In defence of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse

Feature Stefan Mohamed 10 Mar 2014 - 06:00

Stefan tackles criticism of Dollhouse, a brave series he argues is unfairly maligned in Joss Whedon's body of work...

Joss Whedon, it’s fair to say, is not short of fans. Between Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Cabin in the Woods, Dr Horrible, and latterly his work with Marvel (not to mention his adaptation of a play by that little-known writer Will Shakesman), he has an enviable back catalogue, and Whedonites (as I promise not to refer to them again after this sentence) rank among the most devoted, rabid and occasionally frightening fans in geekdom. If you want an idea of just how passionate people are about the man’s work, write the phrase “I am a leaf on the wind” in any comment thread below a Whedon-related article, and hang on to something. Said thread may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.

But there is one series that, while it does have its vocal supporters, is generally regarded at best as a noble failure, and at worst as the unloved, slightly deformed illegitimate-child-we-keep-in-the-attic-and-don’t-talk-about of Whedon’s small-screen oeuvre. Its reputation in critical circles – again, not exclusively, but generally – isn’t much better. I refer to the short-lived and ill-treated Dollhouse, and I would like to explain exactly why I think you should give this much-maligned show another chance, because for my money it's as brave, idiosyncratic and downright thrilling as anything in the holy televisual trinity of Buffy, Angel and Firefly (I’m not counting Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a) because it’s more his brother’s baby than his, and b) because at the time of writing it’s not particularly brilliant, although I still have hopes that it will reach its potential).

“Did I fall asleep?”

First broadcast in 2009 and cancelled after two thirteen-episode seasons, the series stars Eliza Dushku (Buffy’s rogue Slayer Faith) as Echo, one of a group of ‘Actives’ living in the titular Los Angeles-based Dollhouse whose minds have been (voluntarily – or at least, that’s what we’re initially led to believe) wiped so that they can be imprinted with dozens of other personalities and skillsets and rented out to super-rich clients. These personalities range from horny college students to NSA agents to genius bank robbers and hackers via bounty hunters, dominatrixes and, in what is generally regarded as the nadir of the series, backing singers for temperamental divas. Naturally the ‘engagements’ tend to go wrong in unforeseen ways, often relating to Echo's gradual rediscovery of her past self, and thus Dollhouse begins as, on the surface at least, a fairly standard mission-of-the-week series (or maybe personality-of-the-week would be more accurate).

It doesn’t stay like that, however. Oh no.

The premise is admittedly problematic, and much of the criticism levelled at the show is valid. For some viewers, the fact that Dushku and the other actives are essentially different characters every episode, reverting to benign blank slates when they’re not out on engagements, is a deal-breaker. How do you relate to a protagonist who is not the same person from week to week? It’s entirely subjective; either you can engage with the conceit or you can't, but this odd setup meant that the show was hindered from the get-go. Personally I was invested enough in the premise, in Echo and in the richly-drawn supporting characters – both Active and non-Active - to stick with it, and for me, even in their wiped doll forms, the actors exhibit enough personality for me to care about their fates. However, it’s fair to assume that this was a major stumbling block for many people trying to get into the series, and all I can say is that it's worth persevering.

The Dollhouse itself is also conceptually troublesome, which is one of the reasons why the execs at Fox were unhappy with the series. Fundamentally, the idea is pretty icky. Many of the engagements are of a sexual nature, and whether the actives agree to what happens to them or not they are basically being sold to rich businesspeople wanting a willing partner who will conveniently forget about them after the act. Tension is therefore built into the show, particularly in its early episodes, where the breezy tone of the personality-of-the-week adventures bumps awkwardly against seedy undertones of prostitution.

It’s to its credit that Dollhouse does not shy away from the uncomfortable nature of this concept, confronting issues of sexual abuse and slavery head-on in several episodes once it settles into a more arc-based groove. The blurry moral ground on which the Dollhouse, its staff and its clients operate is explored compellingly, and while you may actually come to sympathise with the reasons the characters give to justify their involvement, the show rarely - if ever - comes down on the side of right or wrong. Ultimately, the picture it paints is of a corrupt and often degrading institution run by people who are all, in their own way, trying to do what they perceive to be the right – or at least the necessary – thing.

