Dollhouse is about a mysterious company that produces a single product: people. More specifically, the Rossum Corporation produces bespoke personalities grafted onto mindblanked people who may or may not have volunteered to put themselves into this situation. For a steep price, clients can hire these tailor-made people, whether that be for a night of sex, a weekend of whitewater rafting, or a high-end art heist. Some of the drones are beginning to remember bits and pieces of their engagements and occasional chunks of memory from their former selves, however, and there's a disgraced FBI agent who's attempting to track down the location of the Dollhouse as well, ensuring that there are plenty of complications piled onto an already complicated premise.
This is a show that I really should like. It's a Joss Whedon creation, and I tend to appreciate his work. It's well-written, dark without being overly depressing, paced well and competently shot. It centers on one of my favorite subjects, the malleability of the psyche and how identity might be more fluid than we generally give it credit for. All of these ingredients should cook up to something that I find irresistible. Why, then, do I find it so hard to care about the show?
I'd like to blame Eliza Dushku, who's utterly unconvincing as someone who's a walking receptacle for modular personalities. I can't do that in good conscience, though, because I assumed that this would be the case long before I began watching the show. She's never been a good actor before, and I didn't have any reason to think that she'd bother to start being one now. I also had no idea accepting the informed attribute that she is, in fact, acting like a different person every week, rather than acting like the same one with a few different mannerisms. Though it would've been great if the lead had been capable of pulling off the daunting task of having to play a character who completely disappears into a different persona each week, but still retains traces of the initial personality, it wasn't particularly problematic to me that she wasn't.
A lot of the reason I found it hard to engage with Dollhouse was that so much of it felt like a retread of Whedon's other television work. The dialogue mostly maintains Whedon's slightly too clever but still funny/insightful modality, though it's definitely played down here from the heights it reached in Buffy and Firefly. Some of the characters resemble characters from earlier shows. For example, Topher, obviously the favorite character in the writers' room as he's their chance to show off their most clever lines of dialogue, is basically Wash minus compassion plus intelligence. The relationship web of the employees of the Dollhouse mimics that of Buffy's scoobies, Angel Investigations, the crew of Serenity and the professors of Xaviar Institute (while Whedon was writing them, anyway), not in its particulars but in the familial sense of how the characters relate to each other. Not every group of people who spend time together acts as a surrogate family, and while that social structure worked well for the previous Whedon projects, it falls on its face here.
The first half-dozen episodes are heavily episodic and play out like an updated Quantum Leap, with Echo being thrust into various situations in which she's needed to figure out what's really going on and then save some people, often from themselves. As the season progresses from there, it becomes more and more serialized, with the penultimate episode being entirely dependent on previous episodes. The final episode of the season, available on the DVD set but never aired on television, is an intriguing flashforward to an apocalyptic future that follows directly from the events of prior episodes. This was definitely the best episode of the season, which is probably not coincidental with the fact that it only features the main characters of the regular season in cameo roles.
For a show that's all about characters whose personalities are chunks of data injected into empty hosts, there's not much exploration of the theme of identity. There's a total lack of any kind of sciencey explanation for how the personality mapping and rewrites work, which would be fine if they worked consistently. Coherent mythology has never been Mutant Enemy's strong suit, but in its other productions, that tendency toward making up rules on the fly could be overlooked, as it didn't matter to the character-based storytelling how fast the ships travel or what exactly a demon is. In Dollhouse, though, the tech is the characters, and shortchanging its plausibility by failing to adhere to any set of rules disrupts the characters themselves.
The primary theme foregrounded across the season is that of violence towards women, rather than being anything to do with shifting identities. But rather than tackle this topic in any meaningful way, the shows sticks with "men will abuse women when given power over them" and doesn't go any deeper than that. A lot of the problem is that the abusers we see are generally characters-of-the-week, so they don't get enough screen time to be fleshed out in any way that allows for an actual examination of why men who have power over women abuse them. As a result, we end up getting the worst of both worlds with this ugly choice of topic: all the squick-inducing abuse and violence, but none of the avenues of potential discussion to explore why they occur. I very much doubt that it's intentional, but that pairing gives all the brutality on display an almost pornographic tone. I don't take issue with art which deals with weighty, uncomfortable subjects - those are the motifs that I tend towards - but it's a clear failure on Dollhouse's part that it presents the salacious without any follow-up.
Reading back through it, this review has been mostly negative, but I want to stress that I don't think that the show is bad. It was entertaining enough while I was watching it, but it was too forgettable and loosely built for me to have been excited about what would happen in subsequent episodes, and I've got no desire to go back and re-watch any of it. Perhaps my expectations were simply too high for it after the unalloyed genius of Firefly, which leads me to think that audiences less familiar with Whedon's pet obsessions would likely find Dollhouse much more engaging than die-hard fans. It was an diverting season of television that wasn't ever able to quite plumb the depths of its own themes, but I'll certainly be giving the second season a try in hope that it will live up to the abundant untapped potential lying just under the surface of this material.