Click to viewIs Joss Whedon's edgy new show Dollhouse doomed before it starts? I know as much as you do. I do know one thing, though: it's going to be the best thing he's ever done. Don't let the nay-sayers weigh you down - Joss' tale of a woman whose mind has been erased (to make way for whatever personality a paying client wants) is going to be better than Firefly or Buffy. And I'll tell you exactly why, but you'll have to read some spoilers to get there. It's a much cooler concept. Let's face it: Firefly and Buffy had weak concepts, and they soared thanks to masterful execution. A gun-slinging crew of Western frontier bandits in space? A teenage girl who fights vampires and demons in between running for homecoming queen? Neither of those ideas particularly screams "masterwork" to me.
Meanwhile, Dollhouse? It has one of the most intriguing concepts I've ever come across, right off the bat. In a sea of "ordinary person gets brainchip/spy computer in brain/mutant powers/introduced to a mad scientist" shows, Dollhouse instantly stands out. It's the story of Echo (Eliza Duskhu), who's basically the property of the eponymous Dollhouse. For a fee, you can have Echo imprinted with any personality, any memories, any skills, you require. (And she does pro bono work sometimes.) But Echo, who's supposed to be a blank slate, is starting to gain self-awareness, and remember who she really is. She has to fight for her identity, but the Dollhouse stands ready to destroy her if she shows any signs of self-awareness. Yes, that's a high-concept premise, and it's hard to make it work as a weekly TV show. Luckily - see above - Joss Whedon's strong suit is execution. He's actually much better at making things work than he is at coming up with intriguing concepts in the first place. So, if he starts out with an intriguing concept and then brings his mastery of execution to it? It will rule. Automatically. Which brings me to...
Each episode is twisty and thriller-ish. I've read a ton of script pages from various episodes of Dollhouse, and one thing is pretty clear to me: This show is not a slow, cerebral dystopia where people look at their hands and say things like, "Why are these hands not free?" Or whatever. At their best, the Dollhouse scripts remind me of season-two Buffy: there are bad guys, and weird, horrible schemes, and every week nothing is quite what you think. For example, the person who's hired Echo doesn't always have the motives you think he or she does. The person that Echo has been programmed to be isn't always who you expect at first. There are always more layers, and it's wrapped up in an action-adventure framework. (I also believe Joss when he says Fox's interference made it better and more exciting this time around, because it seems like the more recent scripts I've seen have been punchier.) Think Alias, except that it all makes sense in the end. Cracks are wised, faces are punched, explosions are exploded. It's a thrill-ride. And then laid on top of that are the show's ongoing plots and themes about Echo discovering herself. Which leads me to... Echo's not just a tool, week after week. That was the danger with this show — that Echo would just be carrying out missions, week in and week out, without any real self-awareness or free will. That would be hard to identify with, and even harder to root for. I asked Joss Whedon about this, when I got to interview him briefly at Comic-Con, and he had clearly thought this through. His answer: it's not just about Echo being whoever she's programmed to be, from week to week. It's about her fighting to be a person, in spite of all the forces wanting her to be a tool. And meanwhile...
It has a pretty great supporting cast. I would pretty much watch Tahmoh Penikett try to refinance his mortgage. As Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who keeps investigating the Dollhouse even though everybody insists it's a myth, he's bound to be a compelling character — even if they don't keep in the scene where he does Thai kick-boxing while brooding about his tough case. And from what I've seen from clips and trailers, the rest of the cast is equally strong, delivering the trademark Whedon quips and knife-edge dialogue with panache. They're all going to have subplots and backstories, and I'm kind of fascinated to see it all unfolde. Like, just where did Amy Acker's Dr. Claire Saunders get her scars? Why does Boyd, the handler of the mind-wiped "Actives," keep doing his job even though he has moral qualms about it? And why is Topher, the computer geek who programs the "Actives," such a sadistic weirdo? All questions I'm going to be obsessing about for months, and hopefully years. You can read a lot of stuff into its underlying metaphor.
That's really the litmus test of great art: can you see different messages in it, depending on what you bring to it? Or is it going to hit you with a sledgehammer until you accept the message it wants you to have? Firefly passed that test with flying Adam Baldwins, and so will Dollhouse. (Without the Baldwin part.) Are you a Conservative who believes in rugged individualism? Dollhouse is about someone fighting for her individuality, who can't be suppressed or destroyed by oppressive forces. Hate our orgiastic, hedonistic society, that turns people into pieces of meat? Dollhouse is right there with you. Do you think corporations are the devil, with better shoes? Dollhouse is about an evil corporation. Do you fear technology? Come on in. Etc. etc. Basically, we won't know until Dollhouse airs quite how well the whole shebang comes together. But I'm already predicting, based on what I've seen so far, that it'll be Whedon's masterwork. Whether it'll be his doomed masterwork or his triumphant return is up to the sadistic gods of television, of course.