It’s Renovation Time For ‘Dollhouse’

Jamie Bamber and Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse (FOX)

Jamie Bamber and Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse (FOX)

“Like a man with the bright-eyed euphoria of narrowly escaped death, Dollhouse is coming back from a hilariously unexpected non-cancellation with a verve, a joy and a visceral excitement that borders on manic. We’re psyched. This is the show we want to make.”

So wrote Joss Whedon in a recent promotional blurb to the press. Now of course the key question is: was that stay of execution deserved? And also, maybe: has this show been successfully rehabilitated, or will it revert to its old, and often shifty-eyed, ways?

In season two’s premiere episode, “Vows,” we find ourselves knee-deep in some gooey Season One afterbirth. Boyd has reluctantly been promoted to Head of Security. Ballard has been reluctantly fired from the FBI and employed by the Dollhouse. Dr. Saunders is very, very reluctantly dealing with the knowledge that she’s a human forgery. Oh, and Echo has sex – with no reluctance whatsoever – with Jamie Bamber.

Watch full episodes of Dollhouse here

Bamber has a compelling turn as arms dealer Martin Klar, who is of course Echo’s new assignment. Whedon noted that casting Bamber was “a geek dream for me,” and added, “He’s not just very professional, and precise and talented, but he fleshed out a character that could have been a little bit of a cardboard cutout. He has such sincerity and gravitas…” Without question, Bamber’s performance soars above the implausible plot he finds himself entangled in. His gravitas also pairs quite nicely with the fact that he looks so good naked and writhing on a bed.

The A.D. on this set must spend a lot of time shouting, “Cue the half-naked extra-hot sexy person!” Which one? Who cares! Ratings? Fox wants ratings? Well, Whedon’s gonna give ’em what-for: Sierra, dressed as Jackie O, wants to be tied down and spanked by Ivy. Echo flashes back to a repressed memory involving an apparent lesbian moment with Whiskey/Dr. Saunders. We cut immediately from a scene in which Martin Klar is pumping Echo (and not for information…yet) to a scene in which Ballard is pumping out push-ups while trying not to think about Echo having sex. Also, Echo’s new handler is awfully concerned about having her “plumbing” checked out afterward, and Echo does complain about being “sore” after this grueling horizontal assignment.

That’s just one episode.

Yet, behind that pile of pasties and innuendo and soft focus lovemaking lurks potential so vast, it might not need to be dressed up (or down) for ratings.

Easily, the highlight of season two’s opener is a scene in which Dr. Saunders/Whiskey confronts her maker, Topher (and OK, yes, the scene does commence with a thwarted hand-job). But a couple of surprising realizations stem from watching this scene. First, they’ve managed to make Topher seem almost human (ironic, indeed, and no small feat). But more importantly, it raises questions about Whedon’s choice of central protagonist. Eliza Dushku does a decent enough job, but had the series been built around Amy Acker, there surely would have been much less tossing about of phrases like, “revamped Charlie’s Angels with cooler gadgets.”

In another scene, Dr. Saunders/Whiskey shares a fun Showgirls type moment with Echo. “Alpha cut up my face so you could be number one,” she observes. (Showgirls type moments never hurt when vying for renewal.) Across the board, Acker steals the show – but unfortunately won’t be able to run too far away with it. Having been cast in ABC’s upcoming Happy Town, her bright presence will only illuminate three episodes of Dollhouse’s coming season. As Whedon explained, “We grit our teeth that we didn’t have the funds, or the support, or the success, to just make her a regular and now we’re paying for it. It means that every time we have her on screen, we’ll squeeze every drop out of her that we can. We’re seizing the day. We just don’t get to seize as many of them as we’d like.”

Whedon has seized Summer Glau and Ray Wise to appear in upcoming episodes as an eccentric programmer, and boss man, respectively, from another (and evidently FAR more bad-ass) Dollhouse. The Summer casting coup in particular, combined with Alan Tudyk’s appearance last season, has left many wondering if Mal and Zoe and Inara might be wandering onto the set any time soon? Whedon admitted the guest star line-up is looking more than a little bit like “a death match between Firefly and Battlestar,” but was not forthcoming with any additional casting confirmations along those lines.

If ‘Vows’ is any indication, the show has not yet found a way to tackle some of the more glaring obstacles inherent in its premise. (How many sociopathic arms dealers of international renown actually dream of marrying a hot babe, instead of simply bedding her?) On the other hand, if upcoming guest stars manage to deliver performances nearly half as riveting as Amy Acker’s, could that be enough to elevate Dollhouse to the next level – the one Whedon claims to have envisioned from the start?

Who the heck knows? If Dollhouse’s eleventh hour stay of execution taught us anything, it’s that the television industry operates in ways far more weird and unpredictable than any fictional plotline Whedon could hatch.

When questioned about how long he foresees Dollhouse’s premise and potential holding up, Whedon quipped, “Dollhouse? The premise is limited and I think by season 17, you’re really going to see us repeating ourselves.”

Tune in for Dollhouse’s season two premiere this coming Friday, September 25 at 9/8 c, and let us know what you think of the new and improved digs.

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

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