The Fox in the Dollhouse

February 14th, 2009

After attending Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse panel at last year’s Comicon, I was eagerly awaiting the premiere.  So were friends, and there was even a party with a showing of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to get us in the mood for more Joss goodness.  And then….

Well, while I don’t want to give any spoilers, Fox has put Dollhouse alongside The Sarah Connor Chronicles in what makes sense as a scifi block, but had promos with Summer Glau and Eliza Dushku that, if the sound were turned off, looked pretty much like 976 commercials:  “SciFi girls want to talk to you.  Just call them.  They’re waiting….”

Regardless, there was talk at the party about how Fox had asked for revision up on revision so that the first few episodes had been turned into something other than what Joss was wanting.  Something with more cop drama and explosions.  But since I can’t really discuss the truth of this without spoilers, they’ll be there after the fold:

Here’s what I saw in the pilot.  We’ve got this girl named Caroline (Dushku) who gets into some nameless but undoubtedly bad trouble such that she makes a Faustian bargain with Unpleastant Authority Figure Lady (hereinafter UAFL) such that UAFL gets to scrub her mind and use her body for five years, after which point UAFL puts her memories back and all the unpleasantness goes away for good.

After being brainscrubbed for UAFL by Blond Geek Boy, Caroline is rechristened “Echo” (with nice mythological resonance, but with the scifi explanation that all the dolls’ names are just military lingo for the alphabet) and goes to live in the Dollhouse, which looks rather like a fancy health spa except for the electroshock therapy sessions going on upstairs where they scrub people’s minds and download them onto old zip drives.  (It’s amazing the uses you can find for old technology.)

The Dollhouse requires a great deal of suspesion of disbelief.  One is that scientists with a health spa filled with childlike innocent dolls will let them just wander around anywhere they want, including into electroshock therapy sessions which Echo finds understandably upsetting and not the massage therapy she was looking for.  We also see Amy Acker playing a young Geek Girl With a Significant Facial Scar Not Covered by Make-Up.

More problematic than that, the basic premise is that ludicrously rich people are paying for the dolls to be downloaded with personalities for their own personal “Fantasy Island” weekends, whether that fantasy is sex or assasination or something in between.  Which is fine, except that in the ubiquitous world of cell phone cameras and MySpace pages, its not that credible that the dolls would remain anonymous for that long, especially with the high class circles they mingle in.

Which of course gets us to another of the players, the Handsome Cop Guy who’s out to track the Dollhouse down.  We find out that he has a hobby of being a boxer, but I’m thinking that a few less headblows and general thuggery and a bit more sneakiness and eavesdropping and he’d already have tracked it down.

Anyway, we find that Echo’s first mission is to be fantasy motorcycle party girl for some guy who pays for the perfect weekend and the perfect girl to go with it, then finishes it off with giving her a Kay Jewelers cheap gold heart pendant which looks rather sub-par for someone in the gazillion tax bracket.  Regardless, she gets her memories scrubbed, becomes Echo again, then becomes super negotiator woman to save the kidnapped daughter of some latino mob boss.

As super negotiator woman, we find that Echo has been downloaded with not only real people’s personalities, but also their disabilities.  She’s now nearsighted so she can wear sexy librarian glasses and asthmatic so she can pull out an asthma puffer and have attacks at dramatically important times.  This is explained by Blond Geek Boy, basically him saying that all the dolls are roleplaying game characters and you have to take some disads to get extra points to put in the stuff you want.  Really.  Well, those weren’t his exact words, but pretty much.  I was wanting to ask him what would happen if one of the dolls was downloaded with the memories of an amputee or someone of the opposite sex.  Or both.  “My legs!  I have legs!  I can walk again!  And I have breasts too….  WTF?”

I expect this is something we’re not supposed to think about too hard, or at all, but in any case, Echo is paired with Former Cop Guy (and token African-American cast member, so don’t confuse him with Handsome Cop Guy) who helps her along with the negotiations until things go south since it turns out that one of the memories that Echo was imprinted with came from some woman who was formerly a victim of Child-Abusing Kidnapper #3, which is why she became a super negotiatior, before commiting suicide and having her brain put on a zip drive by Blond Geek Boy (or maybe Geek Girl with a Significant Facial Scar).

It’s actually a cooler plot twist than it sounds, and the first episode ends with another cool plot twist of someone watching old sorority videos of Caroline in the middle of corpses of the people who possibly were the former owners of the sority videos.

In any case, that’s the pilot of Dollhouse, which has some intriguing characters, but more cops and former cops shoehorned in than any non-cop show really needs.  Instead of a dogged FBI boxer, why not a reporter?  It certainly worked for The Hulk, and would be easily modernized to a blogger.  And I’m really not certain why The Dollhouse is employing a former cop either, except in that I strongly suspect some Fox exec got it into their head that they need to put cops in everything, so Joss compromised with a former cop.

Scuttlebutt has it that of the next two episodes, one will be better, one will be worse, then the show should hit some sort of stride.  Which I dearly hope for, since I’ve enjoyed Joss’s previous shows.  This?  Well, there was an awful lot crammed in.  But we’ll see where it goes.

