First Impressions of Dollhouse

On Friday, Joss Whedon finally returned to episodic television with Dollhouse, a contemporary science fiction series starring Eliza Dushku. Dushku is a blank-slate operative for a top secret organization which implants its “actives” with the memories and abilities of others and rents them out to the rich and powerful to perform assignments. The true nature of the Dollhouse is as yet unexplained, and its many employees — stern leader Olivia Williams, conscientious “handler” Harry Lennix, ubergeek brain programmer Fran Kranz, and mysterious doctor Amy Acker, among others — seem at odds about the organization’s ultimate objectives. Meanwhile, an FBI agent (Tahmoh Penikett) is hell-bent on uncovering the Dollhouse and exposing it.

It’s a juicy SF premise that raises interesting ethical questions, there’s plenty of story potential, and the show could really go places if it’s developed right, but by and large I found the pilot hugely underwhelming, to say the least. I love Joss Whedon’s work, but this first episode — which involves a profoundly uninteresting kidnapping “A” story — is a tonal mess, mostly bereft of Whedon’s trademark humor, as if it’s been forcibly branded with a CSI-like procedural gloss by a third-party post production department. I’m not convinced Dushku has the chops or versatility to convince me she is who she’s been “imprinted” to be every week. And so far there isn’t really anyone to root for and get behind. Heroic ciphers work on Mission: Impossible, but this is Joss Whedon, and his shows are all about character — it just doesn’t seem like a good fit.

It’s still early, of course, and I suspect the series will get better as its talented writing crew finds its legs — provided Fox allows them to do their thing, that is. There were, at least, the merest glimpses of potentially interesting backstory about the organization. So there’s creative promise here, and I’m happy to see Amy Acker back in a series, but overall, it’s a pretty disappointing first step.

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