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Saturday, March 27, 2010

So much drama, so little time: Dollhouse, Season One

Finally getting around to watching Dollhouse and I'm enjoying it, in all its uneven glory.

I thought the season started off pretty meh. I was primed to like it - I'm a Joss Whedon fan, a fan of stories with Big Overarching Mysteries, a fan of watching women be badasses, and have a little bit of a crush on Tahmoh Penikett from BSG. So, I was primed to like it, and I did - but I didn't love it. The story seems, from the beginning, like it could be really exciting, but it takes a while to actually become so, in my opinion. There are a few problems, not the least of which is the basic ickiness of the premise - which is both its potential and its downfall. I'm not sure that the exploitation, slapping around of women, and glorified prostitution can ever really be balanced out by The Story, and it bothered me more in some episodes than in others.

In addition to the need to wade through an awful lot that's narratively (and morally, and problematic to get to the good stuff, there's the problem of Eliza Dushku as Echo/Caroline. I don't think she's terrible, which I've heard bandied about as a reason for the show's demise - I think that's turning a blind eye to the problems with the pacing and the central concept itself. But, while I don't think she's terrible, I do think she's mediocre on a good day. There are things that Eliza Dushku does really well - channeling a certain type of attitudinal aggressiveness, for example. But, she needed to be able to do many things well, and to switch convincingly - sometimes seamlessly - between them, and I just don't think she has that level of skill, or that flexibility as an actress. She is surrounded by a good ensemble. Enver Gjokaj, for example, does a good job of inhabiting all of Victor's personalities. Harry J. Lennix (Boyd Langton) and Olivia Williams (Adelle Dewitt) both nail every scene that they're in, as does Reed Diamond (Laurence Dominic). Tahmoh Penikett's performance is trickier to assess: he never gets it wrong, but seems sometimes to be trying too hard. This may just be a function of the overenunciation and whisper-talking, and it's hard to say whether those are related to his accent and his actual voice, or a lack of skill. Whatever it is, the result is that I'm never completely sure whether the awkward bits of his character are the poor delivery of an otherwise decent actor who's not comfortable in his role, or an accurate portrayal of a character who's not comfortable in his world. (I'd contrast this with Alan Tudyk's performance, which is over the top, but in a way that feels totally right for his character.)

It is both a blessing and a curse that other members of the ensemble ranged from pretty good to spot-on, as it highlights the fact that Eliza Dushku seems a little further towards the problematic end of the acting spectrum. She never really gets it wrong either, but it always feels like she's acting, whereas several others just seem to inhabit their characters. This is exacerbated by the fact that her character has difficulty inhabiting herself. Echo lives in various stages of acting - she is programmed, but the programming has cracks in it. Sometimes she tries to hide that from those around her, creating the need for layers of identity, subterfuge, confusion... She is empty, but not quite; almost innocent but increasingly aware. This need for nuance would be a tall order for a better actress, and I think the show suffers from not having cast one.

But the acting is not the only inconsistent things about the show. Just as there are moments when each cast member makes it believable, there are moments when the story, the dialogue, the acting, and the pacing all come together just right. But only moments. This is where creative growing pains show through in the final product, I think. As I mentioned, the show has a problematic starting point, and takes a while to make it seem worth it. The beginning of the season seems unsure of what it is or where it's going. From what I can tell, this is due, in part, to Whedon wanting it to be a different sort of show every week. That's great, but then you've got to make the underlying premise consistently compelling and present enough to provide the glue. It isn't until somewhere around episode 5 or 6. That next chunk of the season is mostly good, with flashes of great. And then there's the end, the last 3 episodes or so. Full of good stuff, but too much, too quickly, in my opinion. Perhaps this was due to the uncertain future of the show, and a wish to get more of the story told while there was a chance. Perhaps it's just bad pacing. But the plot feels like it's not just rushing forward but snowballing in the last few episodes, and I wonder if it that arc wouldn't have been better served by starting earlier in the season.

Which brings us to Epitaph One, the mysterious DVD only episode (at least in the US). It casts a serious pall over all of the present-day action, and I'll know soon enough how that affects my investment in the show's "now" - sure, I want to know how it got to the terrible place of Epitaph's "then," but sometimes it's nice to think that there's at least a chance of ending up somewhere less terrible. Then again, I don't really go to Joss Whedon for happy endings.

In keeping with the unevenness of the show, the episode serves as an excellent teaser for a different show with this premise, or what this one might - with more time, better acting from the lead, and a stronger direction - have become.

So, on to Season Two.

ETA: Season two is not playin'.

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