Dollhouse

This is mostly going to be  a movie blog, never fear. But I happen to like television quite a lot, too, so once in a while I’m gonna have to review a TV show.

“Dollhouse” is a cyberpunk show by Joss Whedon that aired on Fox six or seven years ago. As you might guess from the combination of “Joss Whedon” and “Fox” in that sentence, it was cancelled after two seasons. But before it got cancelled, it was about a version of the present day in which a technology has been invented that can wipe out a person’s personality and memories and replace them with new ones. A very shady company called the Rossum Corporation uses this technology to run “dollhouses,” where the very wealthy can rent out mind-wiped people who will (temporarily) become whoever they want them to be–from secret agents to bodyguards to…well, more traditional roles. Each “doll” is re-set to a child-like state after every assignment, but one, named Echo, is starting to remember her previous selves. Meanwhile, an FBI agent is getting close to the truth in his investigation of Rossum, a rogue doll named Alpha is trying to take down Echo’s dollhouse in a more violent manner, and the shadowy heads of the corporation may have more sinister long-term plans than anyone suspects.

Unlike some of his other swiftly-cancelled projects, Joss actually got to wrap this one up pretty neatly before it ended, so it doesn’t suffer from the lack of closure that caused so many Browncoat tears. But while it has some good characters and great storytelling moments, this show has two big, loud problems, which, surprisingly, have nothing to do with Fox.

*sigh* A tiny supermodel in skimpy clothes who beats people up a lot. Some of Joss’s tricks get old.

First of all, the central character was not cast very well. For a show whose premise requires the main character to be a completely different person every episode (and sometimes several people in one episode), you need a stellar actress. Eliza Dushku, who plays Echo, is just a decent one. All her personalities seem more or less the same, and since this is one of those shows where minor characters spend a lot of time calling the main character “special,” that gets annoying.

What makes it even more annoying is that she’s surrounded by AMAZING actors. There’s the great Alan Tudyk, in one of his most impressive performances ever; there’s Summer Glau, who manages to put a completely different spin on “cute psycho” than she did in “Firefly;” there’s Dichen Lachman, who plays a doll 10 times more interesting than Echo despite getting less screen time; and there’s Enver Gjokaj, an actor I had never heard of before watching this show, which is a crime against talent and art. How is this guy not landing major roles in big movies and getting showered with awards? To say he has range is like saying the Empire State Building has floors.

Just a few of the characters he plays on this show.

The second problem is that “Dollhouse” is every bit as dark and unsettling as it sounds. The parallels to real-life prostitution and slavery are all too obvious. There aren’t many truly good characters to root for, and when they do pop up, awful things happen to them. An atmosphere of apocalyptic gloom hangs over the whole series starting near the end of season 1. Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of funny and heartwarming moments, but the context often made me feel a little icky for laughing at them. The show’s premise allows for some interesting discussions on the nature of free will and what makes a person human, but it’s not a fun show. If it was any longer, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

That said, I must take a moment to highlight one of the bright patches. His name is Topher Brink, the surprisingly adorable mad scientist who programs the dolls. His character arc, which takes him from an arrogant, childish brat to a broken-hearted hero, is the kind of beautifully tragic storytelling I’ve come to expect from Joss. Even when the rest of the show was just making me angry, I could always relate to Topher (I’ll admit that worries me a bit). Topher gave me many feelings, but none of them were angry.

Topher feels may include laughter, nervous laughter, sudden urges to hug, and soul-crushing misery.

If  you’re a die-hard Joss Whedon fan, you will probably like “Dollhouse.” If you’re just a mild Joss Whedon fan, like me, it may or may not be worth your time. Either way, fair warning: there are quite a few sexually suggestive scenes, most of which do not take place between mutually consenting partners (unless brainwashing counts as consent), and there’s a fair amount of violence. Proceed with caution.

Or just re-watch “Firefly.” I find that’s usually a good idea in any situation.

Grade: C+

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