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Eliza Dushku, as Echo, in the premiere episode of Dollhouse.

Joss Whedon returned to the world of television last Friday night, with the premiere of his new series, Dollhouse.

For those new to the Whedonverse (yeah, it’s an actual thing on the internet), the show centers around a secret organization, called the Dollhouse, that wipes memories and gives people new personas to carry out what they call ‘engagements’. The clientele is either highly connected, very wealthy or both. Drama ensues when Echo (played by Eliza Dushku), an ‘active’ at the Dollhouse, suddenly begins retaining her memories and starts to question who she is and what she is doing there.

As a truly devoted Buffy fan, I definitely GEEKED out when I heard he was creating a new show. And with Faith!–sorry… ELIZA. My expectations were absolutely through the roof, but so were my nerves. Whedon’s track record has been shaky, at best. Not because his shows lack quality, but because not everybody gets it. Or they missed the train… and just jumped on whatever showed up next.* And the production woes surrounding this new series only heightened the level of apprehension, for Joss and for the show. Those people at Fox just won’t be happy until he’s curled up in a corner, hugging his knees, weeping for mercy. It’s just cruel.

* to all those who scoffed at and MOCKED Buffy, but are now obsessed with True Blood, you can totally suck it. No pun intended.

And so… in the interest of objectivity… SIGH.

(more after the jump)

The pilot for Dollhouse is admittedly uneven. There are shades of what, I believe, could have been a much more refined first episode, but they seem to get swallowed by the setup. Granted, there are expositional demands for a show like this, as with Firefly, that was not necessary with Buffy. High school, as a backdrop, does not require a lot of context; we all remember what it was like. An illegal secret organization that wipes memories and imprints personalities, however, cannot be found on every street corner, in every city.

The conspicuous-by-its-absence element is the humor, an ever-present delight in previous Joss projects. One gets the feeling that he may have been working against his own intuition on this one, and consequently, probably didn’t have much fun writing it. Everything feels slightly hurried; the story, the dialogue, the editing, the production, all the way down to the performances, as though this episode was an afterthought and quickly re-scheduled as the pilot… oh, wait. IT WAS. (note to the execs at Fox: YOU. RUIN. LIVES.) Although one could argue that responsibility does fall on Joss to create the show HE envisioned, it seems unfair. The poor man was basically screwed with his pants on, on his last series. His artistic subconscious is hiding from the axe man… with grenades… in a bomb shelter. And therein lies part of the problem. It’s as though Joss was seated at his computer, with the Cancellation Boogeyman looming over him saying, “Write FASTER…”

It’s too soon to definitively weigh in on who’s awesome or useless, but I do hope that future episodes show Miss Dushku relaxing a bit more into the demands of this role. Yeah, fanboys love her, cause she wears leather pants and she’s kind of a sexpot (The promotional stills are surprisingly only mildly pornographic). But past film roles not withstanding, she does possess a certain degree of skill as a performer. I do commend her for reaching out of her comfort zone and stepping away from the whole tough girl swagger, but it might just take some more work on her part. Though she hits all the necessary beats, her execution is never as smooth or seamless as her work on Buffy, and never quite matches the same ease of movement that she exuded in her portrayal of rogue slayer, Faith. Echo, herself, may be void of personality, but she is meant to become someone else, someone whole and complete. And yet there are times when we see the wheels turning behind her eyes, working out the best way to behave like her imprinted personality. If she can get past the superficial layer of presentation, she may be able to start approaching each role from the inside out, instead of the other way around. Because as the opening line of the pilot states: Nothing is what it appears to be. Though Echo is imprinted with the skills to carry out a specific job or task, that job is not a person. And throwing on a pair of glasses and a power suit does not create a personality.

The supporting players, thus far, seem like proper actors and do a fine job, though none of them are given much to do in this first episode. And at this stage, it’s hard to determine who may become a threat to Echo, as she begins her journey toward self-actualization.

That being said, there’s enough here to make me keep watching. The pilot for Buffy was certainly rough around the edges, and doesn’t properly showcase the heights to which that series was able to reach. And there’s definitely enough thematic material in Dollhouse that could provide some interesting storylines. As long as the people at Fox stop trying to kill Joss’s soul, Dollhouse may turn into an awesome little show.

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