It’s a fascinating philosophical minefield to navigate, but it sometimes makes it difficult to know who to root for – not an accusation you could really level at Buffy, Angel or Firefly, no matter how far into darkness their characters slipped. However, if you like your beautiful ass-kicking men and women (and they are very beautiful, and they kick a whole mess o’ ass) served with a side order of existential horror and a generous dollop of moral ambiguity, Dollhouse might just be the show for you.

“I try to be my best”

Whether you buy in to the inner lives of the Actives or not, I think it's safe to say that the supporting cast is as strong as any of Whedon’s other ensembles. From tech wizard Topher (Fran Kranz) to Dollhouse head Adelle DeWitt (played to icy yet subtly vulnerable perfection by Olivia Williams) to house physician Claire Saunders (Amy Acker! Yay! Someone give this woman all the series and films please), everyone who works in the Dollhouse is damaged in some way. They’re all flawed, ethically compromised people existing in a frightening and bizarre grey area, which makes for some seriously thought-provoking drama. Topher, for example, starts the show as a fairly typical wise-cracking genius man-child type, but as he slowly begins to rediscover his fractured morality, his arc is both compelling and ultimately very moving. Even FBI agent Paul Ballard (once you get past Tahmoh Penikett’s slightly peculiar, mannered way of speaking), who starts as something of a cipher, is blessed with an unexpected and interesting character trajectory.

Credit must also go to Eliza Dushku herself, who I feel is as unfairly maligned as the show in which she stars. Granted, perhaps she isn't the strongest actress out there, and she is occasionally shown up by Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj, who play fellow Actives Sierra and Victor respectively, but although she may not be as adept at inhabiting different personalities she does provide a firm anchor for the show, and hints at a strange, unsettling intelligence when in her child-like doll state. As the series progresses, with Echo steadily finding a new self nestled in the tangle of borrowed memories and skills with which she has been imprinted, she grows into a very credible heroine, and Dushku acquits herself well.

Enver Gjokaj, meanwhile, should definitely have been the show's breakout star. The guy is quite phenomenally adaptable, particularly when mimicking other members of the cast - an episode in which he is imprinted with Topher’s mind is especially delightful, with Gjokaj delivering an absolutely pitch-perfect take on Fran Kranz’s twitchy mannerisms. Someone give him all the series and films too. Along with Amy Acker, maybe? Like, maybe they could do the whole driving round in a van solving mysteries thing, maybe? Except that it’s a Firefly-class ship not a van? And then their ship gets damaged and they get rescued by Serenity and join their crew? With Dichen Lachman along for the ride too? For six seasons and a movie? Sorry, I digress.

“I enjoy my treatments”

Dollhouse takes a little while to establish itself, and the early standalone personality-of-the-week episodes, while entertaining, are definitely the weakest. However, after the Joss Whedon-penned Man on the Street (which features a brilliant guest performance by Patton Oswalt and paints a more nuanced picture of the Dollhouse and its function than we’ve previously seen), the series’ real concerns start to emerge, and it kicks into gear in a big way. The latter halves of both Season One and Season Two feature mind-blowing twist after mind-blowing twist, with shifting identities, double-crosses, philosophical quagmires, unforgivable (or are they?) acts, corporate intrigue and plenty of badass fight scenes, despite a rapidly decreasing budget.

The show's curtailed length also arguably ends up working in its favour; with an early end in sight the writers go for broke, squeezing several seasons' worth of plots into a handful of episodes and raising the action to white-knuckle levels of intensity. Watching it all in quick succession makes for a serious adrenaline rush, and you’ve barely had time to recover from one rug-pull before the floor beneath the rug gets ripped away. Season One's finale, Epitaph One, is particularly jaw-dropping, and it's a crime that it wasn't actually broadcast during Dollhouse's initial run; fans had to wait to discover its apocalyptic delights on DVD.

