For many of you, Dollhouse is probably old news. The question of will it get another season has been answered (a glorious ‘yes’ for all Whedonites) and the quality of the episodes and of the show as a whole has been debated to death.
However, being from Australia and lacking pay TV, I have found it surprisingly hard to get my hands on the episodes, and have consequently only just finished watching all twelve episodes (I’m yet to see "Epitaph One," the much discussed, available-only-on-DVD thirteenth episode). I found Dollhouse a very interesting show, full of great episodes, good episodes, and not-so-good episodes, and I even found myself pondering whether or not it could one day be better than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, arguably one of Whedon’s finest creations and one of the best things to come out of the '90s. The concept of Dollhouse had me intrigued, and while I wasn’t sure about Eliza Dushku in a lead role at first, I found myself warming to her quickly, along with the rest of the well-placed cast.
So what was it about Dollhouse that ignites such passionate, diverse responses from viewers? Well, I think there are a variety of factors to answer for this, and they include the concept, the plot, and the characters, as well as what Whedon fans expected Dollhouse to be compared to what it was.
It has to be said that the concept of Dollhouse is original and believable, if nothing else. The idea of a dormitory-style facility where people voluntarily have their memory wiped in order to have different personas ‘imprinted’ on them for the use of high-paying clients – well, with the way technology is going, this idea isn’t totally unfathomable. The audience realizes that the technology used in Dollhouse doesn’t exist in the real world yet – or at least it doesn’t exist to the knowledge of the general public. The general public in the world of Dollhouse don’t have any concrete evidence that the facilities exist, all they know are myths about places where people volunteer to have their memories wiped and can be used for any purposes that arise. If there was a highly illegal, highly powerful institution present in society today, the general public would probably know as much about it as the general public in Dollhouse know about the Dollhouses. So, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine something like this happening in a time not too far from now, an idea which gives an eerily disturbing, yet effective dimension to Dollhouse.
One of the better aspects of Dollhouse is the ensemble cast and the abundance of characters. There are the characters that are not (to the audience's knowledge at the beginning of the series) dolls, such as Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), Topher (Fran Kranz), Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker), Boyd Langton (Harry J. Lennix), and Adelle Dewitt (Olivia Williams), and then there are the dolls, such as Echo (Eliza Dushku), Sierra (Dichen Lachman), Victor (Enver Gjokaj), and November (Miracle Laurie). The non-dolls give viewers a ‘security blanket’ of sorts, inasmuch as the audience knows more or less how these characters might react in particular situations. All of these characters are very strong, and complement each other well, giving viewers characters that they maybe can't relate to exactly, but could try to understand and empathise with.
It's with the dolls that they writers get to be really creative. Every doll has different personas, with the exception of November, who is primarily a ‘sleeper active’ (that is, she maintains the one persona but can change into a butt-kicking ninja upon hearing a code developed by the Dollhouse), which means that the audience has no idea who the dolls really are or what to expect from them throughout each episode. In episode eight, "Needs," Echo, Victor, Sierra, and November awake with parts of their original memories intact, allowing the audience to gain some idea of who these characters were prior to being in the Dollhouse, but apart from this, the dolls can change every episode. I think that this may be one of the reasons why so many people dislike Dollhouse. After all, the dolls are the characters the viewers are meant to be empathizing with, but in their natural state, the dolls are little more than naive children, with no memories and no original thoughts and definitely no discernible character traits, making it difficult for audiences to relate to them. To Dushku’s credit though, she does bring some sense of personality to Echo throughout the series, so that viewers find themselves gradually caring about her fate. I however, really like the fact that the dolls could be someone different every episode, and I enjoyed watching Dushku adopt various personas, and thought it was interesting watching how the characters that were not dolls reacted to the various personalities of the dolls. I found that the predictability (to a certain extent) of the non-dolls balanced the unpredictability of the dolls very nicely, making for some very interesting episodes.
As well as finding the characters a little hard to relate to, I think a lot of viewers were somewhat disappointed with the plot and story arc of season one. The main story arc revolves around Alpha, a doll who went crazy and killed numerous people in the Dollhouse before escaping. Characters such as Dewitt are trying to locate Alpha, in order to bring him in and prevent him from murdering anybody else, whereas characters such as Langton and Topher are wondering why Alpha chose to leave Echo alive. This storyline was interesting, but it was rather sporadic, disappearing for a few episodes and then becoming the focal point once again. Many reviews state that the episodes were more focused on ‘Echo’s imprint of the week’ and the assignment she went on with that imprint, or persona. I can see the validity of these statements, especially in some of the earlier episodes, where the Alpha storyline seemed to disappear into the background.
However, as unsatisfying as Dollhouse may have been at the beginning of its run, it definitely began to pick up a good pace after episode six, "Man on the Street." The episodes prior to this one did have a standalone, detached feel to them; but after Man on the Street they all tied into the main story arc, albeit some significantly more than others.
One thing I think this series lacks is classic Joss Whedon comedy. I think a lot of fans watched Dollhouse expecting a drama, but also expecting the one-liners that Whedon became famous for in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Due to the show’s setup and overall plot, there isn’t much room for this sort of comedy however, and it was really only used through the character of goofy, semi-evil genius Topher. However in episode seven, "Echoes," most of the characters find themselves infected with a mysterious drug, which lowers their inhibitions and, in the dolls’ case, brings back their original memories. This allows for some classic Whedon humour with Dewitt and Topher, also showing a more relaxed, human side to Dewitt, who had previously been one of the more rigid characters of the show. "Echoes" also provides some much needed information on Echo’s true persona, Caroline, who is explored in even greater detail in the following episode, "Needs."
Personally, I found the first episode of Dollhouse, "Ghost," to be the weakest. I felt like the characters weren’t introduced to the extent that they should be in the first episode of a new series, and I don’t think the concept was explained in enough detail. I felt like I was watching the second or third episode of a new series, where the premise has been put forward and the characters have been introduced to the audience. "Ghost" could have possibly put a lot of people off the show, which is disappointing as it really does improve after this.
Whilst watching this first season, I found myself comparing it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m not sure that Dollhouse will ever reach the cult status that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has achieved, but I think it holds the potential to be just as good, if not better. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was so successful because it was the first popular television show to put women in a position of power and it also had characters that everyone could relate to. In Buffy’s world, life had its downfalls, just like it does for everyone, but with Buffy the downfalls were always slimier and more demonic than real life downfalls. It was the ability to reach millions of viewers on a personal level that helped Buffy achieve its cult status.
Dollhouse, on the other hand, doesn’t really reach viewers on a personal level, because viewers can’t relate to the situations very easily. However, I think that the concepts in Dollhouse are a lot more sophisticated than some of the concepts in Buffy. There are many more character twists within Dollhouse, and although the later seasons of Buffy may be better than season one of Dollhouse, I think it is fair to say that they are definitely on par with one another. Dollhouse just took a few more episodes to develop a good pace. I think that Dollhouse could become just as good – if not better – than Buffy the Vampire Slayer conceptually, but I don’t think it will ever affect generations of viewers in the poignant way that Buffy has. Dollhouse is more of a commentary on the evils of society and the power of technology and the ability of powerful individuals within society to use technology for debatably corrupt means, whereas Buffy was an allegory for growing up and learning to conquer the big bad thing called life.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of Dollhouse, and I don’t think it deserves the criticism it has received. It took a little while to find its feet, but I think it turned out to be a highly satisfying show once it did. I, along with countless others, cannot wait to see what Whedon, Dushku, and everyone else has in store for season two.