'Dollhouse': Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku take us back kicking and screaming

elizadushku_dollhouse.jpgThey called me names, accused me of bias, said I was incapable of suspending disbelief. The more forgiving among them said I'm "irrational." All because I don't like a TV show. That's the nature of fandom, but it does little to alter my assessment: "Dollhouse" season one kind of sucked, folks. Season two premieres Friday (Sept. 25.) with "Vows," an episode that can right the many wrongs of the past.

Few TV show creators boast a devoted fanbase comparable to Joss Whedon's. His sharply-written, clever and pop culture-savvy "Buffy," "Angel" and "Firefly" managed to rise above their genre trappings and win over a dedicated following of TV connoisseurs--not just the sci-fi fantasy convention going types.

No surprise then that "Dollhouse," Whedon's opus starring badass "Buffy" alum Eliza Dushku, was among last season's most anticipated shows. The premise of his first new show in seven years was promising: A secret organization wipes the minds of agents known as "Actives" clean and implants various fabricated personas in them to complete "engagements."

The problem with heightened expectation, though, is the possibility of greater disappointment. While I shared fans' early excitement for "Dollhouse," I parted ways with them from the moment it debuted. "Dollhouse" wasn't just disappointing, it was severely flawed from the pilot to the season finale. The poorly-executed premise was a frustratingly shaky foundation for what could have been so much better.

Whedon and the network seemed to know something was amiss. They held two phone conferences after the show's premiere to let critics and fans know that "it gets good now." While it did improve, the changes weren't drastic and often didn't last.

Will the die-hard fans and I unite behind season two? Here's how Friday's season two premiere (directed by Whedon himself) stacks up against my criticisms of the show to date.

dollhouse_poster_s2.jpg The Dollhouse and its engagements seldom make sense.

The season one assignments are often tasks that could be handled by an actual expert or that didn't benefit from the expense and risks of employing an Active. The imprinting technology could be put to better and more interesting uses. They could be spies, super soldiers, someone needed for the most dangerous, insane mission and possessing the impossibly unique combination of skills (seldom found in actual real-life individuals) to pull it off.

Instead, Actives are most often used as high-priced escorts. This is even acknowledged in episode "Epitaph One" (which I'll get to in a bit) when Zack Ward refers to the Dollhouse as a brothel and says, "You mean to tell me the tech that punk-kicked the ass of mankind was originally designed to create more believable hookers?" Apparently, yes.

Why do the writers of "Dollhouse" seem to think that the ultra-rich who can afford an Active can't get laid or land a girlfriend? And why would the Dollhouse entrust the secret of such a dangerous and highly illegal technology to these desperate men? That's what "Millionaire Matchmaker" is for.

Other season one engagements such as art thief and volunteer at a center for abused children are just as incredulous. Worse, despite the expense, using an Active is unreliable. Dushku's character Echo (aka Caroline) frequently fails in her assignment, jeopardizes an engagement, or risks exposing the Dollhouse.

Echo is given another escort assignment in the season two premiere, but there's a twist. While the twist helps set the stage for the rest of the season, it doesn't make much more sense. Echo once again blows her assignment, even before her faulty brain wiring causes her to glitch (an all-too frequent occurrence when she forgets who she is or her implanted persona is swapped with another). You have to wonder about the level of expertise being shoehorned into her brain.

Eliza Dushku's acting isn't up to the role.

Season one features a number of less than convincing portrayals of hostage negotiators, dead women and many of the other identities implanted in Echo. Other actors in the series routinely steal the show from her; other characters prove much more interesting. The best episodes of the season are those in which Dushku has the least screen time. That's not a coincidence.

When Echo glitches and Dushku has to flit between personas, the performance is almost comedic. Twelve-year-old Adair Tishler did a better job of it as Iris in "Epitaph One."

Dushku's not much improved in the season two premiere, about on a par with someone playing an amnesiac on a soap opera. It drops to telenovela levels at times. "What? Oh! Who am I? Que pasó?"

amyacker_dollhosue.jpgAs Whiskey (aka Dr. Saunders), Amy Acker gives one of the best performances in the series so far in "Vows." It's almost disappointing when her climactic scene with Fran Kranz (as Topher) ends and the show shifts back to Echo. Sadly, Acker's soon leaving "Dollhouse" for "Happy Town."

There's a rare glimmer of the Eliza Dushku admired by fans of "Buffy" and "Bring It On" in a scene with Tahmoh Penikett's Ballard--some feistiness, a fire behind the eyes--but it's fleeting.

The writing isn't as good as what we should expect from Whedon's series.

Some season one episodes had plots that seem lifted from "Charlie's Angels" and other action show clichés (bodyguard for a bratty pop star, undercover in a cult, etc.). "Angel" and "Buffy" used TV clichés for humor and irony, but "Dollhouse" is largely humorless. Many of the shocking plot twists aren't so shocking. The dialog is often stiff. Season one sometimes feels like two or three different shows in one.

The show has failed to make a case for having Echo/Caroline as its centerpiece. Caroline is not all that interesting or likable. She's no more worthy of rescue than the other Actives. Ballard seemingly fixates on her solely because he finds her crush-worthy.

