Joss Whedon’s television shows are not typically an easy sell. Teen vampire romps and space westerns pretty much have “limited cult appeal” stamped on them right out of the gate. Yet despite middling ratings, Whedon’s shows have always earned a shower of critical acclaim and a dedicated fan following. But his long-awaited return to the small screen, which premiered on Fox last Friday, looks to be even harder to swallow.
Dollhouse is about a super secret (and highly illegal) service that leases out people who’ve had their personalities wiped so they can be imprinted with a temporary new persona and skill-set. Hired by the ridiculously wealthy, these “Actives” don’t just perform their parts, they actually believe they are whomever or whatever their client wants them to be.
It’s a premise that’s not only implausible (why would anyone hire a fake expert when they could just hire a real expert for far less money and without breaking the law?) but troubling (the loaning out of beautiful young women who’ve essentially had their free will removed is just plain creepy–and not in a good way). Those aren’t necessarily insurmountable flaws, however. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a thoroughly ridiculous premise and it never stopped me from the loving the show (okay, it did at first, but I got over it). And tackling thorny gender issues is pretty much Whedon’s trademark, so he’s earned a little latitude with the creepy factor.
No, Dollhouse‘s biggest failing is that it feels like it could have been written by anyone.
One of the reasons I’m willing to follow Whedon to the gates of hell and back (literally, in the case of Angel) is his brilliant wit. No matter how dark things get (and things can get pretty dark in Mutant Enemy territory), there’s always a moment of levity to drag you back from the abyss. And we’re not just talking run-of-the-mill comic relief here–Whedon’s trademark quips are funnier than you’ll find on most of the “comedies” on the air today.
Yet the premiere episode of Dollhouse? Elicited not a single laugh, nary a mild chuckle, nor even the faintest wisp of a smile.
Okay, so maybe Whedon wanted to get serious about sci fi for a change. I’m willing to buy a ticket for that train provided he still delivers the walloping emotional punch I’ve come to expect. Except that Dollhouse‘s main character doesn’t actually have any character. How am I supposed to become attached to Echo (or the other Actives, for that matter) when she’s a totally new, fake person every week? And since most of the other characters are complicit in this highly disturbing venture, there’s not really anyone to root for. It doesn’t help matters that lead Eliza Dushku is an actress who succeeds on charisma more than craft, thrust here into a role that’s all about craft. I’ve always found her enjoyable, but I’m not convinced she’s got the chops to do the heavy lifting a show like this requires.
Given Dollhouse‘s tumultuous history, it’s hard to know how closely Friday’s premiere hews to Whedon’s original vision. But what we got felt far more like something created by a team of Fox execs than than the vision of a gifted writer with a unique voice. This Dollhouse is a ready-made procedural with a sci fi twist, dressed up with sexy girls and motorcycle chases and shootouts. Something only slightly less absurd than last fall’s failed My Own Worst Enemy and marginally more interesting than the previous fall’s failed Journeyman. Maybe Fox figures what bombed on NBC will fit right in on their network–Dollhouse certainly seems made for a lineup that already features Fringe and Sarah Conner Chronicles.
That may be good enough for Fox, but it’s not good enough for me. I expect more from Joss Whedon. Far more.
Maybe it’ll get better. Pilots are rarely the best example of a show to begin with, and Dollhouse has had a bumpier-than-usual ride to the screen. I’m going to keep watching because I desperately hope it will get better. But at this point I’m not sure I actually believe it will.