Joss Whedon has always had a reputation as a feminist creator, thanks to Buffy and Firefly. But Dollhouse, launching Friday, is his most mature feminist (not to mention humanist) statement. Here's our spoiler-free preview.
I called our preview "spoiler-free," but I will go so far as to explain the basic premise of the show, which you could glean from watching the previews. In Dollhouse, Eliza Dushku plays Echo a young woman whose mind has been erased, to make her perfectly mutable.
The insanely wealthy (and a few charity cases) can hire Echo to be whoever they want - with the personality, childhood memories, and skills that they want her to have. After each "engagement," the Dollhouse wipes her memory, leaving her an empty vessel until the next client. But things go wrong with Echo's "engagements," and she also starts to remember stuff that she's not supposed to. Oh, and Dollhouse starts tomorrow night at 9 on Fox.
Now that we've watched a few episodes of Dollhouse, a few things are clear:
This is a development of the River Tam story. Long-time Joss fans will remember Firefly's River Tam (Summer Glau), a mysterious naked girl who alternated between having uncanny abilities and crazy broken-brain talk. Both the abilities and the childlike dementia came from the mysterious experiments the Alliance did on River.
Dollhouse feels very much like an expanded, and more nuanced, version of that story. You have the weird brain science, the childlike babbling, and the uncanny abilities. But there are a few differences: Echo is the show's main character, and she's not just being fashioned into some kind of super-weapon. Instead, she's transformed into an all-purpose wish-fulfillment device, the ultimate emotional panacea.
There's no Simon Tam - everybody around Echo is complicit in what's happening to her, and she's their property. (And yet, you get hints that her "Handler" Boyd cares about her, and may take on a Simon-like role at some point.) Where River Tam's story was a Girl Interrupted riff with ninja moments, Echo's is becoming something much darker, and and yet much more fun as well.
The girl-power is in there. One of our biggest fears about Dollhouse, going into it, is that Echo's just a puppet. She's not a real person, she's just a braindead non-entity. So if she kicks ass, it's because she's been programmed with ass-kicking skills, that aren't really hers.
Except the show neatly sidesteps that pitfall - Echo often exceeds her programming and kicks more ass than she's supposed to. She's not programmed to be a super-ninja in every episode, and her "engagements" usually go wrong in some unforeseen way. At that point, she has to find reserves of strength and courage inside herself, and it's beautiful to behold.
It's all a metaphor for how you're brainwashed in real life. The show doesn't bludgeon you with how deep and metaphorical it is, but that stuff is all there if you look. The people that Echo is programmed to become have childhoods, they have little quirks and extra neuroses that aren't strictly necessary for them to do the job. Echo's relationship with her handler, Boyd, is almost a father-daughter one, partly because of her programming. And squirming beneath the surface is a sense that all of us non-programmed people have our social roles imposed on us, just as much as Echo does. Plus we're all playthings of the rich, just like she is.
Nobody on this show is whom they seem, exactly. And going along with that theme of "everybody's brainwashed," nobody on this show is who we think they are - or even, necessarily, who they they they are. Everyone seems to have secrets, and stuff they're hiding even from themselves.
Every episode is going to be a cult movie. Without giving away the plots of any of the episodes, I can tell you they're all cult movies. Some of them are classy cult movies - the kind that would star Denzel Washington, George Clooney or Meg Ryan - and some of them are more like decent B-movies. But every episode is self-contained, at least in the first batch, and it feels like a mini-movie. Every week, someone hires Echo to be someone new, and somehow the situation turns into a kinked-out thriller. Not that any of the episodes I saw were campy at all. They were more like tense, sparky crime movies or girl-in-the-woods movies.
By the way, there's a meme going around that the show's second episode is way better than the first. I actually liked both episodes about equally. But if the first episode leaves you flat, you should try the second, just in case you agree with the people who preferred it.
This is an incredible ensemble cast. Your feelings about Eliza Dushku are inevitably going to color your opinion of Dollhouse - especially since the show calls on her to play a huge range of different characters. (Personally, I thought she was good most of the time, with a few moments of greatness and a few minor false notes.) But in any case, the show also boasts an incredible supporting cast.
We all expected Battlestar Galactica's Tahmoh Penikett to rule as FBI agent Paul Ballard, but he's actually way better than he was as Helo. In the early episodes, Paul is just sniffing the trail of the Dollhouse, but Penikett manages to keep his dead-end investigation riveting. Also, Fran Kranz is great as Topher, the show's "Xander," who programs Echo with a new personality every week. Kranz gets most of the show's Whedonesque dialogue, and makes the most of it. And Harry Lennix and Olivia Williams are also captivating. Oh, and the brother from Journeyman? He's in it too, which I didn't even realize, and he's a dick. In a good way.
Bottom line: I've already totally fallen in love with this show. I was excited for it before I saw it, and now that I have, I am filled with a fevered desperation to watch a hundred more episodes. I wish I had a half-dozen DVD box sets of this show.