Series Premiere: Dollhouse – “Ghost”



February 13th, 2009

According to logic, and the internal methodology given to Echo before an important mission, you can’t fight a Ghost. And, let’s be realistic, you can’t really pin one down either, trying to define it by regular rules of physics or biology ultimately proving a futile task.

In many ways, Dollhouse is a Ghost of Television, a show that is very tough to pin down and has almost no interest in trying to have this happen. The series, like the actives who are part of the Dollhouse roster, can be wiped clean after every episode, so it is very difficult to judge the pilot as we would normally judge a pilot. The point here is not to actually pin anything down, but to demonstrate for the viewer the types of things they might see and, most importantly, the types of things that we should keep an eye out for in the future.

And, as such, there’s something difficult about passing judgment on this as an actual series. All we can really do is take the parts that we’re given here that we know will remain constant and begin to judge them, but even then the show is going to be meandering all over the place and those parts might be able to rise to the occasion better than we currently realize. It makes all of this, well, a little bit inconsequential; I have a feeling that week by week I’ll be chiming in with another opinion that’s been altered from the week previous, something that with time could get a little old.

For now, though, I’m along for the ride, for two main reasons: because I think the show has some potential as a serialized procedural, and because I’m mildly afraid that the Whedon fans will hunt me down and break my legs if I don’t.

Fear not, Whedon fans, I say that with all love: although I am admittedly not fully “one with the Whedon,” having yet to spend time with either Buffy or Angel in any large volumes, my past few years’ experience with Firefly and Dr. Horrible has more that convinced me that Whedon is an important comic and dramatic voice within contemporary television. And I think that Dollhouse, in many ways, is like Whedon’s ultimate playground: he has the ability to make any show he wants to week by week, and if I had his level of creativity I’d be tempted to create an enormously scizophrenic show that is devoid of continuity and just lets his ideas run wild.

I think the problem with Dollhouse though is that it isn’t allowed to be that, and that base idea of a series isn’t enough to sustain the type of drama overlay that has been applied to it. I like Whedon’s base concept of the Actives because it is something that could logically happen, and it is also something that creates very human questions. There’s a bit of convenience in this pseudo-pilot, with the personality given to the active having been molested as a child by the very man who is involved in this particular case, but I think it’s that way for a reason. It’s to tell us that there’s a lot of ethical questions here: the personality of a suicide victim being taken to be used in this project? This, combined with Echo’s own troubled past that she runs away from in order to even join this shady program, are the kinds of things that we have a lot of questions about, questions that are highly philosophical and therefore my kind of questions.

The problem is that teasing them out is going to be a long process when we never actually get to see Echo as a character. We can see who she can become, and see bits and pieces of her formal self, but for the most part there isn’t someone we can really relate to in this instance. I worry not so much that the show doesn’t have a stable version of Echo that can change and react, but rather that the various personalities taken on will become too on the nose. The show can’t get too clever with this, giving her personalities that are conveniently about both missions and this person’s journey into this program. There’s a point where the show’s back story and its weekly structure are going to have to remain separate, at least sometimes, to give the show a sense of not being controlled or masterminded from behind the scenes.

But, again, the blurred line between what Whedon and Co. are doing in the writers’ room and what the various bigwigs are doing behind the scenes at Dollhouse rears its ugly head. If the show is going to keep rebooting parts of itself, they’re going to have a lot of control over where it goes, and there is every chance that it won’t feel like it’s organic. It doesn’t right now, to be frank: even if this episode was quite watchable, it also felt very deliberate: you could tell this was more or less a third crack at a pilot for the show, and if the rest of the episodes we see have the same feeling then I think viewers will begin to notice. Making good television isn’t easy, but with the show’s rather rough production history it also shouldn’t actually look like it’s been an agonizing experience when it’s on screen.

