Thursday, April 9, 2009 early review of Dollhouse

This was published on January 11th, a mnth before the show began. Thanks to good ol' DVD screeners, I got an early look...

There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed--Peter Sellers

I'm not nobody--Echo...or is it?

It's been more than a month since Time magazine became the first media site to look at the pilot for Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's return to TV. Since then, a few more sites have given their verdicts, including and Salon. More familiar sites will also have their chances over the next few weeks.

Fox sent a DVD copy of the pilot to TV and radio stations, along with a special doll to symbolize what an Active is: a clean slate who can be made into anyone, over and over again. At least that's the theory. My radio station got a copy, and I decided to take a look.

As many fans know, Joss Whedon remade the pilot episode to give the show a better launch. That's why there's no scenes from the original pilot that have been seen by fans at Comic-Con and the internet. The new pilot, "Ghost", establishes the Dollhouse, and the main Active, Echo, played by Eliza Dushku. We see she had a past once, only because we hear her "real" name. After that, we see the girl in a motorcycle race with another guy which turns out to be part of his birthday party. She's a girl who likes to take risks and parties well into the night. Suddenly, she calmly walks out of the date and into a van. We see that her "engagement" is over, and that it's time to get a "treatment". What it really means that it's time for her to be no one.

The girl sits on a weird-looking chair, and waits to be treated. The tech, called Topher (Fran Kranz), says it will pinch. Then, we see this girl's life literally dissolve. Now, she is Echo, a girl who is alive but has no self or memories of what she did. She wakes up, and asks Topher, "Did I fall asleep?" "For a little while," he answers.

Topher discusses the engagement with Boyd Langdon (Harry Lennix), her handler, and acts pretty proud of himself. Boyd is just worried about whether their little operation is ever found. Topher's not worried. In fact, he envies Echo. "She's living the dream", he says. "Whose dream?", Boyd asks. "Who's next?", Topher replies.

We find out who's next: a businessman whose 12-year-old daughter has been kidnapped from his house. He's a past customer, and needs an Active to help him pay the ransom. So, Echo is programmed as a no-nonsense negotiator who will oversee the exchange. Of course, things go wrong, and the Dollhouse crew has to scramble to get Echo out, and just leave the kidnapped girl. The top priority of the Dollhouse is to stay a secret, with the "engagement" being secondary. When Boyd is worried the kidnapped child may be sacrificed, he risks a lot to convince his boss, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), to finish the job. Boyd seems to be the conscience of the show, the man who tries to show the Dollhouse has a positive purpose, even if the means are almost unspeakable.

Meanwhile, we meet FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), who has sacrificed everything to find the Dollhouse. He insists the Dollhouse exists, even if he can't prove it. Yet this is his assignment, because someone said it should be. However, his work is threatening to ruin an important investigation on human-trafficking, involving Russians. Ballard tracks down a sleazy Russian guy named Lubov, (Enver Gjokaj) and tells him to find out who's connected to the Dollhouse. You can tell Ballard has been given an impossible task, but he's very detrmined to complete it.

The pilot, written and directed by Whedon, is good, but Dushku isn't very convincing as a hostage negotiator. While she can spout off theories as quickly as a bullet train, she looks too young. Glasses, a hairdo, and a schoolmarm attitude aren't enough. I give the show credit by admitting this, and giving an explanation on how her role still works. Whedon also gets major points for symbolizing Ballard's dilemma and determination by juxtaposing his meeting with FBI supervisors with clips of him kick-boxing.

The pilot also introduces Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a new Active, but in an unsettling way. In fact, Echo meets her in a surprising way that will later affect her in the engagement. We also meet Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker), who takes care of Echo. She seems suspicious of Topher for some reason, while he sometimes sneaks a peek at Claire, too. Did they have a history that didn't end well? Also, how come there's a scar on her face? It's faint, but the pain is still there.

If you look closely, there is an influence of Firefly/Serenity in the pilot. When Echo is "neutral", she's almost like River Tam in her more calm moments. When Echo sees Sierra get her "treatment", it's a little too similar to the "treatments" the Alliance gave River.

Also, people who saw pieces of the pilot may think Lubov looks familiar. I think Gjokaj was supposed to play Victor, another Active. Then again, maybe he is...and Lubov. Hmmmmm......

Although the show may start seemingly as a procedural, we'll soon find out that it isn't. Echo will play many roles..and she'll start to remember some of them. We get a hint of that in "Ghost", as I said before, when her accidental meeting of Sierra will affect her. I am hoping that the other Actives have the same experience. Hopefully, we'll get back stories of the keepers of the Dollhouse, too. How did Topher learn how to rewire people like computers, and why does he think it's so cool? Could it be a dark Revenge of the Nerd? Who got Adelle to run this Dollhouse, and who's paying for all this? Why was Ballard assigned to the Dollhouse? Did he jump at the chance, or was he pushed?

Dollhouse will be on Fridays at 9 PM after Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles starting February 13th. It's a tough spot, since it's been years since Fox has had a hit on that night. The executives say they will give both shows time to build an audience. Dollhouse has a very interesting premise that takes time to understand. Once a viewer does, it's worth it. Joss may be a bit rusty about making TV after making a movie, some comic books, and an internet musical. Still, this Dollhouse is a good way to spend a Friday night.

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