Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Are You Ready for Your Treatment?

The Dollhouse offers a service. For a certain amount of money, you can have the exact person you want – the exact person you need – instantly. Do not think of it as a fantasy, however, because a doll does not act; a doll is a genuine, complete human being, designed to your specifications, temporarily at your service.

That is the sales pitch, anyway.

What goes on behind the scenes, in order to make all of this possible, is what concerns "Dollhouse," the Fox TV series that premiered this past February. The dolls are, indeed, real people. They are people who, for one reason or another, wanted to disappear. In return for guarantees of no long-term harm, no memories of it all and a large sum of cash, they give up their bodies for a period of five years. During this time, they reside in the Dollhouse, awaiting assignments, or "engagements," in a blissful state of submission – the tabula rasa, if you will. When called up, a doll is imbued with a personality (usually a composite of real personalities, designed to suit the needs of the assignment) and sent out under the surveillance of his or her handler.

You may find the concept of the Dollhouse to be disturbing, fascinating or, even, both. Its moral and ethical implications are vast and complex. Thankfully, the minds behind "Dollhouse," led by "Buffy" creator, Joss Whedon, are up to the task of exploring these complexities while keeping the show exciting and engrossing. This is simply some of the best writing on TV right now (and it happens to be aided by an excellent cast and strong crew).

This is largely due to scripts that consistently raise the show's premise to new heights. The series' first few chapters are largely episodic, focusing on one engagement per episode, as performed by a doll named Echo (Eliza Dushku). Over the course of these few episodes, however, some central concepts are introduced: Echo is growing in ways the Dollhouse did not intend (namely, she is retaining information, even after the compulsory post-engagement wipe); the technology is not as solid as the Dollhouse's staff would like to think.

These early episodes also display the diversity of jobs the dolls must do, ranging from romantic encounters to hostage negotiations to backup singing. Through all of these encounters, we discover the wide range of perspectives clients have on the service they use and the vast potential for danger that it brings. As the show develops, however, it becomes less concerned with external workings of the Dollhouse and concentrates on the dolls and those working there. Here is where the show begins to flourish.

It is precisely because "Dollhouse" is so concerned with the human cost of the technology that it succeeds. Each character is actively struggling with their role in the use of a technology that could very well prove to be apocalyptic but, for now, is used for a vaguely consenting form of slavery. Accordingly, they each have their own doubts, motivations and ethics. Echo's handler, Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) believes the Dollhouse is abhorrent, but he has a genuine concern for Echo that is, at once, moving and confounding, as she has no consistent persona with which he can develop a relationship. Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) is in charge of the Dollhouse. She views everything as a business transaction – something that proves to be a surprising source of compassion, as she insists on treating the dolls well, as per their contracts. Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the smug scientist who is solely responsible for the Dollhouse's vital technological component, sees himself as a philanthropist.

There are nearly a dozen other characters in "Dollhouse" that have equally valid justifications for why the hate, love or simply tolerate the Dollhouse. Not the least of these characters are the dolls themselves, who slowly grow over the course of the season, proving that there is no such thing as a blank slate. You see, after thirteen episodes, Whedon and his writers have proven that they intend to leave no stone unturned in this valley of potential ideas. This is a rare case where calling a show "high concept" is praise of the highest order. Never resorting to convolution for the sake of itself, this story unfolds like a blooming flower, revealing a new world of potential with every episode.

It is likely that you have not heard much about "Dollhouse." The ignorance of television critics, the ineptitude of Fox's management and a vocal crowd of internet detractors have all conspired to make sure that this show is rarely evaluated on its own merits – if ever evaluated at all. Push your way past the din, however, and you will find that "Dollhouse" is network television's best kept secret.

The show's second season premieres on Fox at nine on Friday, September 25th. This allows more than enough time to get caught up on the series, available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download. The first season's final five episodes are also available on Hulu for free, providing a decent jumping-on point. Otherwise, Joss Whedon assures viewers that the second season premiere will be accessible to new viewers.

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