I think it might have lost me with “cern the diff”. But that wasn’t until episode two. Episode one was distinguished by not having a single memorable line, whether for good or bad. It was possibly the blandest writing I’ve ever experienced, despite coming from the brain of Joss Whedon. He somehow managed to turn something that appeared to be part wank-fantasy, part adventure-mystery into a mechanical, dull slog through an overly convoluted concept. Exposition was scattered through a series of unanswered questions, dozens of them, thrown at you in what felt a desperate attempt to hook you in on maybe one of them. Perhaps you want to know about Echo, an “Active” whose mind is erased and refilled at the behest of clients, and the past that brought her to the Dollhouse? Perhaps you want to know about the cop investigating, and why his bosses don’t believe it exists, and who is funding his investigation and ensuring it continues? Perhaps you want to know why Amy Acker has scars all over her face? Or why Echo’s handler is reluctant to do his job. Or why Echo had visions from previous minds. Or who funds the Dollhouse. Or how the bloody hell anyone can hire an Active from a company the police with massive resources can’t prove exists.
Whedon came up with the concept during a visit to the toilet while having lunch with star Eliza Dusku, and from the evidence it really does seem like one wee’s worth of idea. So rather than offer any content, instead the episode was a series of vague questions to be answered, presumably over as many episodes as Fox will pay for. Which I’m doubtful will ever be more than thirteen.
Episode one unfortunately went with as hoary a theme as you could imagine. A child has been kidnapped, and Echo is to be the hostage negotiator. Lordy. But what makes Whedon shows so great is taking routine situations, and putting in surprise twists (even if that surprise twist does, more often than not, tend to be killing one of the main characters without warning), and his imaginative dialogue. Dollhouse had neither. It was by the numbers CSI mediocrity, without a moment of fresh or inspired banter. It was just bizarre in its banality.
However, it’s been made abundantly clear by everyone involved that episode one was not the show at its best. Fox interference, rewrites, reshoots, and all the usual pilot faffing around. Episode two, we were promised, would show the programme in its true light.
There’s no question that the second episode is a dramatic improvement, in so much as it’s not the televisual equivalent of a coma. There’s a lot more going on, and certainly the story of The Middleman wanting to hunt down and kill a human is far more original. (Even if this, astonishingly, is yet another mysterious group doing something mysterious that we aren’t yet to know about.) But sadly the writing is frequently embarrassing. It’s like a pastiche of Whedon – like one of those Scifi shows that last half a season and try to have the witty exchanges without the wit. Last year’s horrendous reboot of Flash Gordon was obviously massively worse than Dollhouse, but the cringe-inducing chatter was woefully similar. And “cern the diff” was not the worst. Each scene in the first half seems to begin with someone walking into a room and announcing the central premise of the show. “Hello everybody, we’re in a place that rents out humans with imprinted brains! Do you have that file?”
Remarkably, it even manages to make the fantastic Mark Sheppard’s appearance objectionable. Sheppard, who I believe is contractually obliged to appear in all television programmes at least once (he’s currently appearing in Leverage, Battlestar Galactica, Burn Notice, and now Dollhouse, all on air simultaneously), is for reasons impossible to begin to guess at, speaking in an American accent. Well, that’s a strong way to put it. Here he’s speaking in possibly the most embarrassing American accent in broadcast TV history. It’s agony. Just why?
Throwing out some answers straight away was a good idea. Letting us know a bit of history to Echo’s handler, Acker’s face, and giving us something for Echo to remember, at least let there be some point to it all. But the show is still buried beneath its poor central premise. That the Actives have no personality and no relationships (the latter exaggerated further by completely ignoring the others so far), and that everyone they work with are humourless drones (with the exception of Topher Brink, the 20-something responsible for wiping and imprinting the brains, who speaks like a homeopathic dilution of any Buffy smart-ass, and responsible for “cern the diff”), means there’s nowhere for Whedon and his trusted band of writers to do what they do best – have people relate. That the central character doesn’t have a personality for us to identify with is obviously the show’s biggest hurdle, and one you’d think they’d at least try to overcome. Instead we’re getting maybe thirty seconds to a minute of suggestions per fifty minute episode (trouble selling commercials into it?) that Echo is remembering things despite the wipe. But madly, only things that have happened since the first wipe, and not her own past which is surely the one thing that will let us connect to her?
Buffy, Angel and Firefly had a gang. A group we grew to love, who loved each other greatly, and with whom we could look forward to spending time. Each let Whedon’s remarkable talents shine, as they exchanged witty, fresh words, one-upping each other for gags, being poignant right when it mattered, and having heated rows. In Dollhouse, the apparently Vulcan handler for Echo turns toward a window, sighs, and says with the gravitas of someone delivering a philosophical breakthrough,
“The only thing I really know is (deep breath) it all leads back to Echo.”
Before Kellerman off-of-Homicide explains the premise to Echo for the second time in the episode.
The theme for the show says it all. A weedy, whiny drone, with a woman singing, literally, “Nyah nyah na nyah nyah” over it. A motif that continues throughout the episode.