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Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season One

Fox // Unrated // July 28, 2009
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted August 3, 2009 | E-mail the Author

NOTE: This review was updated on 8/2/09, shortly after the receipt of an official release copy of this four-disc set. Aside from updates to the technical sections, it also includes notes on the unaired 13th episode and an assortment of bonus features. Enjoy!

It's been a while since Joss Whedon has been involved in a television project for the Fox network; last time, things didn't end very well. Whedon must not have burnt very many bridges during the last few years, though: his most recent series, Dollhouse, was recently renewed for a second season, despite earning low ratings during its initial 12-episode run. Things didn't start so well, either: the planned first episode was eventually scrapped, with most of its footage divided up into portions of other episodes. A 13th episode ("Epitaph One") was also part of the original deal, but was never aired. Luckily, the series had a number of things working in its favor, including a committed creative team, a decent cast and, most importantly, an intriguing premise.

Our story revolves around a number of "Actives" who serve as employees in a company known as the Dollhouse. These Actives have signed over their bodies, in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money, as part of a five-year contract. Their sacrifice, however, is the real kicker: they've been stripped of their former personalities (which are kept in storage) and have essentially been whittled down to a clean slate. The Actives are virtually emotionless, but they're certainly taken care of: The Dollhouse itself is a luxurious, secure structure with plenty of food, shelter and recreation. It's not all play, of course; when they're hired out to high-valued clients, the Actives are fitted with custom memories to match each mission (or "engagement", as they're called). Each Active is also assigned to a Handler, who personally oversees their safety and well-being. Long story short: whether it's for business or pleasure, legal or illegal, the job always gets done.

Of course, the Dollhouse itself is as mysterious as some of its employees. Most locals think it's an urban legend, but others believe in its existence. FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is one such believer, and he's convinced that a young woman named Caroline---who currently serves as an Active named Echo (Eliza Dushku)---needs his help to not only escape, but to expose the morally ambiguous Dollhouse. Other current Actives include Victor (Enver Gjokaj), November (Miracle Laurie) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman). Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) is the Dollhouse scientist who implants the Actives' memories for each engagement. Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) is the presumed leader of the Dollhouse, overseeing all Actives and staff. Season 1 introduces us to these and many more characters, offering a glimpse inside this unusual organization and the people who make it work.

Complete Episode Listing
(14 episodes on 4 single-sided discs)

Disc One

"Ghost" ^
"The Target"
"Stage Fright"
"Gray Hour"

Disc Two

"True Believer"
"Man on the Street" ^

Disc Three

"A Spy in the House of Love"
"Briar Rose"

Disc Four

"Epitaph One" *^
Bonus Features **

* - Never-Before-Seen 13th Episode
** - Includes Unaired Pilot Episode, "Echo"
^ - Includes Optional Audio Commentary

Television shows rarely hit the ground running, which is unfortunate: half the time, they're cut off at the knees before they get a chance to take off. Dollhouse is no different, though it shows signs of life even during less impressive outings. The first five lay plenty of groundwork in a short amount of time, but it isn't long before Dollhouse hits a plateau; these are essentially "personality of the week" episodes, establishing little in the way of mythology or character development. "Stage Fright" is particularly bad, combining a lazy premise with a half-hearted execution and uninspired supporting characters. Things pick up soon enough, however: the much-touted "Man on the Street" is as good as advertised, merging both main "characters" (the Dollhouse itself and FBI Agent Paul Ballard) in a logical and satisfying manner. Before this episode, Ballard's motives seemed far too ambiguous.

Things rarely let up from here on out, creating an uneven but overly satisfying first season. The trippy "Echoes" establishes a bit more history for our lead character, while "Needs" presents a clever change of pace with a somewhat surprising resolution. "Haunted" is perhaps the only pure "personality of the week" episode in the season's second half, but the premise itself is terrific: Echo is programmed with the mind of a recently deceased woman, who infiltrates her own funeral to find out who killed her. "Briar Rose" and "Omega" close the broadcast season nicely, though the former is ultimately more satisfying.

The unaired 13th episode, "Epitaph One", is another beast entirely: we suddenly jump ten years into the future, where the once-bustling city lies in ruins. Our story revolves around a band of rebels who have discovered the abandoned Dollhouse---and just to make things interesting, it seems as if the former company is responsible for the city's fate. Most of the characters are new, though frequent flashbacks re-introduce us to the Dollhouse regulars. This "prophecy of things to come" proves to be a bit disorienting at first, but things wrap up quite nicely. It could almost serve as a satisfying series finale...that is, if we didn't have next season to look forward to. It's fairly obvious that this potential epilogue was created in the wake of the series' undetermined fate---and though Season 2 will likely pick up where "Omega" left off, this intriguing glance into the future offers a welcome change of pace.

