Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dolly Mixture

Back in the days of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I suspected Joss Whedon of having devised the series just so he could work - some might even say play - with lots of pretty young people. It seems true of all his creations. But then he liberally sprinkles his series with great characters, sparkling dialogue and lots of just generally clever witty stuff to persuade you that, no, the man is a genius. And heck, even if it's all to disguise his true motives, it's still genius.

That said, I'm not one of those who believes that Mr Whedon can do no wrong. Buffy had its disappointing patches, I really wasn't sold on Angel until quite late into the series and here, at the end of the first season, I'm still not entirely convinced by his latest offering, Dollhouse.

Once again he has assembled a cast of pretty young things, headed up by the superlative Eliza Dushku (so good she even enabled me to see the merits of Tru Calling), and most of them are talented too. With Amy Acker, Harry Lennix, Tamoh Penikett and Reed Diamond among the regulars, it's like Angel, Commander In Chief, Battlestar Galactica and Homicide: Life On The Street all met up for a party and ended up going home with the wrong partners. The series itself is a similarly odd mix of brilliance and 'bits that don't quite work'.

For starters, the premise is ludicrous. Now I'm all for absurd premises - for a while I've followed a series involving a man travelling through time and space in a police box and more recently I've been entertained by the exploits of a tech support guy working at a Buy More who has all manner of state and international secrets beamed into his brain. As to the former, I couldn't begin to tell you why that works for me, but as for the latter - Chuck - mostly it gets away with it with a combination of tone (you never take it seriously) and just not really going into the ins and outs of how it works - or doesn't. But there's something about the Dollhouse that leaves me thinking the foundations are a little shaky.

Even in the (admittedly brilliant) final episode, a character laughs at the revelation that the Dollhouse was nothing more than a high class brothel. And no matter how much the proprietors attempt to justify it, with phrases like 'your ultimate fantasy', when you see Eliza Dushku dressed up in S&M gear and wielding a whip you can't help thinking (amongst other things) that it is all an overly elaborate and expensive setup for what it provides. Those capable of paying the price tag (implicitly *very* high) for a doll could most likely obtain much the same with greater ease, far less moolah, a fraction of the cloak and dagger and ultimately - given that rumours abound on the streets about this secret establishment - just as discreetly elsewhere. There's also a skin-crawling creepiness to it all that's slightly off-putting. (Unlike characters like Miss DeWitt, say - ably played by Olivia Williams - who is creepy in a good way.)

In the midst of it, there are some applications that make a kind of sense - the woman who has a copy of herself 'saved' so that she can extend her life long enough to discover the identity of her murderer and the touching tale of the guy who has a doll help him celebrate the anniversary he never got to share with his deceased wife. And the whole thing is an actor's dream, handing many of the cast the opportunity to play a different role each week and play dress-up.

It begins much like the experience of existence as a doll, waking up to something new each episode, no clear recollection of exactly what happened last week and a degree of confusion as to where it's all leading. But the Whedon sparkle is there in the scripts and that, coupled with the generally charismatic ensemble of characters, tends to elevate a show that you might otherwise pass over. And if on those strengths you do decide to stick with it, it does eventually hit its stride, developing with twists and turns that (assuming they haven't been spoilered!) will have you sitting up and paying attention. Ultimately persuading you that, yes, in fact the producers do have a clear idea of where it's all heading and that it might even be interesting when you get there.

Exceptions would be the Tamoh Penikett thread (he's essentially like Mr McGee in The Incredible Hulk) which, although it does throw some genuinely startling curve balls along the way, has only a limited number of possible outcomes - and I happened to guess the one they went for. Sort of. The breakdown of the memory wiping and the 'revelation' that it's nowhere near as efficient as the Dollhouse management believed is thoroughly predictable from the get go, but on the other hand without it there wouldn't be much of a story at all, so that can be forgiven.

Anyway it's a short first season, so well worth a gamble, and the final handful of episodes are a fantasy drama tour de force that does reward viewer loyalty through the slow series start. And unlike Firefly it actually has been granted a second season. I'm not as fired up and keen to see what's next as I was at the same stage in Firefly - and I'm more excited by the news that, apparently, there will be more Dr Horrible - but it has at least grabbed my interest. The season finale, as I said, is nothing short of brilliant and is full of surprises - although in some respects it feels like the overall *series* finale that Joss made ahead of time in case, like Firefly, it got canned before its time. Second season will in all probability follow on from events in the preceding episode (12) and this thirteenth episode is perhaps best viewed as a tantalising extra for the time being. All in all, a curious - but positive - season closer for a series that can certainly be described as 'unusual'.

Unfortunately because I've endeavoured to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, I've probably painted as vague and indistinct an impression of Dollhouse as I had after the first couple of episodes, but at the end of the day it does amount to a qualified recommendation. On a purely superficial level, it amounts to a grown man playing with dolls. But since the grown man is Joss Whedon, I feel obliged to take notice.


AmethystGreye said...

A. I agree muchly with your Whedon diognosis.

B. I MISS CHUCK. They keep telling us it's coming back, but I have yet to see it ina line-up.

C. Found you!

SAF said...

A. Thank you

B. Last episode of Chuck Season 2 for us tonight, but yes I gather there's a bit of a delay before we get to see any more. It's a great show, a lot of fun.

C. Glad you found me :-)