Joss Whedon might be the most fanboy-crushed-on writer/director in the world.
Thanks to his creation and direction of fantasies such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, there’s a surprisingly large group of people eagerly anticipating his every step in the entertainment industry. His blog is their Bible. His interviews are their water cooler talk. They are insatiable. And they’ve been especially hungry ever since Whedon’s terrific space-western Firefly was canceled during its opening season, after just 11 episodes.
Enter Dollhouse, airing on FOX — the same network that canceled Firefly – Friday nights at 9/8 central, which provides Whedon-ites a brand new enterprise to obsess over.
The titular Dollhouse is a facility that imprints any personality a client might desire on one of their “Actives” or “dolls”, who are then able to perform any imaginable job. When not in action, these Actives are reverted to a child-like state and spend their days getting massages and showering (a fair trade for giving up one’s free will). All this is seen through the eyes of Echo (Eliza Dushku), an Active who seems to slowly be gaining a personality of her own.
Personality is really the big issue here. On its face, a personality bordello sounds like a great premise for a show. Each week, you get to see the main character doing something totally different. So far we’ve seen Echo as a sassy back-up singer, a sassy bank robber and a religious blind girl. But there’s a problem. By shifting the main character’s persona from week to week, Dollhouse causes a disconnect of sorts between its protagonist and the audience. You can’t really get attached to someone who has no personality of his or her own. The viewer may know they’re supposed to care about Echo because she’s the main character, yet there’s no compelling reason to do so.
Whedon’s previous shows have always hinged on character interaction and writing that is both humorous and gut-wrenching. However, it seems Dollhouse has made real character development a difficult prospect just by nature of the premise. There haven’t been many opportunities for humor, and the characters have not exactly endeared themselves either. That takes away the two greatest strengths of Whedon’s previous shows. In Buffy and Angel, Whedon made you love the characters but was willing to let terrible things happen to them if the act would make an emotional impact. It’s hard to imagine having an emotional response for characters — Echo and the other Actives — that are basically robots.
Still, Dollhouse has its bright spots. Echo’s handler Boyd cares for her more than his superiors want, bringing some heart to the cast. There is also the usually funny (and awesomely named) computer programmer, Topher. He throws in some banter, and when there’s someone to do it with, it serves as perhaps the strongest Whedon imprint on the franchise so far.
Perhaps this is too hasty of a judgment. After all, Dollhouse is an enjoyable action/drama. And the varying weekly missions do keep things interesting. Many of the complaints can be chalked up to Whedon fans holding awfully high expectations. A decent Whedon show is still better than most of the other action/dramas on right now (i.e. crime procedurals). A lot of those shows’ protagonists don’t have much personality either, and their deficiency has nothing to do with the premise. It may also be unfair to judge character development after five episodes. Whedon says he has as five-year plan, so Dollhouse could still develop into something engaging.
We’ll see if FOX lets it get that far. It must last longer than the one-season Firefly before long-term plans are even realistic. The Whedon-ites weren’t enough to save Firefly from a slow start. Hopefully, this time around, they can buy Dollhouse enough time to develop its potential personality.
By Christopher Perrey