6 Responses to “The Fox in the Dollhouse”

  1. SMDon 15 Feb 2009 at 2:53 am

    I’m not sure if you were trying to be funny about the boxing bit, but I wanted to point out that that whole bit was more a big metaphor going on in his head. They come at him with some things, he gets beat up, then in the end of it, when he finally comes in, he has a few things to say, and wham, knockout.

    I never really took that scene to be at all an indication that he was a real boxer. Maybe he really is and that’s just what does in his head when he’s in an argument…

  2. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 15 Feb 2009 at 3:15 am

    In a show with flashbacks to repressed/hidden/drycleaned memories, my thought is that match cuts to fantasy sequences would get extra levels of confusing, so my thought is that Handsome Cop Guy is a boxer in his spare time and flashbacks to it for dramatic effect rather than just glower at the boss figures when they’re dressing him down.

    I think it was also put in to spice up what was otherwise a lot of “as you know, Bob” exposition. Since Handsome Cop Guy is doing his investigation on the orders of someone or someones higher in authority than the annoyed boss figures, and everyone knows it, why is anyone even bothering with this meeting? Apart from the need for exposition and to establish Handsome Cop Guy as a Two-Fisted Action Hero? (Something done more effectively later on anyway when he puts his gun to the back of the head of the rich party boy in the men’s room anyway.)

  3. Laurieon 15 Feb 2009 at 3:51 am

    I’m coming down on the side of cautious liking.

    You can really see where Fox made Whedon do revisions, though. The entire first sequence with the motorcycle chase and the teeny tiny dress – that screams network. I feel like it did make more sense than the hostage negotiator role, though. A rich playboy wanting a beautiful perfect fling with the ultimate no-strings-attached clause doesn’t stretch the bounds of plausibility.

    I can buy the science. I can get behind the purgatory of the Dollhouse itself, where these blank slates wander around waiting to be imprinted. I love the way the creepy blond nerd has to build personality composites that will stand up to real interaction. They have motivations, flaws, and challenges they have or haven’t overcome. It makes sense that the perfect person for a given situation is never a perfect person.

    The only thing I find shaky is why these zillionaire clients would want these dolls for anything other than non-vital functions. The hostage negotiator thing – I’d think you really would want a real professional, not one that was built in a lab. A proven track record trumps an ideal yet untested composite any day. I liked the personality that Echo got, and I thought it worked very well. I’m just dubious about the motivation of the client for accepting a doll in this role. I’m going to have learn more about the ‘why’ of this project, I imagine. For now, I’m just glossing over this tidbit, but it’s going to need some solid explanation soon.

    I like the cop thing, personally. I’m interested to see why one cop is so obsessed with the Dollhouse, and even more interested to see why one ex-cop is working for them. The Handler seems like a good man who genuinely cares for Echo, and it makes me wonder just how he got caught up in this operation. The shirtless boxer cop is a more interesting choice than a reporter. Just from what we heard, it sounds like there’s a combination of someone in a high place wanting this investigation to continue and a host of paid-off intermediaries who block his progress at every turn. Besides, I’m going to yark if I have to deal with one more Intrepid Reporter Sticking Her Nose In Where It Doesn’t Belong. Cops are tired and cliche, granted, but I am sick to death of the plucky newshound.

    I’m definitely on board for the foreseeable future. I’m hoping to be able to upgrade ‘cautious like’ to ‘big like’ soon, but I’m not seeing that I’ll find Buffy-like love with this one.

  4. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 15 Feb 2009 at 4:43 am

    Hmm, admittedly Intrepid Reporter Sticking Her Nose In Where It Doesn’t Belong can get a bit tiring, but at the moment, apart from Chloe on Smallville, I can’t think of a single Intrepid Reporter on tv, whereas the number of cops with their own shows has gotten unutterably tiresome.

  5. Laurieon 17 Feb 2009 at 10:47 pm

    Oh, I should say have began by saying that I watch almost no TV, and I really never have. I’m probably a bad authority on what’s on right now, or about what’s been overdone. Perhaps I have a personal bias against the plucky newshound for some reason.

    I was watching a few shows, but they all went to hell. I phased out Heroes – a lack of real-seeming characters was making me batty. I just nexted Bones for jumping the shark. “We’re joining the circus!” No. So, Dollhouse is the only thing I’m DVRing right now.

  6. Constanceon 25 Feb 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Hey, Kev! I’m sorry I’m so late seeing this. Thanks for putting up the entry.

    What Whedon’s done best in his past productions is to assemble an ensemble of interesting characters, whose relationships with and among each other, their development, change and growth, are the driving engine of the adventure plots. If your central character is provided a different set of characteristics, skill sets and a different personality for every ep, and then mind-wiped of them at the end, how can that take place? Since one has doubts that Dushko’s got what it takes to carry a series, she’s got even more of a hurdle here, with mind-wipe every ep. Additionally everything about its premise plays to all the parts of Whedon that are creepy and self-indulgent. Whedon has always been way over-fond sex bots, whether in a series, a movie or his comix.

    And — did you say, “Amy Acker?” O noes! She’ll blow away! OTOH, she hasn’t got a personality anyway, so maybe she’s perfect.

    Love, C.

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