That (admittedly divisive) episode is, for my money, what really sets Dollhouse apart, cementing it as the bleakest of Whedon's TV oeuvre – yes, even taking into account Angel episodes like Reprise and Not Fade Away. There are few clear-cut heroes in this series, and even fewer happy endings, and it never compromises on the darkness inherent to its premise. We are there every step of the way, pulled down with the characters as they traverse their own personal hells, experiencing the nightmarish consequences of the technology with which they’ve been playing. It was always a minor miracle that the show was renewed for a second season after the first's lukewarm reception – although fan pressure might have had a little something to do with it - and having watched it all the way through, I'm still kind of amazed that something this weird and morally ambiguous managed two seasons on a network like Fox. From its murky sexual politics to the ethics of mind-wiping to some fairly on-point political satire, Dollhouse is a fundamentally more adult show than its predecessors, and while it is often very funny, fans of Buffy etc. may be put off by the relentless darkness, and by the lack of Whedon's trademark quippiness (it's still there, mind, just... muted).

“Shall I go now?”

Well-acted, thought-provoking and frequently devastating in its twists and turns, Dollhouse is a peculiar oddity, an extremely brave piece of fiction that fearlessly tackles uncomfortable concepts and themes and asks challenging questions. Can you ever truly erase a person's soul – if, indeed, there is such a thing? What might the next level of augmented humanity look like? Is voluntary slavery still slavery? How much do we love Victor and Sierra (answer: lots)? With its more realistic setting and intelligent exploration of the side-effects of new technology, it has much more of a hard-SF feel than Firefly, and while there are undoubtedly bumps along the way - and one or two contentious twists near the end – if you can look past these and stay the course, it makes for a really rewarding viewing experience. I've not even gone into the headfuck that is The Attic, or the reveal of Alpha, or the mini-arc with Alexis Denisof's Senator Daniel Perrin, or the end of Needs, because you deserve to experience it all without it being spoiled.

So don’t believe the bad press. Give Dollhouse a chance. And you may find one more show to prove your “OMG Joss is totes teh bestest!!!!” theorem.

Or you'll feel vindicated in your position that he's an overrated hack. *Shrug* I tried my best.

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OMG! I loved Dollhouse. I wish there were more episodes on Netflix

Both seasons are there, blame Fox that there are not any more. p.s. there isd a special type of hell reserved for Murdoch for what his TV channel did to Firefly.

Great article - I agree with all of this; I think Dollhouse is a really fascinating piece of work and as you say, almost benefitted from being cut short in the second season though I would have loved to have seen it being given more room to breathe too.

I also agreed with your point about Enver Gjokaj so much, I nodded furiously and said "YES" at the screen. He was consistently the best performer in the Actives and made the concept really work whilst retaining Victor's sense of self when blank.

I totally agree with the comments about season one - Up to Man On The Street, it was an interesting premise, but a bit meh; from that episode onwards it changed up several gears and was must-see TV.
For me the most interesting moment was the episode where Echo was hired to be the girlfriend of the mob boss, who was killed before she could see the new house that he bought for her - it was actually a really interesting idea to show the human side of a totally unpleasant villain, and it was actually quite moving when you realised why he was doing it.
Challenging TV often pays the price by being cut off well before it should have been, and that's definitely the case here.

As much as I loved the show, I didn't care much for its finale. It was just too different in tone and a little too much like movies with running zombies or Future Kind from DW's S3 finale.

*holds onto table*
I am a leaf on the wi--

(See what I did there.. (; )

I've never liked Eliza Dushku, I seriously couldn't stand her as Faith in Buffy, but in spite of this I really did enjoy Dollhouse.

I also feel very strongly that Enver Gjokaj is amazing and should be better known for his talents

I still remember vividly the moment when we realised that the low level russian mobster Ballard was using for information turned out to be Victor the active. I was so blown away, not because of the twist, but because I had seen the promotional picture (the last one shown in the article above, under the title “Shall I go now?”) on multiple occasions. And I STILL didn't make the connection between the dude who was clearly an active like Echo and Sierra and the guy who was talking to Ballard. Not to mention the love between Victor and Sierra (and I use those names intentionally) being the cutest thing on TV before or since.

