Keeping this review fairly spoiler free so that people who haven’t seen the show can read it and hopefully join in our madness.
Commissioned post: 3 of 8 so far.
An anonymous donor donated anonymously, as anonymous donors are wont to do, and requested that I review any episode of any Whedonverse show — i.e., any television by the renowned nerd-cult-leader-gone-mainstream-because-Avengers, Joss Whedon.
Well, as you may know, that doesn’t narrow things down much. I could choose from Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, or even Doctor Horrible (Agents of SHIELD doesn’t count), which all add up to approximately a bazillion episodes. Somehow I decided I wanted to do Dollhouse because I think it was the least popular of all the Whedonverse shows, and I have a curiosity about unpopular things made by brilliant people, and also because I really liked a lot of Dollhouse when I watched it years back. I don’t remember all that many of the specifics, but there are very vivid plot points and character moments that I do recall, and to me, television is often more about the moments than about the overall picture, so if a show has that many moments that have stuck with me for this long, it counts as a good show in my book.
I know that a lot of people couldn’t stomach it because of the consistent theme of sex trafficking and issues of consent, but for some reason that never bothered me in a visceral way when I saw the show, so I always found it more fascinating than disgusting or disturbing. And I’m pretty sure people complained that they found certain leaps in the show’s logic to be irritating and unrealistic, but again, not a problem that usually bothered me. And even if it had, the awesomeness that is Enver Gjokaj would have outweighed it ALL.
I’m going to do this review in two parts: first a little background on the first time I saw this episode and what I especially liked, and then I’m gonna watch the episode again, see if it lives up to my nostalgia, and write part two. This is my blog, so I can do that if wanna.
I first saw the Dollhouse pilot during the year I spent in Israel between high school and college in 2008-2009, when I went to visit my brother for the weekend in Yeshivat Har Etzion (aka Gush). On Saturday night we ordered Burgers Bar hamburgers (I think it was the only time I had Burgers Bar the entire year) and he sat me down in his dorm room to watch this new show he’d seen, refusing to tell me what it was about. I was confused for exactly as long as the show wanted me to be confused before it revealed its premise: the Dollhouse is an establishment that wipes people’s personalities and reprograms these “dolls” to whatever specifications their insanely wealthy clients request — a lover, a companion, a weapons expert, a master negotiator, etc. (This is where the logic complaints came in — “If you have the oodles of money necessary in this fictional universe to buy a reprogrammed human doll, why would you do that instead of paying for a real weapons expert, master negotiator, etc?” Which, fair point. But we’ll ignore that because PLOT.)
For me, what sticks with me and what sold me on this show was one particular exchange: I don’t remember the wording, but when Echo (the main character doll played by Eliza Dushku) is programmed to be the aforementioned master negotiator, one of the characters asks Topher, the amoral genius programmer of the Dollhouse, “Why does she need glasses?” Topher had programmed her persona, Eleanor Penn, to have worse vision than Echo actually has — and he explains that the poor eyesight was necessary, in order to give her reprogrammed personality its edge. According to Topher, excellence must be balanced with flaws and imperfections, and people who have to work harder to overcome inherent disadvantages in themselves and their lives are therefore stronger, more driven, more successful, so he couldn’t just make Eleanor Penn this brilliant negotiator with no inherent flaws because the personality just wouldn’t work. (He also gave her asthma. Thanks a bunch, Topher.)
I know that this is basically pop psychology at its finest, but I think it’s ingenious and I loved it. I love it. It told me right away that this show was going to be an exploration of the human condition and the nature of what makes us who we are, and that’s all I needed to know.
I’m not going to go into more detail about the plot or what else I remember because that’ll be covered in part two. Now I’m gonna go find my brother so we can rewatch it together. Symmetry.
Well, that was even better than I remembered.
It was a very interesting experience the second time around, because, having seen the entire show, I know the arcs of each character and who is a traitor and who is not what they appear to be and what certain seeds lead to down the road. That adds a whole new layer to the viewing, which of course could not be there for anyone watching the pilot as it was meant to be watched: as an intro to this world, with no knowledge of what’s to come. And it also confirmed for me that one particular twist was in no way planned from the start and was pulled out of the writers’ butts near the end of the series just because. But a lot of the other ones were set up from this very first episode, which is nifty. So if you like shows with an overall arc, rest assured that this one has that — but it starts to really get going about five or six episodes into the season, which may be why some people who shall remain nameless but not blameless got impatient and stopped watching.
I’m not going to talk about the arc plot or the plot of the pilot because spoilers, and besides, almost all episodes of Whedonverse shows have decent, well-paced central plots and that’s not what makes them great or less great — the characters and the dialogue do that. And I think this was an excellent pilot in that regard, because something interesting was being said in just about every scene. And even the scene which introduces the FBI Agent Paul Ballard, which I remembered as being weird because it crosscuts between a conversation he’s having with his bosses and some random boxing fight that has zero plot relevance, but upon a second viewing, it was pretty emotionally effective in communicating the beats of that conversation and Ballard’s ultimate intentions.
Eliza Dushku did a very good job in this episode, I thought. Echo is an incredibly challenging role, and over the course of the show’s run, I didn’t always feel like Dushku was up to that challenge because she doesn’t always completely disappear into her multiple character personas the way other actors on the show do, like Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman. Those two are fantastic. (I don’t know if this is a politically correct thing to say, but sometimes I wonder if it’s because as a white person, I am not as used to reading faces of people who are very visibly of certain other ethnicities, so their characters seem more distinct to me and I don’t notice common tics between the different personas the way I might with a whiter-looking person. But mostly Gjokaj and Lachman are just insanely talented and chameleonic actors, and Dushku is slightly less so.) Either way, the slight cracks in her performance don’t start to show until future episodes, and she was very solid here.
As I suspected, the characters played by Gjokaj and Lachman don’t get all that much to do in the pilot, and the major character played by Miracle Laurie (who is fantastically talented and gorgeous and also happens to be bigger than a size zero) wasn’t in the pilot at all. And Amy Acker WAS in the pilot but her role was so small that I almost forgot about her. Which is to say that as good as this pilot is — and it is good and you should totally watch it if you haven’t seen it and if you have, you should rewatch it because it’s worth it — as good as the pilot is, the show gets even better as it goes.
Also, the theme music is awesome.
Agree? Disagree? Want more reviews like this one? Consider donating and commissioning more, via my GoFundMe campaign — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive — and thanks for reading! And you can keep up with me on Twitter @FloatingSpirals and never miss a post 🙂
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