Joss Whedon's first new television show since 2004 ended it's first season last Friday and whilst there is still one episode left for me to see (which I won't be able to see unless I buy the American DVD set or wait the 12 weeks for Sci-Fi to air the episode, btw Dollhouse starts Tuesday at 9), it isn't actually part of the main series. The episode entitled "Epitah One" is split apart from the rest of the series, and whilst I'm dying to see it, isn't important to the show and I can do this review without it.
Dollhouse is schizophrenic. Not only in terms of the actual characters but also in terms of actual quality. It's strange. This show is definitely a slight stumble for Joss Whedon. The show definitely feels a lot stronger when its dealing with a continuous arc and the stand alone episodes just feel a bit thin and un-Whedonlike. Joss Whedon is easily one of the ten best writers in the world, no contest, and yet this show just doesn't seem to take off. Occasional there are flashes of the brilliance that we all know he's capable of but then we get an episode where Echo becomes a backup dancer (WTF was that shit?)
Before I go full on critic mode, let's explain the premise. The show is essentially about a company which offers you're dream woman/man for whatever job you want. Want to have a homosexual encounter behind you're families back? Order a doll and programme him/her however you like. Need to steal something from a bank? Get a doll with safe cracking skills. Or maybe you just want a friend, so get a doll who knows exactly what you want. Thing is all of these dolls who being made to do this are real people. They've all literally sold themselves into slavery. They all have their personalities and memories wiped and are then reprogrammed to become an entirely new person (apart from in looks). It's interesting concept and one that Joss could have taken to so many interesting places and yet hasn't, at least not yet.
The main flaws with the show are the schizophrenic action and bad acting/characters. The writing for the show fluctuates so much it's hard to keep track. Overall there are only about four great episodes of the show and I would say just watch those (plus the finale) but the problem is because of some plot elements in the first episodes (which otherwise are stand alone and completely forgettable) are quite key later on. So it comes as a choice. Dollhouse is definitely decent, in fact I would say episode 11 is down right awesome, but you need patience to actually get to the good stuff. Hopefully from less input by Fox next season we'll get less stand-alone episodes and more room for Joss to flex his story muscles.
Then there's the casting. Eliza Dushku CANNOT support this show on her own. She just doesn't have the range, at all. From Buffy we knew she could play the bad girl well, really well in fact. But here when you need her to play a new character every episode the roles just don't seem sufficiently different. There isn't really any vocal changes or movement changes. Essentially she just plays Faith from Buffy twelve times with a twist. Luckily Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj who play two other dolls are great. In fact they out act Eliza at every turn. There is one episode where Eliza and Dichen play the same character and it's almost comical to watch Dichen complete own Eliza's performance. Enver Gjokaj was a great find for the season with some great moments (particularly episode 11) and shows how much great casting there is on Whedon shows.
Whilst the rest of the cast is pretty good and getting some cool moments, its definitely hard to become attached to them. With half the main cast having they're brains wiped every episode and the rest being controlled by an evil corporation, it's hard to find an in. At the moment the show is only getting "oh that's cool" from me. I do enjoy characters such as Topher(no I don't find him annoying), and Amy Acker is just as enjoyable as she has been in other television shows (shame she won't be back next season), but the characters are lacking something that made Firefly sparkle. That show had the fabled perfect cast. All nine actors were superb and had genuine chemistry, here it feels like whilst everyone (except maybe Dusku) is perfectly suited to the role, the characters have to come to fruition as quickly as other Whedon shows.
Not to say Dollhouse is bad, it isn't. In fact episodes 6, 8, 9 and 11 stand out as being great episodes of television in general. 7 and 12 are alright but definitely lack something. 7 due to trying to force comedy moments between characters I just couldn't latch onto, I laughed but it felt a bit forced, and 12 because it just didn't feel right, some plotting decisions just seemed really stupid and took a lot of my excitement away from the previous episode. The rest of the episodes are just stand-alone episodes and could be avoided but definitely avoid episode 3, that episode is just pig swill.
Episode 11 is easily the strongest episode of the show so far and it's unsurprising really as Alan Tudyk (Firefly) puts in an amazing performance in this episode and proves how well cast Firefly was and how great a repertoire of actors Joss has been able to build up over the years. The fact that this is Joss' first new show since Firefly and just makes me miss it more. In 14 episodes Joss created one of the best universes to make stories in and then the show got canceled. The characters were superb, great writing and cool story. Thing is Dollhouse could be so many of those things but already in 12 episodes it is falling a long way short of the obscenely high bar that Joss Whedon has erected over the years.
Then there's the fact that the show doesn't feel like a Whedon product. Whilst we do get the occasional piece of Whedon dialogue ("People were fighting on me") its few and far between and therefore lacks the punch of Buffy or Firefly which were able to turn on a dime from comedy to drama in a second making it feel so much more powerful. Whilst some Whedon touches are there such as the moment a character is happy they must pay, there just needs to be more. We need more Joss Whedon not a watered down version playing to network executives. The show currently gets 3 million viewers a week, you're not going to lose anymore so next season just go all out Joss Whedon just like you did on Buffy. Luckily the show has a decent collection of Whedon alums to make it feel more Whedon-y but it looks like next season the only one left will by Eliza Dusku, who as I said, isn't the strongest lead the show could ask for, unlike the scarily charismatic Nathan Fillion from Firefly.
The show has definite room for improvement. If they can tighten up the characters (in particular Ballard who made a completely out of character decision in the finale) and make the show a bit more serialised then it could definitely work out. Oh and Dusku needs to do a lot less, still have her as the main character but make it a lot more of an ensemble piece, I always find myself more invested in any story not involving her than the ones that do. The show could have dealt with so many interesting concepts such as the existence of souls or even dealt with slavery and things of that ilk, but so far it just doesn't seem it wants to. Joss is clearly an intelligent man, but so far he's not raising the intelligent questions with the show.
Overall the show is decent with occasional flashes of brilliance (such as a "death" scene in episode 9 or the superb episode 11) but I want to see where they go in Season 2. I can tell Joss is going to address the problems people had with the first and hopefully make the show as superb as his other works. I would definitely say watch the show, but prepared for it not hit its stride (or stumbling saunter) until episode 6. 7/10
PS If you're looking for a great show by Joss Whedon or just something cool then please go and watch Firefly, the boxset is stupidly cheap on and it's easily one of the best shows of the past decade. Plus I really need Serenity 2!!!