Saturday, September 26, 2009

Late for Treatment: A Newcomer to "Dollhouse"

Note that this write-up contains spoilers for the season premiere of Dollhouse.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Hollis-Lima talked about his admiration for Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. Despite all the praise it received from people I'm inclined to trust, I never got around to really watching the show – I saw my friends and roommates viewing it and once I even watched three-quarters of an episode. Still, I could hardly count myself as a regular viewer. As I'd heard the season two opener was a good jumping-on point, I decided I'd watch it and blog a newcomer's reaction. As I can't wipe my memories of my scanty prior experiences of Dollhouse, I won't claim that I went into the show "cold." Even so, I think my experience with the season premiere is representative of the average newcomer's.

Not only does "Vows" quickly introduce the show's concepts – Dolls, mindwiping, handlers, programmers, etc. – quickly, it's also cuts straight to the seedy, unpleasant, and even horrific aspects of the Dollhouse. Yes, the Dollhouse building has a pleasant, slick warmth to it. Yes, there's pretty people and pop music. And yes, there's a lot of humor. But Whedon never lets us forget that his tale is, at heart, existential horror. One of the few Season One episodes I watched anything of had a fairy tale motif. If Dollhouse is a fairy tale, it's not Disney but unedited Grimm. For what it's worth, it appears that next week's episode, "Instinct," will be more explicitly creepy: Echo going to violent lengths to protect "her" baby.

This particular episode focuses on "erstwhile agent" Ballard's (Tamoh Penikett) attempt to use Echo (Eliza Dushku) to entrap an arms dealer. The honey trap is an old staple of espionage and thriller fiction, but it gains fresh perversity when the "honey" isn't entirely willing. Ballard may have the best intentions – stopping criminals from bringing dirty bombs into the country is a Good Thing – but can it really justify sci-fi rape/prostitution? Somehow one doubts that it can. The setup works very well for a season premiere and potential introduction to the series, allowing as it does for sex, violence, and intriguing flashbacks. Discussions on the natures of consciousness and identity are all well and good, but karate and gunplay and Eliza Dushku not wearing much all help bring the show the viewers it desperately needs.

In his earlier post on Dollhouse, Matt said he found the events at the Dollhouse generally more interesting than the Dolls' "engagements." Based off this single episode, I have to say I agree. The arms dealer plot seemed like a retread of dozens of other stories, even with the "topical" element of the dirty bombs and the creepy exploitation of Echo. I was much more interested in the plot back "home," especially as regards Whiskey, the Dollhouse's resident doctor – and a Doll who knows what she is. Watching her breakdown and reconstruct herself was by far the most interesting aspect of the episode. I hope that further episodes explore the character, though it looks as if Whiskey won't be a regular on the show – Amy Acker is listed as a guest star at the beginning of the show. Oh well.

"Vows" ends with Echo telling Ballard something very interesting, though I suppose the real source of the revelation could be the powers behind the Dollhouse toying with Ballard, trying to make him reveal his true intentions. The central conceits of Dollhouse seem to call for paranoid plot speculation – I know that many fans have some pretty wild theories about the overall plot arc. In addition to the big reveal at the end, this episode introduces what could be a major Season Two storyline. We see a senator speak about his devotion to health care (Topicality!) and his belief that the (Dollhouse parent company) Rossum Corporation has withheld major medical advances. The head of Dollhouse security, Boyd (Harry Lennix), says that "He wasn't on our radar" and must have learned about Rossum very recently. It seems there is a mole under the Dollhouse.

One of the things that most impressed me about "Vows" was its character "portraiture." The Doll programmer Topher (Fran Kranz) gets called a "sociopath" early in the episode, but later demonstrates scruples one wouldn't expect to see in so toxic an environment as the Dollhouse. Ballard has good intentions, but Whedon suggests they've put him on the road to hell. Everyone at the Dollhouse seems to have a character – the most unconvincing characters, ironically enough, are the people from the outside world. We can believe in Echo, Topher, Ballard, et al. far more than we can buy the gullible arms dealer who finds high explosives so "beautiful."

As much as I liked watching Dollhouse, I did have several issues with it. For one thing, it was unclear how much time the episode covered. As Echo marries the arms dealer at the beginning of the episode, I take it she has been playing seductress for months now? Are we supposed to assume she never got access to his house and the secrets within before her wedding night? It's all a bit awkward, and for once I would have appreciated a little more setup and exposition. I won't say that the finale action scene was tacked-on per se, but it did feel a little underwhelming. I would have liked to see a little more of the "clean up" as well – the newspapers evidently report "an arms deal gone wrong," but, since most of the criminals survive, one would think their testimony would draw attention to the Dollhouse. The FBI, for example, would be interested to know that a former agent helped bring down the "untouchable" crime boss. I guess there are some things you just can't expect from a one-hour show.

I don't deign to watch much television – perhaps it's a character flaw. But I think I've just added another show to my personal schedule. Hell, I may even have to order that Season One Blu-Ray. Matt tells me there are other episodes far better than the one I just watched. I look forward to seeing them.

Now, a response from Mr. Hollis-Lima:

Matt has already spoken of my love for this show. I have to admit, however, that I found this episode rather frustrating. The ideas in "Vows" were as fascinating as ever, but the episode's structure was straight out of the show's uneasy infancy. It often veered into murkiness, rendering many of its ideas difficult to digest. This makes the episode a far cry from wonderful First Season highlights like "Needs" and "Briar Rose."

As for accessibility, "Vows" may suit perceptive viewers like Mr. Keeley well enough, but I fear that a number of convolutions sent Joe Nielsen Box running for the "Law & Order" repeats last night. Now, I assure you, I am no proponent of lowest common denominator TV; some aspects of this episode were simply muddled.

Echo's assignment is easily the biggest perpetrator here. Ironically, I would say that this plotline suffered from being
overdeveloped; it got too much screen time. Veteran viewers will tell you that engagements slipped further and further into the background as the First Season progressed. This was a good thing, as it allowed them to play an ancillary role in the series' main plotlines. In "Vows," however, details like Echo's wedding of the arms dealer and prowling business associates just raised too many unimportant questions. This plotline should have been stripped down considerably – the whole episode would have benefited from it.

Thankfully, once the arms dealer finally gets his punch to the face, the episode's last act is left with plenty of breathing room. Major plotlines for this season are set up here, and they all look very promising. Whiskey's games with Topher are as juicy as they're cracked up to be and I cannot wait for more. Now that the obligatory moral floundering is past, I am happy to see Ballard resigning to his role as Echo's handler. There's a hell of a lot of trouble that is waiting to crash down on DeWitt's head, too.

There are many questions that need to be answered, but I know this show well enough to expect an answer to all of them in coming episodes (if they have not already been slipped in under some character's breath). This is, after all, a show that almost
requires multiple viewings of each episode; many things only make sense on the second pass. I would say that this is more of a complement than it is a criticism, but one wonders if enough viewers agree to keep the show afloat. If the writers can work their way back up to last season's highs, I am optimistic.

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