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STUDENT BLOG #2: A Younger Perspective on Fox's Endangered "Dollhouse"
May 7, 2009  | By David Bianculli
 

[Bianculli here: In addition to presenting the viewpoints of veteran TV reporter-critic professionals analyzing television on this site, I want, on occasion, to present the other end of the spectrum, and hear what young, opinionated "amateurs" have to say. So today, I asked one of my TV History students, Rich Greenhalgh, to present his thoughts on a show we both like: Fox's Dollhouse (Friday at 9 p.m. ET), about a secret organization that offers the services of humans imprinted with any desired personality, memory and skill set. Rich, in his first writing effort here, has noticed things more in tune with his generation -- including the way a videogame-playing character holds her controller.]

Read on for his full commentary, and to give him feedback.

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Strength in Numbers: More Dolls Are Better Than One

By Rich Greenhalgh

The main reason to watch Fox's Dollhouse (Friday at 8 p.m. ET), and pray for its second season, is because the ensemble cast has really flourished, despite this being billed as an Eliza Dushku star vehicle. If the show get cancelled, I will blame Dushku and Whedon.

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Personally, I was anxious to see if Whedon had learned the lesson of not having his personal 'pets' hijack the entire story line (anyone who hated season six or seven of Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer knows what I mean). Sorry, but it's obvious Eliza can not carry this series the same way Jennifer Garner did with Alias, or Kristen Bell did with Veronica Mars.

Dushku has three speeds: "vengeful bitch," "scared victim," and "cocky brat." She never really closes the deal -- it always looks like Dushku to me. She's easy to look at, and fun in an ensemble, but she's not the reason I would watch Dollhouse.

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The supporting cast is what saves this show, and keeps me tuned in every week. I didn't like all of them at first, but by the fifth episode, you start to see the ensemble on an equal footing with Dushku's character doll character of Echo.

The character that really piggybacks Echo is the doll character named Sierra, played freshly each episode by Dichen Lachman (whose picture is shown above, and whose heritage, Australian and Tibetan, is quite unusual for TV). Graceful and attractive, she surprises me with each transformation. In one episode, Lachman's Sierra was even imprinted with the same personality and skills as Dushku's imprinted character (a sassy safecracker named "Taffy") after Echo's imprint malfunctions.

Sierra, in this safecracking "role," had the same dialogue, mannerisms, and personality as Dushku's Echo, but sold it 100 times better. In other episodes, Lachman's Sierra also has been an Alias-style spy, a virus expert -- and, in one of the most recent episodes, was imprinted to be the ultimate 'female gaming nerd' as a temporary playmate for the genius technician Topher (Fran Kranz), who lords over 'The Chair,' where the dolls' memories are downloaded and erased).

In this incarnation, Sierra's speech, swagger and posture were all authentic to an elite gaming nerd (or, in Japan, otaku gamer), even down to how she held a game controller. Leonard and Sheldon from CBS's The Big Bang Theory would be trounced by this particular Sierra in any nerd-on-nerd competition. The alter egos Sierra inhabits are so persuasive, Lachman clearly is the breakout discovery of this show.

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There are a number of dolls in Dollhouse, but so far only one major male character has been developed: Victor, played by Enver Gjokaj. He's another pleasant surprise. At first, I thought he was a creepy Russian informant, but in a few episodes, it was revealed he was a doll. I had been so sold on his Russian character, that particular twist never occurred to me.

That's an example of the type of trick Joss Whedon is playing with this show. The layers unpeel slowly. You think it's one thing, then the show shifts or reboots, and you find out even more, and have to rethink everything. Another plus: the humor and satire are still there, Whedon-style -- as when top technician Topher tries to explain his computer or sci-fi references to Adelle (Olivia Williams), the overtly stuffy supervising director of the Dollhouse. It's awkward comedy gold.

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Ultimately, I think this series deserves a second look and a second season, for all the potential shown by its cast and premise. has going for it. However, I will admit I originally wanted it to fail (gasp!). Why? Because of the slow way the series revealed itself. It wasn't until the seventh episode that Whedon gave the other characters more screen time -- and only then did I become excited about the show's direction and possibilities.

