Dollhouse: Who Does Joss Whedon Think He Is?

For Dollhouse's programmable heroine, the answer is complicated

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Echo (Dushku) readies for a "treatment."

Echo (Eliza Dushku) has an endlessly challenging job. On one assignment, she might play a hostage negotiator; on another, a midwife; on still another, a woman in love. Then she gets chauffeured to a treatment at a spalike facility filled with warm light and blond wood. It's a little like being a Hollywood actress on location.

But not exactly. Echo's "engagements"--ranging from deadly capers to prostitution--are real. That spa treatment is a sometimes painful process in which her personality and all memory of her missions are erased. And her luxury digs, called the Dollhouse, are the headquarters of a secret illegal business where she and other blank-canvas "actives" are programmed with new personalities to do hush-hush jobs for the superrich. (See the top 10 TV series of 2008.)

Writer-producer Joss Whedon has played with the conventions of monster stories (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel), space sagas (Firefly) and comic books (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). Now, with Dollhouse (Fox, Fridays, 9 p.m. E.T.), he tries dystopian sci-fi. Echo is not a slave, technically; she goes to the Dollhouse after having run into unspecified trouble as an idealistic college grad named Caroline. The deal: if she becomes an active, the company makes her problem go away--along with all her memories. The threads running through this ambitious serial: Who was she? And what is she?

A Real Doll
You may have a few other questions, most of them beginning, Why? Why would zillionaires rent human-bot experts and escorts from a high-tech flesh peddler when they could hire the real thing? Why would someone develop an amazing technology and find no more remunerative application for it than an illegal outfit that seems exorbitant to maintain and nearly impossible to conceal? And why--as eventually develops--would someone begin an equally elaborate counterconspiracy to sabotage the group?

Whedon evidently thinks these are valid questions. He addresses them, not always persuasively, through FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett of Battlestar Galactica), who's determined to sniff out the Dollhouse. His bosses are skeptical that it even exists, let alone why anyone would patronize it. "If you have everything," Ballard explains, "you want something else. Something more extreme, something more specific. Something perfect."

But all is not perfect at the Dollhouse. Echo has begun to recover memories, and the actives show a tendency to occasionally go haywire. It turns out that human memory is like an analog cassette tape: overwrite it too many times, and you start to hear the ghosts of old voices. Actives are meant to be clean slates, with no messy human baggage. But as preamnesia Echo notes, "You ever try cleaning an actual slate? You can always see what was on it before."

Multiple Personalities

Just as curious, and ethically intriguing, is what gets written on that slate. For each job, an active is overwritten with a customized composite of the minds and memories of actual people. (Between tasks, the actives are creepily affectless tabulae rasae--like children or especially pretty, dumb actors.) Some of those people, like the voices on an old laugh track, are now dead. Which raises questions: What does it mean to be alive? What is the Dollhouse's obligation to the people whose memories it "resurrects"? Is Echo herself, Caroline or the sum of her borrowed parts?

Echo has a different assignment each episode--the three sent for review are a hostage case, a wilderness adventure and a heist caper--which makes Dollhouse a kind of drama-school exercise for Whedon and Dushku. The genre-hopping Whedon is up to the task; his hostage-negotiation story would make a crisp pilot for a CBS procedural. And he unsettlingly conveys the actives' experience of living a constantly interrupted dream. ("Did I fall asleep?" they ask after each treatment.) But Dushku, memorable as the bad-girl Faith in Buffy, isn't much of a chameleon. She's passably callow as Caroline and nicely eerie as the doll-like "blank" Echo, but she doesn't transform with each personality, à la Toni Collette in United States of Tara.

It's a problem, because Whedon has set a challenging goal. Whereas his past series had ready-made good-vs.-evil setups, Dollhouse is morally nebulous. Sometimes we're rooting for Ballard to bust the Dollhouse, sometimes we're rooting for Echo's handlers and protectors in the organization that pimps her out. (Harry Lennix is sympathetic as her conflicted bodyguard, and Fran Kranz amusingly skeevy as the in-house tech geek.) Pulling this off means getting the audience to connect with a lead who is not, in the usual sense, a person, which may be more than Echo--or Dushku--can manage.

What keeps Dollhouse interesting is its ideas about memory and the self. But while it's haunting, cerebral and gorgeous, it's also a little cold, though the flashes of humor help. ("We have a situation," one character reports. "The kind you need to shoot at.") Like its actives, it's a marvelous piece of engineering. But I hope it develops a personality of its own.

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Read James Poniewozik's TV blog, Tuned In.