The (Almost) Final Word on Dollhouse

Posted by Marisa May 1st, 2009 at 10:54am In General

Under her picture, it says "Not Pictured."

When Dollhouse debuted, both Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku begged us all to give it at least six episodes before decreeing it good or bad. With the show now only two episodes from the end of its inaugural season, I’ve given it a fair shot and I’m ready to hand down my judgment.

A little bit about my Whedon background: I’m not very Whedonesque. I went to the same college as him, though. When I visited the school as an accepted student, he was a guest speaker. His lecture took place in this section of campus with cement-bunker-like architecture, and before it began there was a line out the door full of goth kids dressed like vampires. I didn’t know that he was speaking, who he was, or why so many caped individuals were waiting in line outside this building that looked like a tomb. I thought the school was full of freaks. I went there anyway.

Turns out, Buffy did, too! Although it was masked as Sunnydale something-or-other, Buffy went off to college the same year I did, and there were a lot of marked similarities between her freshmen courses and mine. I’d never watched the show before, but I watched that whole season with a friend to look for references to our humble school. And, without the looking-for-references bit, I probably would have dropped the series early on. Many people have since told me that I saw the worst season, but I did watch the whole thing, so I can say I gave it a good chance. I just didn’t think that the funny parts were funny enough or that the scary parts were scary enough. I felt that spells were often used as a cop-out, and I couldn’t get into the mythology. (I know. I’m kicked out of the Cool Kids Club now. I’m used to it. I was once publicly shunned at a party for admitting I thought Xander was annoying, WHICH HE TOTALLY IS.)

Later, I saw exactly one episode of Firefly—the one where they visit a planet that had built a statue of Jayne—and thought it was totally hilarious, and I saw the movie which had parts I really enjoyed (Krumholtz!) and others I think were shoehorned in there for real fans. I did manage to watch all of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and even my cold heart couldn’t find fault with it. That’s still probably my favorite 45 minutes of Whedon output.

So now, Dollhouse. I went into it knowing that people whose opinions I value love all of this Whedon stuff without being a squeeing fangirl myself. And my ruling is: the show is okay, but not great. (Warning: The rest of this comes with major spoilers.)

My main, major problem with Dollhouse is that it’s hard to like anybody on it. The whole premise is that the “actives” get their personalities wiped after every mission, so it’s not like you can get attached to the main characters. There’s nothing real to latch on to. When they’re not imprinted with a personality, the actives are actually kind of irritating. I think it’s interesting when they do unexpected things in their not-imprinted state—like glitch and get boners and remember each other—but they still only have the compelling personalities of Furbies at that point. (“Look! Put two of them together and they talk to each other in rudimentary English! How cute.”)

Then, for a while, the show went on a spell when it seemed like everyone was revealed to be an active—especially the characters I kind of liked. Paul’s Russian informant was an active. His love interest is an active. At this point, I wouldn’t really be surprised if Topher was an active, harnessing together the minds of every computer super-genius. (I wouldn’t care if that happened. I never liked Topher.) So they started with a slate of characters that had no personalities, then slowly sucked away the personalities of some of the people outside that blank-slate group. Then they killed or got rid of a couple others for good measure.

It’s also impossible to like any of the clients of the Dollhouse. By its very nature, it’s shady to rent out an active. Even when there’s sympathy (like poor Patton Oswalt’s character, tear), there’s an uncomfortable element underneath. Plus you can’t tune into the show for the clients, because they’re different every episode.

So, who’s left? There’s Topher, who is basically Xander II. (STILL ANNOYING.) There are two cops: Paul (who I liked for a while, but now that he’s become everything he’s ever hated I’m not so sure), and Boyd (who doesn’t bother me). There’s chilly, chilly Miss Cross from Rushmore, and the doctor with the slashed-up face who seems pretty nice but hasn’t done anything in a while. I feel warm towards a couple of these characters, but not like I’m really invested in any of them—and their numbers are shrinking.

I’m still watching it for now, though, and I’ll finish out the season. Currently, my main attraction to the show is the situations the actives are actually put in—it was pretty cool when Echo got wiped in the middle of a mission and they had to rescue her somehow—but, even then, I don’t really feel like Eliza Dushku disappears into her new personalities and acts like someone totally different each week. So I’m not sure that, if the show does return, I’ll be returning along with it.

Any Joss Whedon fans want to try and change my mind? (Or: Wanna mess?) Make your case.

Who of these three would you want to spend time with? It's like No Exit up in here.


