How did you miss…. Dollhouse (TV Review)

Joss Whedon – shhh! Be careful saying it out loud in a large group of people unless you want to cause a massive sci-fi fans’ hysteria. They’re not just regular fans, Whedon’s people. They don’t just go to Comic-Con once a year and watch his TV shows over and over again (however they do that alright). They fight for their master, just like they did after “Firefly” got canceled in 2002. Even though they got the movie “Serenity” out of that, now, almost 10 years later, they are still not entirely satisfied with that decision, what lead to a campaign put up together with actor Nathan Fillion to raise 300 million dollars and get the show back to production. That, and the fact that pretty much everyone being in his teens in the first decade of 2000 has heard of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” makes you understand the sort of cult icon that Whedon is. By now his fame and stardom has probably reached every continent as it spreads through nerds like a disease with every move the director makes and every project he undertakes.

His most recent original idea was “Dollhouse”. The TV series ran on FOX for two seasons in 2009-2010 and its cancellation was yet another stab in the back to the fans. Revolving around a secret underground organisation, the show takes the viewers into the world of serious brain manipulation and programmable people.

What Dollhouse does is “helping people”. Or at least that’s what its director Adelle Dewitt (Olivia Williams) is telling herself so she can sleep at night. The structure of the house dangerously resembles a brothel. Let’s say you’re a millionaire and you’re bored. You need some entertainment. Or you desire to meet the woman of your life. Maybe you want to hire an assassin, a hooker, a wife? Dollhouse can provide everything you dream of. And why is it better than picking up a hooker from the street? Apart from the fact that you can’t always get her to kill for you, “dolls”, or Actives – who are the people for renting – will completely get into the role you choose them to get into. They won’t play your wife – they will be your wife. The person making it possible is a genius scientist and computer geek Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), whose wipe out and imprint technology allows tampering with people’s neurological system. The Dollhouse finds young troubled people and offers them a fresh start for a small price of spending five years incarcerated in an underground building living as a human shell and occasionally turning into some rich man’s birthday present after being imprinted with the appropriate personality. Charming? Doesn’t sound like that to Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), an FBI agent who spent a couple of years hunting Dollhouse being a laughing stock of the Bureau. His search begins to take a turn after he receives a photo of a potential doll and decides to free Caroline (Eliza Dushku) from the slavery she allegedly agreed to.

“Dollhouse” gets you hooked from the very beginning. Fast moving plot and continuity is what glued me to the screen. Each next episode gives you a feeling you’re one step closer to unraveling the story. The show is packed with action: there’s guns, a whole lot of martial arts and even a bike race. Each thread gets a turn and receives as much attention from the creators as needed.

It’s said that the best books are the ones that make you think. Whedon’s concept makes you question human capabilities. There’s a ton of philosophical and ethical aspects I started considering after my first encounter with the show. Is programming people and using them as dolls good or bad? What if they volunteered? What if it really helps others? Does that make a difference? It also strikes with some neurological dilemmas the characters fight with: How deeply is your personality rooted in you? How do you keep your consciousness? How do you know you’re you and not a programmed puppet? The kind of technology Topher plays with scares the hell out of me. Only imagine what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands… Or instead, just watch the show.

I have to admit, I was a bit worried when prior to watching I read the show’s description and figured it’s biggest challenge must be acting. Actives in the Dollhouse change personalities at least twice per episode. Having to portray multiple characters and remaining believable on camera is quite tricky, especially while nowadays some actors have problems with pouring a bit of truth into even one. I’d like to say that no matter if they’re currently a vegetable-like, wiped out doll between the engagements or an imprinted Active during one all of the actors are genuine and interesting to watch. However, as it turns out the only struggling one is the lead Echo/Caroline played by Eliza Dushku. The girl’s mopy face isn’t the most attractive sight and we get to see it a lot. Even though Caroline is a hugely annoying character on her own I am certain that’s not where my sighs come from when watching Dushku attempt to act as anything else than a bad-ass girl or seductress.

Apart from the misfortunate lead casting, the show is exploding with talent and acting potential. Olivia Williams makes a great ice queen, just like Fran Kranz deals with his genius brain and cheeky lines like a true professional. The supporting Actives, Sierra (Dichen Lachman) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj) make up for Dushku’s lack of versatility. Their characters develop hugely to get to a climax towards the end of the second season, where the show gets even more dramatic – and Echo, thank God, less painful to watch.

To sum things up, “Dollhouse” is an another unfortunately canceled TV series which deserves much more recognition than it was ever given. It doesn’t have a nerdy feel to it so you don’t have to be afraid of getting into its twisted world, even if Comic Sans is the only Comic that rings a bell with you. It’s nothing like Star Trek, doesn’t make you want to play dress up in a cape and I’m sure you’ll enjoy those 50 minutes of your time even if only for the amount of beautiful women kicking some high-heeled ass.

Marta Konopka

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