I don’t really see it’s my job here to make excuses for its obvious failings of Dollhouse so far, although the show’s creator did plenty in a TV Guide interview. In it, Joss Whedon described the first five shows as ‘baby steps’, but held out the carrot that episodes 6 and 7 would actually deliver on his ‘vision’.
‘Man On The Street’ is the first of those and right out of the shotgun it has an entirely different feel, like it was written by a subtly different team that stumbled through the first five. But being distinctly edgy is just one of the improvements I noticed, and there are many more.
One of the issues I had was a previously meandering plot-line, but here, before the credits have rolled, two major things happen that turn what we’ve seen so far on its head.
It begins with a series of street interviews conducted by an LA TV network on the ‘urban myth’ of Dollhouse, with some funny reactions to the concept. These intersperse the whole running time, and demonstrate that as a secret Dollhouse seems to be being systematically undermined, what with this and FBI Agent Paul Ballard’s research.
Things aren’t much better back at Dollhouse, where Echo and Victor are having lunch when Sierra sits down away from them. Victor remembers that she normally eats with them and goes to ask her over. When he touches her she screams in reaction to him. When questioned she tells the doctor that she’s had sex with Victor. If true it looks like Victor could be heading to the ‘attic’, which as all children know is a very scary place!
That’s an interesting development, but what happens next really puts the cat amongst the narrative pigeons. Paul Ballard is working with his FBI researcher and finds a financial lead which points to an Internet Billionaire as a potential Dollhouse client. He follows this lead right into a house where the rich client is about to have sex with his ‘wife’ who is Echo. He has to dispatch seemingly a small army of security men, but Paul Ballard actually gets to meet Echo briefly, before she’s ushered away for her ‘treatment’ by Boyd. But now he’s got a witness, Joel Mynor, who’s accessed the Dollhouse, and things might get more interesting from here, and we’ve only got to the title sequence!
If anything it actually got better after them as they gave Patton Oswalt who plays rich geek Joel some great dialogue as he decides the best form of defence is to psychoanalyse Paul Ballard and work out what makes him tick. Soon though they’re talking about Joel’s fantasy, and how his came to be spending a fortune on simulating a lost love.
In the end the reality is that Ballard has no Echo or evidence to show a judge, and as such he makes his diplomatic exit before the police arrive.
Back at Dollhouse, Boyd is in bloodhound-mode trying to work out how Victor and Sierra had sex, if that’s what really happened. He finds something, but what that might be isn’t made immediately obvious to us. Victor and his new handler are removed from the ‘floor’ as they call the inner sanctum.
I’ve been very suspicious of Ballard’s attractive girl-next-door, Mellie, and now he’s telling her everything about her case I’m especially worried. We’ve only seen three ‘actives’, and there are five bed slots (and maybe more sleep locations), so is she one of them they’ve sent to keep an eye on him?
Then, entirely unexpectedly, they move the show up another gear, as it’s revealed what Boyd worked out. The problems Sierra has are nothing to do with Victor. We see Sierra walk into a side office and waiting in her is her handler Hearn, he says that they are going to play the game and she should lift up her dress! That never happens because Boyd appears from nowhere and punches Hearn through a glass panel.
From there we go to Adelle’s office where she commends Boyd and gives him a bonus. Once he leaves, her and nasty Lawrence discuss the implications of this and what Ballard is telling his neighbour. They know this because they have his apartment video-bugged. Adelle decides that they need to deal with the Ballard threat directly and he should have a ‘second date’ with Echo.
Tophet cooks up a ‘gorgeous but deadly’ imprint for Echo, while Adelle and Lawrence explain the scope of Hearn’s mistake to him. There have been hints about the dark nature of those that run Dollhouse, but we get to see it up close and personal now.
Adelle gives Hearn a folder with Mellie’s picture on it and tells him to kill her, and not to make a ‘clean’ job of it. The implication is that they’ll direct the blame at Ballard, who at that moment is conveniently providing potential DNA evidence by having sex with Mellie. After some pillow talk, he goes to get some Chinese takeaway and meets up with the bad-ass Echo that Tophet so creatively synthesised. This leads to one of the best knock-down, drag-out fights (between them) that I’ve seen in a TV show for a while – exceptionally brutal for prime-time. And then…and then….my mind utterly exploded….
Echo puts Ballard on his back, and tells him that the Dollhouse is real! WTF???? I was reeling from that revelation when she then tells him that someone has infiltrated the Dollhouse and that they’ve altered her imprint to send him this message, the first of many. There are twenty Dollhouses across the world, and they’re tied to government and industry at all levels, so Ballard needs to take a different approach and find out what the true purpose of the Dollhouse is. It’s tantalising, and entirely alters the premise of the show in one flash of creative lightening. Echo and other actives are now a communications conduit to Ballard from the inside, where someone is installed. Or this is a complete setup to nullify Ballard, take your pick.
There’s one last twist: a policeman comes into the alley where they’re talking, and Echo makes Ballard shoot the cop in the shoulder, which she tells him is to protect the contact and him, but not anyone else. Realising that Mellie is in danger, he heads home on foot. Why he didn’t get a taxi or steal a car, I’ve no idea, but given how good the last forty-five minutes were, I wasn’t going to dwell on it.
He shouldn’t worry really, because Mellie isn’t in danger, Hearn is. He enters the apartment and starts to throw her around like a doll, eventually pinning her on the floor. She’s helpless – her best ability is cooking!
The phone rings, which you assume is Ballard trying to warn her, but it’s Adelle! He says a code phrase and Mellie turns into psycho-babe. ‘There are three flowers in a vase’ line has an amazing effect on her, and it also deactivates her when she’s broken Hearn’s neck on the coffee table. She’s crying when Ballard arrives, unaware how she even killed him.
Ballard hands his gun and badge in after the cop is shot, suspended from the FBI. And we end with Joel Mynor and Echo, repeat reliving his fantasy, the end.
In a word ‘wow’. Why have I had to sit through the previous five episodes of mostly rubbish to get here? More happened in this one story than the sum of the rest, and I now entirely accept that the story was a ‘game changer’ as Joss described it.
In retrospect this story had much less Eliza Dushku in it than any other, and more Tahmoh Penikett (Ballard), which gave an entirely different dynamic. Dollhouse is really Ballard’s story as much as it’s Echo’s, and he’s now set to take up that important position. The plot twists and shenanigans were almost perfectly paced, delivering some genuinely great changes of direction. For once I didn’t find myself slapping my forehead, and a few of the twists entirely caught me completely off guard. In a single bound it has become an entirely new show. This was the pilot episode, and it’s onwards and upwards from here.
After the reviews I’ve previously published on this show, I can’t really believe I’m saying this, but I’m now really looking forward to the next episode.
Check out our review of episode 5 here.