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"Dollhouse" Tv Series - Popmatters.com Review

mardi 19 avril 2011, par Webmaster

As painful as it was the time, getting cancelled (and more importantly, knowing that the end was almost certainly coming) was the best thing that ever happened to Dollhouse. Whereas Firefly was pretty clearly nipped in the bud and became a classic example of network-squandered potential, Dollhouse got that second season. That still only brings the total number of episodes for the show to 26, but given the pretty horrible ratings the show had to begin with and Whedon’s perennial refusal to compromise on quality, once that second season began Whedon and company knew they had to move fast.

Dollhouse is the hardest to synopsize of any of Whedon’s shows ; normally I’d direct you to the Wikipedia entry for a brief refresher, but the description there is so filled with spoilers, and so much of the joy of watching the show live with friends (particularly once Fox switched to two episodes a week when burning off episodes the end of the second season, which is when it REALLY became must-watch TV) was having the densely packed and often surprising revelations that the show launched at us steadily blow our minds. The gist is that the Rossum corporation has developed technology that allows them to treat human personalities like computer programs. Sit in their chair and they can back you up to disk, erase you, even outfit you with a whole new set of memories, mannerisms, and skills (in a neat wrinkle, these personalities aren’t pick-and-mix ; your hostage-negotiation skills, for example, might come with poor vision).

What they choose to do with this technology is like a skeevier version of Philip K. Dick’s short story “Paycheck” : You go to sleep one day, and then you wake up and it’s five years later. You get paid a lot of money. And for those five years, your body has been an “Active,” kept in a, well, doll-like state between assignments and regularly sent to perform tasks from assassination to prostitution to simple companionship. More importantly, when you’re an Active, you’re sent to live a life ; it’s technology that lets you see your wife one last time, or solve your own murder, or find out where that serial killer in a coma on the other side of the room put his latest intended victims. Not only do “you” (your personality) have utterly no idea that these things are happening, “you” (your body) really IS whatever it’s been programmed to be, with utterly sincere emotions and reactions and no inkling that you’re anything other than a real, normal person.

As you can imagine just from that sketch, it’s a very rich setting, probably the headiest, densest science fiction premise seen on network TV in years (not that many people noticed), and as you might expect from Whedon, the show refuses to back away from any of the difficult, sometimes disturbing ramifications of the ideas that Dollhouse is based around. It’s just that these issues and this setting are overlaid with the typical Whedon mix of snappy patter, romantic angst, and plot whiplash.

It’s not that I’d want Dollhouse to be more serious-minded or something ; the show is commendably dark and serious when it’s called for (as with all of Whedon’s shows, the tonal and emotional range here puts most network TV to shame), and the chances that it takes in terms of plot, theme, even character are usually commendably well-done. And once the show’s awareness that it didn’t have long to live meshed with the accelerated airing schedule required by low ratings, Dollhouse hit a truly gonzo high, seemingly rushing to get out five or six years of serialized TV in just a few episodes. The infamous, not-aired-in-the-US “Epitaph One” that ends the first season was ample notice that Whedon wasn’t relying on Lost-like longevity to get his whole story out, and while everyone I know who’s watched the show can pick out a few moments that just register as goofy (albeit usually different moments for each person), that’s a small price to pay for one of the few genre shows to go down with the ship, so to speak ; to stick with its thorny premise to the (literally) bitter end, to take the kind of potentially apocalyptic shift that serialized TV usually just pussyfoots around with and have it lead to… well, apocalypse ; to push these characters until some of them snap, and to show what happens then.

