I’m a big fan of Joss Whedon’s work, and I’m looking forward to my opportunities to talk about Serenity and Buffy down the line. Every time Whedon starts a new television show, it’s a geek event, and many were anticipating Dollhouse for months, even years, before it debuted on Fox in January ’09. Then the waves of disappointment echoed through the internet. Rather than another smart ensemble show with a real focus on characterization amid a unique sf setting, we got a showcase for actress/executive producer Eliza Dushku. It's amazing how thoroughly the show redeemed itself.
The sf high concept is that the technology exists to reprogram human brains and imprint personalities. This technology is used, quite illicitly, to program people as "dolls," mostly to be used as sex-toys. Dushku plays one of these "dolls," named Echo. Throughout the first season (and the first half of the second season), Echo is put on different jobs requiring different personality implants. One week she’s a hostage negotiator, next week she’s a back-up dancer for a pop-star, next week she’s a hunter, and then she’s a blind cultist, etc. Then, hijinks ensue. It’s all disconnected and formulaic (something always goes wrong). And, since it’s basically an actress showcase, it’s worth mentioning that Eliza Dushku is just not a great actress. The show was often painful to watch.
“Epitaph One” was produced as the final episode when the producers were almost certain of cancellation, and it took the show in a dramatic new direction. The episode shows us to a world where the Dollhouse technology has spread into the main population and created a sort of Zombie apocalypse. A band of survivors (led by Felicia Day) finds their way to the old Dollhouse in Los Angeles and uncovers some of the mysteries that led to the apocalypse. The formula is avoided, the implications of the technology are fully explored, and Dushku is pushed aside (she features briefly in the flashbacks). The result: a really great episode.
Improbably, the show did get renewed, and “Epitaph One” was consigned to the DVD (it never aired on television, though it is available through a couple of instant viewing avenues). The second season returned to the old, bad formula, got worse ratings than ever, and was promptly cancelled. Then, as a lame duck, it produced some of the strongest television that aired last year as we got a series of intriguing episodes that abandoned the formula, developed the characters, and finally created the great ensemble-driven original stories that Whedon’s famous for (though it should be noted that Joss’s brother Jed did more of the writing for the series).
I don’t mind that it was cancelled – I’m not sure how they could have kept the series going any longer, but this show is a real gem, destined by some horrible episodes to fly under the geek radar a bit.