Dollhouse: Tear Your Playhouse Down

The first episode of Dollhouse, the new series from Buffy creator Joss Whedon, aired last night. Whedon is a messianic figure among nerds, and Dollhouse has been hotly anticipated by his acolytes - so much so, in fact, that campaigns to save the show from cancellation have been underway for months. 

Those fans may want to sharpen their pencils and dig out the addresses of the Fox executives. I suspect this show is not long for this world.

Dollhouse is a tough sell even before you’ve seen the first reel, as the concept is outright bizarre. Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, one of several personality-free operatives who can be imprinted with new identities and new skills and hired out to do, well, anything. If you have the money, you can hire a doll to do whatever job you want. So they could be mercenaries. But they could also be prostitutes. It’s the best little dollhouse, in Texas or anywhere.


There are two problems here. First of all, it’s creepy. It sounds like a show about sex dolls who fight crime. That’s not nice. Whedon calls himself a feminist, but he’s really more a fetishist, with his particular thing being strong-but-vulnerable babes. He grew up reading Chris Claremont’s X-Men comics, and Claremont’s damsel/dominatrix complex has imprinted itself on Whedon. Like a lot of nerds, I don’t think he treats women as equals, but as something exotic and ‘other’, and a show about controllable superwomen seems like suspect territory for him to head into. (There are male ‘dolls’ as well, in theory; I don’t know how much time the show will spend with them.)

The second problem is that the concept is not very compelling. There are many places you can take a premise like this, but there’s no clear and obvious conflict. A vampire slayer fights vampires. A space cowboy goes up against outlaws and the law. A supernatural detective solves supernatural crimes. There’s no audience hook to ‘kick-ass sex doll’ except Whedon himself.


There is conflict, of course. The Dollhouse is an illegal operation, and FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is the Van Helsing looking to shut it down. There’s also an internal conflict for Echo, who used to be a troubled girl named Caroline, and is perhaps not entirely done with being Caroline.

This is all rather troubling as well, because most of the characters work for the Dollhouse, and the Dollhouse is essentially a slavery/prostitution racket - verging on child abuse given how innocent the dolls are in their dormant state. At one point Echo is even said to be getting her virginity back, which is just icky. If we’re meant to like the characters at the Dollhouse, the show has problems, and if we’re not meant to like the characters, the show has problems. If characters like Amy Acker’s Dr Saunders and Harry Lennix’s Boyd are meant to be sympathetic, it doesn’t work.


And then there’s the Dushku problem. I like Eliza Dushku, but she is not a versatile actress. This show will require her to play all kinds of different roles and personalities, and in just the first episode she already runs into trouble trying to convince. As a girlfriend-for-hire in the opening scenes, she scrapes by (but the girl cannot dance). As a bespectacled and besuited hostage negotiator, she comes across like a soft core porn secretary waiting for the wah-wah to kick in. 

I’m already more interested in the other ‘doll’ featured in the pilot, new girl Sierra, played by Australian actress Dichen Lachman, and that’s less because of anything she does and more because she looks extraordinary, and therefore interesting. 


Even in spite of all its flaws, Dollhouse might still have been watchable if it had borne the chief hallmark of Whedon’s writing - wit. Unfortunately, this is a very humourless show, and again that perhaps comes down to the dry, dark concept. There’s not much room for wit in a show like this. The character being dubbed ‘Xandrew’ gets the only jokes, and they’re not funny ones. This leaves Whedon writing dreadful lines like, ”You ever try to clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.” That’s neither good nor true! Add to this a run-of-the-mill child kidnap plot and there’s nothing here to get very excited about.

That said, I did like about the show was the sunken beds the dolls all slept in. I’d like a sunken bed; it looks like it could be cosy. They totally ripped those sleep-pods off from the Backstreet Boys video for Larger Than Life, though.


In the end, Dollhouse’s problems come back to the concept. It didn’t sound good on paper. It doesn’t feel good in execution. It’s too unpleasant, too convoluted, and it doesn’t make much sense. If you have enough money to hire a mercenary or a prostitute, why not just hire a mercenary or a prostitute? The character of Agent Ballard attempts to answer this question in the show, and the best he can come up with is, ”If you have everything, you want something else. Something more extreme. Something more specific. Something perfect”.

In other words, there is no answer. I was hoping to see how Whedon would make this concept work. He didn’t.

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2 Responses to “Dollhouse: Tear Your Playhouse Down”

  1. Alasdair Says:

    Even Whedon’s natural constituency, the sort of people who edit Wikipedia articles, agree with you. From the Dollhouse Wikipedia page:

    “Whedon had a 5-year plan for the show and had already planned out the evolution of his characters through that point. Whedon has said repeatedly that he hates “rewind television,” episodes where the characters don’t learn and don’t evolve from show to show. That’s why he has already mapped out an evolution for his characters. Too bad the show won’t last past five weeks.”

    I’ve got it filed under “watchable rubbish” and will check out the next few to see where it’s going. I think it’s hitting about the same bar as Supernatural Season 1. (Although it’s some distance off seasons 3 and 4.)

    I worry about ep 3, though:

    “Echo provides protection to a pop star by becoming her backup singer.”

    If the episode isn’t a *lot* better than the synopsis, I fear for the ep 4 ratings…

  2. Marysia Kay Says:

    What it has going for it is the last thing Whedon’s normal audience are looking for, it looks like the kind of show where you can tune in any week to see a run of the mill stand alone episode about cute girls trying to be edgy. But it’s going to need a hell of a lot more than that to make it past mid-season. I agree, Dushku isn’t strong enough to carry it. They should have cast me, I’d have been awesome ;)

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