Friday, August 7, 2009

On DVD: "Dollhouse- The Complete First Season"

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse is a work in progress, a show that struggles and stammers for several episodes, working as hard as it can to find its own voice and its own style. It does some interesting things along the way, and certainly keeps our attention, but it flounders a bit. Then, somewhat miraculously, around the midway point of its abbreviated first season, the show starts to click. There are still stumbles in the season’s back half, but it feels a smoother, more confident program; we can feel the show’s writers exploring the possibilities of the core concept, and providing some tantalizing glimpses of where they can still go.

Our protagonist is “Echo” (Eliza Dushku), one of the high-priced “dolls” that inhabit the titular lab/secret agency. While there, each doll is but an empty shell; once they’re hired (or “engaged”) for a job, they are “imprinted” with the memories, skills, or emotions that each job requires—i.e., a doll can be hired as a thief, a rescuer, a spy, or (of course) a lover. At the end of each engagement, their memories are “wiped”, and they’re back to being a blank slate. The trouble is, they may not be—everyone comes from somewhere, even if they sign themselves over to the Dollhouse for a five-year stint. FBI agent Paul Ballard (Battlestar Galactica’s Tahmoh Penikett) is tracking Echo’s original identity and all roads lead back to the Dollhouse—which his fellow agents are convinced is a myth.

That’s your bare essentials of the plot—one of the show’s pleasures is how it gradually uncoils itself, bobbing and weaving and revealing new complexities and unforeseen motivations within what appear, at first, to be fairly straight-forward characters. The mythology and language of the show also takes some getting used to—in addition to the terms above, we also hear about “actives,” “wedges,” and “treatments,” among other buzzwords. Plotlines are frequently unpredictable; Whedon and his writers love nothing more than throwing us a curveball right before the act break, with a slow push in and a shock music chord.

But those first episodes are, indeed, mighty rocky. Whedon reportedly went through the wringer with the Fox network in the quest for a satisfactory pilot episode; when they rejected his original pilot, “Echo” (included here as a special feature), he first attempted re-shooting some scenes before junking the whole thing and starting over. The “official” pilot (“Ghost”) still isn’t quite on the nose—much of the dialogue is strained, saddled with fumbling exposition, and the entire episode has a feel like we’re missing important information. Penikett’s Agent Ballard gets pretty short shrift in the opening episodes—his scenes are frequently inflicted by unfortunate cop-show clichés, in both dialogue (“I’m an honest citizen!” “And I’m the Easter bunny”) and situations.

The trouble with the first few shows is that you see them laboring to nail the tone—it doesn’t have the Whedon spin. Whether the now-iconic writer is trying not to repeat himself, or merely trying to satisfy the action-first requests of his network, it doesn’t feel like its own creation. Make no mistake, there are good shows in the front half—“The Target” spins some taut suspense out of its Most Dangerous Game storyline, while the “Gray Matter” episode takes the Echo character into some interesting places. But they don’t feel consistent. Whedon states that one of his main aims was to create a clothesline for stories that could showcase Dushku’s versatility, the grab-bag nature of the episodes (this one’s a thriller, this one’s a caper, etc) causes an overall dissonance. And, perhaps more distressingly, Whedon’s trademark sense of humor is mostly absent—the show appears to sacrifice comedy for slickness. As a result, the show is entertaining, but it doesn’t feel like it’s his—it feels like it could be any random Fox hour.

However, the fifth episode (“True Believer”) starts to show some progress; the A-plot has Echo taking an intriguing journey into a gun-hoarding religious cult, while an entertaining B-plot has resident imprinting genius Topher (Fran Kranz) and staff doctor Claire Saunders (Amy Acker) investigating the possibility of the blank dolls developing feelings and affection, as evidenced by handsome Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and his “man reactions.” The show gets even stronger in the Joss-penned sixth episode, “The Man on the Street,” which packs in funny lines, ingenious payoffs (that last turn is a real kicker), and real pathos (mostly provided by guest star Patton Oswalt, in a heartbreaking turn). Most importantly, episode six seems to realize that it’s okay to tone-shift—its final moments follow a shocking reveal, almost instantaneously, with a scene of genuinely moving emotion.

The rest of the season is much smoother sailing. Episode seven, “Echoes,” gives the cast a chance to loosen up and have some fun (surely a relief after the deadly seriousness of those early shows), while effortlessly transitioning into some first-rate backstory (for several characters). “A Spy in the House of Love” (episode nine) does some clever storytelling within its multiple POV construction and repeating timeline. The appearance of Alan Tudyk (Firefly) for two episodes at season’s end should delight Browncoats, and he turns in a frizzy, jumpy, outstanding performance that gives the show a nice jolt; though “Briar Rose” is softened somewhat by its heavy-handed fairy tale symbolism, the show’s dip into darker, neo-Natural Born Killers waters in episode 12, “Omega,” an absorbing trip into some deliciously mind-bending notions. Throughout this pseudo-closing episode, the show’s writers continue digging deeper into the characters, exploring their pasts, and gradually revealing new information. (The show also contains a beautifully realized conclusion, set to Beck’s “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime,” a song also heard in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—surely not coincidentally.)

The DVD and Blu-ray release of Dollhouse: The Complete First Season also contains the much-discussed “lost” episode, “Epitaph One.” The story is that, due to the reshooting of the pilot, the show was one episode short of the required thirteen; happy with the conclusion of “Omega,” Whedon decided to devise a one-off story taking place ten years into the future, providing clues about the direction of the story and fates of the characters. (Of course, Fox didn’t end up airing the damn thing anyway, so it’s a home video exclusive.) Though it contains some interesting footnotes and foreshadowing, it ultimately plays like what it is: an afterthought.

In playing Echo, Dushku has something of a challenge: she must garner audience sympathy for a character who is basically (and perhaps literally) a cipher. For that job, her natural charisma (and raw sexuality) go a long way; likewise, her playing of “blank” Echo’s innocent, childlike state is chillingly effective. However, the show sometimes gets stuck putting her into the kind of “let’s get the hot girl into a sexy outfit” situations that occasionally made Alias (the show’s most obvious influence) semi-exploitive. And unfortunately, though she’s plenty convincing as an action heroine, she periodically struggles with some of the denser acting scenes.

The supporting cast is strong—Harry Lennix provides a sturdy presence as Echo’s “handler,” while Dichen Lachman is remarkably versatile as a fellow Doll and Olivia Williams (Rushmore) invests agency head Adelle DeWitt with the right amount of crisp, British impatience. Kranz’s Topher starts out as a walking cliché (junk food-chomping computer nerd) but slowly shows some interesting, morally ambiguous characteristics. Penkiett’s Ballard is stuck being the square-jawed good guy for much of the show, which makes the twisted turn of his sweet courtship with neighbor Mellie (the wonderful Miracle Laurie) that much more compelling (it’s a story thread you wish they’d have carried a little further).

Dollhouse’s first season is, to be sure, a bumpy one—it takes some time to find its footing, and still has some bugs to work out in its coming year. But Whedon and his writers have opened up some intriguing possibilities, both in terms of characterization and the philosophical ramifications of the show’s central premise. Fox’s second season order was a squeaker (ratings started low and got lower), but hopefully they’ll give Dollhouse the room to breathe, grown, and fulfill its considerable potential.

"Dollhouse: The Complete First Season" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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