I know that for most fans, Firefly is the "Great Joss Whedon Show That Could've Been," but for me, it's Dollhouse. The sci-fi-themed series debuted mid-season in 2009 as a vehicle for Eliza Dushku. The concept: Dushku played Echo, a woman who had surrendered her identity to the Dollhouse, a high-tech, underground business where men and women are programmed to believe they are someone else in service to specific clients. Rich men might buy a trophy date, a security firm might hire a field expert to pull off a covert mission--the possibilities were only limited to the data that could be gathered in the Dollhouse lab.
So, too, did it seem that the possibilities for the television show Dollhouse would only be limited to Whedon's considerable imagination. Dushku, who had played Faith on Whedon's hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, would be his muse, and the series itself would be an extended metaphor for the acting life. Who will I be today? What part of myself am I surrendering? Every week, Echo would be on a new assignment, living out individual stories. At the same time, Whedon and his team were building an overarching mythology for the series. The Dollhouse was owned by the Rossum Corporation, a global consortium with a mysterious end game. As it turned out, Echo was also a missing activist named Caroline, and an FBI agent named Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, Battlestar Galactica) thought finding her was the key to exposing the conspiracy. Ballard was Dollhouse's version of Fox Mulder, tilting at a windmill that everyone else believed to be crazy.
Apparently the Fox Network believed that all of this was pretty crazy, as well, and there were reports of meddling and retooling and Dollhouse sounded like it was in trouble before it even got to the air. Still, the 13-episode first season turned out to be pretty good, and though the ratings weren't spectacular, there was a last-minute save and Dollhouse was greenlit for a second season. Which is now on DVD: Dollhouse: The Complete Season 2. (Yes, it took a bit, but I've gotten you here.) Unfortunately, the trouble wasn't over, the show would only make it another half season before it was axed, and though the writing team did their level best to pull a complete story out of the wreckage, Dollhouse ultimately suffers from too many cooks and too many disparate ingredients.
Season 2 begins as the Los Angeles Dollhouse picks up the pieces following the attack by a rogue doll, Alpha (Serenity's Alan Tudyk), at the close of the first season. Paul Ballard has taken a job with the company, ostensibly to take it down from the inside, though that commitment will be tested. Echo, it is now known, is no ordinary doll, she is in conflict with her programming and her brain acts as a storehouse for all the profiles she has ever been imprinted with. She is like a woman with multiple personalities, and she will learn to access each one as needed. In the first episode, "Vows," Echo is deep undercover, marrying a businessman suspected of criminal ties; in the second episode, "Instinct," she is programmed to stand in for a new mother who died in childbirth, only to find her maternal instincts are more pronounced than anyone would have thought. For the time being, at least, it seems to be business as usual at Dollhouse.
All of the Season 1 cast has returned for Season 2. Olivia Williams (Rushmore) plays Adelle DeWitt, the boss of the Los Angeles house, and Harry Lennix is Boyd, the head of her security detail. In addition to Echo, we also have Sierra and Victor (Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj), the dolls whose love for one another subverted their programming. And we have their programmer, the obnoxious genius Topher Brink (Fran Kranz). All of the proven elements remain, and that stuff works.
It's the new stuff that can be hit-and-miss. The first several episodes try on a bunch of different things. Alexis Denisof, another member of the Whedon ensemble, comes on board as Daniel Perrin, a U.S. Senator determined to expose Rossum and the Dollhouse program. Echo acts as Ballard's partner, then breaks away from the 'house to act on her own, but then comes back, possibly to help Ballard on his quest. Rossum starts to encroach on DeWitt's power, and one of the higher-ups (Keith Carradine) even takes over for a while. We are introduced to one of the other Dollhouses, and their version of Topher, a scientist with former ties to Caroline. (She is played by Firefly and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles-star Summer Glau, and her episodes are some of the best here, largely thanks to Glau's quirky performance. The actress has an uncanny knack for playing emotionally stunted characters. No one can combine cuteness and menace in quite the same way.) Topher's expansion of Alpha's technology for remotely programming Dolls points the way to the post-apocalyptic finale from Season 1.
Hmmm...it's funny, writing it all out, there seems to be a rather clear logic at work in Season 2. It doesn't seem that way when you're watching it. While individual episodes are still very good, they don't always add up from one show to the next. Jumps in time, quick plot reversals, and the rapid introduction of new concepts causes Season 2 to feel rushed and disjointed. Character motivations flip-flop, and the Rossum conspiracy is quickly overloaded. It's understandable given the show's impending cancellation, there was no time to mess around, but it's hard not to wish some of the rough transitions could have been smoothed out.
Luckily, the cast remains uniformly solid, and their work sells the material. Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj in particular impress from episode to episode as Sierra and Victor adopt different personas. (Watch for Gjokaj's dead-on impersonation of Fran Kranz in Episode 6, "The Left Hand.") They are the more adaptable dolls, as the nature of Echo's character dictates she should remain somewhat consistent. Some see Eliza Dushku as the weak link, but I actually think she's well suited to the role. There must always be a hint of the core Echo personality in whatever identity she adopts, and I think the actress finds the right way to do that while also tweaking it to fit that week's plot. In addition to the regulars, there are a variety of guest stars, including Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) and two more Whedon regulars: Amy Acker and Felicia Day. Comedian Patton Oswalt also returns in Episode 8, reprising his character from the first season, and yes, there is more Alan Tudyk as Alpha.
In fact, it's that eighth episode, "A Love Supreme," that acts as the turning point for Season 2. Alpha's actions give Echo reason to explore the Attic, the mysterious place where retired dolls and troublemakers are sent, never to return. This leads to the greater Rossum conspiracy, and also gives us some backstory on the origin of the Dollhouse program. Echo and her cohorts eventually enter a virtual world, and the writers bring us around to connect to the previous season's closer, "Epitaph 1." The last episode of the show is "Epitaph 2," and it takes us back to that stark future world where the Dollhouse technology has taken over everything and individual personalities are being subsumed by a zombie-like mental imprint. It's in these last six shows that all that hurrying starts to pay off. No one can say that Dollhouse: The Complete Season 2 doesn't finish the series with a bang.
In all honesty, going over all this again, watching the shows back to back rather than week to week, I enjoyed the second Dollhouse much more this time around than I remembered. The rushed pacing does provide a momentum that, once you're caught up in it, it's tough to get out of. It's hard not to wonder how much better it might have been had the producers had the other half of the season to build on their ideas a little more, but then, it's also not fair to judge what is on what might have been. Dollhouse: The Complete Season 2 does the job it sets out to do.
Dollhouse: The Complete Season 2 was shot for broadcast in HD, and so the 1.78:1 widescreen transfers, coded at 18 MBPS, look really good. I think there is some slight enhancement, but it is not noticeable most of the time. There is good color and detail, skin tones look fabulous, and the overall depth of field is great.
The 5.1 DTS mix works in all five speakers, though it is mainly a full mix and there isn't much by way of subtle detail except for some nice movement of music from the front to the back channels that lends to their enhancing effect. Overall, there is good volume and no glitches; a good job, just not great.
Subtitle options include Spanish, French, and Portuguese, as well as English Closed Captioning.
The three-disc set Dollhouse: The Complete Season 2 has 13 episodes on 3 discs--5, 5, and 3. The packaging is a standard-sized plastic case with a hinged tray. The case comes with a special color comic book made exclusively for the set and written by regular series contributors Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharden. The comic serves as a prologue to the "Epitaphs" episodes that end each season, though there isn't much story due to the comic's smaller size and shorter length (heh, kind of like the series). It's an okay effort, standard licensed material.
Disc 1 has two audio commentaries: creator Joss Whedon appears on the first episode, "Vows," and writers/story editors Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharden talk over Episode 4, "Belonging," the show that focuses on the origins of the Sierra character (and one of the stand-outs of the season). Joss Whedon's talk is pretty good, especially for his candid sharing regarding the nature of the second season and the scrambling to pull something together when they actually got renewed. The other commentary is so-so. It's very chatty and anecdotal.
Disc 2 has no extras.
Disc 3 offers one more commentary: writer/director Tim Minear talks about Episode 11, "Getting Closer."
Five-and-a-half minutes of outtakes collects flubs and goofiness from the set. Alexis Denisof wins this round with his funny campaign speeches. Ten minutes of deleted scenes from a handful of episodes are just that: deleted scenes. There is nothing here that would have significantly changed any of the episodes had they been left in. Maybe some of the missing stuff with Madeleine (Miracle Laurie) might have done more to signal her joining Perrin, but then again, that still works in context.
"Defining Moments" is a 13-minute, 27-second behind-the-scenes featurette, showing the filming of various scenes alongside interviews. Whedon and the cast and crew talk more about the troubles going into Season 2, and the adopted urgency of trying to make the show what they wanted it to be in the space allotted. Also, general character stuff, guest stars, comic artist John Cassaday directing, etc., are covered. Finally, "Looking Back" is a 16-minute, 18-second dinner with Whedon, Dushku, Williams, Tudyk, Kranz, Laurie, Lachman, and Gjokaj sharing memories about Dollhouse. Craft and serialized storytelling are discussed, and actors choose their favorite Doll imprint. Interesting tidbit: Whedon pitched the series as a six-year project.
Recommended. Despite its problems, Dollhouse: The Complete Season 2 is still an entertaining sci-fi show. Strong performances and the usual standard of quality writing one comes to expect from a Joss Whedon production means Dollhouse manages to overcome most of the outside meddling. There is a sense that there could have been more, that the series never has time to really get comfortable with itself, but unlike a lot of television that gets cut short, this one at least has an ending. If you liked Season 1, I think you'll also like The Complete Season 2; alternately, if you're looking for something new, Dollhouse offers a finite commitment for a decent payoff, so give it a try.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.