I love you, Joss Whedon. I want you to know that whatever happens in this review, I still believe in you, and I think you can do amazing work.
Joss Whedon’s long-awaited Dollhouse premiered on Friday, and while it’s hard to judge a show from its pilot (take a look at, for example, the ill-timed mess that is the News Radio pilot), I’m afraid this is off to a pretty rocky start.
You can cut Eliza Dushku down to size, and it’s fun to do so, but I’m not going to here. Where Dollhouse fails, it isn’t really her fault. On the other hand, I’ve been surprised, glancing over other reviews, how many say things like “It’s a good premise, but the execution is bland and disappointing.” The execution is bland and disappointing, but the show is based on an incredibly weak premise, buttressed by three or four fairly lame sub-premises.
Dushku plays Echo, a woman who’s been made into, essentially, a blank slate by a shadowy organization that creates people-on-demand. Need an assassin? They can tailor-make you one. Need a date? They can do that, too. Need a female hostage negotiator to deal off-the-record with the guys who’ve kidnapped your daughter? No problem. The Dollhouse just pours new information and a new personality into Echo’s brain, and she’s ready to rock.
The flaw in this setup, of course, is that’s it’s pointless. As an FBI supervisor points out while grilling his agent who can’t stop chasing leads on the human trafficking scheme he believes the Dollhouse to be, if you’re a billionaire and want an assassin, you hire an assassin. If you want a sushi chef, you hire a sushi chef. Tailor-made people are both prohibitively expensive and redundant, because people with the necessary skill can be had fairly readily and with much less risk.
The pilot script also awkwardly shoehorns in the idea that when the scientists create these personas for their “dolls,” they have to do so from the personalities of already-existing people. This gives Whedon an opportunity to mandate certain built-in flaws in each of Echo’s adopted personas. But obviously, this only makes the show’s premise even less sound — the only reason billionaires would invest in these made-to-order humans at all would be if every human flaw could be eradicated. When Whedon writes into the pilot that that’s not possible, he is of course making a philosophical stand about human nature, but it seems like he’s also painting himself into a corner.
Meanwhile, the script is dour and humorless, and aside from the underused Harry Lennix, so is the cast. Maybe this is intentional — maybe Whedon wants to move away from the quip-laden, too-wacky style that made him famous. But as recently as last year he showed that it was perfectly possible to combine a light-hearted, jokey style with at least a modicum of human emotion, and unless Dollhouse ramps up radically in style and story logic, I’m afraid you’ll be better off watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog again: