After the criminally mismanaged debacle over Joss Whedon’s Firelfy, the mere fact that Whedon would even entertain the notion of producing another series under the Fox banner, let alone sitting down and making it happen, speaks to just how much television has changed in only a few short years. It also speaks to how dead his feature film career is right now, but sshhh, we’re grateful to be honest. After Wonder Woman was stopped dead in its tracks, Whedon has stepped back into the lion’s den with this high-concept, otherworldly mind-scramble.

Choosing this over the long-talked-about Faith spin-off from the Buffyverse, Eliza Dushku is front and center of the titular Dollhouse, a high-tech laboratory/dormitory fronted by a powerful corporation. Dushku plays Echo, one of the “actives.” A young woman with an as-yet-undisclosed troubled past who commits to this Dollhouse program in exchange for a clean slate after five years. Catering to anyone who can afford the presumably hefty price tag, Dollhouse literally provides whatever you desire.

Once selected, the appropriate active is then implanted with a fake personality to fit the desired profile for the task at hand – super soldier, hostage negotiator or simple companionship (the show confronts the icky sex trade undertones head on). It’s all just a download away for the right price. Once the task is complete and the pre-paid time expired, the active returns to the Dollhouse where all memory of their experience is wiped clean, and they become an empty shell awaiting the next round of clientele. One night it seems an active named Alpha went schitzo, massacred a bunch of people before disappearing and now skulks the shadows as the Big Bad of the series.

While it’s certainly right up Whedon’s patently offbeat alley, this is something quite different from the man. Everything he’s ever done to this point, from Toy Story through Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and even Alien Resurrection has all been based around a democratic ensemble playing out a kind of pragmatic extended family. He builds bands of rogues, scoundrels, enemies and friends who come together under one banner as underdogs against powerful forces. But there is nothing like that here. Here, the Dollhouse is the powerful force; a wealthy organization with significant resources that obviously commands great influence. If anything they’re the bad guys and Special Agent Ballard (Galactica’s Tahmoh Penikett) leading a mostly blind, one-man task force investigating their shady going on seems rather over-matched.

There is an ensemble here, but it’s far from what you would call a typical Whedon team operation. This show has one star and a list of returning characters. Adelle DeWitt’s Olivia serves as the corporate face; Boyd Langton’s Henry Lennix is Echo’s handler. Topher Brink’s Kranz is the techie science guy and Angel’s Amy Acker serves as physician Claire Saunders. They might work together but already the lines of division and conflicting priorities are clear. There is also none of Whedon’s trademark sass and cutting wit, but once the science and the exposition are finished being laid, then there might be more room for that.

While she is effortlessly easy on the eyes, there is something inherently obnoxious about Eliza Dushku that handicaps her as an acquired taste. A very physical, highly-reactive actress, she is clearly more at home throwing herself about with the action than she is standing still with the drama. Dushku works better the less time she has to think about what she’s doing and it’s ironically as the empty vessel Echo that she falls down. Trying terribly hard to look like she’s not trying at all, she breaks all rhythm every time Echo is downloaded.

As for Echo it’s very early doors, but offering the audiences four or five completely different personalities in the first two episodes, of which the true Echo was the least makes it very hard to endear her to the audience so that we might form some sort of attachment. It also begs the question as to what the long-term implications of a set-up like this are. Obviously, the potential of the actives is limitless, but you need something outside of that. Do the actives become self-aware? In which case you have The Island: The Series. Does Echo escape and try to free her captive brethren? Then you’d have Dark Angel. Do nothing and you’ve essentially got Alias with a twist.

But this is Joss Whedon we’re talking about here. He will be well aware of all the pitfalls and will doubtlessly have solutions to them all. Sadly, we’re also talking about Fox here and their track record with sci-fi fantasy shows is less than stellar. So, if this thing lasts more than half a season, it’ll be a miracle. For now, having gotten over the initial hurdle of coaxing a little range out of Ms. Dushku, it’s a case of so far so good and wait and see.

Starring: Eliza Dushku, Harry J. Lennix, Fran Kranz, Tahmoh Penikett, Olivia Williams, Amy Acker
Created By: Joss Whedon
Network: FOX

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