This is an extremely flawed pilot.
Joss Whedon is responsible for a number of my favorite shows. Although I’ve never seen Firefly, I’m a a big fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (a surprisingly complex drama), and Angel (a dark and gripping spin-off series). Unfortunately while Dollhouse does eventually ascend to greatness, its opening hour isn’t a standout creation.
The show’s premise is quite unique: a secret facility, The Dollhouse, erases the personalities of its inhabitants so they can assume the personas of whatever their clients desire. It’s especially twisted, and there’s a whole lot of moral areas to explore particularly with regards to the sexual nature of many of the “engagements”. Sadly, the pilot is more interested in tackling a standalone kidnapping case that’s not engrossing in the slightest. It’s worth noting that the show’s original unaired pilot (which FOX scrapped before ordering Joss to write/film another) had a better grasp of its priorities. I’ll be reviewing that leaked production eventually because it’s ten times more effective than this mess.
I love Eliza Dushku; she was an incredible villainess on Buffy, and her turn as the star of Tru Calling was short-lived but memorable. Dollhouse however isn’t the best vehicle for her talents. The role of Echo, an Active who begins to piece together her identity, would be a challenging role for most actresses, and Dushku simply doesn’t have the necessary range to pull off so many different personalities. Whereas Jennifer Garner would become her disguises on Alias, Eliza falls somewhat flat – especially in the pilot as a steely hostage negotiator. It doesn’t help that the twist involving the personality’s past is far too contrived and cringeworthy. Really writers, you couldn’t think of anything better?
Bits & Imprints
– You can see the network interference right from the teaser with the slick motorcycle chase and Eliza in a super-short dress. It’s all so marketing-oriented, but Eliza admittedly looks gorgeous in that dance sequence.
– Why does Echo even take off her helmet after she crashes? For the sexy promo shot?
– Funny touch: Echo’s date says “Let’s Dance” and Gaga’s song of the same name starts to play.
– Although it’s barely explored in the pilot, Echo’s handler, Boyd, is obviously not at ease with the whole thing. The tech-whiz Topher on the other hand thinks he’s a great humanitarian.
– The pilot’s greatest achievement? The utterly breathtaking Dollhouse setting. The zen open space, the sleeping pods, the yoga clothes, the communal showers – it’s a real visual treat brimming with detail.
– I just love the show’s opening credits. The music and the bells at the end are especially haunting.
– There’s a childlike innocence to the Actives in their wiped state that really makes the whole thing even creepier.
– Amy Acker is barely in the pilot, but she’s a Whedon favorite. She plays Dr. Saunders (and she’s got a mysterious scar on her face).
– There’s so much unnatural exposition being dumped as Topher and Boyd discuss the imprint process, and none of the trademark wit that defines Whedon’s best work. A pity.
– The pilot also introduces us to Agent Ballard who is investigating human trafficking and the Dollhouse. The scene in which he gets interrogated is cleverly intercut with him fighting in the ring.
– I hate that the writers couldn’t even make Miss Penn (Echo’s hostage negotiator personality) good at what she does. She gets her client shot and has an asthma attack in the middle of the deal.
– Did we really need to hear the abuser tell Echo that he has something “to stuff that mouth up”? Yuck.
– Also ill-advised: the abuser punching Echo in the face. Talk about disempowering your lead.
– Dichen Lachman doesn’t get much to do as Sierra, but there’s one badass moment where she storms the scene and kills all the kidnappers.
– As the head of the Dollhouse, Olivia Williams is the most well-cast player in the piece. She just exudes elegance and a sinister vibe. But who’s Alpha?
– The final scene is supposed to be mysterious, but there’s nothing intriguing about a weird nude guy killing a random couple and watching a university video of Echo babbling. The one touch I did like was our heroine exclaiming that she wants “to do everything”. Yup, you’ll definitely get to do that as an Active.
Quotes & Echoes
Topher: She’s living the dream.
Boyd: Whose dream?
Echo: Something fell on me.
Topher: I bet it was something great.
Chief: I can hire anybody for anything. And I’m gonna go to an illegal organization and have them build me, program me, what, the perfect date? Confessor, assassin, dominatrix, omelet chef?
Dominic: (to Boyd) We’ll skip any ex-cop heroics, if you don’t mind.
Client: In my experience, a beautiful woman never puts anyone at their ease.
Topher: That’s the person they needed, so that’s who Echo is. The expert.
Boyd: Who’s nearsighted.
Topher: She also has asthma.
The potential is all there, but this debut hour isn’t as amazing as it should have been. Still, it’s worth sticking with the show for the greatness that will eventually follow (especially in season two).
Note: Check out my retro review of the show’s two seasons. Here’s hoping I get to review every episode individually one day.