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A Moving and Darkly Fascinating Blend of Sci-Fi and Philosophy
on February 24, 2010
What is "Dollhouse?" It's a question that, at first, was not easy to answer. "Dollhouse" deals with an underground organization that wipes away someone's personality, leaving them in a mindless, childlike state - a doll. Then, whenever a client with enough money summons the Dollhouse's services, an Active is imprinted with a new personality, becoming whatever person the client desires. At the end of the engagement, the Active is wiped back into a doll, remembering nothing that's transpired.
At once a dark and disturbing show, "Dollhouse" was a difficult television show to watch because it challenged its viewers, it questioned its viewers: is it possible to erase someone's soul? Is it morally right to have such technology? Is it human nature to abuse this technology? If the dolls are all ostensibly volunteers, is there such a thing as voluntary servitude or are the engagements prostitution of a most profoundly perverted nature? In a world of mindless reality shows, it's easy to see why "Dollhouse" never garnered a large viewing audience.
The first season of "Dollhouse" led the viewer on a fascinating journey as Echo (Eliza Dushku), one of the most popular Actives, began to wake up within her doll state, developing a personality immune to the mental tampering of the Dollhouse, creating herself as a person. After the climactic season finale, "Omega," FOX surprisingly renewed "Dollhouse" for a second season. It was in this second and ultimately final season that "Dollhouse" truly became one of creator Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Firefly/Serenity")'s finest works.
Plunging back into Echo's world, we learn that Echo is no longer quiet and quiescent. She knows who she is. She is a person. And she is determined to free herself and all of her fellow dolls from this shining, dangerous prison they have found themselves in. Joining her is Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), her handler in the Dollhouse and also her greatest ally. "We are lost," Echo states strongly. "But we are *not* gone." With that, "Dollhouse" takes off into one of the most mind-bending, shocking, and ultimately satisfying science-fiction sagas of this decade.
Taking its cues from "Alias," the second season of "Dollhouse" finds Echo and Paul pitting themselves against the insidious Rossum Corporation (the founder of the Dollhouse, taking its name from the creepy Eastern play "Rossum's Universal Robots"). This battle leads to some of the most shocking twists and reveals of the year, unveiling an insidious evil within the Dollhouse itself that shook the show to its foundations.
Not merely satisfied with the greater scheme, "Dollhouse" devoted itself to character development as well. In the fourth episode, "Belonging," lauded by critics and viewers alike as one of the most poignant television episodes of 2009, we learn Sierra's (Dichen Lachman) tragic and horrifying backstory, taking "Dollhouse" through one of its darkest episodes to find an unexpected and subtle beauty. The relationship between dolls Sierra and Victor (Enver Gjokaj) took on a deeply human quality as they remembered each other even beyond the wipes. Topher (Fran Kranz) had perhaps the most tragic story arc as he ultimately faced his hubris and assumed responsibility for the corruption of his technology.
Eliza Dushku produced an amazingly strong acting streak once Echo became her own person, switching between that which was Echo and that which was not with eerie ease. Indeed, Echo posed an interesting dilemma: if Caroline (Echo's original self) was not the heroine we had once envisioned, was it murder to erase Echo to make room for Caroline? Tahmoh Penikett again played a strong role as the remarkably tragic Paul Ballard, a man brought into the Dollhouse through illusion only to find that his own "real world" crumbled even easier than fantasy.
But Whedon again showed a remarkable ability to pick co-stars who at times outshine the leads. Olivia Williams played Adelle DeWitt, the iron-backed head of the LA Dollhouse, whose fearsome carnival ride of emotions as she was forced to see what she had allowed herself to become was amazing in its complexity, allowing Williams to showcase a fine-honed thespian spirit (and allowing her a delicious head-to-head confrontation with guest star Ray Wise as leader of a different Dollhouse). Fran Kranz brought Topher an amazing sensitivity that allowed us to care about his character as he was brought lower than any thought possible, while Amy Acker again turned a masterful role as the troubled and ultimately tragic doll Whiskey. Miracle Laurie, who portrayed the doll Madeline Costley, stole every scene she was in with her emotive eyes as she played out a Greek tragedy upon the screen, and Harry Lennix again proved that he was perhaps the most powerful actor in the stable as Boyd Langton. The discovery of Enver Gjokaj was a true miracle of "Dollhouse" as he switched between imprints with eerie ease, twice mimicking Fran Kranz's Topher with an accuracy so profound it was creepy.
In the end, "Dollhouse" raced toward a series finale that was terrifying in its complexity, with powerhouse episodes like "The Left Hand," a government conspiracy thriller, "Meet Jane Doe," which saw Echo cast out into the real world, "A Love Supreme," featuring the return of Alpha (Alan Tudyk) as the dolls turned on their masters, and "The Attic," where the horrors of the heart of the Dollhouse were brought to light. Ending "Getting Closer" with a hell of a plot twist that left viewers breathless, "The Hollow Men" (a wonderful allusion to the poem by TS Eliot stating "the world will end not with a bang, but with a whimper") brought the second season to a powerhouse conclusion with an episode so emotionally charged it hardly needed the heightened action sequences.
It is here, though, that Whedon left his greatest gift to viewers. In season one, when cancellation seemed certain, Whedon created an episode titled "Epitaph One," introducing viewers to new characters as the world was plunged ten years into the future where the Dollhouse technology had gone out of control, leaving the world in a horrifying apocalypse. It is here where season two ends, with "Epitaph Two: Return." "Return" was a masterful series finale, bringing the series to a close and providing a beautiful (albeit unexpected) ending to each and every character. It's a wonderful send off, as each season's first twelve episodes serve as a complete story arc, allowing future viewers on DVD to watch each set of twelve episodes and then the two "Epitaph" episodes as a sort of TV movie that brought the story to a masterful conclusion.
Featuring a cast of truly talented actors, "Dollhouse" reached new heights this season and provided some remarkable fan-favorite guest stars, featuring guest appearances from Jamie Bamber and Michael Hogan (each of "Battlestar Galactica" fame), Whedon-favorite Summer Glau (of "Firefly" and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"), Patton Oswalt, Ray Wise, Alexis Denisof, Felicia Day, and returning roles from the ever-talented Reed Diamond, Miracle Laurie, Amy Acker, Alan Tudyk, and also three memorable cameos from one of the writers, Maurissa Tancharoen, as well as cameos from Dushku's real-world boyfriend Rick Fox, Olivia Williams' husband, and Dushku's older brother Nate.
What is "Dollhouse?" It was a remarkable show that plumbed the depths of human nature and didn't flinch from the darkness it found there, a wonderful addition to the world of science-fiction, and a showcase of the power of human will over the ominous sword of technology, truly earning its place as one of Joss Whedon's greater works.
Of course, all fans ask now is that they release a soundtrack, as the show followed Whedon's usual footprints and featured some truly amazing music.
"Dollhouse" : Season One - Four out of five stars.
"Dollhouse" : Season Two - Five out of five stars.
Also recommended: Angel, Battlestar Galactica, Alias, Tru Calling, Buffy the Vampire Slayer