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Final Verdict on Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse": Regarding the Cast, Missed It By That Much
January 29, 2010  | By David Bianculli
 

DOLLHOUSE-Series-Finale-fel.jpgAs I type this, less than 90 minutes remain until Fox broadcasts the final, unpreviewed episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. The fact that I'm anticipating it attests to the promise that Whedon brings to every project -- but at this point, at the show's final hour, I think I've isolated where his latest genre missed the mark.

It cast the right actors -- but not always in the right roles...

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Dollhouse (8 p.m. ET) was inspired by, and created for, Eliza Dushku, who stars in the central role of Echo. Echo is an "Active," a Doll, who can be reprogrammed with any abilities, any memories, any personalities desired by her clients -- or her handlers. Hostage negotiator. Extreme sports enthusiast. Loving wife. Pop singer. Dominatrix. And as the series progressed, there was an additional chameleonic requirement as well: Beneath all the parts was one submerged whole, an activist named Caroline.

All well and good, especially as the series progressed and Echo, rather than erasing memories of each personality and encounter, began to secretly retain them. And Dollhouse really got kicked into a higher gear once Whedon ventured into territory that, when I interviewed him on Fresh Air prior to the show's premiere, he denied was in his initial flight plan. He began revealing, slowly, that certain other members of the Dollhouse -- staff members, not reprogrammed Actives -- were not what they appeared to be.

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Some, like Amy Acker's disfigured Dr. Saunders, were dolls themselves -- in her case, an Active named Whiskey. Others, like Harry Lennix's Boyd, weren't puppets, but were marionettes, the hidden Big Bads in the playhouse. And still others, like Reed Diamond's Dominic, were a little of both.

With the story lines, especially in this shortened second season, Whedon and his writing team have delivered more than enough twists and shocks to justify allegiance to the series.

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The shockingly sudden shooting of Summer Glau's Bennett by one of the activated sleeper Actives, for example, was a shout-at-the-screen "Whoa!" moment.

But where Dollhouse slipped, I believe, was in having supporting players that were stronger, and more compelling, than its leads.

Dichen Lachman, as an Active named Sierra, was more magnetic, and showed more range, whenever she adopted another identity than Dushku's Echo did. So did Acker's Whiskey, once she was revealed as another Active -- her alter egos were few, but impressively far between.

DOLLHOUSE-7-550x366.jpgAnd Enver Gjokaj's Victor proved not only a talented chameleon, but also a gifted comedian and mimic. His "imitation" of Fran Kranz's nervous Topher, when Victor was downloaded with Topher's personality, was a spot-on, very funny impersonation.

Conversely, the hero of the drama, Tahmoh Penikett's Paul Ballard, and the just-revealed villain, Lennix's Boyd, were, like Dushku's Echo/Caroline, less dynamic than those around them. Olivia Williams as Dollhouse executive Adelle, Diamond's Dominic, Alan Tudyk's murerous Alpha -- all of them did more with their screen time than their more prominent co-stars.

A Dollhouse with some of the roles reversed -- starting with Acker or Lachman as Echo -- may not have experienced a different fate, but it may have made for a a more dynamic show.

DOLLHOUSE-Series-Finale-11.jpg

Meanwhile, we have tonight's finale, the continuation of last season's flash-to-the-future season finale, which Fox never showed but which Whedon released as an extra on the first-season DVD. So there's closure, at least. And tonight's episode, like last season's "missing" futuristic episode, features Felicia Day (in photo at top above), who starred in Whedon's Internet sensation, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

And best of all, there's more Whedon TV in OUR future. The man who wrote the episode and music for, and directed, the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and gave Neil Patrick Harris the title role of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, has been signed to direct an episode of Fox's brilliant Glee later this season, with Harris as guest star.

That show ALREADY has the right cast -- and, with Harris, a perfect guest star. With Whedon at the helm of that one, it's one to anticipate with... Glee.


8 Comments

 

Tausif Khan said:

Whedon shows of the past have benefited from having their lead cast members being able to act like character actors and being able to switch effortlessly between comedy and drama. Eliza Dushku is a good actress as a lead but did not have the ability to pull off a display of multiple personalities. This is clearly evident when her performance as Echo is juxtaposed with Alan Tudyk's performance as Alpha in the episode "Omega". I have said often that Tahmoh Penikett needed to attend the Nathan Fillion school of Joss Whedon humor (I would now replace Fillion with Enver Gjokaj). Throughout the series he was too busy being amused by the performances of his fellow castmates. I too wished that the show had not focused so much on the character of Echo and emphasized the talent of the ensemble cast. I still believe the importance of the show was more so the questions it provoked about identity and consciousness.

In terms of Neil Patrick Harris, has CBS agreed to let one of the stars of their hit comedies guest star on another network's hit show during sweeps month?

