Has Joss Whedon Done It Again? A Review Of The Dollhouse Pilot

Dollhouse appears to have assembled all the required elements of good drama. A revered television guru with a cult following must battle larger-than-life network executives and the reputed anti-mythology bias of dumbed-down mainstream viewing habits! A fledgling show fights for its life after being abandoned and left for dead in the middle of the cold and reputedly uninhabitable wasteland that is Friday night – with its hotly contested debut slated for a Friday the 13th, no less! Increasingly insurmountable odds…….good versus evil………..trash-talking, back-stabbing detractors at every turn!!

And that’s merely what’s gone on behind the scenes………….

Yes, much ado has been made over the fact that Joss Whedon was asked by Fox to re-shoot the original, David-Lynch-confounding pilot episode of Dollhouse. But ultimately, we can only judge the material that has finally found its way to our television screens. That said, the pilot episode, “Ghost,” is a tad uneven, but chock-a-block full of potential.

At the outset, our central heroine Caroline (Eliza Dushku) appears to have done a bad, bad thing. Really bad. Something prison-worthy, even. Only she’s not been ensconced in a state-issued orange jumpsuit and placed on a bus bound for the big house just yet. Instead, she’s sitting in a room with a sinister corporate lady stooge named Adele (Olivia Williams). Adele is pointing out to Caroline that actions have consequences. Ahhhhh, but would it surprise you overmuch to learn that Adele has an antidote for that? All Caroline has to do is sign up for some mysterious, heinous-sounding five-year stint of service with Adele’s top secret organization of top secret agents, become an operative named Echo, and she can then have her slate wiped clean!

OK, so maybe there’s a catch ……

For starters, she’ll have to check into the titular Dollhouse. At first glance, the Dollhouse doesn’t appear to be a bad place to hang. There are a lot of highly attractive people – presumably all with mysterious pasts and commuted prison sentences – lounging around in various states of undress, staring blankly at the walls while waiting to be massaged. It’s like a halfway house as run by Calvin Klein.

Only this is Whedeon-spawned sci fi, of course. Your ability to follow an actual plotline will not be spared! Seems Echo and her fellow operatives are required to have their brains wiped clean of all past memories – the better to make room for a rotating sampler platter of new personalities that will be electronically inserted in their cute noggins as each new case warrants.

This is hardly the last juncture at which the plot will thicken. Don’t count out the rogue, plays-by-his-own-rules FBI agent (Tahmoh Penikett) who is on a mission to prove the existence of this Dollhouse joint, which thus far has been dismissed as one far-fetched – albeit totally hot – urban legend! Plus Echo has a potential friend in her handler, Boyd (Harry J. Lennix) – a still-waters-run-deep sort of guy – who appears to be growing increasingly conflicted about pimping out our heroine.

Johnny Mnemonic in a mini-skirt!?! What’s not to love?

As far as the behind-the-scenes drama is concerned, it appears that in the struggle for supremacy between Whedon’s talent for intricate storytelling and Fox’s desire to serve up easily digestible portions of high concept fun, an uneasy truce was declared.

The stand-alone quality of the episodes will stem from the fact that the Echo and her fellow operatives will take on new and action-packed assignments every week. Check out the hot babe fighting evil kidnappers! Yet audience members who are tuning in on purpose won’t be denied some of that thought-provoking, Whedon-worthy mythology, either: Echo’s ongoing struggle to make sense of her real identity provides a framework in which all sorts of deeper character development and multi-layered storytelling can also take root and blossom.

The pilot, while jumbled in tone, is still highly entertaining, visually top-notch, and gifted with an intriguing premise. How will the series fare overall? I didn’t notice any cellulite-ridden, cross-eyed dolls burdened with overbites and bad fashion sense loitering around the Dollhouse. Having nothing but smokin’ Barbies in stock and available for rent to the highest bidder does provide a whiff of the salacious…which can’t hurt ratings.

And it’s Whedon. Hellooo? The fellow could transform the California DMV’s vehicle code book into a riveting epic, if he felt like it. It’s tempting to begrudge Fox’s meddling in the workings of that great cauldron of fantastical fiction-mongering that is perched atop Whedon’s general neck region. For some, the dumbed-down aspects of the show might be a bitter pill to swallow. But it’s early days yet, and it’s unfair to expect one solitary episode to carry the weighted expectations of the viewing world on its shoulders. I for one remain optimistic.

Furthermore, Dollhouse being paired up with a series of Terminator’s caliber – a truly underrated and brilliant show – might actually turn Friday nights into a major viewing event. If life were fair, this would certainly be the case.

Damn – did I just jinx it?

While you’re biding your time waiting for the much-buzzed-about debut of this series, check out this behind-the-scenes on-set video here on Fancast. And if you’re not familiar with the Whedon effect, watch full episodes of his other projects Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Veronica Mars, Firefly, and the web sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

The first episode of Dollhouse is set to air Friday, February 13th at 9 PM ET on FOX.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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