Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)

It's the most hotly anticipated TV show of the year. For Nerds! Or, as I prefer to think of them, "My People." But does it deliver? You need but scroll down to discover the answer to that and other baffling questions.

"Dollhouse" (Pilot episode "Ghosts" Written and Directed by Joss Whedon)

So Joss Whedon and the Fox network are together again. And why not? Everything worked out so well for them last time. You remember last time, don't you? That was when Whedon gave the Fox geniuses "Firefly." Sorry if it's a nerd cliche to rant about the network mishandling of that show, but hey, we ain't nerds because we're dumb. Or wrong. Fox rejected the (awesome) pilot, buried it on the schedule, ran shows out of order (including the awesome pilot which ended up being the last episode they actually broadcast), and didn't bother to promote it. "Firefly" was so good, however, that it manages to live on in a theatrical film and in comics, as well as being a top-selling DVD set.

But surely, now everyone has learned from their mistakes. Nothing like the "Firefly" debacle could happen again. Could it?

Whedon's new show for the fine folks at Fox is "Dollhouse" and it HAD IT'S PILOT SENT BACK TO BE RESHOT!?! Are you freakin' kidding me?

Wait. Calm. Tranquil. Serenity.

That's better. Whedon tells us in several interviews that reshooting the "Dollhouse" pilot was in fact a good thing. Let's take him at his word. At least they're not scheduling the show on Friday night where so many Fox sci-fi shows have gone to die.

Oh wait. I'm being told that they ARE scheduling it on Friday night where so many Fox sci-fi shows have gone to die. Yay?

Well, look. That's all behind the scenes, inside baseball stuff. Who cares about that? What matters is what's on the screen when the show debuts on ...

Oh. My. God.

On Friday the Thirteenth? Friday the Thirteenth? Is this a joke? As longtime Fox star Al Bundy would say: "Great jumping horny toads!"

Okay. So the deck is completely stacked against the long-term survival of "Dollhouse." So what? Bring it on! Do your worst, Fox cretins!

It will all be academic if the show ain't no good. Enough appetizer. On to the main course.

Echo is a "doll," also known as an "active," an agent of a shady outfit called "Dollhouse" that imprints its blank-slate dolls with whatever personality a client might request and then rents them out for whatever purpose the client might imagine. Need the world's most awesome date? Dollhouse can provide him/her. Need an expert in some arcane knowledge or ability? Dollhouse is there for you, too. For a price.

Whedon-verse veteran Eliza Dushku plays Echo and in the first episode of "Dollhouse," we see her as a thrill-loving companion for a (presumably) rich boy on his birthday and as an ace hostage negotiator. Dushku is also an Executive Producer on the program and it's easy to see how attractive this concept would be for an actress; her role provides her with a theoretically infinite number of different characters and acting challenges. And she has the chops to at least give them all a run for the money.

From the beginning, the basics of the Dollhouse are laid out for all to see. We get an in-depth look at several of its functionaries (including another Whedon vet Amy Acker as a scarred doctor) and its power structure, topped by Adelle DeWitt, played by a frosty Olivia Williams.

To complicate matters further, there's also a cop determined to discover the secret of the very secretive Dollhouse. And there are hints of a "rogue active," a doll who is no longer under the house's thumb and has launched a killing spree.

I don't know how the original pilot went or what it is exactly that Fox wanted changed, but at a guess, I would say that the network probably insisted on setting everything up in a clear and unambiguous way right at the top. The pilot episode, "Ghosts," leaves very little to the imagination about what the Dollhouse is and how it works. Its by-the-numbers hostage drama is little more than a line to hang all the backstory laundry on. I suppose that makes sense from a fearful network perspective in a TV climate that demands pulling a big ratings number from the very beginning. Don't deliver the eyeballs right away, and your show can and will be replaced by yet another hour of "Hole in the Wall." I get it.

But network imperatives aside, "Dollhouse" seems to me to be constructed upside down. Allow me to suggest an alternative pilot.

We meet Echo not with her party girl imprint, not in her home base of the Dollhouse, but as the hostage negotiator persona Eleanor Penn. She plays out the hostage drama just as we see it in "Ghosts," but with only the tiniest hints of the presence of the Dollhouse and the rest of the backstory. Flashes of memory. Shady characters on the periphery. For the largest portion of the hour, we have no reason to believe that this is anything other than a show about a hostage negotiator, albeit one who keeps barely remembering odd things. Then at the end of the pilot, all heck breaks loose and she gets spirited away by her handlers (who we have not and do not properly meet) and taken to some place called the Dollhouse. End of pilot.

Beginning of second show, there she is in the middle of a medical emergency, or an undercover spy operation, or being the perfect escort to some millionaire. More flashes, more hints, more appearances at the edges by the Dollhouse personnel. Imagine how much more interesting and fun this concept could be if the Dollhouse's mystery was one that we could solve with Echo.

"Dollhouse" has all the mystery solved by exposition in the pilot. It's as if Oceanic 815 crashed onto the "Lost" island and the survivors all immediately were told exactly what was going on.

There's potential in "Dollhouse" and Dushku is a first-rate lead. But I can't help but think that this concept was gutted before it ever had a chance.

2 1/2 stars.

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