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Whedon Week: Is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse An Overly Commercial Misfire?

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageJoss Whedon's new show Dollhouse is the most commercial project he's brought to TV. It may also be his weakest.

While watching the pilot episode, which offers up the lithe Eliza Dushku as a motorcycle dream date and seasoned hostage negotiator, I couldn’t stop making fun of the premise. Why on earth would a parent put their child's life in the hands of science experiment who might have a schizoid embolism (har har) mid-exchange, just as Dushku's character does? Why wouldn't they just hire a real negotiator?

My girlfriend actually had to talk me away from the ledge. She suggested that the client with the kidnapped daughter had worked with the Dollhouse company before, and so it was easy for him to go back to them. This made me think that perhaps he wanted to keep the incident so far off the radar that he'd be wiling to retain the services of a company that avoids scrutiny so assiduously that they literally wipe the memories of their operatives.

That made me look on the series' opening sequence with a more forgiving eye, too. I imagine that the client in that case wanted more than just a hot date – he wanted a hot date who could out-ride him on a motorcycle.

And let's face it – the idea behind Dollhouse isn't any more or less goofy than the idea of a teenybopper being tapped by the powers that be to fight evil.

But Whedon's choice to invest this series with some serious, real-world values has the potential to go either way with me. By including a dogged FBI agent (a well cast Tahmoh Penikett) who's been tracking the Dollhouse for the better part of his career, Whedon has given us a new playing field. Besides the Elizabeth Rohm character from Angel, I can't think of a real-world law-enforcement presence in his supernatural shows. Whedon also mentions human trafficking in his pilot episode. It's the right call, but human trafficking is about as dark as you can get thematically, and it adds a lot of real-world tang to an otherwise fantastical premise. It also casts the Dollhouse crew as the bad guys – for now, at least. They've enslaved these women, and there's no getting around that.

(Side note: Further straining credibility was how the Dollhouse's chief tech-geek performs the terrifying "memory formatting" procedure – which gives off flashes of blinding blue light – in a room with glass walls and within clear view of the entire Dollhouse compound. Echo seemed to discover this room about five minutes after her arrival.)

That said, the series does have the potential to explore a satisfyingly dense mythology if Fox doesn't pull the plug too fast. I know I said that the Dollhouse crew were the bad guys, but let's not forget that in the series opening scene, Echo – referred to as Caroline, if I recall – was apparently joining the Dollhouse to offset some kind of prison sentence, and if that's the case, then either the Dollhouse is working with the government's blessing, or they're telling their employees that they are. Those elements raise the possibility of a larger arc where Echo rediscovers who she is while exposing the machinations behind the Dollhouse – a storyline that includes equal parts Total Recall, La Femme Nikita and Alias.

And I like those ingredients. We'll see.

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