It may seem hard to believe, but before his recent dizzying success with hits like The Avengers, geek god Joss Whedon had difficulty finding favour with mainstream audiences, especially when it came to TV. Like Firefly before it, Dollhouse was a series that Whedon fans adored while everyone else remained a little indifferent – a fact that, unfortunately, meant the show only lasted for two seasons. Luckily, both of them are available on Netflix UK.
The show followed the eponymous Dollhouse, an organisation which keeps programmable humans (called ‘Dolls’) who can be imprinted with memories and personalities to become whatever a client desires – anything from a lover to an assassin. Our heroine is Echo (Eliza Dushku), an active Doll whose missions include becoming a hostage negotiator, an internet billionaire’s fantasy wife and a backing singer for a pop star. But despite the efforts of her programmers, Echo retains not only flashes of all the personalities she’s been imprinted with, but also her original identity.
Dushku’s performance is an impressive one; as with Jennifer Garner in Alias, she fits all of Echo’s assigned personalities surprisingly well, yet still manages to make the default Echo the most interesting of the bunch. Like most of Whedon’s work, Dollhouse balances an impressively large and diverse cast, filled with some great actors. Olivia Williams gets to be deliciously evil and British as Annabelle DeWitt, the head of the Dollhouse, while Harry Lennix and Tahmoh Penikett get to be similarly imposing badasses as Echo’s handler and a dogged FBI agent respectively.
The other Dolls, meanwhile, get some interesting backstories; in particular, the ongoing sort-of-romance between Sierra (Dichen Lachman) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj) remains sweet throughout without becoming too cheesy or too predictable.
Ultimately, though, the show is stolen by Fran Kranz as Topher Brink, the technician responsible for imprinting the Dolls and sending them to work. Fans of horror masterpiece The Cabin in the Woods will know how perfectly suited Kranz is to Whedon’s type of wordplay, and watching him in the guise of a twitchy tech geek is an absolute joy.
Fans of Whedon’s previous works, particularly Buffy and Firefly, may feel somewhat disappointed at first by the writing in Dollhouse – there’s much less of his trademark wit here, and little in the way of amusing exchanges between characters. But this is balanced out by an abundance of intelligence, as the show poses some interesting questions about the nature of free will; particularly about the exploitation of women in the modern world. Granted, it’s not high philosophy, but a show that even dips its toes into these deep waters is still doing better than a lot of what’s on TV nowadays.
Unfortunately, the show’s first season isn’t without its problems – low ratings made it evident even before the season wrapped that its lifespan would be a short one – and it feels like what was originally planned as a slow-burning conspiracy story gets jammed into the final few episodes. That said, the programme does have some fun with its ideas and the season finale, ‘Epitaph One’, offers a look into a frankly disturbing dystopian future: at least here, it looks like Whedon had a plan to end things on a more definitive note than Firefly.
How you view the first season of Dollhouse will depend heavily on what you think of Joss Whedon’s other shows. Those who love him will flock to it; those who hate him will avoid it like the plague; but those who are still on the fence should give this a try. It may not be perfect, but it’s an interesting piece of television that manages to play with some big, intelligent ideas and still be an entertaining watch. The audiences may be bigger these days but in the Whedon camp, some things never change.