Dollhouse episode 2 review

The Dollhouse scores higher, but no prizes for it yet as Joss Whedon's latest tries to find its feet

It would be fair to say last week I trashed Dollhouse, almost unreservedly. For a start, it had all the finesse and intrigue of finding a sticky old boiled sweet in an expensive jacket pocket. If this was the recipe for a hit TV series then it managed to hide it from this viewer very effectively. But at Geek we like to give things a second chance, if even on reflection they didn’t actually deserve it.

The second Dollhouse story is called The Target, and starts by trying to fill in some of the chasm-sized narrative blanks that the opening story left. It goes back to a time when Echo’s handler, Boyd Langton, joined the operation, after the death of his predecessor when Alpha went insane and killed three of the other actives, leaving only Echo alive. He also kills her handler and puts the mark of Zorro on Dr. Saunders. They describe Alpha’s condition as a ‘composite’ event, suggesting he ended up with multiple overlapping personalities.

We keep flashing back to these events through the story, and how Boyd really wasn’t keen on her when he first joined the organisation.

The story starts proper with a wealthy young guy, Richard Connoll (Matt Keeslar), who wants the perfect woman, and implausibly is prepared to pay Dollhouse to get exactly what he wants. I didn’t buy this from the outset, so why the Dollhouse people would do so, eluded me then.

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They go up into the mountains and combine white water rafting with a pelvic muscle improvement plan; it’s all going great. Until the client tells Echo that she’s got five minutes head start and then he’s going to start hunting her with a bow and arrow

This coincides with a loss of connection that Boyd experiences in his observation van, so they don’t know she’s in trouble.

It’s regulation stuff, but they do manage to throw a few surprises in along the way, including a police officer who appears and kills Boyd’s partner so his boss isn’t disturbed having his hunting pleasure. Boyd eventually overcomes this henchman, but he then takes an arrow for the e-team when he eventually catches up with Echo.

She’s not in good shape by then, having been grazed by an arrow, poisoned by a laced canteen and lost most of her eye liner in a trip down the river. She keeps seeing flashbacks to Alpha killing the other actives, and also multiple versions of herself. One might reasonably conclude that she’s going ‘composite’ also. I guess it depends what the imprint is that triggers her off, she might try and party everyone to death?

Eventually, she gets the better of Mr Connoll, who dies from the blood loss. After which she and Boyd are rescued by poorly-executed CGI helicopters.

Where it improved on last week was that the pacing of the story was better and the amount of relevant back-story was substantially higher. In the end, they determine that the entire mission was a setup as Connoll didn’t really exist. The man Boyd captured is killed before he can be interviewed in the same fashion that Alpha used, even if Boyd and Dr. Saunders were told he was tracked down and killed after he went crazy. Presumably, it was Alpha sending alluring pictures of Echo to FBI Agent Paul Ballard at the end of episode one. Dollhouse are starting to worry about Agent Ballard. I’ve no idea why because everyone else thinks he’s a compulsive obsessive.

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The Target was generally better, but I remain unconvinced about Dollhouse. Part of the problem I have is that Eliza Dushku’s Echo doesn’t have a personality when she’s not imprinted and a different one when she is. So it’s hard to relate to her, as she’s either blank or never the same person. The other problem I have with secret organisations that have amazing facilities is the lack of obvious reality on which to hang the stories. I just find it hard to accept that there are millionaires circling around who can’t just use employment agencies or high class prostitutes, unless when you get more than a few million dollars you automatically become weird and dysfunctional.

They’ve also painted the Dollhouse people with very broad brushstrokes, in the way that car companies colour their vehicles. Topher is an overly self confident geek, Boyd a father figure, Laurence has a superiority complex, Dr. Saunders is so paranoid she can’t seem to remember the name of a good plastic surgeon and Adelle is the resident smart-arsed Brit. So far, the only one who’s come over well is Harry J. Lennix as Boyd, but it even looks like an uphill struggle for him.

Creatively, the show seems like a vehicle in the wrong gear on a greasy surface where the wheels spin, but there isn’t any traction. To build characters and relationships you need to know who they are, and the entire premise of the show has a lead actress playing someone we can’t know. Is it screwed from the outset, or is it just me?

Whatever the answer, it’s concerning that, now two episodes in, I’m still not actually sold on the premise, never mind the acting, dialogue or plot. Just because it’s fronted by Joss Whedon, I’ll give it one more episode to get its makeup on right, but that’s not a rolling extension.

Check out our review of episode 1 here.