I am also the opinion that Enver Gjokaj is criminally unknown. His Topher is so good, and Victor and Sierra's story is the best. I agree that Eliza Dushku isn't perhaps the best, but she did well. I love Bennett too, Summer Glau is amazing.

The problem with Dollhouse (which I love as a whole) was the first 5 episodes, the "engagement of the week" episodes that took the initially filmed pilot "Echo" and spread it thinly across these opening episodes. At a guess the reason was to allow viewers to jump in at any point early on and not be too lost but the show clearly suffered from pacing issues early on. I think if they'd kept "Echo" as the pilot then gone straight to Man on the Street (more or less, clearly editing would be needed) you'd have the much faster pace that the show required and allowed the show to blossom from their with a clear view of where it was heading. As it was shown it meandered along before exploding with brilliance that was "Man On The Street". Still Eliza Duskhu helped cushion the blow of the duller episodes, Enver Gjokaj and Fran Kranz were phenomenal and then adding Alan Tudyk, Amy Acker, Summer Glau, Alexis Denisof and Felicia Day to an already strong cast helped Dollhouse end strongly. It may not have been as devastating as Firefly's cancellation but Dollhouse to me is still a strong and sorely missed of the whedonverse.

The series continues in a 5 issue mini series by Dark Horse Comics. There is also a prequel series.

Dollhouse was decent, Franz Kranz and Amy Acker stole the show. My Own Worst Enemy was a better tv show with a similar theme that deserved more love.

Whedon's most reviled work however is surely Alien Resurrection.

I loved Dollhouse, and finally, here's somebody who understand the show and is able to discuss its merits, and its problems in a reasonable, intelligent, and perceptive fashion. Thankyou!

Have to say was a big Dollhouse fan and was gutted it when it was cancelled. Mainly loved it for the supporting actors especially Victor and Sierra. Why do Fox keep cancelling all my shows?

Apparently Whedon wrote the initial script but the director had his own style that he wanted for the movie and never conveyed it to Whedon. A clusterf*** by all accounts

I quite liked Dollhouse, but....uh...'Joss' Whedon? Joss had minimal involvement in Dollhouse other than lending his name to the project for marketing. His brother, JEDD Whedon, was showrunner (same as with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

And whilst Dollhouse was a much better show than AoS, they both share the same weakness. Jedd seems to work best when he's not working for a major network. Thrust into his brother's shoes, he's just not very good at finding the right balance between 'mindless network pap' and 'intelligent sci-fi'.

AoS collapses so strongly into the former that it's allienated most of its initial fanbase. Whereas in the first half of both seasons, Dollhouse really struggled to work its more interesting elements into the 'sexy spy babe' genre that it was marketed as.

In both of its seasons, Dollhouse stepped up tremendously as soon as the writers got the notice that the show might not be renewed, wherein it would drop all attempt to be a network show and go all out with the more interesting, darker, fare.

Which indicates that despite AoS, the lesser known Whedon brother does have some talent hidden there. He just fares a lot better when he isn't trying to create 'Joss Whedon' network-friendly-but-intelligent fare.

A good start would be to ensure that sites like DoG actually check which of the shows (and which seasons of which shows) under the 'Joss Whedon' corporate banner are actually creatively led by Joss Whedon, as opposed to his brother Jedd, David Greenwalt, etc.

If by "Echo" you're referring to the awful pilot found on the DVD set, I can't disagree enough. I liked the first five episodes and thought they did a lot to establish the series. "Echo", on the other hand, blundered its way from beginning to end and blew a series worth of pacing on its quest to have Echo clearly remembering Caroline in its final scene.

It's been years since I've seen it, but I can remember at the time wondering how the heck Joss Whedon, with all his TV experience, would have put together such a terrible pilot.

If you like it, great. Like I said, I just can't disagree with you enough.

Never mind Needs, or The Attic for a headfuck, Belonging was just... wow.

I loved this show, never did get the criticism levelled at Eliza Dushku.

I think that the pilot episode was very weak though and (like Firefly) the show struggled to hold onto its audience.

