Welcome to the ‘Dollhouse’

[9 February 2009]

By Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

LOS ANGELES - Is it grindhouse camp? Extreme inflatable-girl fantasy? Latter-day Moses narrative? Or another case of a fickle network playing Lucy and the football with one of TV’s best-loved creators?

Whatever your take on Joss Whedon’s new series, “Dollhouse,” after you see the debut at 9 p.m. EST this Friday on Fox, you’re not likely to say it’s short on ambition.

The year’s most anticipated new series, at least among Internet fandom, “Dollhouse” stars Eliza Dushku (“Buffy,” “Angel,” “Tru Calling”) as Echo, an eye-popping shebot who can be programmed with almost any personality her employer desires, whether a gun-toting rock climber or a dressed-to-the-nines hostage negotiator fluent in Spanish.

Echo is employed by is a super-secret organization - run by a queen bee with a British accent (Olivia Williams) - whose mad software genius, a dude named Topher (Fran Kranz), rewrites Echo and scores of her fellow “actives” before each of their sexy-slash-dangerous missions, for which the firm is handsomely compensated by clients.

Throw in some nefarious government investigation (or is it a cover-up?). Add a dash of intrigue in the form of Echo’s protector, Boyd (Harry Lennix), a shadowy ex-cop with a heart of gold. And then stir in the possibility that Topher may not be completely erasing Echo’s remembrances of things past, so that eventually she may figure out what’s being done to her.

All those ingredients make for a stew that, initially anyway, needs salt. The dialogue is conspicuously missing Whedon’s trademark snappy patter - unlike, say, the memorable pilot of his series “Firefly.” Hardcore Whedonists are well aware that this is actually the second pilot that Fox ordered of the show, and that “Firefly” was also scheduled on Friday nights in 2002, and quickly died there as well.

On the other hand, Fox is giving “Dollhouse” a potentially potent lead-in with “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” another power-grrl show, at 8 p.m. EST. And the network has come up with an irresistible on-air ad campaign for the two shows in the spirit of the Quentin Tarantino-Richard Rodriguez “Grindhouse” flicks.

Having seen two more promising later episodes, I say give “Dollhouse” time. And in the meantime, enjoy the set.

I first laid eyes on it last summer, during a visit to the Fox lot: an expensively wood-paneled, 100-foot-wide, two-story nerve center for the “actives,” where they spend their down time between assignments getting backrubs, taking showers, going for dips - basically anything that involves disrobing.

“There’s not a person who’s gone on that set who hasn’t said, ‘I want to live here,’” observed Sarah Fain, the show’s co-executive producer, as we walked through the “Dollhouse” stage last month.

“Every single person, from the extras to our cast to the studio execs,” echoed Liz Craft, her longtime writing partner, the show’s other co-executive producer and, way before that, Fain’s high school classmate in Kansas City.

Craft and Fain got their first co-writing credit with Whedon on the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” spinoff “Angel.” They’ve risen steadily as a tandem to co-showrunner status, most recently with the short-lived adaptation of James Patterson’s “Women’s Murder Club” books for ABC.

Everyone agrees that the likable, enigmatic Whedon is the captain of the ship, but it’s a big ship. That’s why they’re here.

“No one person can run the show,” Craft said. “You have to be able to delegate.” And in this case, he has two lieutenants to carry out his ideas.

“We can interpret what he says: ‘What do you think he meant?’ ‘Well, I think he meant this.’ That’s nice, to have another set of ears,” said Craft. “And we’re very comfortable with collaboration.”

I ask if that’s because they’re women - still a distinct minority in Hollywood’s writing ranks.

“I think it’s more being Midwestern than being women. There is a definite team-player, work-ethic, ‘I don’t want to disappoint you’ ...”

“We’re the ‘whatever you need’ people,” said Fain, finishing the thought.

The day I visited the “Dollhouse” stage in January, the fabulous zombie spa was mostly under tarp, so we retired to a homey-looking room with books and child-sized furniture and a piano in the corner. As we sat and talked, a multiracial group of preteen actors assembled in the corner, joined by crew members starting to set up. Somebody started to play “Stand By Me.”

Fain explained the scene that Dushku would soon be shooting here. “She’s going to come in and read a fairy tale to these kids. Last week, she was kicking somebody’s ass. I mean, she can be anyone. We have everything from nice sweet emotions to huge action and stunning twists.”

While Echo is out terrorizing and/or romancing, an FBI agent named Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) will be doggedly pursuing rumors about this mystery outfit that has figured out how to turn smokin’ men and women into pleasure slaves. Everyone around Ballard treats him as though he’s asked the agency to re-open its UFO files.

But in the end, said Craft, it’s neither Echo nor Ballard “but the workings of the dollhouse that we think is what everyone’s going to be interested in.”

“Dollhouse,” said Fain, is a parable “about a people struggling to be free. Echo is our heroine, and she’s a fighter.” Like Moses.

“Whether she knows it or not,” added Craft.

At this, both women laugh knowingly - after all, they’re talking about a character who has her hard drive reformatted every three days.

“Well,” said Fain, “that just makes her more interesting and more heroic.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/70265-welcome-to-the-dollhouse/