Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Dollhouse

To begin: Dollhouse is (or rather was) a weekly show about a bunch of pretty people ("dolls") who got their minds wiped and took on new identities each week in the service of a shady operation ("The Dollhouse") that essentially pimps them out both to solve problems and to be sex slaves or whatever. There's also a bunch of stuff about a shadier corporation running the shady operation, conspiracies galore, people who you thought were one thing turning out to be another (often dolls), the right to free will, sense of identity, self-awareness, the abuse of technology and so on and so forth, but I just gave you the bare essentials and you can dig deeper if you want here.

Also, it was a Joss Whedon show and also it aired on Fox in the Friday night death slot, so the fact that it lasted a season and a half regardless of quality is pretty much a miracle (because of the latter thing, not so much the former).

Well I'm here to tell you that getting cancelled midway into its second season may have been the best thing to ever happen to Dollhouse. I'm sure the various cast and crew who were employed by the show would take issue with that statement and I feel for them, but having just burned through the last half-dozen or so episodes in the span of a week or so and finding them to be awesome, I stand by my statement and will now attempt to explain why.

In its nascency (I'm sure I made that word up/spelled it wrong, whatever), I didn't really enjoy Dollhouse because it had the whole "new standalone adventure every week" thing that most new shows have and it really didn't work for me. Granted, both of Whedon's previous long-running TV series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) embraced a similar concept in their respective first seasons before broadening their horizons after that, but I found it more grating with Dollhouse. On one hand, that's odd, since the core concept of Dollhouse would seem to make standalone episodes the way to go (it gives the writers a chance to create new characters each week and for the cast to play them and on this show it makes sense), but it didn't work for me.

Partly, I think my lack of early interest in Dollhouse when it used this format came down to star Eliza Dushku and the fact that it just didn't play to her strengths. I do think she's a solid actress who shows flashes of greatness now and again, and I also buy that she really really poured her heart and soul into this show (which she also produced), but I simply don't think she's the most versatile of performers. Dushku was amazing as Faith on Buffy because she had nearly an entire season to hone every tic of the character and really inhabit her; even in that one episode where Faith and Buffy switched bodies, she was kick ass as "Buffy" and showed she can play more than just a bad girl sex bomb. However, whether it's her look or her accent or that she's just so good at playing certain parts, it was tough to buy Dushku in a new persona every week as she never seemed to have time to acclimate properly and even harder to buy her as Echo in her passive doll state because it just seems so contrary to every part she is known for.

This is also one of the few cases where I think an incredibly strong supporting cast may have hurt the show more than helped, at least to start. As Victor, the only male doll on the show who really gets fleshed out, Enver Gjokaj may be the standout performer of the whole deal, as his default character is that of the square-jawed action hero, but he slips so easily into the persona of a weasely Russian mobster or British gentlemen or computer nerd sometimes literally one within seconds of the other it's incredible to behold. Essentially, he does what Dushku is supposed to do, but he does it way better, which only highlights that she's not doing it that well, dig? Dichen Lachman (seriously, these actors all have craaaazy names) as Sierra, the "other" female doll who gets significant screentime, isn't that far behind him in terms of adaptability and their improbably romance is one of the highlights of the entire series.

Besides those two, you've also got Fran Kranz being fucking hysterical as wunderkind scientist Topher Brink, Olivia Williams doing a brilliant hell-on-wheels routine as the Dollhouse's icy British head, Adelle DeWitt, plus Whedon repository players like Amy Acker, Alan Tudyk, Summer Glau and other coming in and giving blowaway turns every other week.

In short, you've got a show where the star is the least interesting character and you spend 40 minutes or so an episode wishing she would get off the screen so we can see what the supporting cast is up to.

However, to the credit of Dushku as well as Whedon and the writers, she stepped up her game big-time in season two and made Echo a character you not only cared about but rooted for. You bought her as the centerpiece of a tremendously entertaining ensemble rather than the weak link (even if I still would probably have rather watched a Victor-Topher buddy show given the choice).

This all gets back to my original point; when he kicked things off, I understand Whedon had some sort of glorious five-year plan for Dollhouse, meaning we likely would have seen the conspiracies and big picture stuff take a backseat in favor of a slowburn journey of self-exploration for Echo and friends.

This would have been a bad thing.

In season two, Dollhouse went quickly from being about the dilemma of the week to instead focusing hard and heavy on what the fuck was going on with this crazy ass big brother group who were able to swap out peoples' brains and went to town double-time on setting up mysteries, twists and some pretty great payoffs for questions that may have only existed for half a season or less, but seemed really fucking important, which is a testament to how good the show got.

Echo also stops being a malleable piece of putty who tries on new outfits every week and evolves into a capable action heroine trying to piece everything together, aka the type of character Eliza Dushku is very very good at playing. It also helped tremendously that in the early part of the season she was largely paired off with Tahmoh Penikett--playing FBI agent hunting the Dollhouse-turned-dude working to bring the Dollhouse down from within Paul Ballard--who is hardly a bad actor, but low key enough that he didn't overwhelm her energy and allowed Echo/Dushku to mature into a force who could hold her own in scenes with the rest of the cast as time went on.

The last five or so episodes of the series (I've yet to watch the finale, but as I understand it's basically a coda) are just slambang awesome, as we get a shitload of information dropped on us laying out pretty much the entire mythology of the show (some that was only really laid out for the first time a couple eps earlier) then get a huge reveal of the true Big Bad of the whole deal and an appropriately thrilling and awesome final battle--complete with casualties plus pretty much every significant character from earlier in the super arc at least putting in a cameo--to wind things down.

(To digress for a moment on the aforementioned Big Bad reveal, on a show that had more "this character is not what you thought" moments than probably any other I've ever seen, I have to say that every single one up to that one still rocked in large part because Whedon and company did such a great job making the original iterations seem so sincere. With the Big Bad, I started to have my suspicions the episode before, but it was such a well-done and gutsy turn that I still found myself hoping against it and ultimately enjoying it a lot)

In short, the last few episodes of Dollhouse gave a viewer who had been watching the show for any significant amount of time all they could asked for and then some. If anything, I wish maybe we could have seen more of how the cast evolved into a Buffy/Angel-esque super team near the end there, but again, sustaining that over multiple seasons would have been tough. Also, with Lost so fresh on my personal radar with it's awesomeness at times threatening to be overshadowed by the frustrating lack of answers it provides, Dollhouse and its "everything gets solved because we're going off the air" tack was kinda refreshing.

My final assessment of Dollhouse is that it was a show with a lot of potential that almost didn't see any of it met because of too much ambition and resultant wheel-spinning, but that was instead saved when impending cancellation forced it to have a distinct middle and end; I definitely recommend catching the whole thing on DVD as it's not a lot to sit through all told and I think you'll get a good return on your efforts.

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