Eliza's other show - Tru Calling is also worth seeking out.

I enjoyed it. But then again, I also enjoyed Joe 90. Can't imagine why that show sprang to mind.

While he may have had less to do with the show as it went on, Joss had enough to do with the inception and initial shaping of Dollhouse (he's credited as creator, after all, as well as executive producer and occasional writer) for it to be grouped with the other shows in his stable. Maybe referring to it as a Mutant Enemy production might have been more accurate, but I think it's accurate enough to categorise it as a Joss Whedon series for the purposes of this article, as it also shares a lot of the same staff, actors, thematic concerns etc.

As far as Jed goes, I agree that he's unsung, along with his partner Maurissa Tancharoen - they wrote Epitaph One, after all, and I'd rank that as one of the best of the series - and maybe part of that is down to people just assuming that Joss does everything. I also agree that Jed would probably work better away from major network interference, he seems to find it more difficult to navigate than his brother. That tension between having to stay network-friendly (resulting in those confused early personality-of-the-week eps) and wanting to explore things you'd probably be more likely to get away with on HBO or something similar definitely affected Dollhouse, and I agree you can feel the same tension in AoS. To be fair to AoS, though, I've read that some of the latest episodes are finally starting to show a bit of life, although I haven't had a chance to watch them myself yet.

That is the "Echo" I am referring too, although please note I did say editing was needed as it is not a perfect pilot but it certainly got going into the story of Echo (the character) retaining memories when wiped and starting to remember Caroline. Instead we had five episodes which, while perfectly watchable, did nothing to progress what I understood to be the main focus of the show.
But I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on the "Echo vs the first five" debate.
Personally though I count not re-editing Echo into a better pilot while keeping the focus and pace as big as a mistake as airing The Train Job first for Firefly

Dollhouse definitely would have been improved if they'd all had to sit in a big rotating orange and silver sphere instead of a chair, with irresistibly groovy 1960s music playing.

Personally I loved this series the first time and re-watched it again recently.

I had forgotten some things and missed others and still enjoyed.

I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder etc etc but this should not be as maligned as it has been. If you watch it back to back then the storyline is great. Also maybe ignore episode 13 of each season and watch them back to back after watching the other episodes.

I think it was this 13th episode issue that started people against it as suddenly everything has changed with no explanation and then BANG second season and we are back to normal.

Topher is one of the coolest characters out there for a lot of reasons especially the last few episodes with his moral battle.

I enjoy(ed) this show not because it was a Whedon but because it was different so to speak.

What's wrong with Joe 90? It's an awesome show. Who couldn't love something about a boy who can become an expert in anything.

Thanks for this. Only ever watched the first episode and it didn't catch me but I'm watching it now on Amazon's new streaming service and am looking forward to it getting to episode five!!!

Missed this first time round so having been watching on Netflix. Saw Firefly first (brilliant) then moved on to Dollhouse.

Enjoyed season one, things really picked up with the big villain reveal (great performance from him) and, as the article noted, the "flash forward" episode was great.

First few episodes of season two haven't grabbed me yet, in fact I took a break to blitz through House of Cards, but if the pace is due to pick up as you mention then I'll get back on it.

Dollhouse is, without a doubt, my favorite Whedon project. I like it more than Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, or Doctor Horrible. It was so forward thinking and unique; it just didn't get the treatment it deserved, much like Firefly.

I absolutely adore Dollhouse! I don't get why people are so afraid and put off by dark and morally ambiguous themes. I also love season six and seven of Buffy, I never understood the hate against those seasons.

I did like Dollhouse as I thought even through the first few episodes that the premise was an interesting one. I thought Dushku was fine as a lead, but then I also liked her in the also but not quite as short-lived Tru Calling.

What really annoyed me about Dollhouse was the episode with lots of twists that twisted back on themselves regarding the true identities of some of the characters, but I was guessing at that point that this was due to the cancellation of the series so kind of forgave them for that.

Victor and Sierra were certainly very good but I also liked the relationship between Ballard and Mellie.

