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TV Review: Dollhouse – “Briar Rose”

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Science fiction has always stretched the imagination, and Dollhouse is no exception. The compelling storyline and multipurpose characters draw viewers in from the moment they start watching, and keep them in their seats until the closing credits fade into nothingness. Most of the first season has been about various missions which occupants of the dollhouse have taken part in. To say these are unlike the typical adventures is putting things a bit mildly.

Some background is in order. Adele Dewitt (Olivia Williams) runs an organization in Los Angeles which uses people who agree to have their minds totally cleared of feelings, original thought, and any personality. Why? So they can be hired to become whatever the client wishes. At the end, there is a mind wipe by Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) which removes any lingering traces of events. To outsiders like FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tamoh Penikett), it sounds like brainwashing. And perhaps he has a legitimate point. On the other hand, the "actives" sign a five-year contract. They are paid well for their deal, which is helpful for a variety of reasons.

Take Sam, for example. He is recruited after a chemical manages to get unleashed at a college and causes untold havoc ("Echoes"). The money he earns as an active, or doll, can be used to ease a burden on his mother. Echo (Eliza Dushku) is different. She seems to be escaping from a past she cannot forget. Although a boyfriend dies, this is only part of the story. The writers have wisely considered Echo to be a character who should be unfolded slowly. People watch each week just to see what more they can discover.

Sierra (Dichen Lachman) has the most troubled history. She is placed, or so it's suggested, in the dollhouse by a potential suitor who is enraged she does not participate in intercourse ("Needs"). This, however, might be a small bit of fiction. She wants to get power, and so she enlists the help of Victor (Enver Gjokaj) to help. Mellie (Miracle Laurie) is a sleeper agent, meaning she is trying to live in the real world. The dollhouse, however, has a deeper agenda for Mellie, known by her code name November, by allowing her to occupy the same apartment building as Agent Ballard.

Considering Joss Whedon created this show, it's not surprising that a cast member from one of his past series (Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) comes to call sooner or later. Two of them are already in the cast — Dushku and Amy Acker, who plays Dr. Claire Saunders. Paging Alan Tudyk! I have not seen much of his work, but I am pleasantly surprised to see him this week. Who else should play the designer of the dollhouse but the actor who is famous for the geeky scientist on Firefly? The bits between Tudyk and Penikett are a joy to watch. Two sci-fi vets with solid chemistry, each brings his own individual strengths to the table.  Ballard is a man with an unquenchable thirst for uncovering dollhouse secrets. He knows nobody is going to tell him anything outright. So, he must find another way. He makes his character possessed with a righteous streak overwhelming all rational logic. Tudyk's character is cautious, knowing there is trouble ahead if he does what Ballard wants. Big time. He does have one advantage, though — medicinal carrots! It's a visual concept making for huge comic relief.

Ballard may think he is trying to save Caroline (Echo's identity before she says yes to being a doll) but a bigger dilemma exists. For most of this season, a rogue doll named Alpha has been on the loose. He's utterly dangerous and completely ruthless. More than one remnant of destruction exists as proof, except nobody knows where he is. Wisely, there has been no shot of his face in order to let the mystery build.

Exactly who Alpha is might not be a mystery to most people who follow Internet chatter. Just in case, though, I am leaving off the actor's name. Suffice it to say the effect is breathtaking. I have long known this person as the character, but I am startled nonetheless. More than a few people could play Alpha, and part of the thrill in tuning in week to week is the guessing game. Before too long, it's possible Alpha goes away and another baddie takes over. According to the setup, dollhouses exist all over the world. One never knows exactly who one will meet next.

By the same token, dolls can be hiding beneath the outer shell. Could one of the handlers, each responsible for a doll, be active? Of course. Anything tends to happen in the course of a television show. Science fiction makes what should be impossible seem perfectly normal.

With only the season finale left, a mystery is left to uncover. Who gets information to Ballard about the dollhouse? Lawrence Dominic, the head of security, has been caught as an NSA agent. It stands to reason he is not the guilty party. Reed Diamond, the actor prototyping Dominic, has not quite left the show for good just yet. In fact, he is still on the credits. A new doll character would also not be out of the question. This might set up next season for drawing in an audience — or, for that matter, a new employee.

Some questions remain as to whether or not Dollhouse will continue for another season. Although the official decision won't be made until later this month, I have every reason to think it stays on the schedule. Joss Whedon is well known for making shows audiences like to watch. These draw people in each week, and although ratings may not be high, viewers will watch other shows on the same network if they like what they see on DH. The best way to keep this show on the air? Watch, and then let the execs at FOX know that you do; it may remind them to not make a decision in haste.

Dollhouse airs Fridays at 9pm on FOX. The finale airs May 8 at 9:01 due to the series finale of Prison Break, and it should be a good one. Stay tuned….

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  • Bronco

    It’s worth noting that Tudyk was the geeky pilot on Firefly — not the scientist.