For a man who has entire panels devoted to him at several sci-fi and fantasy conventions, including Atlanta’s DragonCon, Joss Whedon hasn’t had a lot of luck in television in the last eight years. After his late-’90s hit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the less-successful spiritual brethren “Angel,” Whedon produced the short-lived cult-hit “Firefly” in 2002, which crashed and burned after 13 episodes. Whedon then went into a productive hibernation, not to be seen again until last year’s online hit “Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.”
Now, the much-loved creator is back with another TV show called “Dollhouse.”
In a modified present day, there is a secret black market facility that takes recruited young people, strips them of their memories and personalities, and calls them “actives.” Wealthy clients then contact this facility, the titular “Dollhouse,” and order what amount to custom humans, with personalities written into their brain.
In each episode, the main character is sent on a different mission, as a combination of secret agent and slave. It’s a creepy concept, but it provides a fairly stable structure for a serialized TV show and an interesting exploration of genetic technology.
The backbone of the show is lead actress Eliza Dushku, who plays a “doll” named Echo. The supposed goal of showcasing the depth of the actress is noble, but it has been hit-or-miss on screen.
What’s more interesting is that in the middle of Echo’s job of the week, her infantile state starts to creep in.
Supporting characters, both actives and operatives, seem less developed thus far, although the growing investigation by an ignored FBI agent may soon become worthwhile.
The first few episodes were weak, and the ratings showed. But somewhere around the fourth of the six episodes aired so far, I began to enjoy it as a standard action/sci-fi show, and I’ve stuck with. The writing has a tinge of wit and it’s solid enough to keep you from rolling your eyes.
In recent episodes, there have been small hints at a growing overarching mythology and awareness of this secret program in the outside world. That can only mean that the writers are moving away from a procedural system to a more serialized one.
Viewers should welcome this change, as the show has potential. The premise is scarily close to scientific probability, and it makes you think in between scenes of gunplay and espionage.
While the show isn’t as strong as Whedon’s “Firefly” in terms of the richness that makes the viewer care about the characters, it’s something to keep sci-fi and action fans occupied on Friday nights now that “Battlestar Galactica” is gone and “Terminator” is faltering in quality and ratings.
Catch up on this debut season because there’s no telling if this doll will get anyone to play with it in the fall.
Dollhouse airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on Fox, or it can be streamed online at Hulu.com.