Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dollhouse Season 1 Review

Update': I now have a review of the extras from the season 1 DVD up.

Update: I wrote this with the target audience in mind being people who had never seen the show, and were considering it for DVD purchase. Then it hit Whedonesque ;-) So, to those who have seen the show: there are extras including the unaired epilogue episode titled "Epitaph One" on the DVD set which make it worth getting, even having seen the aired episodes.

Now that the Dollhouse: Season One DVDs are about to come out, I feel it's the right time to post a review. If you haven't been watching the show, this is Joss Whedon's latest series. He's the creator of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Firefly (which became the film, Serenity) among other work. He's earned a reputation among the science fiction and fantasy fandom world as a "geek's geek" who can bring humor and drama to mainstream television without watering either down. He's also a fan of tackling hard problems. He started with the unlikely heroine: the quintessential stereotype blond cheerleader, put her in a dark alley with a scary monster and... watched her wipe the floor with it's creepy carcass. In Firefly, he tackled the western in space... a hard sell by any measure.

Now comes Dollhouse. This show's premise is simple: there are a group of people who have figured out how to replace someone's memories and personality including complex skills like fighting or hostage negotiation. They then "zombify" supposedly volunteer subjects, give them a blank slate for five years (or so they say) and periodically rent them out on assignment to the rich and powerful for everything from sexual encounters to something akin to special forces operations. It's all a matter of what you want or need and what you can pay for.

Needless to say, this is a tough subject. It's pretty hard to sell protagonists who work for a slavery ring that rents men and women out as mindless slaves. Of course, some in the Dollhouse aren't very likable. Some are, and this leaves you wondering why they're willing to do what they do. But ultimately it all comes down to the dolls themselves, and the show stands or falls on the shoulders of its main character played by Eliza Dushku: Echo. She's a doll, and she's not quite right... she's starting to wake up from her technologically induced stupor that the dolls are put into between assignments. Gradually, throughout the season you get more and more of a sense of who the real "Echo" is, and what she's going to want to accomplish.

The other characters aren't throw-aways. There's Topher (Fran Kranz), the genius behind the process that creates the dolls and gives them the memories and abilities they need for assignments. He's a bit of an odd character. Of all of the members of the Dollhouse, he's the one you might expect to be bothered by what they do, but he seems to be too enthused with the technology to realize what he's actually doing. In short, he's a tragic character, and I'm sure that in future seasons, he's going to have to make some hard choices.

Next up is the FBI agent, Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), whose career is on the rocks because he won't give up on the Dollhouse, which he alone believes exists. His arc is complicated, and I can't get into it without spoilers, but suffice to say that he's our Window into what the Dollhouse really is and why it exists. As he learns more, so do we.

I could analyze all of the supporting characters, but suffice to say that they all do excellent jobs, and each and every one of them deserve to be on the show.

So, is it worth buying the season one DVDs? Yes, I believe it is. This show has a lot going for it: rich plot, witty dialogue and a cast that just keeps on giving. It's also been renewed for a second, though lower-budget, season that I have high hopes for.

For his part, Whedon has said that the show definitely is going somewhere. It's not just an episodic excuse to explore the whims of the rich and powerful. Certainly such was not the case with the first season, but he seems to be implying that the series has a much more complicated story to tell. Here's hoping it's as rewarding as the first season!


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