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Dollhouse: Season One (Blu-ray Review)

13 Aug, 2009 By: John Latchem


$49.98 four-DVD set, $69.99 three-disc Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Eliza Dushku, Tahmoh Penikett, Olivia Williams, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, Amy Acker, Dichen Lachman, Enver Gjokaj.

Having scored with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and the short-lived “Firefly” (a great show that died before its time due to poor treatment by the network), Joss Whedon had established a ready-made fan base clamoring for whatever he wanted to make next.

“Dollhouse” stars “Buffy” alum Eliza Dushku as Echo, a woman whose mind is routinely wiped and imprinted with new personalities in the service of an underground corporation that sends her, and other “actives” like her, on “engagements” for a variety of wealthy clientele. While the Dollhouse is considered an urban myth, a lone FBI agent (Tahmoh Penikett of “Battlestar Galactica”) is determined to expose it.

A dense premise, to be sure, but nothing unusual for creator Joss Whedon. Yet a few episodes in, “Dollhouse” had all the makings of Whedon’s first real TV flop. The concept has an inherent flaw: Because Echo's personality changes, she's essentially a different character each week, making it hard for the audience to find someone to root for. This forces the standalone stories to create interest on their own merits, and as an anthology the show is pretty average.

"Dollhouse" doesn’t begin to hit its stride until the sixth episode, “Man on the Street,” when it focuses more on its underlying sci-fi concepts and deals with the ethical and philosophical implications of its premise. Echo's latent personality begins to emerge and we begin to emphasize not only with her, but also the quest of the FBI agent trying to save her.

Viewing the original pilot, “Echo,” one gets a sense of how much the network may have influenced the show before letting Whedon do his thing. The episode is heavily rooted in establishing the show’s mythology, rich in exposition only hinted at during the course of the series. The central concept of personality imprinting is revealed through a montage of several examples, rather than the “engagement of the week” format characteristic of the first few episodes that made it to air. The deleted scenes section includes a few re-shoots designed to salvage the original pilot enough to make it fit into the network’s vision, but it was not to be.

Since the show got off to such a sluggish start anyway, the brouhaha over the pilot seems like a moot point now. However, the series was better served by letting some story points from “Echo” play out over several episodes.

The best evidence that the show found its groove is “Epitaph One,” the “lost” 13th episode that was produced on the cheap to round out the first season on disc. Since all indications were the show would be canceled, “Epitaph One” would have been a fitting season finale, especially since it throws the premise of the series through a blender.

The episode takes place 10 years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic reality caused by the technology of the imprints. A group of survivors discovers the Dollhouse and its secrets, revealing snippets of what may have happened to the core characters. It’s a sumptuous treat for the fans who stuck with the first season and an encouraging sign of what’s to come in the second.

The disc also offers a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes getting into creating the concept and designing the beautiful sets. Longtime Whedon fans will most appreciate “Coming Home,” which focuses on reassembling cast and crew members who have worked with Whedon before.

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