The season two premiere offers a few improvements. In addition to her face off with Topher, the mad scientist behind this Dollhouse, Acker's Dr. Saunders has an enlightening and emotional scene with Harry Lennix's Boyd. There's also a funny bit featuring Dichen Lachman (Sierra), and Liza Lapira (Ivy), both of whom deserve more time onscreen. As with season one, the most interesting scenes don't involve Dushku.

There are still a few clunky spots. The engagement is once again nonsensical; any number of other tasks could serve to move the larger story arc forward. A Jonas Brothers joke falls flat (as it should). The dialog is often still stilted, including this exchange: "I'm justice, I'm blind when I need to be blind." "Well you're inside now, so open your eyes." Ouch.

There's a fine line between sexy and sexist, and "Dollhouse" often falls on the wrong side.

Before you think I'm going all Women's Studies 101 on you, I'm all for hot girls kicking butt. Whedon's made it his forte and excelled at it in the past. It's surprising that "Dollhouse" gets it so wrong so often. As I said in my review of the season one pilot, the show's premise is the fulfillment of an ultimate trod-upon nerd fantasy, "Weird Science" taken to some bizarre psychosexual extreme. Getting sand kicked in your face? Rejected by the babes? Rent a woman with no mind or personality of her own and we'll make her love you!

Season one is chock full of attempts to sex up Dushku, who doesn't need it. She's more than sufficiently attractive without appearing in her undergarments or fetish gear in every episode. It's gratuitous pandering to drooling fanboys. Neither Buffy nor Dushku's Faith ever had to disrobe to whip them into a frenzy. Yet the harder "Dollhouse" tries, the more desperate it seems. I can't help but think that this is designed to please the network more than anyone else.

The season two premiere offers no improvements. We get another escort engagement and less than 11 minutes in, we get Dushku in a white corset and stockings. Arguing against this seems odd, but watching it feels like being complicit in someone else's adolescent pipe dream.

"Vows" actually amps up the misogyny in the triggers for Echo's mental malfunctions. Getting a pelvic exam from Dr. Saunders causes her to glitch (but hot monkey sex with Jamie Bamber didn't?), as does having her head bashed into a desk. The former results in a flashback to a near girl-on-girl makeout scene with Acker/Whiskey/Saunders. The latter results in more bad "Uh... Who am I?" acting.

dollhouse_season2_ep1.jpgWhen Ballard needs Echo to remember a past personality (with no guarantee it's even in her pastiche of selves), he opts to beat it out of her rather than going for the pelvic exam. Bamber's character stands by and watches. Ballard, who had the potential to be the true hero of the show, proves to be as psychologically unsound as those he's trying to expose, beating a woman for "her own good" and his own.

"Epitaph One."

I know, I know. It's awesome, it's the best episode, you loved it. It's not Whedon's fault it didn't air in the U.S. and was only available online or on DVD despite being among the best episodes of the season one.

"Epitaph One" takes place 10 years in the future, when imprinting technology has gone wireless. No one knows whose brain is in whose body. Complete apocalyptic chaos ensues. It's "Escape from L.A." meets "The Matrix" meets "Terminator: Salvation."

It's also a cop out. If you're still watching "Heroes" or have seen any show or movie about preventing the future, you should know that what happens next is malleable and that "Dollhouse" isn't obligated to make any of it a reality. The point of "Epitaph One" is to say "This could all be leading somewhere cool, even if it doesn't seem like it on a weekly basis."

The promise of a more interesting future for the show casts a shadow over "Vows." There are nods to it, such as a larger role for the Rossum Corporation. Barely mentioned in season one, Rossum is the evil megacorp behind it all. Like Massive Dynamics on "Fringe," Tyrell Corporation in "Blade Runner," or the Umbrella Corp. of "Resident Evil," it's a sci-fi cliché that provides a sense of urgency and a David and Goliath scenario. Root for David.

Fran Kranz's Topher, suffering a complete mental breakdown in "Epitaph One," is less cocky and more anxious in "Vows." His portrayal was a frequent annoyance in past episodes, but is much more tolerable when he's on edge and being assailed.

Hope for season two?

I haven't given up on "Dollhouse." The potential for greatness (or at least betterness) has been there from the start. Yet while recognizing the show's weaknesses, Whedon and co. seemed to never fully fulfill promises of improvement. Season two premiere "Vows" manages to underscore all that was wrong in season one, but also lays the groundwork for an improved and more interesting season to come. We can only hope that "Epitaph" resonates in season two and isn't used as an excuse not to deal with "Dollhouse" canon and have more pointless and irrational engagements such as camping companion/potential murder victim. Whedon has already revealed the show will return to the future depicted in "Epitaph One" (or some future, at least).

There's also a promising slate of interesting guest stars coming in season two, including Keith Carradine, Summer Glau and Michael Hogan. "Vows" features the aforementioned Bamber and "Angel" co-star Alexis Denisof.

If "Dollhouse" never ascends to the heights of TV greatness attained by  Whedon's other series, I'm okay with that. Fans should be, too. Even the most prolific artists create lesser works. We just need to hold out hope for more "Dr. Horrible."

-- More of Eric Almendral's media musings can be found at ericonmedia