When it comes to TV, I think I’m happiest when I’m watching a show that can give me an immersive, fantastical world that still says something about the human condition. Anything that involves both monster killing AND applicability to real life, I’ll have some of that. Dollhouse, flawed though it was, was just such a show. Actually I’ve always thought someone should ask Joss Whedon what he thinks about Westworld. Dollhouse seems like a trial run for that kind of story, and I’d argue it’s a lot more creatively successful.
The show posits a world in which people (called Dolls) can be rewritten and turned into someone else entirely, then rented out to wealthy clients. A technologically advanced, intensely realistic prostitution ring, essentially. You can see the problem. The scope is too big for a two hour movie. It’s a premise that’s lends itself to something episodic, as the Dolls can be plugged into a brand new adventure every week. But if you watch the first few episodes, you can’t see how you could ever become invested in the show long term. The sympathetic characters, the Dolls, are going to have entirely different personalities every week. The characters actually capable of growing and changing, their handlers, are amoral creeps who are willfully pimping out humans into sexual slavery (among other things). It’s an interesting premise, but if this is anything, it’s a miniseries.
Which in the end, I guess it was. The low ratings saw to that. Luckily, the writing staff had time to prepare for the end, and compressed the long term arc into barely over two dozen episodes. This is a complete story, albeit one that moves at a blistering pace. The Dolls start to regain their old personalities, their handlers start to doubt what they’re doing, and the scope of the show extends far beyond people getting new personalities and going out on sexy new adventures every week. As the show went on and the story accelerated, the conspiracies got steadily more elaborate and the plot twists became even more shocking.
Apparently Whedon and company had set out to examine themes about sex and desire. But Dollhouse became far more interested in questions about your sense of self. If your mind can be overwritten with someone else’s personality, are you still you at your core? Will you still be you even if your original personality is restored? Is there more to you than just your brain? Even more disturbing, the mind altering technology becomes more widespread and accessible, and characters start to discover some troubling applications for it. For such a short series, it managed to thoroughly examine how technology can advance beyond human’s abilities to handle it.
I’ve kind of been talking about Dollhouse as a whole. By early Season 2, the show totally sheds its mission-of-the-week format and becomes about, of all things, an effort to thwart a global zombie apocalypse. Meanwhile, Eliza Dushku stops being the centre of the show. I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t think she had the range to play a new character every week. Dollhouse becomes more of an ensemble and gives more screentime over to an extraordinarily talented supporting cast.
The second season throws a dizzying amount at you. More twists, more action, more deaths, more unexpected betrayals. But it’s really well done, there’s a wonderful sense of growing dread, and the thematic spine of the season is strong enough to hold it altogether. Dollhouse Season 2 is a crazy roller coaster of a season that just barely manages to stay on the tracks, and it’s definitely worth experiencing.
If I Had to Nitpick…: Episodes #2 and #3 are pretty well just standalones in the style of the first season. Now, I do kind of like just how compressed the story is later on. But considering they were clearly aiming to wrap up the series from the outset, I’m not sure why they didn’t take advantage of every bit of time that they had.
Notable Episodes: “The Attic” is a trip. “Getting Closer” covers more ground than entire seasons of some shows, and it’s kind of awesome.