[Yes indeed. CBS, unlike NBC, doesn't make decisions based on abject fear that its stars will roam elsewhere... -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 29, 2010 11:12 PM


Nathan said:

I think you ultimately liked the show a little more than I did, but I agree completely with your assessment of its biggest problem.

I thought every minute Amy Acker was onscreen was like an essay on why she should have been cast as the show's lead. And while I can't say for sure that Lachman and Gjokaj will be stars five years from now, I'm confident that they'll both have plenty of work (something I'm not sure I can say for Eliza Dushku).

Comment posted on January 30, 2010 12:30 AM


Rich said:

Hmmm...well now, what to say. I will admit I stopped watching after episode #4 season 2, The one about Prya's past. I thought I'd exit the "Dollhouse" on a high note. However, I will watch the remaining episodes online or on DVD to complete my knowledge of Joss's work...only now I can FF thru the oceans of Dusku.

One of your opening sentences essentially explains the problem why the show didn't work as well as Joss's reluctances to 'change things' after the fact, it's this simple-

"Dollhouse (8 p.m. ET) was inspired by, and created for, Eliza Dushku, who stars in the central role of Echo."

THAT was the problem! Inspired & Created for Dusku. This was really the only thing that really needed fixing.

I love Joss when he's writing for everyone and I still applaud his effort here (a memorable cult hit to be sure!) and we can all wait for "Dollhouse: 2013" movie in 3 years and say like I did after seeing "Serenity"...Geez, that was Awesome!, Why didn't he make "Dollhouse" like that!- it'd still be on the air!. I hope this ends his Dushku fixation. Fox and the fans gave him every chance- make a series for all of US next time Joss.

Comment posted on January 30, 2010 2:11 AM


OttoMann said:

I agree with all the comments about the acting. Dushku is simply not very good (except to look at, of course). She was absolutely awful on Tru Calling (but then, so was the whole show). I thought it was funny when Dollhouse first premiered, they said the show was created to show off Dushku's range! And it was said, apparently, with a straight face.

Comment posted on January 30, 2010 12:28 PM


David rivera said:

I hate to pile on here, but I agree that Dushka lacked the range to play this type of character with shifting personalities. (I did love her playing tough-girl Faith on Buffy).

The show failed, in my opinion, but it took too long to establish that "Echo" combo-peronality. It's difficult to care about a series in which there is, in effect, no leading protagonist because her personality changes every week. I cared zilch about her various "missions-of-the-week" in season one. Echo should have developed a personality way back, midway in season 1. This series had more than enough of a chance to improve. It didn't do so, however, until the middle of this season -- way too late in the game -- when it finally became "Whedoneqsue," with twists and turns and political intrigue between dollhouses, etc.

Comment posted on February 1, 2010 3:28 PM


Alicia said:

I guess I liked Dollhouse as much as anyone did. I watched it, anyway, and appreciated what it was trying to do -- and I liked it better when it started doing longer story arcs instead of being just "doll of the week" stories. I liked Echo as a character more than any of her doll personas.

But, having said that, I've recently been revisiting old Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes as they replay randomly on Logo and MTV. And man, I miss Buffy. That show managed to be a good combination of simple "Monster of the Week" with a story arc that could go for an entire season. Sure, some of the seasons were better than others -- those post-college years sure sucked. But, compared to even those episodes, Dollhouse has had too many OMG! Suprises! episodes crammed in, especially recently. Maybe it was an attempt to cram in all the seasons-worth of ideas Whedon didn't get because of cancellation? I even got annoyed by some of that during Firefly. And even the movie Serenity.

I wish Whedon would go back to the simpler story-telling of the Buffy era. There, the concept of high school as horror movie was the surprise, not the week-to-week WTF-nature of each episode. I kind of think that the stories he chose to tell, maybe more than the acting, is what turned people off of this series. I mean, when I tried to get my friends -- old fans of Buffy and Firefly and Doctor Horrible all -- to watch this show, they were in giggles by the end of the episodes because the stories were so weird and unbelieveable.

Comment posted on February 2, 2010 11:57 AM


Colleen said:

After sitting in on the NY Comic-Con panel with Joss Whedon and Tahmoh Penikett, I was so excited for this show. I've never been a fan of Eliza Dushku, but the ten-minute sneak peek was enough for me to put my doubts aside and give the show a chance. Know what kept me?

Enver Gjokaj - he was simply amazing with whatever was thrown at him.

Alan Tudyk - I've yet to see a performance I didn't like, no matter what role.

Reed Diamond - maybe I'm just a sentimental Homicide fan, but I still think he's kind of underrated.

Miracle Laurie - you mean a woman can be an gifted actress and *not* be a twig? Hallelujah!

(And I was praying for a guest shot from Nathan Fillion, but then Castle came along...)

Comment posted on February 3, 2010 6:26 PM


Danny said:

David,

What were you thoughts on the final episode?

Comment posted on February 7, 2010 11:06 AM
 
 
 
 
 
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