I've watched the first episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse a few times now, and I love it more than ever. It's taut, exciting, and a good intro to the show's challenging concept. Spoilers aplenty...
In Dollhouse's first episode, Eliza Dushku plays four different people. First she's Caroline, a young woman who's gotten herself into some undisclosed trouble and is willing to sign her life over to the mysterious Dollhouse organization to get out of it. And then she's a sassy young biker chick, who's just fallen in love with a guy who looks like Rob from Cloverfield. And then she's Echo, an empty vessel who's just had the fictional "sassy biker chick" persona hosed out of her head. And finally, she's reprogrammed with another persona, uptight hostage negotiator Ellie Penn. Most of the episode is about Ellie trying to save a kidnapped girl, and then it turns into Ellie trying to get closure on her own history of being kidnapped and abused - which turns out not to be fictional.
Here's why I loved the episode:
1) It did a great job of introducing the show's concept. If you've been reading io9 regularly lately, then you'll be very familiar with the idea behind Dollhouse already: an organization with a very yuppie-spa headquarters has a whole bunch of "Actives," people whose personalities have been erased to make room for whatever personality a paying client wants. But casual viewers didn't necessarily understand the ins and outs of this idea, and the episode did a really good job of explaining the ground rules without resorting to the kind of spoon-feeding that certain other Friday-night shows employed. Watching it a second time, I was struck by how much information we got in there. Like, what happens if you start asking an "Active" about the Dollhouse? He/she just leaves and goes back there.
2) The main storyline was cool on many levels. When I first read a chunk of the episode's script way back, I wasn't sure if I would really like the "hostage negotiator" plot. But in practice, I thought it really worked well. On the surface, it worked great as a Proof Of Life-style hostage thriller. And then, just under the surface, you have the realization that Ellie isn't really a real person, and in an sense her hostage negotiations are a kind of puppet theater, with the slimy/awesome Topher as the puppetmaster. And below that, there are all the questions about identity that this raises. Like Gabriel says at some point, it's cruel to put memories of being molested into someone's head - and he's referring to Topher, not just to the molester. Echo/Ellie is being made to suffer because that's part of Topher's "art." (Which makes Topher, in some sense, a stand-in for Whedon torturing his characters.) And then you're led, inexorably, to the contrast between the kidnapped little girl and Echo/Ellie, who is still a prisoner and a slave at the end of the episode. (The contrast of the mindless Echo with the full-of-fire Caroline, via videotape, reinforces this.) It's not a happy, feel-good ending at all.