tek's rating:

Dollhouse, FOX
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Caution: potential spoilers.

First of all, I want to mention the category I have this in. I think when the show started, I may have had it under "weird." But for quite awhile, I had it under "mysterious." By the end of the series, I thought it might make more sense to move it to "science fiction." Ultimately, any of those labels would apply, but... I think I might as well just leave it as "mysterious." Anyway, it's yet another show from the always brilliant Joss Whedon. And of course he's working here with folks with whom he's worked before, most notably series star Eliza Dushku.

Season One
Dushku plays Echo, who has a mysterious past, and a very strange present, which is apparently something she took on to escape that past, whatever it was. She lives in a place called the Dollhouse, where people (called "actives") have had their minds wiped. They have no memories, no personality, nothing. Much of the time they wander around the Dollhouse blissfully, as childlike dolls in a nearly tabula rasa state. But occasionally they get sent out into the world on "engagements," after being programmed with new personalities, new identities, which are generally composites created from various real people. These personality imprints allow the actives to become whatever they need to be, for a given situation. (Kind of reminds me of The Pretender, except of course that the actives are completely unaware of any of this; when they're between engagements, they don't think about much of anything, and during engagements, they fully believe they are who they've been programmed to be.)

The Dollhouse has rich clients, who come to this place to fulfill their needs, which can be very wide-ranging in nature. They sort of rent actives, special order personalities for various situations. (Predictably, this is often for sexual and/or romantic fantasies, but really, the engagements can be any kind of situation you can imagine, most of which seem unnecessary, when real people would probably do just as well. But whatever, just roll with the premise. It's worth the suspension of disbelief.) Of course, it seems strange to me that any potential clients are even aware of the place's existence, let alone how to find it. Because it is highly secretive and illegal. So, of course, it's totally word of mouth, though I'd think at least some clients would feel morally obliged reveal its location to the authorities, but apparently that doesn't happen. I suppose the Dollhouse doesn't just let anyone show up without researching them and determining that it's unlikely they'd turn them in; and they'd probably also keep an eye on those people afterwards, and prevent them from contacting the authorities if they tried. Meanwhile, there's an FBI agent named Paul Ballard who has been assigned to try to find the Dollhouse, even though most of the people he works for don't even believe it exists. (It does seem the average person on the street has heard rumors of it, whether they believe in it or not.)

The Dollhouse is run by Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), who likes to believe they're doing something important... helping people. There's a scientist named Topher Brink, who does the mind wipes, creates composite personalities, and implants them, then wipes them again after each engagement is completed. Actually, he's the head of a group of scientists, though the only other one we get to know at all is Ivy (Liza Lapira); for most of the series, Topher treats her with little or no respect. There's a former police officer named Boyd Langton, who is Echo's handler. (Handlers watch over actives while they're in the field on engagements, and actives are programmed to trust their handlers implicitly.) There's a doctor named Claire Saunders (Amy Acker, another past associate of Whedon's). The Dollhouse's head of security is Laurence Dominic. And we eventually meet other actives, including Victor, Sierra (Dichen Lachman), and November.

Well... the series has a number of twists, some of which you may see coming, some which you probably won't. But it's all cool, and there's plenty of mystery. Week to week, there are usually stand-alone stories about whatever "engagement" an active (usually Echo) is involved in, but there's also a deeper background mythology driving the series. We need to learn about Echo's past, when she was just an ordinary young woman named Caroline. (Ballard is mostly concerned with finding her.) Plus, there was an active called Alpha who, sometime prior to the start of the series, cut Dr. Saunders' face, slaughtered a bunch of people, and escaped. Supposedly he had been caught, but he's still out there somewhere, and may pose a threat. (We finally see him at the end of season 1, and he'll show up again a bit in season 2. In addition to being psychotic, he's also pretty funny.) And there are... well, plenty of other things going on. Some things are revealed by the end of the first season, and some things are left unresolved til the end of the series. And there are plenty of changes as the series progresses....

Season Two
Langton becomes the new head of security, and Ballard starts working for the Dollhouse, for a reason I won't reveal. But he still wants to bring them down, this time from the inside. Meanwhile, Echo starts remembering things between engagements, and works with Ballard, secretly, to bring down the Dollhouse. Even though she fears that if her original personality, Caroline, is restored, she (Echo) will disappear, and of course she doesn't want that. (But later in the season... Echo becomes... something more than she was, but I don't want to reveal her new nature. I will say that the change was caused by something Alpha did, but also by a natural potential possessed by Caroline.)

