Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Doll House and Dollhouse

I am obsessive by nature but somehow I never caught the collecting memorabilia bug. I have none and I rarely get excited about something unless it's super personal -- like the water bottle a friend of mine snatched after a Julianne Moore function. Her lips had touched it! I swear I did not ask my friend to do this -don't judge! -- so I have no idea why I'm suddenly all into the idea of owning one of a kind sculpted movie dolls or how long this sudden urge will last but...

How great are these Rosemary's Baby dolls?

They're made by sculptor/actress Alesia Newman-Breen. (Here's her blog) At this moment I feel like I would give up several gallons of plasma or perhaps donate my whole body to science to have one of Michelle Pfeiffer as Susie Diamond or Julianne Moore as Carol White in [safe] (That'd transfer so spookily well to doll form, wouldn't it? Especially if it came with the right accessories). I mean, look at how incredible these movie dolls are! And they're so actressexual friendly, too. Famous femmes in indelible roles. Yes, please. More.

Dolls have been on my brain what with the premiere of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse last Friday still imprinting in my susceptible bad girl lovin' brain. Did you watch it?

[spoilers follow]

The first few minutes of Dollhouse take place between a dishevelled Eliza Dushku ("Echo" our heroine) and a suspiciously helpful business type Olivia Williams. They're discussing Echo's actions, their consequences and possible solutions. It plays out somewhat like that 'become a super assassin and leave life in prison or death sentence behind' establishing scenes in Point of No Return / La Femme Nikita only far less specific. This Someone is signing Something to escape Someone or Something. Actions, consequences and solutions? 100% vague. They're so vague, in fact, that one might be forgiven for assuming that Whedon and Co stuffed the dialogue full of as many pronouns and generalities as possible. All the better to make it up as they go along if the show takes off. 'Save some space for cool ideas, fellas. We love deepening mythologies in the Whedonverse!'

Cut to a motorcycle chase wherein Echo takes a spill and then nonsensically dumps her helmet -- the same helmet that undoubtedly just prevented a concussion. Little known fact: Famous actors are exempt from helmet laws because if it's just some random person on a bike we're flipping the channel. Seems Echo is on some sort of Ultimate Date Night for Badasses. She calls her boyfriend a "bitch" after he wins the bike race and then demands that they dance. Whedon knows his target audience (i.e. Faith the vampire slayer lovers!) and for a brief blissful moment once Eliza starts shaking it, it's like watching "Bad Girls" again, one of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ever. [Hint: All episodes involving Faith are 'one of the best episodes of Buffy. Ever.' Remember this. It will serve you well. Season 3 people, season 3]

Eliza working it out

Anyway, her bitch boy gives her a necklace which trips some switch in her. Is she a robot? No, she just mental. She's got subliminal programming and she's back to the "Dollhouse" which she seems to think is a spa. Her "treatments" involve memory wipes... but unlike the concept in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind these aren't true memory wipes but fake memory wipes. We realize that this date was paid for and the bad girl persona was not Echo's own, but an "imprint" to please her client. Once she's wrapped an assignment, the current personality and memories are wiped and she's personality free and ready for the next imprinted personality to be determined by the next rich client. In other words, this is sort of like Fantasy Island with a Machiavellian twist. The island workers serving up the fantasies don't know who they are or that they're role playing.

Since it's a Whedon show it's all about tough sexy women (Echo), nerdy and possibly evil computer geeks (this guy to your left here) and older stuffier handlers (this other guy to the far left) who try to keep aforementioned tough sexy women safe and in check. Sound familiar? But I overstate. These are just surface 'type' similarities. Dollhouse doesn't feel a lot like Buffy or Whedon's other shows. TV shows, the best ones at least, often take several episodes to find their true personality. There's a lot of groundwork being laid down. One senses the show might experiment with a few personas before it settles for one imprint.

After all this setup we enter into this particular episode's A story, a unthrilling crime drama about a rich man's kidnapped daughter. Echo is sent in with a new imprint (she's a hostage negotiator) and she dresses like a sexy librarian who would immediately be stripping if this were a music video. But -- and I hope the showrunners get a handle on this right away -- the A plot is not really what's important. All the interesting bits involve either a) the behinds the scenes machinations, b) the organic problems inherent in the doll's programming (Echo's latest imprinted personality comes with child abuse memories) and c) the dolls going a little wonky if they get confused. Don't confront them with any questions about their real selves since they don't actually know that they aren't who they're mentally programmed to be! Got that?


It's a little head spinning. Dollhouse could probably use a beginning pre-credit sequence like Buffy had in the first season that narrows down the concept in a sound byte for the casual viewer.

