Long before the first season of Dollhouse ended, many viewers weren't surprised to see it on the chopping block. Not for lack of quality, of course: Joss Whedon's follow-up to strong efforts like Buffy and cult favorite Firefly started slow but ended things on a high note. This was a series that simply didn't garner enough of a following---and in the eyes of network executives, that's what really matters. During my review of the first season on DVD, I couldn't help but compare Dollhouse to the recently-canceled Sarah Connor Chronicles, another short-lived FOX series which offered a similar blend of sci-fi, action and drama...and also didn't garner enough of a following. As both were up for cancellation around the same time, Dollhouse (surprisingly) got a reprieve while Chronicles got the axe; whether it was a "consolation prize" for Whedon after Firefly's fate is anyone's guess, but the comparisons should end there. Simply put, Dollhouse's first season showed promise, so another round of 13 episodes could allow the characters, relationships and mysteries to expand...and though it never made it past this second season, at least Dollhouse went down swinging.
As expected, with the constant threat of cancellation came budget cuts, so Whedon and company trimmed a few corners here and there without sacrificing quality. Front and center: Dollhouse's first season was filmed in 35mm, while this second round switched over to high-definition video...and most folks probably can't even spot much of a difference. According to Whedon on the commentary track for season opener "Vows", roughly one-third of the set lighting was also done away with, allowing for more simplified compositions and "places to hide". On-location footage was greatly reduced and, in some cases, supplemented by modest CG trickery. Aside from these changes, Dollhouse is all business as usual...and in all honesty, potential handicaps like these only forced the creative team to throw everything at the wall and see what would stick. Spoiler alert: most of it sticks.
A more concentrated effort to stay inside the Dollhouse (also due to the lack of on-location scenes) yields more concentrated and accessible results, even though the actual stories vary in theme, intensity and emotion. During most of this final season---the first half, in particular---Dollhouse focuses even more on psychological ethics, or lack thereof. Most of the mystery surrounding the Dollhouse's parent company (the Rossum Corporation) has already been revealed...so if this season suffers from any handicap, it's that we already know most of who's good, evil and squarely in-between. Of course, this allows for a broader exploration of the actual characters, which works firmly to Dollhouse's advantage: central character Echo (Eliza Dushku) is even becoming self-aware, and it's her gradual memory acquisition that drives many of the early episodes. From start to finish, Season 2 serves up layers upon layers of conspiracy, chaos and corporate crime to create one of the most ambitious half-seasons since...well, the first one. And for the most part, it's a more entertaining ride this time around.
(13 episodes on 4 single-sided discs + extras)
* - Includes Optional Audio Commentary
As mentioned earlier, Dollhouse: Season 2 is anything but a rehash of the first year's episodes. Of course, there are a few similarities present: for example, the season's first half is partially driven by "identity-of-the-week" episodes, while the second half expands the series' scope considerably. Things even close out with a future-based coda that's a (more or less) direct sequel to the unaired first season finale, "Epitaph One". Yet while the technical blueprint is the same, this is a different Dollhouse entirely, focusing more on character motivations and the fallout from Rossum's attempts to keep its sinister plans in motion. Don't let the short-sighted opening credits fool you: this is not just a weekly chronicle of Echo in a variety of outfits (ooh, this week she has glasses!), it's a series about identity, lost memory, medical ethics, corporate greed and the occasional ass-kicking brawl. Supremely entertaining and surprisingly ambitious, this second and final season lowers the curtain with style, creativity and enthusiasm.
Fox Home Entertainment presents Dollhouse: Season Two in a compact, four-disc set containing all 13 "regular" episodes and a few extras for good measure. Though DVD Talk received this title several weeks after its release date, it's an official retail version from top to bottom (unlike the first time around, which required an update weeks after the original posting). Just for the record, a Blu-Ray version is also available if you've moved past standard definition. For now, this well-rounded collection is a satisfying but somewhat pricey set for Whedon fans of all experience levels. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratios and enhanced for 16x9 displays, all 13 episodes look very good from start to finish. The series' earthy, stylized color palette seems accurate, black levels are consistent and image detail is generally solid. Digital problems (such as combing and edge enhancement) don't seem to be an issue, though trace amounts of compression artifacts can be seen occasionally. The Blu-Ray release undoubtedly offers a tighter visual presentation...but for those limited to standard-def, there's little to complain about. Overall, it's about on par with the first season's visuals.
Presented in a robust Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix, Dollhouse maintains a strong soundstage and clean, crisp dialogue. Though many dialogue-driven scenes are anchored squarely in the front, we're also treated to flurries of surround activity once the action heats up. The excellent score rarely fights for attention, creating a dynamic atmosphere that fans should enjoy. Optional English, Spanish, French and Portuguese subtitles are included during each episode, but none of the bonus features.
A few other extras are included on Disc 4, leading off with a brief collection of Outtakes (5:36) and Deleted Scenes (10 clips, 10:31 total). The outtakes are nothing to write home about, but the deleted scenes are definitely worth a look; these cover episodes #1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 13, and most of them are quite good. The clips from episode #1 are especially worth a look: as hinted at during the Joss Whedon commentary, the "future scenes" were originally part of the season premiere but were (correctly) scrapped by the studio. Also here are two behind-the-scenes featurettes: "Defining Moments" (13:28) shows the cast and crew before, during and after the surprising second season, while "Looking Back" (16:18) serves up a table-side chat with Whedon and select members of the cast as they reminisce about the series. It's a bittersweet but appropriate ending.
All bonus features are presented in anamorphic widescreen and look quite good, though none of them include optional subtitles. This is an unfortunate oversight, especially since most other aspects of this release were treated with so much care.
Dollhouse: Season Two is a satisfying end to a short-lived but memorable series...and in all honesty, it's more consistently entertaining than the first round of episodes. Low ratings, a slashed budget and the constant threat of cancellation kept Whedon and company on their toes from start to finish, resulting in a muscular, creative season that's bursting with great ideas. The DVD package by Fox Home Entertainment isn't quite as satisfying this time around, though: the technical presentation is still on par, but many of the bonus features aren't anything to write home about. Still, this fantastic conclusion to a truly underrated series should be on the wish list of all self-respecting Whedon fans...unless they've already picked it up, of course. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.