Joss Whedon has skills, and he's a master of wit, dark humor and satirical speech, but sometimes I worry that he makes stories for himself and his select friends, or goes into areas that may alienate the core audience that made him a success early on with Buffy.

A second season of Dollhouse really could explode into a fascinating new cult-TV classic gem, as did the second season of Whedon's Angel. Whedon could do it with Dollhouse if he makes it more ensemble-based in his storytelling, and takes the focus off Eliza Dushku's character of Echo. Ensembles work just fine on Fringe, Heroes, Lost and Chuck.

All I can say, and pray, is that if Dollhouse gets wiped in 'The Chair' and sent to Fox's attic (where broken Dolls end up), they save Dichen Lachman and put her on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, because that girl can do anything. Besides, Dollhouse already has its own in-house robot... in Echo.

--

Rich Greenhalgh is a student at Rowan University in New Jersey. He claims to have seen every episode of every TV series Joss Whedon has produced, and even to have read Whedon's comic-book series continuations and adaptations.


11 Comments

 

ceolaf said:

I think that Mr. Greenhalgh is spot on with his criticism of this show.

* It DID take too long to get going.

* Ms. Dushku has not shown the ability to carry this show, for all the reasons Mr. Geenhalgh laid out. (I would add that Summer Glau in Terminator -- with whom FOX asked us to compare Ms. Dushku in its promotions for her show -- has always been magnetic in a way that Ms. Dushku has not.)

* The development of Sierra (Dichen Lachman) has added quite a bit to the show.

However, I think that Mr. Greenhalgh has not given the non-Dolls on the show enough credit. Topher (Fran Kanz) has been consistently very funny and appealing, adding a dash of humor to the show. Adell DeWitt (Olivia Williams) has given the show a bit of a backbone, a sense of purpose or direction. Boyd (Harry Lennix) has given a sense of morality even amidst the moral questions of this story. Unfortunately, Paul Ballard (who played Helo in Battlestar Galactica) has been a disappointment.

***************************

I think that Mr. Greenhalgh had done an excellent job with this piece, regardless of whether or not I agree with his views.

* He make's his subject and his point clear at the very beginning of his review.

* His mixture of positive and negative statements about the show does not feel like artificial balance. Instead, it feels like he is appropriately addressing different aspects of the situation.

* His inclusion of the negative comments makes him seem a thoughtful critic -- and not just a fan.

* Though he doesn't lay out the entire history of the show, the fact that he addressed the development (i.e. how it has changed sinced the pilot episode) of this young show adds to the impression that he is a thoughtful critic.

* He is specific in his criticisms (e.g. he doesn't simply call Ms. Dushku limited, but instead details what he thinks she *can* do, and why it is not enough), and he explains the thinking behind his compliments, with specific example that illustrate his points.

* Perhaps most importantly, he does not address every strength or weakness of the show. This piece is about the show being an ensemble show vs. being a star vehicle. There are other strengths and weaknesses, other issues that he might have addressed, but this is the one he chose. It keeps the piece fairly focused. He bit of a single issue, and addressed it fairly.

* My biggest criticism of his piece would probably be that his exact focus is not quite clear. If he wants to focus on the multiple dolls that would be one thing. But in the last third, he also mentions a few other characters (i.e. Topher and DeWitt), and he even began by calling it an ensemble show. I think that he might have done better to given the rest of the cast a bit more attention. Tahmoh Penikett has a lot of screen time, and leaving him out is a big problem if Mr. Greenhalgh means to write about the ensemble nature of the show. In fact, I think that it could have supported his premise, as Mr. Penikeet -- clearly intended to be the male lead of the show -- has showed many of Ms. Dushku's limitations. That he did not get even a passing mention strikes me as a problem.
(Bianculli here -- The review did indeed address all those points, and other characters. I edited them for space, so that criticism falls to me, not the author. -- David B.)

******************

(I only watch this show because you show because you so strongly recommended it. )

Comment posted on May 7, 2009 12:12 PM


Sara S said:

I totally get what you're saying about Eliza Dushku's three speeds! Most of the time when she's imprinted, all I can see is Faith from Buffy (cocky brat). I haven't caught up on all the episodes yet, and I thought that was the reason I wasn't seeing the "range" that Joss Whedon so glowingly attributes to her.
I wonder if others will agree.

