
All of that might sound confusing, and this is definitely one of the most complicated narratives Joss has created. There are heavy themes about the morality of the people working at the Dollhouse and how they can tolerate essentially using others for profit. It’s actually one of the things I liked about the show going in, because so much could be discussed and analyzed with this premise. Unfortunately, I found the show also lacked direction at times. Filler episodes can be handy for a fun story or character development, but the plot-driven ones were way more interesting. The show honestly felt like the clunkiest one Joss has made so far, and a lot of the time it didn’t feel like he had a part in it. When things would get serious or when resident funny man Topher would crack a joke, I could see it as purely Whedon. The rest of the time, it felt more akin to something J.J. Abrams would make.
However, even if some plots were inconsistent, I still found myself enjoying the characters for the most part. Surprisingly, I enjoyed Echo and the other mainstay Dolls even while they were in their blank states. They form a sort of friendship despite having no real concept of it, and their performances once they were imprinted were pretty good. I have to dock points for Eliza, however, as I felt the other Doll actors outshone her most of the time. It’s not that she’s a bad actress, but if there’s one thing I learned from her role as Faith in “Buffy,” it’s that she excels at playing characters with spunk and attitude. The side characters also play important roles as well. Paul Ballard is an FBI agent who is obsessed with finding the Dollhouse and bringing it down to free everyone inside. His neighbor and later love, Mellie, is sweet and has an arch with Paul that I found as the ONLY enjoyable aspect of his character. In the Dollhouse itself, you have the tough and kinda douche-y Mr. Dominic, who leads the security team, and the no-nonsense boss of it all, Adelle DeWitt. You also have the Xander-esque but slightly annoying Topher, who created the imprinting machine and is in charge of handling those imprints, and Dr. Claire Saunders, who is still traumatized from an attack on the house that left her scarred. Finally, each Doll is given a handler, and for most of the season, Echo’s is former police officer Boyd Langton. I loved his fatherly attachment to her, even though it made him come off like a less interesting Giles.
My biggest gripe with all of these characters is that the show peels back some layers on them, giving you an idea of how they cope with what they do, and yet I felt they still lacked character development. Maybe that’s improved in Season 2, but it felt like more could’ve been done. Echo even gets a new handler at one point, and we don’t ever see him again or even learn his name. I understand that they wanted to keep focusing on her relationship with Boyd, but it felt like a waste of time in the end. However, one of the absolute best characters to come out of this show is Alpha, the main bad guy. Alpha’s deal is that he’s a Doll who, through a major mishap, had 43 personalities imprinted on him simultaneously. This makes him cunning AND dangerous, if also pretty unstable. He’s built up throughout the season here and there, and his eventual appearance didn’t disappoint. He is easily one of my favorite things from this season, and his performance was one of the strongest I’ve seen from this show. Unfortunately, he’s subjected to cliffhanger territory in the season finale, but I feel he’s one of the most interesting Whedon villains in recent memory.
I could go on about this season and break down my thoughts on each episode, but all I really need to say is that despite being inconsistent in quality, “Dollhouse” is an interesting show. I can see why people had mixed reactions to it back when it came out, and it definitely isn’t the best thing Joss has ever created. That being said, even though I felt like I was slowly making my way through the season, I enjoyed it far more than I did watching Season 1 of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, even if it is light on the traditional Whedon humor. I don’t know if I can fully recommend giving it a watch, but if you’re familiar with anything Whedon, it might be worth a shot.