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Although I must continually applaud Fox for having the guts to recognize the brilliance in the mind of creative storytelling visionary Joss Whedon, his fourth original television series was granted zero favors from the network during its inaugural broadcast.
Given the indisputable beauty of Dollhouse lead actress and producer Eliza Dushku, whose knack for combining sex appeal with soulfulness made her supporting slayer Faith one of the most exciting castmates on Whedon's Buffy and Angel-- Fox took the most predictable approach for their marketing campaign. And to this end, they opted to fixate on lustful titillation rather than intellectual stimulation which was further solidified by an awful time-slot that almost guaranteed the show would either tank or be the type of thing watched by the dateless and/or friendless.
Thus, the channel essentially gave the series the subtextual kiss-of-death of “guilty pleasure trash TV” but much like another unexpected work that drew a steady and loyal following-- Gossip Girl-- the astounding number of viewers programming episodes on their DVR showed networks that audiences were ready for something different.
However instead of adjusting the schedule or doing more to market it to a wider spectrum, Dollhouse was ignored and treated as though it was the type of programming you may not want to admit to others you actually watch. Of course, one outcome of this approach was that it helped fuel media word-of-mouth that all seemed to focus purely on the series as though it was all about sex or the objectification of women... as if we'd forgotten just who the hell Joss Whedon was and how much he'd done for female characters since he was first employed as a staff writer on Roseanne.
Although of course that was just the beginning and well before he introduced the world to female vampire slayers who confronted attackers rather than becoming traditional horror genre victims and created not one but two series from this initial idea without which Alias and several other female-centric action shows may never have gotten off the ground.
Yet Fox's Dollhouse marketing ploy was sadly successfully to those outside of the Whedon Universe who are therefore also unaware that this feminist streak is an inherited trait from not just his mother but the men in his family as well including his father who was a contributing writer for the witty Golden Girls and his grandfather who penned The Donna Reed Show.
And proof of Fox's success to hide the brains of the show in favor of beauty shows up on Blu-ray release for one of the best new shows of last season as it actually contains a quote from New York Post who dubs it “good, dirty fun,” despite the more important and honest praise from Time Magazine on the front cover which applauds the show for its three integral qualities of being “haunting, cerebral, and gorgeous.”
Moreover, by choosing to market the endlessly fascinating and morally complicated Dollhouse as something merely akin to Barberella, the all-important female demographic was ignored since I can't tell you how many intelligent women I spoke with who didn't even want to view it, believing simply from the advertising that the show seemed like it consisted of simply Eliza Dushku portraying a twenty-first century version of a Stepford Wife crossed with one of those sexy bots from the Austin Powers movies.
While admittedly the provocative concept for Dollhouse could've easily been treated in that manner in another's hands, Whedon-- per usual, illustrates that he's a man who enjoys leading us down one path for a brief period of time before suddenly pulling us into an entirely different direction as the series evolves during its twelve aired episodes.
The action centers on an underground, top-secret, elite and amoral lair that programs its stable of male and female “dolls” or to use the series phrase-- “actives”-- to become whatever the high paying clients want them to be whether that may be a midwife for a couple who live on a snowbound mountain, the ideal lover, an art thief, or a negotiator in a complicated kidnap for random case etc.
Underrated, addictive and increasingly complicated-- while on the surface it feels as though we're watching something set in the near future, we're startled to learn that Whedon opted to place the events in present day Los Angeles and he keeps everything eerily relatable by operating under two universal truths or theses. They consist of the following: 1) if you have everything, you will inevitably want something else or something even more extreme and; 2) if technology is discovered that will allow you the ability to program people like computers, we will use it since as we've shown in the past, as soon as the capability for the bomb was there, we took it.
Par for the course for Whedon, you can cite the pop culture influences right off the bat as the Los Angeles branch of the Dollhouse which is run by Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) recruits its "actives" La Femme Nikita style as they surrender their personality for five years by signing a contract. When life has found them either in trouble with the law or facing a situation that's unbelievably dire as we briefly see in the opening of the series was the case of Dushku's character's former self "Caroline," they leave that life behind to become an active.
And essentially it's an organization that DeWitt tries to fool herself and others into believing is one that helps people rather than coolly traffics in human beings who are imprinted with fake personalities to become other people for the right price on selective missions (and garnering extra money when there's extra risk or a file is "flagged"). Of course, this is before the actives return and their memories are wiped clean a la Paycheck with no questions asked about what happened to them while they were away despite the fact that they have handlers.