Comment posted on May 7, 2009 12:35 PM


gio said:

Athough I have yet to see Dollhouse I just wanted to pass on my agreement about Joss Whedon's incredible ability to create amazing ensembles and then throw them away by fixating on just one character. It's a shame but it seems he can never see past his 'strong feminist icon" du jour!

Comment posted on May 7, 2009 12:35 PM


I have to say that this article hit the issue between the eyes. If Dushku and Whedon really want to keep this show on the air, they both need to acknowledge the need for some serious change.

Comment posted on May 7, 2009 1:05 PM


Wow, look at this! Another blogger complains that "Dollhouse" took too long to get going; maybe that's because FOX demanded that the first five episodes be like "five pilots"--standalone episodes with very little overarching storyline (http://www.tvguide.com/news/whedon-dollhouse-stronger-1004045.aspx). Kind of hard to develop the ensemble when the network is insisting you do otherwise, huh?

For someone who claims to have watched everything Joss has ever made, you seem really out of the loop.

Comment posted on May 7, 2009 1:48 PM


Laura said:

Rich, I agree with the sentiment that Eliza Dushku does not exhibit the range we've seen in the actor who plays Victor for example, or other actors in the Whedonverse. However, she's still very good. Dichen is also good, but at this point not better than Dushku.

Dichen's characters aren't fresh each week. Her face is. Her forensics expert character was a carbon copy of her NSA character. Her NSA character was a mildly toned down version of her commando character in one of the early episodes. Her looks are fresh, not her acting. Sure, Dichen could hold her gaming equipment correctly, but her fan-girl character wasn't convincing, even if her accent was authentic. Dushku managed to pull off the mannerisms and language of a 60-year old woman quite convincingly several times in Haunted (which is unfortunately not one of the season's strongest episodes). I was surprised and impressed because a couple months ago, I wouldn't have expected that from her.

Early in the season I worried about her range, but she has passed the test well enough to suit me. Sarah Michelle Gellar wasn't the best actor on Buffy, but I loved her anyway. Same goes for Dushku.

despite this being billed as an Eliza Dushku star vehicle

The show is and will be billed as an Eliza Dusku star vehicle. Dushku has a contract with Fox, and that's primarily how the whole deal between Whedon, Dushku, and Fox came about. The show wouldn't exist without her contract with Fox. This relationship is one of the reasons she's billed not only as an actor, but producer as well.

Source: I've been reading Whedonesque almost daily for years. It's Whedon's newsblog. He didn't create it, but posts on rare occasions.

If the show is not renewed, will you really blame Whedon? Speaking of blaming Whedon, do you blame him for the generic first five episodes? I hope not. Those episodes were more or less prescribed by Fox. According to Whedon, he and Fox "reached an agreement" around episode 6, Man on the Street. From MotS on, it's felt like nothing but a Joss Whedon show, and a darn good one at that.

It's great that you've viewed and read his works. But how much have you read about Joss Whedon himself, or about the industry through which his works reach the marketplace?

You said you would blame Whedon if the show fails. Ordering a new series vs. cancellation boils down to a network's profits from advertising dollars and nothing more than that.

Since you're only a student at this point, I hope you eventually realize there's far more than just a story on a screen or page when you're discussing the future of Whedon's work. He is an artist first and foremost, but at the end of the day he's in show business. Do you think he volunteered Dollhouse for the Friday night timeslot-of-death?

Comment posted on May 7, 2009 3:44 PM


Ockraz said:

In my opinion the whole premise is fundamentally flawed: the dolls are practically mannequins. Why should we care about them if their memories and personalities are constantly reset? We've only had a few glimpses of their 'real' characters, and all of the rest of their actions are irrelevant in terms of character development. (It's like the joke about how all of the trading of players in modern sports means that you're only rooting for a uniform rather than an actual team.)

The non-dolls are portrayed by decent actors, but other than Penikett's character, we've learned next to nothing about them as well.

Topher's lines seem like a self conscious attempt at writing Whedon style dialog. On Buffy and Angel, witticisms flew back and forth, but here we have one obvious comic relief character surrounded by serious 'straight men' and it comes of as forced.

