The biggest surprise of Dollhouse is not that it made it to a second season, but that it made it on the air at all. This is a show that had a robust internet write-in campaign to save it from cancellation up and running a full six months before it even debuted. Add to that the shaky—bordering on venomous—relationship between network FOX and the creative team of cult (and critical) favorite Joss Whedon and show star and producer Eliza Dushku, and it was all but predestined that Dollhouse would arrive virtually stillborn – if it arrived at all.
Indeed, during its first season it seemed that maybe FOX was right to hedge its bets. Middling and messy, Dollhouse flailed around out the gate, with a botched, underwhelming pilot and initial batch of episodes that displayed none of the promise of the show’s premise. Eschewing the pull of deep mythology and long narrative arcs that, heretofore, drove Whedon’s best shows (Buffy and Angel), Dollhouse opted instead to go the episodic route, a fatal choice which alienated its potential cult fan base, but didn’t win over noninitiates.
Set in a verging on dystopic present, Dollhouse imagines a world where a secret, nefarious international business/medical conglomerate (the Rossum Corporation) has found a way to wipe a person’s identity, and replace it with the memories, personalities and talents of other people. Big business, and good business, as the wealthy and unscrupulous can then rent out these “dolls” to be whatever they need – assassins, dead wives, prostitutes. The “dolls” (who have “volunteered” to join the Dollhouse for a five year stint, with the promise of huge monetary payout at the end and bad memories expunged) are imprinted with different personalities for their various assignments, and then wiped clean at the end, drifting listlessly about in the subterranean stronghold of the Dollhouse, reduced to a childlike tabula rasa state.
Dushku stars as Echo, the hottest and baddest-assed of the dolls, most in demand, and most in need of salvation. Seems in her prior life, she was a student activist named Caroline, who had one day gone missing, never to be heard from again. FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tamoh Penikett, as tightly wound and self-righteous here as he was on Battlestar Galactica) gets a bug in his bonnet about the Dollhouse (which is deemed an urban legend by popular culture and law enforcement alike), and spends a good portion of season one trying to track Echo down, both to save her and bring down the Dollhouse. Meanwhile, it’s obvious that the Dollhouse is up to some sort of endgame which isn’t in the best interest of the rest of humanity…. BUT WHAT?!
The first season is content not only to ignore that question, but to generally ignore the other profound questions its central idea raises, notions about the essence of memory and identity, volition and enslavement, and even God. Most of the 13 episode run of season one is composed of stand-alone episodes where Dushku basically gets to play dress up and try to act her way through various different personalities, all of whom end up devolving into pretty much the same character that Dushku always plays (tough talking, shoulder swaying townie gal). Two or three episodes hinted at something more going on beneath the surface, of both the character of Echo and the show as a whole, but by the end of the first season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that we’d never see that “more”. Heck, Whedon even shot a series finale, never aired but included on the first season DVD, in anticipation of the show getting the axe.
Then, two surprising things happened. First, Dollhouse was granted a reprieve by FOX, who ordered another 13 episodes for season two. Second, when no one was looking, Dollhouse quickly corrected all the wrongs of its first season and became one of the best shows on television. Too bad that, by this point, no one was watching.
A few episodes into season two, it looked like it was going to be more of the same. More assignment of the week episodes, never committing to becoming the myth-heavy serialized narrative that Whedon fans expected – which isn’t to say that these early episodes weren’t entertaining, or good. Second episode “Instinct” has Echo imprinted as the recently deceased mother of a newborn, hired by the husband who can’t let go of his young wife who died in childbirth. For whatever reason, Echo’s personality starts to go awry, and the husband wants her sent back to the Dollhouse.
Echo overhears him talking on the phone how he wants her and the baby “taken care of”. Fearing for her and “her” baby’s life, frantic and hysterical as any mother would be if she found out her husband wanted her murdered, she goes on the run with the baby, begging of the police to protect her from her husband. More mayhem ensues, and there’s a standoff in the husband’s house at night, during a lightning storm, with the power out, with knives and the baby’s life in the balance. It’s all very Lifetime Movie and very cheesy, but works on a pure entertainment level.
Better is the tragic episode of Echo’s fellow doll Sierra (the soulful Dichen Lachman). Heretofore she had been mostly a bit player on the show, but in the episode “Belonging” we see her back story fleshed out. She had once upon a time been a fledgling artist, who caught the eye of a Rossum Corporation doctor. After she repeatedly rebuffs his advances, his possessive jealousy leads him to have her doped up and committed to a psychiatric hospital (where he’s head doctor) for schizophrenia, after which hands over to the Dollhouse to be imprinted with a personality more amenable to his advances.