Acting wise this show might be a challenge for those cast as dolls. Only Eliza gets much air time in the premiere episode (smart move) though we see several other gorgeous men and women milling about in this luxurious spa atmosphere. There's a few witty overhead shots that do make them look like tiny figurines in a, well, doll house. One imagines that the other dolls Echo lives with in personality-free splendor will become involved quickly. Whedon has never met a show concept he couldn't rapidly populate -- Ensembles are his thing even when the concept hinges on a solitary hero / "chosen one". Sometimes Dushku pulls off the personality switching that this new concept show requires. The opening scene she handles superbly (playing to her time tested strengths) and I love the way she lets that party persona bleed over into her dazed but not confused stroll back to her handler. One sees that she doesn't quite know why she's doing it but she's okay with that -- her devil may care nature doesn't sweat the small stuff. As an actress she also seems to be having a spot of fun with the stereotyped edges of her uptight negotiator role. Dushku has a tougher time in the post memory wipe personality free stage. I assume the dolls are supposed to read like eery blank slates but Echo seems uncomfortably close to, well, stoopid.

But if we learned anything watching Eliza Dushku on Buffy it's that she improves rapidly as an actor. And if we learned anything watching Joss Whedon's past three series it's that they improve rapidly once the creative teams are done "setting the stage" or perhaps finding their nerve/voice. For a first episode I'd give it a B but I think the concept is at least an A-. We don't get a lot on Ms. Williams (is she truly evil or merely an amoral businesswoman?) or the investigator trying to find the Dollhouse (Battlestar Galactica's Tahmoh Penikett). We meet him when he's all sweaty, shirtless and boxing presumably because, again, Joss knows his audiences.

If the Dollhouse team can figure out a way to keep the stand-alone assignment plots reflecting back at the overarching mysteries of this organization while also finding clever ways to play the emotional arcs of personality-free dolls (one hopes that they start to crack!) it could really be something. Stay tuned.

P.S. This is never going to be the TV Experience but for when I really feel like talking about something. That said do you like the idea of weekly coverage of Dollhouse?

20 comments:

JA said...

Thanks for the linkage there.

And yes, I obviously would love to hear your thoughts on a weekly basis on Dollhouse. I agree with your assessment so far - once the set-up is outta the way is when I think things will start to get really interesting; that's how Joss shows tend to work at least. From that panel at ComiCon I learned that the first 3 episodes are all stand-alones like this first one (although from reviews I've heard that ep. 2 is awesome), and after that Joss gets to start working his longer-arc magic on the story, which is where he really shines. His complications always have complications.

And how happy did seeing the little Mutant Enemy "Grr! Argh!" his way across the screen make you at the end? I nearly shed a tear.

Yes - unrepentant fanboy speaking.

NATHANIEL R said...

omg. funny that you should mention that. i sat through the whole thing all giddy but concerned / enjoying but cautious and then the "grr! argh!" and we were all squealing.

i should've mentioned!

Ian said...

The "Grr. Arrgh." completely warmed my heart! I would love to see a weekly overview of Dollhouse, especially since the episodes are supposed to get better and better. I don't understand the common criticism that we as the audience have no central character to root for because Echo is continually wiped. Don't we root for her regaining her identity? Isn't that a good drive?

Apparently, this week we are introduced to this season's Big Bad-which we may have caught a glimpse of in the creepy last scene of the pilot episode.

Anonymous said...

YES YES YES!!! Please talk weekly about Dollhouse. I don't have any friends that are Whedon fans and I'm dying to hear what people think about this show, other than the snobs at Variety.

Emily said...

I'd love more coverage of Dollhouse!!! I liked the pilot and think it'll get better and better once we learn more about the characters. I want more Olivia Williams and lots lots more Tahmoh Penikett!

adam k. said...

Wow, I want to see "Dollhouse" now just to see shirtless sweaty Tahmoh in motion.

And also, wow, Nat, you HAVE to check out Kris Tapley's "Top Ten Most Annoying Things About the 2008 Awards Season" only because it'll annoy you SO much. The annoying things include Rachel Getting Married (yes, just the film in general), the lack of a Blanchett nod, the Slumdog backlash, the fanboys being annoyed over Dark Knight and WALL•E missing, and... at #1... the bitching about category fraud. In which he specifically refers to you.

Amazing. It's ALL the things that have made award season bearable for you. You have to check it out.

I think you and Tapley = nemeses

Kelsy said...

I was reminded of Alias a little bit. The whole dressing up as a different person for each mission and the extremely likable handler. I'm game for it.

Riikka said...

I would definitely love a weekly Dollhouse recap!

Joe Reid said...

