Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Dollhouse" Debriefing

I'm writing this less than two hours after I've seen the pilot episode of Joss Whedon's new show Dollhouse. I'm probably one of the first people to see it, a little over a week before it airs.

I saw it in a furniture store with about a dozen others, surrounded by love seats, sofas and a plethora of salespeople circling around.

I'll be getting into some spoilery territory here about the structure of the show and some of the basics of the plot, as well as what I believe to be the strengths and flaws of the show. I'll try not to give away any specific plot points. You have been warned.

The show starts out with a lot of eye candy--Fast cars, fast women, sexy outfits, co-ed naked showering--but not a lot of dialogue. With all of this visual stimulation, it's a little hard to follow what's going on. After the first act, though, you figure out the basic rules of the Dollhouse, and how the main character, Echo (played by Eliza Dushku), fits in.

Briefly: The Dollhouse is dormitory for young men and women who have agreed to give up their identities in exchange for a clean slate. In this case, literally, for the memories of their past lives are wiped. They are given new memories and identities as needed, and are sent out to do assignments. When they return, they are wiped again. A little Bourne Identity, a little Alias, as some who watched the pilot with me remarked.

Though the Dollhouse is seen, it remains terribly mysterious after this first episode. Is the Dollhouse a government organization? A bunch of mad scientists playing god? A precursor to Firefly's Academy? We don't know. We do learn that the Dollhouse contracts its services out to a wide variety of clients and is run by an icy British woman. We also learn that somebody at the FBI knows something about the Dollhouse and has assigned the hunky Heilo from Battlestar Galactica, Tahmoh Penikett, to find out more.

We see Echo on assignment, which takes up the majority of the episode. For me, this was the most engaging part of the story, because we actually got to see Echo in character, see her handle an assignment, and watch a story arc that is easy to relate to.

During the pilot, we also meet a couple of the workers and residents of the Dollhouse, including Echo's handler, played by Harry Lennix (dude from the Matrix who was Morpheus' rival for Jada Pinkett's affections).

Although there are a few humorous parts, the pilot episode of Dollhouse seems to indicate that this is a dyed-in-the wool drama, with lots of sexy eye candy thrown in for good measure. Joss does not make with the funny so much here but the bodies are toned and oiled and beautiful and many scenes are visually stunning.

Though Joss is known for his strong characters, the character development was weak for most of the cast, including Echo. The most fleshed out character was Echo's handler, who came across as a very protective, father-figure type.

He was in stark contrast to the rest of the workers at the Dollhouse, who were extremely businesslike. The entire feeling was cold and impersonal, which may have been intentional, but it made it hard to relate to many of the characters.

At the end of the episode, I wanted to know more-much, much more-about the Dollhouse. It felt like there was too much to get across in a one-hour episode, and certain things were barely hinted at.

The people I saw it with had mixed reactions. Some felt that Eliza did not have the gravitas to pull off the role since she needs to play many different characters. Some were even more confused than I was as to what was going on. Everybody enjoyed it to a certain extent, and some of the salespeople who were hovering about sat down and had a look. That's a good sign I think.

I have a lot of confidence that the show will get better with age. For one, Joss likes to write stories with a ton of characters in them, so not everybody gets to shine right off the bat. I am certain that the characters will grow and develop and get really cool as the show goes on.

Also, the person who was running the screening, a local entertainment writer, told us that she had seen the first few episodes, and that the show did start to get tighter. There was a groove and a more consistent tone that emerged.

I also have confidence that the show will have a chance to ripen. According to our emcee at the screening, The new exec at FOX, a guy named Kevin Riley, is known for letting shows develop over time. He was apparently the guy that greenlit The Office at NBC and let it find its audience over a season or so.

Dollhouse is a bit confusing, but it has the potential to be a lot more accessible than some of Joss's other shows. No vampires, no Cowboys in Space.

Dollhouse was good, but not great. There's been only one great.

Dollhouse is premiering on Friday the 13th at 9PM, right after Terminator: The Summer Glau, er, Sarah Connor Chronicles. Take that as an omen, for good or for ill, as you wish.


Icepick said...

Thanks. Well written review. Of course, there was nothing that could discourage me from watching a Joss Whedon offering.

My take aways from the review were Sexy, well-oiled, Eliza Dushku

I'm sold!

The musishian said...

Yes, it's definitely shiny in the literal sense of the word, if not the figurative.