Obviously it's also inspired by the work of not only Philip K. Dick's science fiction but also such classics as Brave New World and 1984. To this end, it tries to present us with life inside the Dollhouse as a safe-haven of fake, protective bliss as Dushku's Echo sleeps in a pod. However she is as helpless as a young grade school aged child when not on assignment as she fills her time trying to be her best while going from routine medical physicals to swimming laps and painting pictures before she starts becoming more self-aware as the series continues.
This begins to take shape after five introductory standalone episodes in which we become acquainted with the series and those involved. One of the most important people in her life is Echo's new handler, the former ex-cop Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) who develops a paternal Buffy "watcher-like" attachment to the his vacuous active.
Of course, while her name alone is a nod to Greek mythology yet we quickly realize that Echo is used by an entire technological ucorporation instead of just one male Narcissus-- Whedon cuts loose with mythology of his own in season one's strongest episode "Man on the Street." In doing so, he starts to introduce us to what will become the Dollhouse mythology as well as the backstories of several lead characters. Moreover, the sixth episode challenges viewers throughout with more surprises in forty-two minutes than a typical show unveils during sweeps month.
Knowing that we can only stand to watch Echo and the other actives go from in-charge to submissive slaves for a certain amount of time-- suddenly, the idea of sleeper actives, double agents, corrupt handlers and more revelations hit the show as the underground corporation is nearly brought down. For just as Echo has begun to be struck with some flashbacks of a traumatic shooting inside the Dollhouse, we uncover that someone has been supplying coded messages in dolls and leaking them out as Echo is very, very slowly jolted into the idea that things aren't exactly what they seem.
When this occurs, she finally encounters the star of our simultaneous narrative in the form of the relentless FBI Agent, Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett). An outsider in his department, Ballard becomes the bureau's Mulder and Scully while he attempts to seek information about the Dollhouse which his colleagues all tell him is only a fairy tale.
Yet when he becomes captivated by Caroline and stories about the "pretty lady," again the series references another literary source in the form of Sleeping Beauty as he refuses to quit trying to wake up Dushku's Echo only to discover that the Dollhouse may be a lot closer to him than he ever imagined since instead of big brother--the dolls are watching in Whedon's clever series.
Bringing on board a lot of the same behind-the-scenes writing, directing and producing staff with whom Whedon has collaborated before including Jane Espenson and Tim Minear-- in a few cases, Whedon fans feel as though they're watching a Buffy paradigm episode. Yet by the time "Man on the Street" rolls around, you realize you're completely hooked and wish that Whedon would've had the freedom to have worked with a full season run to develop the mythology in greater detail. However, it's a terrific set that lets viewers get caught up on one of the most overlooked and underrated new series of last year before it kicks off one more time.
Also containing the unaired pilot "Echo" and the thirteenth episode shot for half the budget on video and set in the future to sort of wrap some things up in a post-apocalyptic way in case the show was canceled-- "Echelon One" which screened at this year's Comic-Con-- the Fox Blu-ray three disc set boasts gorgeous picture and sound quality throughout.
However, one major complaint that's been noted by some readers and fans is that once again, the Blu-ray no longer contains a sleeve or any list of episodes informing you which episodes are on which disc. Using the same complicated and difficult to navigate "dice menu" structure employed for the episode selection on the Burn Notice Season 2 Blu-ray set-- while in Dollhouse's case, the quality is on par with their cinematic releases and is simply perfection, it's still tough to view unless you're doing it in marathon form.
To explain, the first disc is bogged down with so many trailers that it's hard to skip over them which makes the fact that you're unable to bookmark your place in the Blu-ray even more frustrating as finally I realized I just had to keep leaving it on pause and relying on the screen-saver to avoid the endless previews.
Yet, making the hassle worth your while aside from obviously the content of the series alone-- the set contains some cast and crew commentary tracks along with of course, the un-aired episodes, and featurettes that lead you deeper into the Dollhouse to a level that's so secure, normally you'd have to be an active with an imprint to gain access.
In my eyes, much more compelling than Whedon's Firefly or the film that followed, Serenity, Dollhouse is a return to the female-centric work he does best that will provoke, seduce, surprise, yet most importantly get you talking about the humanistic implications of what you've just seen all wrapped up in one damn entertaining show. Overall, this is one series that is highly recommended, highly addictive not to mention well worth your time and shelf-space... even if you'll never look at a child's dollhouse the same way again.
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