If I'm going to get involved in a serial, then I need to be invested in the emotional life of the characters. This show hasn't even made a decent effort. Episodic crime shows (Cold Case, Without a Trace, even the L&O and CSI's) have done as well or better.

Let the show die.

Frankly, 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' is more deserving of another season.

Comment posted on May 7, 2009 5:30 PM


NCR said:

Nice try Eyre de Lanux. The difference between a Joss Whedon fan and a Joss Whedon fanboy is that the fan understands that when Joss Whedon makes bad television, the person at fault is Joss Whedon. The fanboy will cast about to blame anyone else.

I think this post is spot on regarding the relative talents of Dichen Lachman and Eliza Dushku. Even Ali Larter on "Heroes," an actress and a show I wouldn't want to over-praise, has managed to make the three personalities she's had to play (so far) seem different from each other. Dushku, when she isn't acting cocky, mostly just pouts and blinks.

Comment posted on May 7, 2009 6:55 PM


This is a very accurate analysis of Dollhouse and its strengths and weaknesses. I agree that Joss's focus on the central strong female character just doesn't mix well with the stories he creates. With the exception of River, his central female leads have -- in my opinion -- been the least interesting characters of his shows.

With regards to Eliza's acting, I was pleasantly surprised by the episode Haunted. I thought the same as you did prior to that about her range. Some of it can be attributed to the fact that she has the "Eliza" mannerism that creeps into every character she plays. But in Haunted, she did portray an middle age wealthy woman quite well.

I also agree that the supporting cast are incredible in this show -- particularly the actors for Victor and Sierra. One other I'd like to mention is Amy Acker who plays Dr. Saunders. Although her role and her character have been limited by the script, I think she has great potential in the show.

All in all, Dollhouse had a weak start; I expected better of Whedon. But as others stated, it was Fox that dictated the format of those episodes so I can't really fault the man for doing what he has to do to get the show on TV. I guess the way to grab the Fox audience is fast cars, hot women, flashy night-club scenes and mediocre, pseudo-serious dialog.

But it has really picked up recently. The plot is interesting, the characters (even Echo) captivating, and the pace fast enough that I don't feel like it will waste a year of my life like Lost did. All in all, I hope it gets a second season.

Comment posted on May 8, 2009 1:11 PM


ockraz said:

I agree with NCR about the fanboy factor. If it weren't for Whedon's fanbase, their would be no popular effort to give it another season. (I don't remember 'Tru Calling' getting as much support, and I thought that it was at least as good.) Dushku is fairly limited in her ability to emote onscreen (although I'd say that she can serve up her 'badass' with the best of them).

Still, I think that the problem with the show is deeper than the leading lady. The dolls have no depth to them. (I'm supposed to be engaged on a weekly basis by characters with only occasional fragments of repressed memory in lieu of a real personality?) For all intents and purposes the doll storylines are just acting exercises. (Look at me do different accents and display my range.)

This show could have been constructed with better long term appeal a number of ways. Here are a few possibilities:

-Rather than constantly becoming blank slates, dolls returned to their 'real' personalities at the conclusion of each engagement and had to deal with the knowledge that their identity is merely stored information and their bodies not their own (as was the case with Reed Diamond's character).
-When imprinted, the dolls could remain aware, but temporarily lose control to the imprinted personalities and memories. They'd be passive observers of their own bodies.
-Ignore the dolls as characters. Acknowledge that they're just interchangeable puppets by focusing exclusively on the non-doll characters and how they cope with what they do.

Comment posted on May 8, 2009 1:56 PM


There is not much to add here.
The series has turned out to be awesome.
Also the twist with Alpha getting Echo out of the Dollhouse by using Ballard was pretty nice. I don' understand one thing though, I thought in episode 2, the guy who tried to kill Echo, was alpha. Yet, in the latest episode, Alpha is played by our favorite Firefly pilot (thanks Joss to bring him back to us) and the Dr recognizes him. Anyone got a theory or explanation on that?

And since we talked about Summer Glau above, She would perhaps have made a better Echo then Dushku. I nearly wish Terminator would have been put down already last season. But then again, that is (and this is a hopeful IS instead of a WAS) a great show too.

Comment posted on May 11, 2009 8:14 AM
 
 
 
 
 
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