With Dollhouse's upcoming second season in mind, here's hoping that a number of nagging problems are dealt with. The show's intriguing premise, which includes a limitless number of personalities for our otherwise blank central characters, would do well to introduce more history for some of these folks (Agent Ballard included). Though "Needs" hints at some of the reasons why the Actives' lives were signed over, they aren't enough to make us care for them completely; if left as-is, this "blank slate" structure will only last so long before things get repetitive. Whedon's last TV project (the brilliant Firefly) was cancelled in its prime, so it's likely that they'll make the most of this rare shot at redemption. For now, the debut season of Dollhouse stands fairly tall as an enjoyable mix of drama, suspense and brainy science fiction.

Fox Home Entertainment presents Dollhouse: Season One in a compact, four-disc set containing all 13 "regular" episodes, plus the unaired pilot and an assortment of other bonus features. Even better, these episodes are paired with a rock-solid technical presentation, easily besting their broadcast counterparts. A Blu-Ray version is also available, if you've already moved past standard definition. For now, this well-rounded collection is a satisfying but somewhat pricey set for Whedon fans of all experience levels. It's not the most consistent debut in recent memory, but Dollhouse certainly has its moments. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratios and enhanced for 16x9 displays, these 50-minute 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.

Presented in a robust Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix, Dollhouse sports 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 and the unaired pilot, but not the rest of the bonus features.

ADDENDUM: Both "Echo" and "Epitaph One" are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround instead of full 5.1 Surround. Both sound quite good, despite this technical limitation.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen above, the animated menu designs are simple and easy to navigate. Each 50-minute episode has been divided into roughly half a dozen chapters, while no obvious layer changes were detected during playback. This four-disc package is housed in a single-width keepcase with two double-sided interior hinges. It's a practical design, though only a basic episode list is printed on the inside.

Bonus Features

A decent amount of extras are on hand here, leading off with a trio of Audio Commentaries. The first two scene-specific chats are offered during "Ghost" and "Man on the Street"; creator Joss Whedon is present during both tracks, and he's joined by Eliza Dushku on the former. Whedon does a fine job during these two commentaries, balancing candid comments with detailed production stories; joined by his star, he obviously becomes a bit more chatty and laid-back. Dushku giggles, mostly. The third and final commentary is during "Epitaph One" and features writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen; though the episodes' unconventional premise is acknowledged, the husband-and-wife team often relies on basic chit-chat and production stories. All three sessions are worth browsing through, especially for die-hard Whedon opposed to casual Whedon fans, which don't seem to exist.

The rest of the bonus features are collected on Disc 4. Leading things off is the Original Unaired Pilot, "Echo" (45:45, seen at top), which recycles a few of the later episodes' flashback sequences with an assortment of new scenes, subplots and beginnings. It introduces many of the characters quite naturally, though the editing style is a bit overdone during the first act. For the most part, this unused pilot condenses parts of the first few episodes into a more rapid-fire format, though several surprises are spoiled much quicker. For this reason---and of course, since it's not intended as part of the official chronology of Dollhouse---this episode should be treated as a "What If" and not be viewed until after the others.

Our next major supplement is a collection of Deleted Scenes (23 clips, 29:45 total) from the following episodes: "Echo" (the pilot), "Ghost", "Stage Fright", "Gray Hour", "True Believer", "Man On The Street", "Needs", "Haunted" and "Spy In The House Of Love". These deleted---and in some cases, extended---sequences are suitably labeled and include relatively minor character moments, but they're still worth browsing through at least once. Obviously, the pilot episode includes the most deleted content (6 clips), as the cast and crew were undoubtedly finding the show's rhythm along the way.

The remainder of the extras includes a series of relatively light behind-the-scenes featurettes. "Making Dollhouse" (20:46, above left) is a fairly standard look at the show's production, featuring participation from Whedon, Tim Minear and key members of the cast, among others. Aside from snippets of on-location footage and talking head interviews, we also get a look at the first table read during the series' rocky beginnings. "Coming Home" (7:13) is a collection of interviews with several long-time Whedon collaborators, from writers to production designers. "Finding Echo" (3:14) is a brief tribute to Eliza Dushku, while "Designing the Perfect Dollhouse" (5:59, above right) includes a tour of the set and a look at the production design facilities. The last extra, "A Private Engagement" (5:48), offers a lighthearted series of interviews about the plausibility (or implausibility) of the series' sci-fi inventions.

All bonus features are presented in anamorphic widescreen and look quite good, though only the unaired pilot includes optional subtitles. This is an unfortunate oversight, especially since most other aspects of this release were treated with so much care. As for the quality of the extras: they're mostly right on target, though the two "bonus episodes" are perhaps the biggest draw here.

Dollhouse is a quality series that starts slow, picks up nicely and deserves a much larger audience than its ratings would imply. It's also been renewed for a second season, so let's hope that word gets around. Luckily, this four-disc set offers plenty of support with a strong technical presentation and a host of decent bonus features. The compact presentation is also appreciated, though some would argue that the asking price is a bit high (especially if they're hoping to attract new fans). Nonetheless, this is a well-rounded package that Whedon disciples should certainly enjoy, but those on the fence may want to rent it first...or at the very least, download an episode or two (just remember: things pick up about halfway through). Overall, Dollhouse: Season One comes firmly Recommended, especially in the wake of the series' renewal. Let's see what the future holds...

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.
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