As evidenced by my recent tweet, I’ve now given Joss two chances to win me over to Dollhouse, and he’s 0 for 2. It just doesn’t work for me, and there’s a number of smaller reasons that add up to one big fail.
There’s a lot of elements to why it’s not working — from the creepy premise (normally I’m all about creepy, but when the basic idea for a show is essentially repeated, technologically-enabled date rape, that’s a kind of creepy that doesn’t do it for me) to the predictable “twists” (there wasn’t a single situation in episode two that was a real surprise) — but I think one of the biggest reasons that I can’t get into it is simply that I don’t care about the characters…and, more importantly, I can’t see why I ever would.
Echo is, by definition, a “tabula rasa,” or blank slate, even to the point of being described as such by the head of the Dollhouse. How can I even begin to care about who she is when the whole point of the show is that she isn’t? She has no personality of her own. The only time she exists as a person is when she’s been imprinted for an assignment, but that person disappears as soon as she returns to the Dollhouse. I can’t invest myself emotionally in a character that’s nothing but an empty shell.
When we look back at early episodes of long-running shows, it’s often funny to see how “unformed” the characters were at that point. The actors were still discovering their roles, taking the rough character sketches given to them and beginning to flesh them out into fully developed people that we can care about. With Dollhouse, that doesn’t seem to be an option — perhaps for some of the secondary and tertiary cast — but certainly not for the lead.
At least, not if they play by the rules that they’ve set up. And this is where the Whedon acolytes cry out, telling me to wait! Hold on! Because — as was widely reported before Dollhouse first aired — part of the compromise Whedon had to make with FOX was to set up the first seven episodes as primarily standalone episodes, without major ties into the planned arc of the show. So, you see, these first seven are like “seven pilots,” and if we just keep watching, we’ll get to the really good stuff! Where Echo starts breaking through her programming, and the mysteries start to unravel, and then, and then, and then….
Sorry, no. That doesn’t work for me — no show should need seven pilots just to get people interested. No, I don’t expect every TV show to have some huge story arc to follow — some of my favorite shows (Star Trek TOS and TNG) were entirely or almost entirely standalone episodes, and I enjoyed the “monster of the week” X-Files episodes as much as I did the “conspiracy” episodes. Guilty pleasure shows like CSI and NCIS do a great job of being entertaining and interesting, allowing you to get to know the characters as they grow over time, while still generally staying within the bounds of standalone shows. There does need to be some amount of advancement possible, however, otherwise you might as well just be “rebooting” every week.
On top of all that, though, the characters and situations need to be interesting, and that’s a major failure of Dollhouse. To date, the most interesting characters I’ve seen have been the FBI agent and the doctor (and I’m not even sure if that’s because the character is that interesting or because I loved Amy Acker’s character “Fred” on Angel). Echo, her handler, the geeky guy who does the programming, the boss? None of them interest me as much as one secondary and one tertiary character do, and that’s a bad sign. The situations have only been slightly better — the first week’s hostage situation and negotiation was a little interesting, but was only the latter half of the episode, and last week’s “hunting the human” schtick has been done so many times that it completely failed to grab my interest. Really, how much suspense could there be when the main character is in mortal peril in the second episode of the series? Spoiler alert, folks…she ain’t gonna die.
So no, no Dollhouse for me. Maybe Joss still has some good stuff rattling around in his brain, and maybe all he needs to do is to get away from FOX to do it. However, I have my doubts.