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5.0 out of 5 stars A Moving and Darkly Fascinating Blend of Sci-Fi and Philosophy, February 24, 2010
This review is from: Dollhouse: Season 2 (DVD)
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
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 16 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 5, 2010 9:47:57 AM PDT
Freya Meyers says:
A brilliant review.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 6, 2010 7:58:20 PM PDT
Thank you!

Posted on Apr 19, 2010 10:24:25 AM PDT
Jamie White says:
An excellent review that covers most of why I enjoyed this series (as well as part of the reasons some people found it difficult to get into).

I would only add a few comments: first, that anyone who thought the first few episodes of the series were weak, should try and stick it out to the end. Second, that "Epitaph One" may actually be better viewed before season two (because of the eerie callbacks to the episode in that season, though admittedly, your idea of watching both "Epitaphs" back to back as if it were a TV movie finale is kind of cool and definitely still workable - I never thought of that!).

And this: how masterfully even the most seemingly "standalone" episodes fit into the larger narrative, and the larger themes of the series. Especially notable because the early episodes are often brushed off, simply because they're not as strong or obviously compelling as later, more arc-heavy episodes.

Recall, for instance, that Echo was having hints of memories even of being Caroline as far back as the second aired episode (the vastly underrated "The Target"), well before the more deliberately-triggered "composite event" of "Omega", and that the first aired episode, "Ghost" (sometimes brushed off considerably, as it's arguably an awkward episode in parts, especially at first glance, owing to the deliberate challenge Whedon posed for Dushku by forcing her to play a straitlaced character with an "updo"), had considerably more weight when you consider how a.) she was "glitching" even there and b.) the way it deeply foreshadows the Actives' future (major hint: you can see the villain of the piece as an easy stand-in for the Dollhouse itself).

Also notable are the show's themes when it comes, not just to personal identity and existence, but in terms of feminist philosophy and race relations. Ironically, many people found the show offensive because they assumed (thanks to some of the early promotional material) that it was going to glamorize prostitution, or, alternatively, that it overlooked the toll of human trafficicking on minorities. Here's what they sadly missed:

In the first episode, the little girl is held in a broken fridge; Google "Women in Refridgerators" to see why the very comics-geeky and feminist Whedon made a deliberate choice to put her there.

In the second episode, which is sometimes sadly dismissed as somehow unoriginal because of its deliberate homage (or rather, homages - the villain's name is taken from the name of said book's author as well) to "The Most Dangerous Game", is very much an homage to the Last Girl of horror fame (made all the better by the fact that her being a sexual being doesn't doom her for a change; a very progressively feminist choice).

Further, I can't believe it took this long for anyone to notice that Caroline is practically the epitome of Missing White Girl Syndrome! It's only her name and photo that truly spurs a member of the FBI to pursue the Dollhouse full-force. Sadly, this is accurate to victims of sexual abuse and kidnapping in the real world, as many times the plight of minorities goes unacknowledged until a pretty, lily-white middle class girl goes missing under the same circumstances. I can't help thinking this was somewhat deliberate on Whedon's part.

The show features several Actives who were originally hinted if not outright shown to have been a disadvantaged minority - the Dollhouse/Rossum is particularly fond of exploiting those already most exploited and abandoned, as we see from their exploitation of not just women in general, but also a blue-collar Italian American (Anthony), a single mother who's lost her child (Madeline), a black college student whose mother is in ailing health (seen being recruited at the end of "Echoes"), and of course, several Asians, including Ivy (a Dollhouse employee treated like a servant for much of the series and nearly scapegoated, despite her brilliance), the Active Kilo (who is amongst the most docile Actives when wiped - much akin to the usual stereotypes of Asian women - and becomes quite fierce when later allowed to choose her own destiny), and of course, Sierra.

