Warning: This review contains some spoilers for Season 1 of Dollhouse.
The second season of Joss Whedon’s other cult cancelled TV show is a curious beast; a weird miasma of big ideas and crushing pessimism.
Like the previous season, it deals with some interesting theories on the idea of free will and the human spirit, what makes a person a person, and the ethical grey areas that come with them. Unfortunately, everybody knew by this point that the series was doomed and there’s a kind of reckless abandon to the show. “Screw it,” it seems to say. “We’re on our way out, so why not leave with as big a bang as possible?”
Five months after the events of Season One, Active Doll Echo (Eliza Dushku) is living with 36 separate imprinted personalities in her head, the handiwork of schizophrenic former Doll Alpha (Alan Tudyk). As Echo tries to keep a handle on her new personalities, a US Senator (Alexis Denisof) starts an investigation into the Rossum Corporation, the company which owns the Dollhouse.
Season Two jumps in at the deep end with a conspiracy storyline; the whole show has a much darker feel than it did in the previous season. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on how much you miss Whedon’s singular brand of humour, because there’s definitely less of it on display.
Not that the show has become dull, by any means. The overarching story is full of delicious twists and turns, the highlight of which is a terrifying trip to the Attic, the shadowy facility often mentioned in the first season. It’s a thrilling and imaginative episode, one that kicks the final chapters into overdrive. Like the previous season, we end again this time with a jump 10 years into the post-apocalyptic future, and while not everyone will like what happens, it gives the show a definitive ending; something that many TV shows aren’t fortunate enough to get after just two outings.
Unfortunately, while the main thrust of the story is handled pretty well, the individual episodes aren’t all as watchable – Alpha returns at multiple points, but he’s never given the finale he and Alan Tudyk so richly deserve. Similarly, when the action moves away from Echo to focus on other Dolls like Sierra and Victor, the results are only interesting half of the time.
That said, the cast is all on decent form. Dushku continues to slip effortlessly between Echo’s various guises; Olivia Williams and Fran Kranz are given a more interesting relationship and they play off each other pretty well, Harry Lennix is as stoic and awesome as ever, and Tahmoh Penikett is given more room to breathe in his new role as a handler at the Dollhouse.
The newcomers hold their own, too. Alexis Denisof’s stuffy Senator gets a more intriguing role than one might first expect, but the highlight is definitely Summer Glau, playing the role of a brilliant, introverted scientist somewhere between River Tam and Fringe’s Walter Bishop. Her awkward flirting with Topher is one of the comedic highlights of the series.
Compared to the lofty standard of, well, just about everything else he’s done, it’s tempting to label Dollhouse the closest that Joss Whedon has come to a failure. But that would be doing it a disservice. It may have been rough around the edges, but this second and final season has enough substance to remain fascinating, if not essential, viewing.