Joss Whedon's long-awaited new series, Dollhouse, has finally arrived, and, while the first episode was pretty rough, I definitely feel it has promise.
The show stars Eliza Dushku as Echo, an "Active," basically a blank human doll that can be imprinted with knowledge and experience from a database of personalities. An underground group known as the "Dollhouse" rents out the Actives, sculpting their personae and skill sets on demand to meet their clients' varied needs.
The premise is vaguely similar to last fall's My Own Worst Enemy, the mercifully short-lived Christian Slater show where a regular husband and father was actually the unwitting government-programmed cover for a secret agent alter ego. The problem with that show was that it focused entirely too much on the constant struggle between the two lives sharing one body, and it quickly became as tiring for the viewer as it was for the characters. Dollhouse crucially differs in that, rather than having to fight her other selves for time, for Echo, becoming other people is her only function, and the tasks are always understood to be specific and finite, so there shouldn't be any worry that the viewer will start to root for one personality over the others.
Dushku is best remembered for having played the recurring rogue vampire slayer, Faith, in Whedon's own most famous work, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Faith was never one of my favorite characters from the Buffy-verse; as Buffy's "tough chick" rival, I found her to be rather one-note, and a little abrasive at that. There was one memorable episode, however, where Faith and Buffy switched bodies, giving the actresses behind those roles the opportunity to switch places along with their characters. Frankly, Sarah Michelle Gellar's psychotic turn as a self-loathing Faith stole the show, but Dushku didn't do a bad job either capturing the smoldering conviction of the Buffy character. The premise of Dollhouse would seem to ask much greater range than that from Dushku, as she could potentially be playing a drastically different personality with each episode. On the first episode alone, Echo had to play first the fun-loving girlfriend to one client, then a steely hostage negotiator for another.
The sci-fi elements are not that hard to grasp, but the first episode ran into problems early on while trying to set up the subplot of an FBI investigation into the rumors of the Dollhouse's illegal existence. I couldn't help rolling my eyes as the detectives rushed to explain the out-there concepts to one another through vapid dialogue. In fact, what seemed to be missing throughout the entire episode was Whedon's trademark wit. This may reflect a deliberate decision to show off Whedon's own range, and, certainly, I would not ask that every one of his shows sound and feel the same. Right now, the trouble is that Dollhouse does not ease the viewer into its strange world as gracefully as Buffy did.
Nevertheless, the show is, so far, intriguing and unlike anything else on my current TV viewing schedule. With its built-in ability to cross genres from week to week, the format should offer a nice change of pace from more involved serials while also being more resistant to formula than typical procedurals. And, while it may be difficult to develop an attachment to Echo as a character, since she's not supposed to have a personality of her own, I think it's a safe bet that her programming will start to show "irregularities" down the line that will slowly change that.
Of course, with the show having been consigned by Fox to a Friday night slot right off, it's hard to stay optimistic that it will survive long enough to realize its potential. Then again, The X-Files was a Friday night success, and, with any luck, Dollhouse may be able to cultivate a similarly strong cult audience.