  • 1. Sarah  |  May 2nd, 2009 at 2:47 am

    No messing or cases to be made, really, but it is funny how, even a season in, there’s not a solid judgment on the show. Dollhouse is strange in how indefinite an opinion it leaves. Usually there are just the Whedonites and the unbelievers, not lukewarm enthusiasts. I agree that the most compelling part of the show so far is the situations the actives are placed in, which doesn’t bode well for a long-term serial. A lot of friends have defended the show by saying that first season of Buffy was bad, too, but the difference, I think, is that the characters were more compelling than here. Still, I have no problem with Dushku’s acting, and from everything being said about the finale and the unaired coda to the season, I think there are some interesting directions that they could take it in. With BSG vanished into ether, Lost’s run winding down, Terminator now connected to Summer as in Blockbuster instead of Glau, and Heroes’ reaching new levels of infirmity, I’d like to see Dollhouse stick around and try to find its stride. If it gets renewed, I’d keep watching. Firefly seems to be Whedon’s aberration in that it’s a very strong first season (and only part, at that) of one of his shows.

    As an aside, I am a current freshman at the same aforesaid humble college and am curious which of the bunkers he spoke in. Crowell?

  • 2. Marisa  |  May 2nd, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Shoot, I forget the name of the building! And it hasn’t been that long, honest. I’m just getting old. When you walk in from Willis Ave, it was the first one on the left.

    Also, last night’s episode was easily the best of the season. But [MAJOR SPOILER] they *did* do the thing again where I grow attached to a character’s personality, and then they strip that personality away. Still, AT was amazing!

  • 3. Angel  |  May 2nd, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Agree, last night’s episode WAS amazing (finally). Very fun return of Alpha from beginning to end. This post is completely right; it’s hard to be invested in a relatively empty shell/doll. But I’d like to see him get another season to hit stride. And agree, Xander II is NOT funny.

    Also, everyone agrees the doc is a traumatized doll, right? THey are dropping anvils of clues now, but I think it was there all along since Topher and the rest treat her with the same disdain and ambivilance as they treat the dolls.

  • 4. jesse  |  May 3rd, 2009 at 2:57 am

    The moral ambiguity of the characters and story is actually something I’m really digging about the show — but you’re right that the characters are less inherently likable, which for me makes some stand-alone episodes a little rougher. Not that they’re not good — the actual stories are usually kind of neat or cool — but when there was an inessential semi-standalone story on Buffy or Firefly, it could still be immensely enjoyable because the characters were so much fun. These characters are largely pretty interesting, but I wouldn’t call them “fun,” exactly, so there’s a lot more pressure on the story to deliver. That said, I enjoy that it’s a little more cerebral and less emotional than some of Whedon’s other work, because even though Buffy is easily one of my favorite shows ever, I sometimes find Whedon’s fan-involvement expectations a little cloying. I like that I’m not supposed to be going eeeeeeeeee about anyone on this new show.

    But I do wonder how it will sustain itself, if it indeed makes it past the first season. There definitely seems to be story enough to continue past these 13 episodes, but is there enough to go past 25? 50? It’s harder to picture, give how fast and furious the twists have been flying. Whereas I could see how Firefly had many more different types of stories to tell.

  • 5. Jessica Rae  |  May 4th, 2009 at 3:00 am

    Even as a loyal Whedon fan, I’ve found it hard to like most of this show. You aren’t the first person who’s said to me that Topher seems just like Xander. To me, he seems like Andrew of BTVS. And that’s just one. There are too many ‘but I’ve already seen you create this character’ occurrences. I want to believe Joss can do better, cause the effort for this show just seems lazy.

    P.S. I added Tifaux to my Twitter. Add SofaChip’s? It’s: ThisJessicaRae. And omg, ‘Requiem for Murder’ with Molly Ringwald just came on TV…ah!

  • 6. Rebecca  |  May 4th, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    I think Dollhouse is an exciting high concept that kind of falls apart if you examine it too closely, but the biggest problem is that Eliza Dushku is not an appealing enough leading lady. The show would be so much stronger if it stopped revolving around Echo/Caroline (for example, Ballard’s obsession with saving her makes him so much less rootable), and became more of a true ensemble. Sierra and especially Victor are amazing.

  • 7. Marisa  |  May 5th, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Rebecca, I agree with you completely! The guy who plays Victor did a great job of acting like that NSA guy. I also wish that they would stop being agents of varying kinds–that’s getting old.

  • 8. Angel  |  May 8th, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Sierra and Victor’s self guided journey was the highlight of the show. THe concept is more interesting as an ensemble proposition- the focus on echo hasn’t quite worked.

  • 9. Movies Over Here!! »&hellip  |  May 11th, 2009 at 9:21 am

    […] Whether it’ll stick around remains to be seen, but Marisa wants to have the (almost) final word on Dollhouse. (TiFaux) […]


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