Partly because of the relatively truncated nature of the show, Dollhouse works to suggest a lot more than it has the time to actually show, and that’s a good deal of its power. The two season-ending “Epitaph” episodes take us far enough into the future that the viewer doesn’t end the series wondering what will happen, and that future is bleak enough that the viewer doesn’t get to imagine the kind of rosily idealized feel-good conclusion that we tend to gravitate towards. The overall tone of Dollhouse reminds me of nothing more than the bloodily fatalistic “alternate history” stories you used to see in Marvel’s What If ? series (where Spiderman would die instead of Gwen Stacy, or Wolverine would devolve into the super-powered equivalent of a rabid dog, and so on), except that there’s no clean, happy main version of this story for us to fall back on after everyone’s either dead or deranged. As witty and as filled with great little character moments as it is, Dollhouse is ultimately a show that just doesn’t fuck around. You could do a light little adventure show about stylish personality-shifting secret agents running around in different outfits every week while they fight crime or whatever, but Dollhouse isn’t it. It’s a show about some truly horrific technology and a group of people who’ve been willing to work with that technology, and the slowly dawning horror of finding out what the real ramifications are, of how much they’ve all been willing to compromise or just not think about the situation, and of just what they’re up against.

Like many shows, it does take some time to find its feet. The first half of the first season is never awful (although I know many would disagree with me as far as the third episode goes), but it does suggest the much more facile and boring show someone else might have made ; it’s a really, really weird adventure show instead of the rich stew Dollhouse would become.

The characters don’t all seem to work at first, either. I distinctly remember hating Fran Kranz’s Topher when I watched the first episode ; as the nerdy young genius responsible for the Dollhouse’s imprinting capabilities, he was so amoral and glib that you just want to smack him around. But much as Fringe‘s Olivia Dunham went from appearing wooden in that show’s first few episodes to being revealed as a nicely subtle portrayal of someone so driven and battered that she’s not that good with people in general, Kranz and the writers soon fleshed Topher out into not just the funniest character on the show but one of the most moving (if you can watch his scenes in the “Epitaph” episodes and not feel for the guy, you’re made of more insensible stuff than I am). He might be the best character on the show if not for Olivia Williams’s wearily badass Adelle DeWitt (who runs the Dollhouse) or Reed Diamond’s slightly underused Mr. Dominic, the perpetually cranky head of security, or Enver Gjokaj’s stunning, chameleonic work as Victor, one of the Actives, or about half a dozen others.

One of the big sticking points people seemed to have with Dollhouse was Eliza Dushku’s work as series lead Echo, the driver of most of the plot of the show (which I have mostly avoided talking about here, mainly because it’s more fun to follow all the switchbacks yourself ; this really is a show where you almost certainly won’t be able to guess where it’s going). Like Anna Torv’s work as the aforementioned Agent Dunham and January Jones’s Betty Draper on Mad Men, I really think this is a case of the audience and critics mistaking an effective portrayal of a difficult or even unlikeable character for a bad one. If anything, Dushku’s job is even harder than Torv’s or Jones’s ; she has to play a succession of different personalities, no personality, and a very carefully and subtly modulated kind of gestalt personality (it’s saying something for Dollhouse that this information isn’t much of a spoiler), often in quick succession. Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman as the other main Actives in the series both do very fine jobs, but Dushku is right there with them ; none of the transitions or personalities ever seem faked (unless they actually are), and that’s crucial to the success of the show.

Befitting what might be Whedon’s densest, most idea-packed show to date, I’ve barely even scratched the surface of what’s going on in Dollhouse ; there are major characters and plotlines I’ve left untouched, more thematic and even political depth than you can shake a stick at, and some truly great guest stars (keep an eye out for the episode with Patton Oswalt ; that’s the one where Dollhouse goes from a promising idea to a great show).

As much as I love Whedon’s other series work, I’m just about ready to call this one of his best TV shows to date ; shorn of the relative conventionality of his other work, it winds up going to a strange place where the in-jokes are just as important as the weighty social/political/philosophical subtext, and vice versa. Given five or six years it might have been easy to swamp this setting under with too much story, but at two seasons Dollhouse works as a series of short, sharp shocks delivered to the viewer, ones that give the end of the series an almost uncanny power. I give Fox credit for giving it the chance that they did, but thankfully Dollhouse was ultimately just too odd to stay on for too long.


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