Sierra in PARTICULAR is in fact a brilliant commentary on how Asians, particularly Asian women, are treated by Westerners; she is fetishized by her pursuer, Nolan, only because of her exotic looks... and when she attempts to spurn him (repeatedly, at that!) he insists on trying to erase her identity and agency, literally forcing her to be submissive to him through some of the most inhumane and deplorable means available to him. This mirrors the way many Asian women in the West are treated by white men; they are treated as if they should be automatically submissive, and are nothing more than exotic-looking playthings... and they're punished when they don't fit this hideously stupid mold.

This series also features some supposedly one-off episodes, like "Gray Hour" and "Haunted" that play directly into the larger plot. Not every episode in season one is as good as most of the later episodes, but every episode has a few juicy things for the viewer to notice and piece apart.

This show is incredibly complex and multilayered, and I am thankful that we got a second season.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 19, 2010 3:35:54 PM PDT
You really hit the nail on the head with why I enjoyed "Dollhouse" as much as I did: because it was in the nuances and the disturbing elements that you found brilliance. I'm tired of shows that just serve up what they think the audience wants without challenging them to face things that they're uncomfortable with. Watching "Dollhouse" was like reading the immensely disturbing book "Lolita" -- "Lolita" makes all readers uncomfortable because it's written in the mindset of a pedophile and by the novel's end you're almost sympathetic to his love for an underaged girl. The book was remarkable in its complexity, but difficult to read -- just like "Dollhouse."

I actually quite enjoyed the original standalone episodes; they were necessary to set up the world of "Dollhouse" and they were also fun rides. "The Target" was a vastly underrated episode, I agree, though I think that I love it now because now that I've seen "The Hollow Men," all of Boyd and Echo's interactions in "The Target" took on a *hugely* creepy factor. The only episode of "Dollhouse" that I flat-out disliked was "Stage Fright," and I wasn't alone. However, that's the blessing of the DVD -- if you watch the vastly amazing unaired pilot "Echo" in place of "Stage Fright," it makes sense! Therefore, when I watch on DVD, I usually throw out the third episode and replace it with "Echo." But that's just me.

In any case, I am with you in saying I'm very thankful that we got the second season that we got. Thanks so much for your review and for agreeing with me that "Dollhouse" gave us something to think about, at least for a brief time.

FYI -- If you haven't watched SyFy's new miniseries "Riverworld" (Tahmoh Penikett's newest project), I'd really recommend it; it has a lot of the same metaphysical and philosophical questions raised in it while still packing an action-packed punch.

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2010 3:39:36 PM PDT
Brilliant, multi-layered review- much like the show itself.
In my humble opinion. Eliza does her best work under Whedon's direction (sans "The Bone Collector")
I can only hope, likely in vain, that it gets snatched up by another network or that they do a film, a la Firefly.

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2010 3:59:02 PM PDT
Thank you very much. It is likely a vain hope that it gets snatched by another network, but there is actually hope that we get more "Dollhouse" stories in the form of a comic book a la "Buffy" and "Angel"'s eighth and sixth seasons, respectively. Keep in mind that I'm not posting that as a definite, though!

Posted on Jul 9, 2010 4:19:15 PM PDT
diVit says:
This nearly completely mirrors my exact feelings on the show, although i believe that epitaph one is better watched after the first season, since it adds a dark feeling while you're watching season 2.

Posted on Aug 13, 2010 4:22:14 PM PDT
A. Peeples says:
Thank you. I don't subscribe to TV, for reasons you alluded to:). I didn't realize until now that FOX let Joss go a second season. Wonderful. I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon and J J Abrams. Just placed Fringe, Season Two in cart. In goes Dollhouse. You are a skilled writer and this review much appreciated.

Posted on Sep 1, 2010 5:31:47 AM PDT
Rich says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 23, 2010 3:00:17 PM PDT
J. Pastrana says:
Great review. As a fan of Olivia Williams, I can't say I'm the least bit surprised by the nuanced performance she gives episode after episode. What really blew me away was - as you put it:
"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". The man is brilliant! I realize that most people are probably drawn to the whole Victor and Sierra bit but it's been such a treat to see Mr. Gjokaj transform from character to character with such integrity.
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