I had the exact same reaction to that moment! It completely passed me by, but I could have sworn he was a different person.

And yes, Victor and Sierra was just adorable. Dichen Lachman should be in more things too.

So true about Fox, but I hold out hope that Netflix would perform a Lazrus with shows like Firefly, Dollhouse, Kings, etc... like they did for arrested development. Instead, I'm stuck watching Castle waiting for their Firefly references like a scavenger. Oh the agony. I appreciate your response.

P.S. Don't even get me started about what they did to Firefly. *crumples in a heap of tears*

I truly hope that this article drives more people to watch what IMHO is one of the most underrated shows ever broadcast.

Word.

This show was fundamentally flawed. You can't recover from that. It had three brilliant episodes in it's run and the rest was sub-standard filler, very much with the feel of Agents of Shield. Joss is brilliant at creating families on screen and in the meta-verse, but working with family has brough his reputation close to destruction. Try and imagine the Whedon legacy without Avengers, it's all downhill with a brief spike around Serenity & Fray. And as for Firefly, go back and rewatch the two part pilot. It's bad. Tries to cram too much in. You can critisize the execs at Fox as much as you want, and they probably deserve most of it, but that pilot story should have appeared at the mid-season point with the cliffhanger of what Mal found in the box carrying viewers over the New Year hiatus into the second half of the first season. The Tams should not have appeared in the show until then. The execs were correct about that.

What a dreadful expression 'give her/him all the series and films' is. I hope to never see it used again.

Thank you DoG, brilliant article and hopefully more people will try out this fantastic show because of it!

I've never gotten a chance to watch Dollhouse, but that's mainly because while I thought Buffy was fantastic, Angel did nothing for me and Firefly was much the same - just didn't engage me at all. In hindsight, seeing Serenity at the cinema first was a big mistake, but it put me off the show 100% because it was an awful movie (perhaps due to lack of context, admittedly).

But, leaving that aside, I still blame Dollhouse for the death of the amazing Sarah Connor Chronicles, so will probably never look on it kindly.

So so much love for Dollhouse from me.

I wasn't aware of it's existence till the dead period between Christmas & NY 2012 when I was scouring Netflix for some TV to binge on.

I was hooked imeadiately.

I remember reaching the end 'Getting Closer' at about 3 in the morning after a bit season 2 marathon and being rather emotionally drained and for want of a better phrase head f##cked at the revelations I had just seen.

I quite enjoyed the first 5 "personality of the week" style episodes with the exception of 'Stage Fright' and I feel there are many many places the producers/writers could have gone with that while building the technology/Echo becoming aware arcs over a number of seasons.

I also think it is the only series with the exception of Fringe where I haven't found one of the main characters totally insufferable.

The acting of all the main cast members was great and really did introduce me to Enver, Dichen, Tahmoh, Franz & Amy and I've tried to watch more things they have appeared in. Enver's episode of Lie to me is top notch & Tahmoh's short film The Hostage which can be found on Youtube is also great. As for Franz & Amy's performances in Much ado & Cabin in the woods....quality.

In fact in only seems right to put my Dollhouse DVDs on tonight.

It was more exciting than SHIELD IS.

The Dollhouse progression you outline here is exactly what is happening on SHIELD. It's already gotten to the point where it might be the best first season of any Joss show that got a second.

All the more credit then to Gerry Anderson for inventing the concept in Joe 90 decades before

I thought the Firefly pilot was one of the best pilots I've ever seen. That being said, most First episodes are pretty rubbish.

I doubt very much that you'll have your wish granted. The construction has already passed into cliche - hence it's use here.

Agreed that Tru Calling is solid (the Jane Espenson touch perhaps?). Interested to see how The CW's pilot for iZombie turns out since it sounds SO similar.

I agree with you. 'Echo' has its problems, but as an indicator for the series that Whedon wanted to make, it's a much more appropriate pilot for the series.

Yeah, the first few episodes kinda fall back on the engagement of the week, but things pick up A LOT as you move into mid-season. The second half of the season is pretty much exceptional all the way through to the finale. It's pretty remarkable

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