Monday, May 11, 2009
I Caught Up to the Dollhouse
The plan was to wait for the summer and then watch through to the end of the season at my leisure. I mean, I had already fallen hopelessly behind as it was, so what was the rush? Also, just between you and me, I wasn't really expecting to enjoy it. I'd watched the first four episodes and my initial enthusiasm turned to deflated disappointment and finally to perturbed indifference. Yes, yes, there was the fabled Episode Six that was supposed to save the franchise and make everything all better, but I didn't see how any one plot twist could make me interested in a series that had bored me to tears.
But chalk it up to a lazy Saturday (and a rapidly bloating DVR) that I figured I'd bite the bullet and knock off a few of these episodes. I skipped episode 5 altogether and got right to The Mythical and Celebrated Episode Six. And while it didn't turn the ship around all at once, it ... well, you know how I hate to admit I'm wrong. It's because it's so rarely necessary that I do so. But I'll cop to this, because the changes implemented in E6 really did herald a new urgency in the show, and within the next 2-3 episodes, Dollhouse became one hell of a compelling ride. Here's how:
[It should be noted, I'd kept myself mostly ignorant of the developments in the eps I hadn't watched. I inadvertently spoiled myself on two counts where I really wish I hadn't -- the actor who plays Alpha and the identity of "Whiskey" -- but everything else was totally new to me.]
They Solved the Personality Void at the Center of the Show: It had become impossible for me to care about a show where the main character, Eliza Dusku's Echo, wasn't a character at all. Yes, the fact that she's a cipher is the whole point of the show, but that didn't make it any easier to care about her. The show tackled this problem on two fronts: One, Echo's personality/memories/character began to bleed through even after the memory wipes, and more than a few episodes have called on her to essentially play "Caroline." Two, the show became more of an ensemble, with focus on Ballard, Boyd, and even DeWitt.
They Developed the Other Dolls: Not just Sierra and Victor -- though their development was the most crucial -- but also the introduction of November and the various others. As with Echo, the more their personalities began to bleed through, and especially the more they were tied to the other characters in the ensemble, the more I started to care. Here's also where I should rave about Enver Gjokaj (Victor), who turned out to be an outstanding actor and chamaleon (who knew you could even do a Reed Diamond impression?) and one of the absolute highlights of the cast. People that pretty shouldn't be allowed to be that talented.
They Took Olivia Williams and Reed Diamond Out of That Godforsaken Office: I know people who were raving about Ms. Williams since episode one, but I found myself completely adrift during those monotonous scenes in that isolated office where her Adelle and Diamond's Dominic would trade short, ominous sentences. Once we started to learn more about the Dollhouse, those scenes became less and less necessary, and they were actually allowed to enter the environment of the story. That episode where Adelle and Topher are tripping balls in his office flipped the switch for me, and the later episode where her "romance" with Victor is revealed took the cake.
They Made Ballard's Arc Twisty but Forward-Moving: The Mellie reveal was great, but I was glad to see Ballard made aware of it within a couple episodes. He's far from the most interesting character on the show, but I'm glad he keeps within 1-2 steps behind the Dollhouse at all times.
It was beyond just the plots twists in Ep Six that made the show click. It's an unsexy mandate, but it remains true: Develop the characters well, and I'll be interested. Even the standalone plots got more interesting; the storyline where Echo stands in for the dead millionairess was pretty throwaway, but her scenes with DeWitt made it worthwhile. By the end of the season, I was actively gasping (not Victor's FACE!) as the season charged to its finale.
Of course, the show wasn't perfected. Among my lingering concerns:
I Fucking HATE Topher: I'm not sure I'm even supposed to like him, but boy don't I. It's not just that his character does evil deeds -- so does DeWitt and I love her. It's that he manages to be completely obnoxious in a way I think I'm supposed to find cute or charming. I hated Xander Harris enough when he was painstakingly heroic. That's the other thing -- I get that Joss has a house style, but a Xander/Andrew hybrid just does NOT work in the Dollhouse universe. It's a clash of styles that made it hard to completely dig Alan Tudyk's character -- at least early on.
It Still Doesn't Quite Make Sense: I am not a nitpicker with my dramatic TV shows. Not if they're delivering the goods, anyway. But it still seems that at the center of the show, some of the missions they send the Actives on end up as complete logistical wind tunnels. A minor enough complaint.
Ballard Really Is Fairly Uninteresting: God love Tahmoh Penikett and his chest of granite, but if Helo became kind of a Captain America in Space on Battlestar, Ballard is an even duller version here.
Alpha Ended Up Being Kind of Underwelming: I won't elaborate, but ... a little bit, yeah. It has to do with the actor, sad as I am to say it.
And so now, save for an unaired 13th episode that'll surface on DVD at some point, it's all over. That's kind of a bummer -- the show's gone before I even realized I was hooked on it. Even more of a bummer that it's going away just as it had righted its ship.