"I don't understand the common criticism that we as the audience have no central character to root for because Echo is continually wiped. Don't we root for her regaining her identity? Isn't that a good drive?"

It's tough for me to get behind because the drive isn't coming from Echo herself. It's tough to root for her because, as yet, I'm not sure who's there to root for, beyond the fact that it's Eliza Dushku. Which, granted, is almost good enough reason on its own.

The whole hour just left me cold and without a strong drive to know more about the universe in which the show operates. Which is a totally foreign feeling for me and a Whedon show.

JA said...

I was pretty cold towards Firefly for the first few episodes that I saw (granted they were airing them out of order), and I hated the first episode of Buffy I tried to watch - damn you, Beer Bad! - so I'm not too worried that the show will grow on me. And the fact that all 13 episodes are in the can and supposedly tell a total story and will at least make their way onto DVD is keeping me out of panic mode. 13 new hours of Joss to eventually roll around in like a dog in filth! Yay!

CrazyCris said...

Oh I definitely would LOVE weekly coverage of the Dollhouse! (and the final BSG episodes for that matter). The only person I have here to talk about DH is my dad ('cause I can get him to watch almost anything, except BSG, sigh!) and he thinks I spend too much time watching TV or reading about it online just because I caught the reference to James Edward Olmos in the pilot (and what it means). None of my friends even know it exists (I'm in Spain...)

I too think the show has a lot of promise, and that we won't really be able to get a handle on it for a few episodes while things get set up. It's good that FOX guaranteed the 13 original episodes 'cause this show definitely feels like one that needs to reach its stride. I hope viewers will be smart enough to hang in there!

Shawn said...

Yeah you should definitely do a recap/thoughts post on Dollhouse every week AND the last five (sigh) episodes of Battlestar Galactica.

In any case, I wasn't blown away by the pilot. It was a bit disjointed at parts, but it's Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku (and Tahmoh) so suffice it to say this show will have to be the second coming of Life According to Jim for me to even consider not watching it.

Plus yes, the "Grr Arrgh" just completelt warmed the cockles of my heart. Awesome.

sean said...

i would definately like to hear more! i live in ireland so i have no idea when im gonna be able to c it really....

that said this psot just kinda made me feel sad about buffy:(. god i miss that show. could u do a buffy related series nat? like i dunno review a few episodes/ your favourites or maybe review each season as a whole 1 by 1!

yano just to relive the glory days....sigh.

ps has anybody read that comic that is supposed to act as the 8th series of buffy??

JA said...

sean, I've been keeping up with the Buffy Season 8 comics; they're ongoing... probably on going forever since they supposedly sell like gangbusters. They're terrific, and actually getting better with time I think; a storyline a couple of issues ago actually made me cry!

Tom said...

A JULIANNE MOORE WATER BOTTLE??????!!!?!?!? Is it on a shrine?

Bryan said...

I would forgive them for cancelling the last-year's-actors-present-this-year's if they just had Julie Christie present Best Actor. That'd show 'em!

Amy said...

I'm very interested in hearing weekly Dollhouse updates. I'm a huge Whedon fan, and although I liked the pilot of Dollhouse, I didn't LOVE it. I would like to get more of how Echo is remembering things that she shouldn't, really focusing more on the search for her identity rather than an adventure of the week formula. But I trust Joss to deliver, and I can't wait to see how he will progress this idea over the season.

par3182 said...

it was a lot more straight forward than the rumor-mongering had led me to believe/fear

my unnatural attraction to faith/eliza remains undiminished. that girl...jeebus - the minidress, the sexy librarian - i'm far too old be sexually confused but man oh man, she brings the heat

i have faith in joss and will stick with this as long as it airs. i stuck with angel for however many seasons that clunked along, and the final seasons of buffy caused me pain but i couldn't let it go

seeing amy acker just reminded me how things can improve - her fred was annoying as hell but her illyria was a thing of wonder

par3182 said...

plus it was sorely missing the joss sense of humour - i realise a little girl in peril storyline doesn't offer many opportunities for laughs but buffy managed it in pretty much any and every dire circumstance

Carl said...

Travel schedule meant that I just got around to watching "Dollhouse" a couple of days ago. Good to hear that the vocal minority is in favor of added off-Oscar-season DH coverage...so am I.

I am on record at TFE in the past as being all in favor of slow rollouts from folks like Joss who can deliver quality to a thinking audience. If Fox will let him take his time, then I have faith (sorry) that he will reward the audience appropriately.

The Williams character looks like a winner. I suspect that Joss will be playing with our heads on whether she is good or bad or, like all of us, both, depending on which week you catch us.

I must go back now and watch again, because Echo-in-leather will no doubt be sent to punish me if I do not...