I want to love Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, I really do. After last night’s fourth episode, however, I have to say that I have serious reservations about this being a major accomplishment along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly (or even a pretty okay accomplishment along the lines of Angel). The premise of the show is that there is a secret group who run “dolls” who carry out missions each week; the “main doll” is Eliza Dushku (Faith from Buffy) and her character, Echo, has her personality wiped clean each week and replaced with a new one with which she will then carry out the mission o’ the week. So it’s missing a grand theme or governing trope such as those in Buffy and Firefly (“just a girl” vampire slayer and high school as hell for the former, and a sort of anti-new world order post WWIII cowboy/sci-fi universe in the latter). It’s sort of vapid like Charlie’s Angels (the old television show, not the movies) with no sexy voiced Charlie and a “new” Angel each week.
And therein, for me, lies another problem with this show. I love Eliza Dushku, she’s gorgeous and plays a mean badass (her Faith on Buffy was just great, sort of the white trash slayer slut), and it’s that edginess that she’s not that great at hiding. In Tru Calling, she was great at being confused about her role as dead person savior, and on Buffy, she played an okay Buffy (some demonic device exchanged their bodies for a couple episodes). But in both roles, there was still that husky lack of naivete there, and Dushku playing Buffy wasn’t a great performance (though Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Faith telling Spike she’d pop him like warm champagne was brilliant).
I’m not sure that she can pull off a range of characters, let alone a new one each week. In last night’s episode of Dollhouse, Dushku’s memory was remotely wiped in the middle of some mission (I’m still not really clear on these missions, but maybe some fabulous mystery will unfold), and she needed to play “clean slate” and wide-eyed innocence, and it just didn’t quite come off. It’s not her fault, not many actors can do that sort of range (though if Whedon was looking for a Buffy alum to manage it, you’d think he’d have gotten Emma Caulfield who played Anya/Anyanka/Aud in Buffy; she can do evil and naive and sophisticated and toss in a dash of humor for good measure).
And there’s another thing that seems to be missing from Dollhouse, that famous Whedon clever, keen-eyed, socially and culturally aware humor. It’s just not there; even when there are attempts at it, something falls flat here. And that may be due to the lack of a strong sense of the individual characters and their relationships with one another (one of the traits that both Buffy and Firefly shared, as do non-Whedon mega-shows Lost and Battlestar Gallactica). Don’t get me wrong, I do love the computer programmer dude, the mystery man on Echo’s trail (yummy Helo from BSG), and Amy Acker’s doctor character (yes, another Buffy alum). But there’s not a sense that this cast “fits” or that they interact all that much at all (and poor Echo can’t really connect or be connected to because she’s wiped clean each week). All in all, I’d have to say that I’m a bit disappointed. But I’ll keep watching. It’s Joss Whedon, after all, and maybe four episodes hasn’t been enough for the show to get its bearings.