Thoughts on Dollhouse

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Two episodes in, and here’s my initial reactions.

First, much like the last season of Buffy, I think there are too many characters, and even worse than the last season of Buffy, few of them seem in any way related to each other. Topher Brink (the so far poorly characterized programmer guy) gets to be in scenes with Echo and Boyd, and sometimes Dr. Claire (Amy Acker). Olivia Williams (the boss woman) gets to act in pretty much the same scene (over and over again) with Reed Diamond, whose job is still unclear. And then the cop guy is all on his own. I always felt part of what Joss understood about what makes good television is watching relationships between people change and evolve. Think about the Buffy/Giles dynamic over the course of the seasons. So far, the only interesting relationship that’s emerged for me is the Boyd/Echo relationship, which is beginning to feel a bit like Buffy/Giles, with an interesting twist.

Second, Joss has also forgotten humor, another key element of what made his t.v. shows worth watching. In both Firefly and Buffy, there was a good mix of drama and humor. The tongue-in-the-cheek humor of Buffy was part of what really hooked me on that show. In Firefly, the humor was more character-based, but so far I see none of that in Dollhouse. I get the vague feeling that maybe I’m supposed to find Topher Brink (which is kind of a stupid name) funny, but what’s he doing is too evil to really be amusing to me. I think Joss recruited some top-notch actors here, which is really impressive. I’m not sure if any of them are going to prove capable of mixing humor with drama in the way Firefly did. And maybe Joss decided he wants to go for pure drama, but I find pure dramas pretty boring, especially in this genre. A huge difference between say, Smallville and Buffy is that Smallville took itself very seriously, and Buffy didn’t (thank god). Firefly had a different kind of humor (they weren’t making fun of the genre of space/Wild West shows) but was still often lighthearted around the edges. If Dollhouse is forgoing humor, I’m waiting to see what’s going to be the hook instead.
Third, my understanding in the initial promos and trailers was that Dollhouse would be kind of like some secret government agency, like the Initiative, only more competent. Or like in La Femme Nikita or 24. What they’re doing to the people is pretty rotten, but they justify that it’s for the greater good—protecting our country or fighting the bad guys, whatever. That creates a kind of dramatic tension. But here the Dollhouse is just about making money, and seems to focus much more on prostitution than on any do-gooding. There’s not much possibility for tension there. At what point am I going to feel sympathy or ambiguity about Olivia Williams (the boss woman), or the ridiculous Topher guy? They’re doing it for money, and I don’t know if that’s ever a source of much sympathy, but it sure as hell isn’t going to be in today’s environment. How are you going to make those characters any more than the bad guys?
Fourth, obviously, I’ll keep watching, because it’s Joss, and there’s much benefit of the doubt earned. But it’s a slow start so far, and not feeling in many ways very Whedonesque.

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