I want to be clear that this episode doesn’t get to that point, except maybe in the first scene we see with Echo first entering the program. I blame my dislike of this scene on two things, one of which is problematic for the future and the other which I will reserve judgment on. Firstly, I feel as if we do suffer because we have no back story at that moment. The scene felt tacked in, an addition to make it feel more like a pilot by having the head of Dollhouse (Adelle Hewitt) offer up a bit discussion about action and consequences. Some of it felt fine, don’t get me wrong, but the discussion of actually trying to clean a slate was downright awful, and felt again like they were trying too hard to create a thematic speech for Echo to give.

The other problem, the elephant in the room for much of the episode, is Eliza Dushku herself. I believe that she is a fine actress who does some good work here in various roles, but when Boyd (Echo’s handler) jokes about whether or not Echo was given glasses so she would look smart it really wasn’t a joke at all. Dushku just isn’t the type of actress who can switch roles that easily, and there isn’t a clear enough definition between her various parts to really make me feel affected by her transformations (or the loss of each personality). Perhaps it is just that I’ve been watching United States of Tara, where Toni Colette quite literally becomes other people, but a set of glasses and an authorial tone isn’t going to be enough here.

But, again, this is an early episode: Whedon has worked with Dushku a great deal, and once he’s happy with where the rest of the show sits he knows what kind of material can work for her. So maybe, in time, the show will feel better suited to her needs, and she could rise to the occasion of a particularly difficult assignment just as Echo is programmed to do. I think the problem is that the acting is a variable here: when the show itself is about people able to be programmed to be the right person for a job, we can’t help but wonder if the merely human actors and actresses will be able to live up to the same standard.

As for the rest of the cast, it’s solid. It’s always great to see Amy Acker, whose scars tell a story that we will hopefully learn in time, and Tahmoh Penikett takes time away from being Helo on Battlestar Galactica to threaten some nefarious crime types for information about Dollhouse. I don’t particularly find the latter plot interesting to watch, but Tahmoh getting to show off his boxing skills was a good way for the show to make the plot feel far more visceral than it actually was.

The show will only be able to do this for so long, though. There will come a time, as there was for Fringe earlier this year, where people will start to wonder when the real big ideas are going to show up, and when these network-appeasing stand-alone episodes will step aside for real mythology and real ideas. And the show wants us to think this: how else can you explain the naked guy sitting on a table watching a video of Echo pre-Dollhouse with dead bodies strewn about? The question is whether teasing us with this is all going to be a ruse, and next week will just erase the memories all over again.

Regardless, as long as no one wipes the time from my memory, I’ll be back next week – my hope is that the parts of this episode that worked well, the broader philosophical and ethical questions about this program, will be too.

Cultural Observations

  • I really like Boyd, Echo’s handler, because Harry Lennix’s performance in the role brings to mind the brief sequence in The Wire Season 4 when Bunny Colvin tries to become a hotel security manager. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but it is clear that the ex-cop in him is driving for something approaching justice in his actions, and Dollhouse and the concept of justice seem to be like oil and water. I like that binary, personally, and think that the question of justice is a very interesting one to navigate for a series.
  • Sierra, the other alter we get to meet, really seems to fit the bill. It’s hard not to be reminded of Summer Glau, whose work as Cameron on Terminator is very much like an empty person acting in different ways to meet customs, but I find Sierra particularly less human than Echo in looks alone. It’s good casting, and I’m curious to know how much we’ll get to know her in the future.
  • I totally agree with the client, by the way: if I was being held hostage, I’d want Edward James Olmos as my hostage negotiator too. But not Bill Adama – I think he’d just threaten to toss them out the airlock.


Filed under Dollhouse

2 responses to “Series Premiere: Dollhouse – “Ghost”

  1. Pingback: The Glass Ceiling: How Dollhouse can Overcome the Friday Odds « Cultural Learnings

  2. I had some of the same problems with the “Pilot” as you did and will also continue to watch. I thought there were too many things touched on slightly and crammed into such a short time. I think a 2-hour premiere might have served this series better.

    Mostly though, I felt this was La Femme Nikita with a sci-fi twist. A female lead recruited by a secret organization after befalling some type of trouble in her life, then being trained to be able to fit into any situation. Dollhouse just does it by mind-wiping and uploading the specific needs of the situation and adds in the FBI agent looking into rumors of the secret group.

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