Dollhouse certainly takes its cues from its eponymous toy, shirking the real world for something childish that tries to emulate real life but which never gets things exactly right (the scale of dollhouses, after all, is never quite accurate). Attempting to attract adults with material better suited for a younger audience, Dollhouse has a difficult time fitting in both worlds. Created by Joss Whedon, the show revolves around a secret, illegal organization that wipes people’s memories and imprints them with new ones, creating a whole new personality. These people, called Actives, are made to order and then hired by the rich for what the org calls “engagements”—anything from a high-risk crime adventure to a fantasy-filled night out. After each engagement, Actives return to the Dollhouse and have their memories wiped once again to a child-like state, leaving them staring blankly and doing yoga.
Dollhouse follows an Active named Echo (Eliza Dushku) who has volunteered for a five-year commitment (the same length as Whedon’s overall plan for the series) and begins to retain some of her supposedly wiped memories. Boyd Langton (Harry J. Lennix) is a handler assigned to follow and protect Echo throughout her engagements, and though the rest of the organization treats Actives as pieces of property, newcomer Boyd becomes personally attached to Echo. This main storyline is joined by various subplots, including one surrounding a former Active named Alpha who has gone rogue after being imprinted with a composite of multiple personalities and has killed several members of the Dollhouse in a crazed attack, and another involving FBI agent Paul Ballard (Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett) who is investigating the existence of the Dollhouse, which other bureau agents don’t believe is real.
If viewers can keep all these storylines in place while still focusing on Echo’s adventure of the week, then they might not notice Whedon’s stilted high school dialogue and Dushku’s dizzyingly bad performance. From the outset, lines that shouldn’t have made it past the first draft continually pop up, as in this conversational gem from the opening scene: “You ever try and clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.” But Whedon’s writing isn’t the only issue. Playing a supporting role on Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Dushku may not have needed to be the best actor, but as the lead in Dollhouse, she’s woefully unprepared for a character that requires so many personality shifts from episode to episode. At times, the show feels like an Afterschool Special with an inexperienced contest winner cast in the lead role. The show’s tacky dialogue doesn’t help matters as even FBI agents sound like they’re razzing each other in the boy’s locker room.
On the whole, Whedon seems unsure if he’s making an over-the-top drama for teens or an action-fueled suspense story for adults. Perhaps his show would work better if it were more hyper-realized, like Buffy, or even more like last year’s hilariously over-the-top action movie Wanted, where everything from curving bullets to a Loom of Fate made sense in its warped reality. As it is, Dollhouse is stuck between two worlds, unable to lead us from reality into fantasy.