Sunday, March 01, 2009

Thoughts on Dollhouse 1.2 and 1.3

<-- "Faith" Doll. Get it? We're subtle.

You know that geeky t-shirt that was popular some years ago "Joss Whedon is My Master Now"? I should have bought one at the time. We're now 3 episodes into Whedon's latest Dollhouse and even though I'm still not so sure about it I get excited each time. Dollhouse isn't close to the best thing on TV (For me Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica fight for that honor with Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock as honorable mentions) but I'm into it for better and worse. Hopefully for better.

[spoilers to follow, obviously]

Episode 1.2 "The Target"
I'm already learning to divide Dollhouse into its A, B and C plots: A is the "imprint" assignment - i.e. Echo (Eliza Dushku) gets new memories and personality so she can serve as someone's dreamgirl / muscle / somesuch; B is the "series mythology" thread (also known as "the best part") wherein they complicate the back story; C is the "externals", or, whatever Helo from Battlestar Galactica (Tamoh Penikett) is up to as the investigating Agent Ballard. He's trying to bring the mythical "Dollhouse" down. It's not exactly a legal or ethical institution. I hope actors aren't the only thing that Joss Whedon ends up borrowing from BSG as Dollhouse continues but more on that in a bit.

A. Echo's latest client Richard would like an outdoors adventure with her but he isn't sure about the "truth" that Dollhouse CEO (Olivia Williams) is promising in regards to Echo.
I've been with a lot of women. It's not bragging, it's just what you might call 'truth.''
Since this character looks exactly like Matt Keeslar, we believe this. But since this character looks exactly like Matt Keeslar one wishes he would have added "a lot of women... and men". Keeslar has already gone to bed with Jonathon Schaech and Dan Futterman onscreen.

Anyway, excuse those 90s fantasies... Echo is the Dollhouse's most prized girl but her assignments always go terribly wrong. One would hate to see how lousy the other dolls are at their jobs if Echo constitutes "the best". The trouble (this time) is, Richard/Matt is a psycho. He's the love 'em and leave kill 'em sort. After a particularly steamy hunting scene -- the things they get away with on television now! Not that I'm complaining when it's Eliza & Matt doing the groping, sweating and talking about blowjobs -- Matt jumps up from their tent of coital bliss and tells his pricey doll that he's giving her a 5 minute head start and then he's going to hunt and kill her. This is a totally creepy scene because...

  1. Angel faced Keeslar is suddenly revealed as a sick f***
  2. This brings up all those icky memories of what happens to people who have sex in the woods in slasher movies. Hint: double penetration.
  3. It also reminds us that Echo is basically a very very expensive prostitute (we're two episodes in and this is, you guessed it!, the second time she's been comissioned as a fantasy lay)...
  4. Which brings up the uncomfortable issue to trump all uncomfortable issues. Can Echo, who is never herself but an imprint of other personalities and behaviors, truly give consent? Some critics are calling these assignments rape fantasies. Yuck. (Whole debate going on about this over at the IMDB)
Joss Whedon has gone on record before about the problems he has with misogyny in the horror genre but some parts of this episode felt uncomfortably close to being a part of the problem without enough distance to comment on it. I'm not sure. Perhaps the horror fans among you would have a sharper perspective? I probably don't need to tell you that Echo survives this assignment. Her client does not. She ends him in rather pointy fashion after he nearly strangles her to death. Which brings us to the B thread.

As Echo nears death, she sees her other selves. Uh oh, she's "compositing"!

Crosscut throughout this A horror plot is a B horror mystery (also of the psycho killer variety) about the previous best doll (they call him "Alpha") who "composited" and promptly slashed several people around him into little bits. He left Echo alive, shivering naked in the Dollhouse showers, surrounded by the other dolls he wasn't as merciful with. Grisly. Nobody knows why he spared her. But what this basically tells the viewer is that there are all sorts of problems with the "imprinting" technology and maybe those memory wipes don't work so well. Echo does her own compositing in this episode. Whenever she nears death she starts seeing previous versions of herself. The A and B stories are well integrated mirrors in this episode and I'm assuming the best episodes will have this organic reflective compatibility. Cross your fingers.

C story: The FBI Agent hits more dead ends but someone ("Alpha" is my early guess) sends him a photo of Echo with a "keep looking" scribble.

Kind of a sick episode but a goodie: B+

Episode 1.3 "Stage Fright"
A plot: A Britney style popstar has a deranged fan. Echo is sent in as back-up singer / bodyguard. The opening musical number suggests we'll be getting lots of boob shaking and ass shimmying action from Eliza (score!) once she joins the act but that's mostly left to the guest star Jaime Lee Kirchner as the pop star in jeopardy. The writers do have a bit of meta fun with the notion that they suspect you're watching this show for Eliza's rack and general bootyliciousness, though. And aren't you? I am (partially). Eliza sings in this episode. It's too bad Joss didn't somehow work her into the classic Buffy episode "Once More With Feeling". The A story has some really rough acting in all corners though --do they only do one take?

