Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: Dollhouse (Pilot)

SPOILERS, but nothing you can't get from a summary of the premise of the show.

Revered television writer Joss Whedon's long-awaited new show Dollhouse, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Eliza Dushku aired last week and I finally got around to watching it. (Sorry, that was quite the sentence).

It wasn't great. Pilots have never really been Whedon's strong point-- even the Firefly pilot was slow to get started. However, I felt this lacked the extra spice that made shows like Buffy and Firefly, to steal a phrase, shiny.

Whedon can weave great stories and create great characters. And I did like the characters... but I felt all of them seemed to be not quite themselves. Perhaps that is due to it being early in the show-- many shows lack centered characters at the beginning. But Whedon has historically been pretty good at getting characters right first time, and I didn't get that from this episode.

Dushku plays Echo, one of a set of men and women who can be programmed into being the perfect whatever-- the perfect assassin, the perfect cello player etc. Whedon wrote the show for her to play the lead, but I think that at some point along the way in the development the character slipped from her into someone else and left Dushku's conception of the role behind. I think that the finalized role would have been better off in the hands of a newcomer who came to the role as an outsider, rather than Dushku. Not only did she not manage to quite capture the complete transformation of the 'programmed' characters, she also seemed to lack the qualities that made her a convincing and intriguing blank slate when she is between roles.

Echo's disjointed life makes it difficult to pull her together, perhaps, but the other major characters, among them her handler and the scientist behind the dollhouse project, also seemed to not really have a good sense of who they were. Someone described this as the characters not seeming to have lives that extended beyond where the camera was pointed and I think that's an apt description. The characters lacked the details and consistency that gave both the audience and, most importantly, the actors, a sense of who the character is.

This is especially problematic given the unstable main character-- but I don't think Echo had to be quite so disjointed. I think she needed some minute anchor that is enough to hold her together. This could be some uneraseable feature or something as simple as having the other characters begin to form a predictable reaction to her: some exchange of dialogue. The desire of her handler to create some kind of relationship with her, for example, could help to define even a totally unresponsive Echo while at the same giving her handler a key personality feature.

Although I did not notice this while I was watching the episode, I realised that there was no humour. Humour has always been a key part in the formulation of Whedon's characters and perhaps because this show demands a more serious outlook (especially considering the main character cannot crack jokes) the characters ended up a little blurry and bland.

I think what the show lacked was reality. By "reality" I don't mean gritty darkness, I mean the little details that make characters and worlds work. I've already talked about the characters, but this was also true of the sets, which were decidedly undetailed. In a world as complex as the one of Dollhouse, the sets need to have more practical and imaginative thought behind them than just 'girl's bedroom', 'broken down cabin', 'party', 'futuristic living space'. They need to contribute actively to the story, rather than being a passive (and occaisionally impractical) backdrop.

And finally we come to the plot. The entry was a little ragged, with a lot of disparate threads and backstories coming together all at once-- I do not think quite so many needed to be included; the opening could have been far more streamlined. However, it did hang together and I do think the concept is worth pursuing, and not only because Whedon is at the helm.

It does need work though. The writers need to pin down what their characters are like and give them detailed dialogue. The set designers need to think realistically and creatively to give the world more solid depth and give the actors a further sense of who they are and where they are.

I'm hopeful. Buffy had a start that was less than stunning but proved its strengths over time and I'm hopful that Whedon can give this rather dull show a shine of its own.

Take a look. Don't expect Firefly quality, think instead Dark Angel-- but Dark Angel was watchable, and it wasn't even Whedon.

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