Joss Whedon’s new series is certainly his most serious television drama to date, but is even that serious enough?
Need to find that perfect someone at a moment’s notice? An escort, a negotiator, or an assassin? Starting at a cool million dollars, maybe the Dollhouse can help. Meet Echo (Eliza Dushku), one of the “actives” who can be instantly prepped to be whoever she needs to be and skilled in whatever tasks are required. When sent on an “engagement,” the Dollhouse active will be closely monitored by a handler (Harry Lennix) to ensure all aspects of the mission are covered. An in-house personality technician (Harry Lennix) will ensure that all memories required are in place before an engagement begins and that all traces are removed once it is over. And if a federal agent (Tahmoh Penikett) asks you any question about the Dollhouse, just ignore him; his co-workers at the FBI don’t believe him, either. Now, what was it you needed?
Linking up with “Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles” on Fox Network Friday nights, “Dollhouse” lacks the trademark snarky dialogue and self-aware absurdity that shows like “Buffy” and “Firefly” were known for. Part of that is likely due to the subject matter at hand; a real person is mind wiped, reprogrammed, sent on a dangerous mission, then mind wiped again before another mission. Hints are dropped in the first episode to suggest that “actives” may be volunteers or even pressured into voluntary service, but who would enforce such an agreement should anyone break it? It’s not only the ethics of doing something like this, but the very existence of the technology that can accomplish this feat may not be being taken seriously enough already.
After all, what’s to stop someone from reprogramming a client? Creating sleeper agents? Stealing state secrets out of a diplomat’s head? All the political and practical dangers inherit to films such as Total Recall and Strange Days are here but only being used to create living “dolls” that walk, talk, and perform as programmed. Harry Lennix’s character of the handler seems to be the only one who really cares that these dolls are also human beings, leaving far too many others who see actives as soulless assets. There is also the possibility that the technology itself may be military grade or even that the government has sanctioned the Dollhouse to prove out the technology.
To actors like Eliza Dushku and Dichen Lachman, it’s a dream come true; the opportunity to play one or several different characters in every episode. The atmosphere in the Dollhouse is creepy to everyone except the dolls, who seem to believe it is a spa of some sort where they live. Mr. Whedon has revealed via interviews that the first seven episodes of the initial 13-episode order are each considered “pilots,” allowing any one to be viewed in no particular without the need for a “previously on Dollhouse” montage. Will it work? Will it find its audience quickly enough to survive its initial half-season order? The first episode shows promise, so let’s see what the next six hold before things start adding up.