Why Dollhouse Isn't Working

The simple answer? Joss Whedon's strength is writing about real people in surreal worlds. Dollhouse is the exact opposite of that and, not surprisingly, plays to Whedon's weaknesses as a creator.

With Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, there was a tacit agreement between audience and show that involved suspension of disbelief. Each show was built on a premise that required that acceptance of surreality just to watch it. Because of this, Whedon was able to gloss over a lot of the finer points of each story simply by using things like "Hellmouth" and "the future" as panaceas. The shows did have to adhere to a specific internal logic (and, I should mentioned, sometimes failed at this), but by and large that "suspension of disbelief" principle let Whedon get away with a lot.

Because of this, less focus was left on the mechanics of the story and more was placed on the characters. While an argument could be made that Whedon's first show, Buffy, was filled with sometimes universal Buffy-speak that was indistinguishable from character to character, this trend faded as his evolved as a creator and writer. Each of the cast members on Angel and then Firefly had very specific speech patterns and, in turn, were three dimension, fleshed out characters. Whedon got so good at this in, in fact, that while it took a good while for the cast of Angel to endear themselves to the audience (a truly surprising feat, given most of them carried over from Buffy), the crew of the Serenity almost immediately came to life on the small screen.

But, again, this was because Whedon was afforded the luxury of focusing less on plot and more on character. Which, as I said in my opening, is the exact opposite of what's happening on Dollhouse.

If the core concept behind Dollhouse did not take place in the "real world," then it would probably be much easier to swallow. Yet I find myself, during the course of every episode so far, pulling apart the logical inconsistencies of the central plot. The most recent episode, "The Grey Hour," was probably the best of the bunch, yet it opens with one of the most puzzling moments of the show so far: Echo delivering a baby. Given what's been established as to the cost of hiring the Dollhouse, why would anyone fork over all that cash just to have someone play midwife? It makes absolutely no sense in an episode that made more sense than most.

Why would any client of the Dollhouse know what it does? Why would they need to have an idea of how it works? Why can't the Dollhouse simply be a high priced company that can solve any problem, no matter how difficult? How does a secret organization stay secret if they're telling every single one of their clients exactly what it is they do?

But let's say we're able to push aside the never ending stream of logic issues within the show. The bigger problem is the fact that none of the characters mean anything at all. From the very start, there's absolutely no reason to care about Echo. We have no idea who she is; we have no reason to care. You can't just say "Eliza Dushku is cute and a good actress so you should worry about her." You need to give us a reason to be invested in her, and this show hasn't done that -- and given it's set up, almost can't.

Even worse, the sole source of comedy in the show appears to be the mad scientist behind it all, Topher. But what he is doing is so creepy that his jokes and witty comments fall flat. On top of that, we get Echo's dour handler, a scarred doctor whose scars have already been explained, a rich woman who runs the whole thing, and the typical rogue, obsessed FBI agent. None of these characters sing, none of them dance, none of them gives me any reason to care.

Even the quirky neighbor who lives across the hall from Agent Ballard comes across as forced.

Is there hope? I honestly don't think so. The one glimmer of interest I have comes from the aforementioned dour handler, but I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that Whedon's best beats come from the relationship between a grumpy, middle aged man and the young, kick ass woman he's supposed to help (ala Giles/Buffy, Mal/River). But there's nothing else surrounding those beats to make up a song.

The easiest defense of this show would be to point out that only four episodes have aired. Buffy wasn't much of a show after four episodes, either. But the groundwork was there, at least. Besides, Whedon had shown some progression in launching shows. The first four episodes of Angel, while not great, were substantially better than Buffy's showing. And look at Firefly! Even shown out of order, those first four episodes were fantastic, establishing a large cast of characters right from the start, and endearing them all to the audience. Sadly, this isn't the case with Dollhouse.

I'm a fan of Joss Whedon's work, as evidenced by the 13 seasons of television and the one movie that are on my bookshelf. But I think he's playing against himself with Dollhouse, which is a shame, because I think Eliza Dushku could do some really great things. I just don't think this is the show for them.