What ensues is a perpetual, eternally recurring hell for Sierra, of being raped and beaten by this untouchable Rossum bigwig, who is free to act with impunity because of his investment in the company, and the fact that she will never remember the abuse heaped on her… until some vestige of rage seeps up through her erased memory, and she fights back. Heartbreaking and violent, this episode probably best illustrates the physical and psychological nightmare of the Dollhouse universe, and the necessity of redeeming the dolls and destroying the technology that allows for the destruction of human memory and identity.
Indeed, this episode acts as prelude to the abrupt shift in narrative and thematic focus that immediately follows, and runs through to the conclusion of the series. From here on out, over the remaining nine episodes, Dollhouse tightens up significantly, and rides a bullet train of brilliance to its abrupt finale.
I shouldn’t say too much about what unfolds, other than that show maintains a high level of tension and forward of momentum. The awakening of Echo from her doll slumber, and the attempts to raze the Dollhouse and Rossum to the ground, are front and center from here on out, and the stand alone episodes vanish completely. I’m guessing that this shift coincided with Whedon getting final word that the show was being canceled for good, and thus the need to ramp up the myth-arc portion of the show and give stalwart fans the answers they craved.
And get them, you will. Dollhouse doesn’t skimp on big reveals, big twists, and big payoffs down the homestretch. At times it feels like it’s doing too much, and is certain to burst. There are probably at least two or three seasons worth of narrative shakeups and character development going on in a really short, tight space, and it’s hard as a viewer not be overwhelmed or confused. The show demands nearly immediate rewatching at points, as the secrets of the Dollhouse and Echo and her various antagonists and comrades starts rolling down the pike one on top of another.
Luckily, the show has an able supporting cast to prop Dushku up and keep the ship sailing down these choppy waters. The great joke about Whedon’s flagship show, Buffy, was how much better developed and more interesting the ensemble characters were than the show’s heroine. Dollhouse boasts a similar pedigree, and though I do love Eliza Dushku for various reasons, her acting ability is not one of them. But everyone else here is brilliant – Olivia Williams as Adelle DeWitt, the ambiguously moralistic, Machiavellian head of the House; Harry Lenix as Boyd, Echo’s sympathetic and staunchly badass handler; even Fran Kranz as Topher, the twitchy, ADD addled biotech genius, who was so grating in season one, redeems himself here (and might even be the true hero of the show as it winds to its apocalyptic finale). Add to this the guest spots of Whedon regulars Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker and Alan Tudyk, and Dollhouse almost starts to resemble a Whedon family reunion.
However, the real find here is Enver Gjokaj as Victor, one of the dolls in the house, and the true breakout star of the show. A master chameleon and the most adept at actually making the various characters he played seems totally distinct, Gjokaj is a natural, effortless in his psychological and physical contortions. His surprise portrayal of the character of another main character (Kranz’s Topher) is so eerily precise, in all the vocal tics and mannerisms, one suspects some sort of trickery, but no, Gjokaj is just that good. It might be the highpoint of the show too, a comedic tour de force that doesn’t get old with repeated viewings.
Dollhouse winds up with a finalé that is frustrating in its ambiguity and relative anti-climax. A direct sequel to the unaired series finale from season one, if that makes sense (so I guess now this is the real series finale), it doesn’t necessarily jibe with the big ramp up of action and fallout at the very end of the show, and seems to be a finale more appropriate for a show that lasted several more seasons. I guess these are the exigencies of having to conclude a show that was killed before its time, but sometimes a great, big, forever to be unresolved cliffhanger is perhaps an even better claim for immortality (see Twin Peaks, or the finale of Whedon’s own Angel).
There aren’t a ton of extras included with the Dollhouse Season Two DVD release, but the ones that are, are excellent. First, is a short comic that fills in some more of the missing story and timeline between the end of the regular show and the finale. There are also a bevy of outtakes and deleted scenes, which add a bit of depth to some of the secondary characters, but do not add much to the overall narrative.
There’s a 12-minute series retrospective with creator Joss Whedon, where he spends most of his time backhandedly complementing FOX for deigning to give him a second season, however so brief. He talks a bit how liberating it was to finally get the word on the series being axed for good and being allowed to play out the string and have creative control over the end of the show.
The real feast, though, is a roundtable dinner with most of the principle cast and Whedon, where they reminisce about the show – their favorite moments, the challenges of playing multiple personalities (of Dushku et al), the big twists. They do spend a bit of time lamenting the premature cancelation of Dollhouse, and Whedon teases both cast and audience that he had a full six seasons planned out (details of which he frustratingly does not divulge). The whole thing is a good time, another big Whedon family reunion (though Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are both AWOL), and a nice sendoff to a series that was perhaps too good for this world.