Joss Whedon has talked at length about how he wants Dollhouse to explore ideas about the identities we create for ourselves and the ways "we use and manipulate each other," as he put it in an interview last week.
Those themes are certainly present in the three episodes FOX sent out for review, and the way Whedon gets at such ideas -- by presenting a place where blank human slates can be imprinted with any personality or set of skills a client needs -- is really intriguing. But it doesn't yet feel like a show that has quite figured out how to balance those big questions with the need to tell a crackling episodic story each week.
That said, there's enough that's good about these early episodes -- including Eliza Dushku's lead performance, some well-wrought action and a good helping of back story -- to make me want to stick around and see where the rest of the season takes us.
Friday's (Feb. 13) premiere episode is the least compelling of the three (FOX also sent out the second and fourth episodes), if only because it has to spend a fair amount of time explaining itself. The show opens on a young woman named Caroline (Dushku) who's gotten herself jammed up; across from her, a cool Brit (Olivia Williams) explains that she can make it all go away, if Caroline will only sign this piece of paper.
We soon learn that the British woman is Adelle DeWitt, who runs the Dollhouse -- a spa-like facility where a group of young "actives" exist as carefree innocents until they're imprinted with whatever traits a client needs. Caroline is now Echo, an in-demand active who over the course of three episodes becomes everything from a kidnap-and-ransom negotiator (in the premiere) to a midwife. After an assignment their minds are wiped clean again.
Needless to say, this is not the most legal of operations, and it caters to those who can afford a steep fee to get the exact person they want (the show makes an effort, albeit not an entirely convincing one, to explain why a rich and powerful person would want to go through the Dollhouse rather than, say, just hiring a top-notch kidnap negotiator). The Dollhouse has also captured the attention of FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Battlestar Galactica's Tahmoh Penikett), whose obsession with what he thinks is a human-trafficking outfit has endeared him to no one within the bureau.
The bulk of each episode, however, is devoted to Echo's assignment -- or "engagement," as Adelle insists it be called. The structure allows Dushku to play a different kind of character each week and allows the show to morph from hostage drama to thriller to heist adventure from week to week. Dushku seems at ease with the different guises, although it probably helps that (at least so far) her imprints tend to share certain traits like confidence and certain zest for life.
She also has a strong rapport with Harry Lennix, who plays her handler, monitoring each engagement in a van that's never far from where she is. Lennix's Boyd is also the conscience of the series; he has qualms about what Adelle and her boy-genius programmer, Topher (Fran Kranz, who gets most of the funnier lines), are doing to their subjects, and while he's not shy about voicing his opinions, there's a certain look of resignation and sadness Lennix wears that speaks volumes about what he's feeling. His may be the show's best performance.
Boyd is also a handy guy to have around when things go wrong, which they tend to do. The stuff the Dollhouse is doing may be cutting-edge, but it's far from perfect, which causes some very badly timed wobbles in Echo's imprint. There are also hints that the mind-wiping process isn't foolproof, and hints that Echo may become self-aware sometime down the line. But they're just hints at the moment, so what viewers will be left with are episodic stories of varying intensity -- the second episode, a riff on "The Most Dangerous Game," is probably the best -- with pieces of back story interjected from time to time.
It's not always the smoothest mix (and resembles somewhat the early, case-of-the-week episodes of Angel), and the show's fate will probably come down to the willingness of viewers to ride out the initial bumps and wait for what Whedon promises will be a grander payoff by season's end. That probably won't be an issue for die-hard Joss-ites; for more casual fans, I would only counsel a little patience.