[12/27/08 - 04:08 PM]
The Futon's First Look: "Dollhouse: Ghost" (FOX)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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The network's description: "Joss Whedon, creator of groundbreaking cult favorites "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly," returns to television and reunites with fellow "Buffy" alumna Eliza Dushku for a thrilling new drama, DOLLHOUSE. ECHO (Dushku) is an "Active," a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don't just perform their hired roles, they wholly become � with mind, personality and physiology � whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time. Confined between missions to a secret facility known as the "Dollhouse," Echo and the other Actives including SIERRA (Dichen Lachman) and VICTOR (Enver Gjokaj) are assigned engagements by ADELLE (Olivia Williams), one of the Dollhouse leaders. After each scenario, Echo, always under the watchful eye of her handler BOYD (Harry Lennix), returns to the mysterious Dollhouse where her thoughts, feelings, experiences and knowledge are erased by TOPHER (Fran Kranz), the Dollhouse's genius programmer. Echo enters the next scenario with no memory of before. Or does she? As the series progresses, FBI Agent PAUL BALLARD (Tahmoh Penikett) pieces together clues that lead him closer to the Dollhouse, while Echo stops forgetting, her memories begin to return and she slowly pieces together her mysterious past. Produced by 20th Century Fox Television and Mutant Enemy Inc., DOLLHOUSE revolves around Echo's blossoming self-awareness and her desire to discover her true identity. But with each new engagement, comes a new memory and increased danger inside and outside the Dollhouse. Joss Whedon directed the pilot and serves as executive producer and writer. Liz Craft and Sarah Fain are co-executive producers."

What did they leave out? As detailed just about everywhere - this isn't the original pilot we looked at back in June. Whedon himself opted to film a new installment, "Ghost," which will serve as the show's premiere.

The plot in a nutshell: "Nothing is what it appears to be," explains Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) to a girl named Caroline (Eliza Dushku, as stunning as ever). It seems Caroline has gotten herself into quite a mess, one which Adelle is offering her a way out of. It involves signing a five-year contract to join her organization, one which Adelle promises - despite its shrouds of mystery - is there to help people. Cut to a decidedly different Caroline having the time of her life with Matt, a sweet guy she met just three days ago. But her Cinderella-like existence comes to an end after her handler, Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), mentions it's time for her "treatment." And with that we learn that Caroline isn't really Caroline at all anymore - she's Echo, an "active" in Adelle's "dollhouse" - a blank slate who can be imprinted with an amalgam of personalities to complete a very specific, very high paying job, whether it be giving Matt, a billionaire, the birthday present of a lifetime or serving as a hostage negotiator for Gabriel, a Mexican businessman whose daughter was just kidnapped. The latter scenario plays out during the bulk of the installment, but not before Echo's experiences with Matt are wiped from her memory, leaving her a child-like shell who lounges about the dollhouse receiving massages and working out. Supervising her transition between "engagements" then are Topher (Fran Kranz), a slightly unhinged programmer, and Claire Saunders (Amy Acker), a doctor whose scarred face informs her skittish demeanor. Rounding out the group is Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond), Adelle's right hand man who puts the company ahead of all else - even doing the right thing. And so Echo is imprinted as Eleanor Penn, hostage negotiator extraordinaire, and sent off to bring Gabriel's daughter home. But a perfect storm of bad news is about to hit Echo and company - whether it be lingering memories of Echo walking in on Topher processing new recruit Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a flaw in her imprint's personality or the news that Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), a crusading FBI agent is hot on Caroline's - and the Dollhouse's - trail.

What works: While Whedon has obviously found a concept he's quite enamored with, it's just unfortunate this new pilot...

What doesn't: ...gets in the way of everything that originally made the concept so great. From its surprisingly humor free dialogue to its annoying mysteriousness for the sake of mysteriousness (more on this in a second), there's little here that feels like the script I quite dug six months ago. Even worse, quite a bit of it falls prey to cart-before-the-horse syndrome, where various events are defanged by the fact you need to have read the original script - or even just read the network's description from above - to understand the full repercussions of what just happened. Case in point: Ballard corners Victor (Enver Gjokaj) about the Dollhouse, and yet it's never indicated to the audience that Victor is in fact an active in the Dollhouse (as specified above). The real killer however is that the original pilot's questions about what memory is, how it defines us, what they are doing with it, etc. takes a back seat to providing an easy excuse for Dushku to play dress up and a frustrating slowly building collection of no-people-actually-talk-or-act-like-this-but-oh-isn't-it-spooky-and-weird scenes. And if that wasn't enough - through no fault of its own - "Dollhouse" has the unfortunate coincidence of following in the footsteps of NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy," another show which dealt with programmed personalities short circuiting at inopportune times (not to mention also started with a promising concept and proceeded to run headfirst into unwatchability). Ultimately, the new "Dollhouse" is the last thing you'd expect from Joss Whedon - unfunny, not that compelling and a limp noodle procedural. Like any tried and true "Buffy"/"Angel"/"Firefly" fan, I'll bite my lip and hope for the best...

The bottom line: ...but I can't help but be supremely disappointed with the end result so far.

  [december 2008]  


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