B and C story: We don't get as much plot from the B story this time -- it's mostly well-played / scripted handwringing between the various Dollhouse staff members about what to do about Echo. She seems to be acting slightly outside her persona/parameter programming with increasing regularity. The nifty thing about this episode is that the B & C stories collide. Agent Ballard's one lead to the secret organization, a lowlife criminal named "Victor" (they're both pictured to your left), had seemed like an expendable minor character in the first two episodes. He's revealed to be an actual doll here in a great "gotcha" edit, wherein he steals Echo's signature post memory wipe line "Did I fall asleep?". Agent Ballard has been hitting dead ends for a reason. C

One of the things that Dollhouse seems to be lacking in its first few episodes is a sense of real threat. Battlestar Galactica, the current high water mark for genre shows, has this in spades. Each episode has a dizzying sense of "anything could happen" danger that is rare on television where the long term nature of the artform generally prevents shocking plot twists and characters dying unexpectedly or turning against each other in irreparable ways. I hope Whedon steals some of BSG's writing staff now that that show is wrapping.

We don't have a lot to go on yet but Dollhouse's "assignments" have ranged from mediocre (1.1) to scary (1.2) to campy (1.3) but there's not enough paranoia and dread laced through each episode to represent what is essentially a very sinister and ethically meaty premise. In its best moments it glances in the general direction of the sinister. The third episode ends with an absolutely terrific final shot of Echo walking through the Dollhouse. We've seen the choreography of this shot before but this time its twisted just enough to raise the hairs. It looks the same as every other walk we've seen her take in her memory wiped state, but something is different. With a minor wary sideways glance to a handler who thinks Echo should be "sent to the attic" (he doesn't see this and she shouldn't know he's a threat to her) followed by a barely visible head shake (as if in warning) to another doll passing by, you have to wonder...

How much of her now familiar childlike persona is a put on? How much does Echo really know? It's the best and most intriguing note of the series yet capping its worst episode. Fancy that.


Karen said...

I wanted to get into this should but I couldn't. I tried to watch the pilot two times and never made it to the end. Maybe I should just skip that episode and jump into the series later.

p.s. Battlestar and Friday Night Lights are brilliant. Definitely the best dramas on TV.

Dr. Stan Glick said...

"The Target" was pretty much a reworking of John Woo's 1993 "Hard Target" which starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, a film that was already recycled as the prize film for the winners of the "So You Want To Be An Action Star" TV show a few years ago.
And the assassination set-up in "Stage Fright" looked way too much like that in "The Manchurian Candidate."
This strikes me as recycling, definitely not homage. If Dollhouse doesn't start showing some real originality beyond just its premise, and if it doesn't get a helluva lot more interesting fast, I'm out after one or two more episodes. That would be too bad, because when I first read about it I thought the show had real promise.

Joe Reid said...

"The Manchurian Candidate" at best; "The Bodyguard" at worst.

Deborah said...

The A plots have pretty much all sucked.

The interviews all over the place with Joss and Eliza indicate they're doing single-episode dramas for 5 episodes, and start digging deep into B stuff in #6. I hope it's worth the frickin' wait.

Some feminist I read (maybe Jessica Valenti, I don't remember) said that part of the problem with the A plots is that we're essentially always dealing with the problems of the fabulously wealthy, because only they can afford to be Dollhouse clients. And there's only so much self-absorption, vanity, and rich people problems I can take.

The "Most Dangerous Game" plot of 1.2 has been done several hundred times by now, and was a cliché twenty years ago. But 1.2 really did a great job of showing the non-consent issue; the creepiness of the guy as a killer really set off a lovely contrast with the creepiness of the "love making."

The only character with any humor, Topher, is detestable.

And Eliza is doing lots and lots of her same ol' tough girl Faith act. No nuance, which the role needs. In 1.3 she even said she was a Southie. Hello, can you do nothing else? Other than her sexy-stripper-librarian hostage negotiator, as soon as she has a personality it's "I'm going to kick your ass." Yawn.

Anonymous said...

Eliza is the weak spot, her acting is just not quite strong enough to carry this show.The "southie" remark was utterly ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Thinkin' I am going to keep watching. Eliza on the tube might be enough all by itself, but I also have an undying faith in the Whedon knack for creating fascinating settings, populating them with characters who we care about and giving them things to say that have a high wit quotient.

Come on, Joss...don't let me down!

Anonymous said...

I loved the third episode, but maybe what I really loved was, like you mentioned, thehead shake at the very end of the episode. Most interesting moment of the 2008-2009 television season? I think yes. Can't wait to see what Whedon and Company have in store for us next!


i don't want DOLLHOUSE reviews to take over the blog but i did have a lot more to say about these episodes.

mostly i am beginning to think it's a very bad idea that it's a star vehicle (as much as i adore ELIZA) when it feels like the kind of show that is practically begging to be a really overpopulated mess of agendas and personalities (like, well, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA)

but we'll see how it goes.

Anonymous said...

the head shake at the end of episode 3 definitely left me wanting to see how this continues to play out!!!

and much as I enjoyed "Faith", I think this series might come across better if we saw more of the others as well...

looking forward to episodes 6 and beyond and hoping Joss doesn't let us down!!! ;o)

SusanP said...

Hey Nat - Finally catching up to your Dollhouse coverage (and now I'm also caught up on the first 5 episodes, having watched the latest on Hulu) ... In any case, I agree with you that the show would be better if it morphs from star-vehicle to ensemble goodness. I like Eliza, but I think she'll benefit from being part of the larger puzzle (which in some ways they're doing with the B&C plots) versus the one big piece.

Anyway, great coverage - can't wait to read more!