Things are further complicated by the fact that there are actually other Dollhouses around the world. The one that is the focus of the series is in L.A. (and it's run differently than most Dollhouses; it's rather like a spa, whereas others are more like labs), but they're all run by a medical corporation called Rossum. And while there are certain protocols that govern the relations between the various Dollhouses, it seems they can keep secrets from each other, and may sometimes work against each other. Because however unethical the L.A. Dollhouse may be, the Rossum Corporation is clearly far more sinister. And there's a senator named Daniel Perrin who is trying to expose the Dollhouses, as well. Of course DeWitt's house would like to stop him, but Rossum has a bigger plan in motion that's really very twisted, so... I won't spoil that.

But I will say we eventually get to see a Dollhouse in Washington, D.C., and meet the head programmer there, Bennett Halverson (Summer Glau, yet another person who's worked with Whedon before). We learn that she used to be Caroline's best friend, but... now she blames her for something that makes her want to hurt Echo. Also, she and Topher have respect for each other's scientific genius, which could lead to more personal feelings for each other.

Also as the second season progresses, we learn more about Sierra and Victor, their true identities and such. And in the first season, there had been concern about the two of them developing feelings for each other in their doll state (when not on engagements), which shouldn't be able to happen. That connection deepens in season 2. And we learn more about the Attic, an ominous reference heard occasionally throughout the series, someplace people are sent to be disposed of, in some vague way, without killing them. And we meet Clyde, one of two founders of Rossum, whose partner had stuck him in the Attic years ago. A major concern after that is finding out the true identity of his former partner, who is currently running things. We learn that Rossum has even more sinister plans than the Dollhouses themselves, but I won't say more about what exactly that is. Just that, everyone in the L.A. Dollhouse eventually come together to work against Rossum, in spite of the fact that they'd spent most of the series not really getting along with each other. (I also want to mention that Topher, who was always my favorite character, evolved from this funny, sarcastic, self-involved genius who looked down on pretty much everyone around him, to someone who actually cared about people, and was dramatically affected by the consequences of his own actions.) It also becomes more important than ever to get Caroline back, when it's learned that she knows the true identity of Rossum's head (by this point, Echo isn't really worried about losing herself if Caroline's memories are reimplanted in her brain). We also learn more about Caroline's past, and that she was less ordinary than we might originally have thought.

Anyway. I should go back a bit and mention that there was a season one episode that never actually aired, called "Epitaph One." It was on the DVD set, which I didn't get, so I didn't see it til just before the final episode of season two, when I downloaded it from Amazon. It's set in 2019, ten years after the first season, and there's a group of freedom fighters in a post-apocalyptic world, who discover the L.A. Dollhouse, which is mostly abandoned. I don't really want to reveal anything more about the episode, but it does show a few flashbacks to things that had happened in the intervening years. Well, the second season's final episode (the series finale) is "Epitaph Two," set in 2020. The few remaining resistance fighters meet up with the characters from the series, and try to enact a plan to fix the world.

So... there's some pretty good resolution to everything, but it remains to be seen what actually happens to the world, and various characters, after... everything. Anyway, I've left out a great many details, trying not to spoil too much. I must say, the first season was kind of... good, but not great (at least until the end). I'm not sure what I would have thought of Epitaph One if I'd seen it before any of season two, there's alot that definitely made more sense after having seen the second season. But I'm sure I would have thought it was awesome even if I had less idea what was going on. It also seems like some things that happened in season two may have conflicted, slightly, with the Epitaph episodes, probably because at the time Epitaph One was made, it was uncertain whether there'd even be a second season. But I'm glad there was, because it got progressively more awesome thoughout the season, dramatically improving the series over the first season. There were a great many changes, lots more twists and secrets revealed. It did all get to feel kind of rushed, because the series was cancelled, and the whole story had to be told by the end of the season, but it's good that the writers knew how much time they had left, so they managed to resolve everything pretty much as they wanted, whereas some shows are forced to leave things hanging forever. So I'm grateful that the story was completed, even if it left me wanting more. And I can't really complain about the rushed pace, because it beats drawing things out for a long time before revealing things you want to know from the very start. So... um, yeah, I dunno what else to say. Just a cool, sexy, freaky, funny, dramatic, intriguing, awesome show that deftly mixed abstruse philosophical concepts with kick-ass action. And stuff.

After the series ended, there was a one-shot comic called "Epitaphs," which is continued in a five-issue "Epitaphs" miniseries. All six comics are set, I believe, sometime between the end of the series proper and the time of the "Epitaph One and Two." It basically shows us some of the freedom fighters from those episodes, how they got together and started fighting against... all the bad stuff that had started happening in the world. The comics alternate between them and another group, including Alpha, copies of Ivy (in other people's bodies), and a kid named Trevor. I don't really know what to say about the comics except they were fairly cool. And eventually there will be more miniseries, but I don't know when.


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