Life in the Dollhouse

It’s a new day. It’s socially acceptable to enjoy sci-fi, and Dollhouse is a surprisingly enjoyable show, one that has been a long time coming.

I wouldn’t call Dollhouse a high-concept television series.

However, the premise is interesting (dare I say “hella” interesting?) and it’s definitely above any of the standard sci-fi fare currently surfing the airwaves.

Why? Well partially because there aren’t a lot of sci-fi shows currently on broadcast television. Until the recent success and mainstreamification (that’s a thing, right?) of superhero movies, television the likes of Heroes, Fringe, Dollhouse and (arguably) Lost wouldn’t really have been considered for broadcast on anything except the SciFi channel.

Of course there was The X-Files, a huge cult hit that stayed afloat on FOX for nine seasons, but after the shitty feature film Fight the Future and the absurdly anti-climactic series finale which revealed just about nothing, people had neither sought nor desired mainstream sci-fi fun.

Then it became cool to be a nerd. Not like a real nerd who possesses unparalleled dungeon mastery, scoffs at the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, preferring the campy late-’70s version and whose medical insurance includes bacta tank immersion.

Rather, a cool nerd, one with thick glasses, an endearing awkwardness (a la Michael Cera) and a collection of vintage looking t-shirts purchased at Target. We can all thank Spider-Man 2 for that.

So, it’s a new day. It’s socially acceptable to enjoy sci-fi, and Dollhouse is a surprisingly enjoyable show, one that has been a long time coming. Seems Joss Whedon’s new TV show hit a number of snags on its way to broadcast. Snags, of which I only comprehend vagaries and being the lazy writer I am, refuse to look into further than to say that shit hit the fan.

Now, I’ve never been a huge Whedon fan. Buffy was boring, Angel I ignored and Firefly was a second-rate Star Wars. But for whatever reason I actually enjoyed Dollhouse.

tells the story of a place where the super wealthy can go to hire anyone for anything. Looking for some crazy sex with a super hottie? No problem. Need somebody killed by an expert assassin? You’re covered. Want to consult an expert in criminal psychology and networking? They got that too. And no, we’re not talking about Las Vegas (although we may as well be) we’re talking about a highly illegal operation that involves the wiping of memories and imprinting of personas.

The unnamed company (or maybe it was named, I just missed it) that offers this service is comprised of actives (or “dolls”) who have volunteered (at least that’s the implication from the beginning of the show) to have their memories wiped so they can be turned into, essentially, shells of human beings, their minds ready for a persona imprint, a virtual personality comprised of a number of different deceased individuals. These personalities can be tailored to create whatever is necessary for the upscale rich-ass clientele.

In the pilot, Echo is imprinted with “Miss Penn,” a personality constructed to help a customer coordinate the safe return of his daughter after a ransom. The client wishes to simply pay the money and get his daughter back since he is afraid involving law enforcement could jeopardize her life. But there’s a hiccup, and just as “Miss Penn” is about to finalize the transfer of money and child, she panics and the entire operation is put in jeopardy.

Why the panic? You’ll just have to find out for yourself (see or iTunes or digital piracy). I will say, she recognizes, or thinks she recognizes, someone from the past of one of the many personalities used to define her current persona.

I’ve never been a huge Dushku fan, but this series will really test her acting chops, as she’ll be called upon to embody two or more personalities in a given episode. But that’s not to say the series is devoid of some other great performers.

Harry Lenix plays Boyd Langton, Echo’s handler (essentially a bodyguard) and does a damn good job. I’ve always been a fan of Lenix, a character actor who’s both resolute and reticent, fearing that what he does is amoral.

Opposite Langton is Topher Brink, portrayed by Fran Kranz, star of the short-lived Welcome to the Captain. Kranz is awesome as Brink, who essentially serves as the “programmer” of the actives, building personas, wiping memories and creating technology for use with the “dolls.”

What makes Kranz so great is, like every other tech geek on TV, he’s young, shaggy haired and dresses just off-fashion in a manner indicating his hipness, but he is also sort of a sinister bastard. He’s sure that what he’s doing is legit, regardless of its lack of legality and the way he directs the child-like, mind-wiped “dolls” is stern and disconcerting (particularly coming from someone who looks like a college student).

Finally, there’s Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), an FBI agent who’s dedicated to bringing down the entire operation, even at the cost of his marriage and respect from his coworkers. Yeah, his character is sort of a cliché, but it’ll be nice to see Penikett, the squeaky-clean Carl “Helo” Agathon from Battlestar Galactica, get his hands dirty as an FBI man who’ll go outside the law to bring the responsible parties to justice. We didn’t see much of Penikett in the pilot, but here’s hoping we get a lot more in episodes to come.

At the end of the episode, Echo returns to the facility where she and the other actives reside, the “dollhouse,” has her memory wiped and goes to sleep in a super stylish bed/pit (really the only way to describe it). If there’s one huge glaring error running through the first episode of Dollhouse is that there is nowhere near enough explanation as to how memories are wiped, personas built or how the dollhouse can exist in any capacity without attracting major law enforcement trouble.

And while I enjoyed the pilot, I am reticent to put my faith in Whedon, who easily loses sight of the mainstream audience and has let his shows slip into cult fandom in the past. I suppose we’ll simply have to wait and see. For now, it appears promising. Not outstanding, but at least enjoyable, and while you may no longer play with dolls, you just might enjoy a trip to the Dollhouse.