Saturday, February 14, 2009

Curb Your Robot

Fox via DVR

Watching the lazy writing and glossy-eyed performances of Joss Whedon's disappointing new Fox pilot, "Dollhouse," I kept thinking about the "South Park" episode where Cartman dresses as a robot and goes to Hollywood with Butters. A.W.E.S.O.M.-O gets waylaid by some big-time movie suits and they compel him to spit out movie ideas, all of which involve Adam Sandler. It doesn't take a large leap of the imagination to picture the development meeting between Whedon -- J.O.S.S.O.M.-O -- and Fox that led to "Dollhouse" getting greenlit in this mold. "Eliza Dushku... plays a hot chick... who is married to a psychic monkey." "Eliza Dushku... plays a beautiful woman... who eats a hot sauce that gives her superpowers." "Eliza Dushku... is a curvy babe... who works in a top-secret cross between a laboratory and a day spa where they program people's memories."

Almost no thought past the one-sentence pitch has gone into "Dollhouse," which gets tedious well before the end of its first broadcast hour. There's absolutely no evidence of the wit and snark that makes Whedon's dialogue so singular; either Fox demanded it be re-written out or Whedon cynically withheld it after what happened to his last network project, the overrated (but charming) Fox Friday night flop "Firefly." As it is the channel has a perfect pairing for its other Friday night action drama, the equally empty and pointless "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." Dushku and "Terminator" starlet Summer Glau even spent the occasion of the "Dollhouse" premiere trying to outdo each other brutally misreading Fox promo cards.

Whedon's work when it succeeds is always based on character development; the plot-heavy, rather impenetrable "Firefly" didn't find its stride until too far along. Even then it was always the writer's goal to try and portray the crew of the Serenity as a warped surrogate family, no different than the supporting cores around the leads of "Buffy" and "Angel." Both shows managed to cross-appeal to male fantasy fans and female soapers (and the like) by packing a healthy dose of running relationship angst alongside the monster-of-the-week episode plots. One reason "Angel" never quite matched the ratings nor the zeitgeist appeal of its parent series was that the more adult, less histrionic interpersonal shadings of the spinoff weren't as easy to follow.

"Dollhouse" cuts itself off from the very beginning with a premise that simply isn't friendly to Whedon's storytelling style or Dushku's strengths as an actress, such as they are. Dushku's Echo is an empty carton, a overripe peel waiting for a needle to come along and fill her with fruit. She's best between missions, when she wanders around HQ in a spaghetti-string tank top looking utterly vacant and confused. It's the role she was born to play! Unfortunately, as soon as boy genius scientist Topher Brink (Fran Kranz, who gets most of the good philosophical speeches but is still by his very nature an unpleasant character) shoots her full of personality mojo Dushku is forced to play against type, as actual complete adult people, and things get messy. Harry Lennix plays her handler, who would be fired by now if this wasn't a TV show, and Amy Acker is around but mostly wasted as a staff doctor who might (judging by her scars) be a former operative.

This is all kind of silly, but Whedon's script misses the opportunity to make the goofiness work to his advantage. Too many of his actors have been instructed to play it straight, and many are simply miscast -- Olivia Williams doesn't carry herself with the proper authority to play the organization's ruthless leader, and as the federal agent investigating the Dollhouse (with a possible personal connection to Echo) Tahmoh Pennikett looks and acts like he could be one of the hunky empty vessels himself. Maybe he is!

Fans of Whedon's early work will find nothing to hang on to here, since the premise lends itself mostly to pro forma set pieces and witless speeches about individual responsibility. There's very close to no humor at all and there's certainly none of the crunchy wordplay that made "Buffy" and "Firefly" such breaks from the TV norm. Even if it weren't for the premise that essentially hits reset on her personality every 20 minutes, Dushku isn't the caliber of actress to carry a show this flimsy on her own (the unwatchable "Tru Calling" seems not to have convinced folk), but on the plus side, she's definitely still hot enough to revive her signature character once this piece of junk gets cancelled. Bring on the Faith spinoff, Joss! And for heaven's sake do it for TNT and not network, where you might actually have a chance to do more than 15 episodes and have them not utterly suck.


  1. I have to agree with you here, which makes me sad because I really wanted this show to work. I wish Fox had just let Joss use the original 2 hour pilot, which I heard was brilliant. I have read in some reviews that the next episode is much better, so I will hold out hope for this show.

  2. I watched the entire season and, though I kept pulling for it - hoping it would eventually find itself within this cool concept - it really just got worse and worse, culminating in a season one finale that might have contained some of the worse dialogue written for series television.

    Problems from the start:

    1. Eliza Dushku is a painfully overrated actress. Her skills are beyond limited - she isn't even believable most of the time. She possesses none of the vulnerability and star power that Jennifer Garner brought to the world of "Alias" and kept us rooting and watching, wanting to know more and more about the layers beneath the layers. Lead characters have to possess the ability to make us fall in love with them - hard and obsessively. Not happening with Eliza Dushku. She's sort of like a pretty girl you keep hoping will get smarter and funnier with each date, until you resign yourself to the fact that you just aren't ever going to love this woman.

    2. Fran Kranz is also woefully miscast - so much so that I'm not even sure one minute to the next if his character is supposed to be the likeable goofball or a hateful too-smart-for-his-own-good tech whiz (sorry, Joss, but he can't be both - we've got roughly 43 minutes to get the story each week so pick one and stick to it). By the end of the finale I found Topher, quite frankly, unwatchable. Who on this team, in fact, IS likeable? Which brings me to...

    3. This is not a dysfunctional family you can root for. We have not been given enough rope on anyone to latch on and pull - not for our federal agent, nor our likely misunderstood dollhouse leader (a woefully underused Olivia Williams who COULD shoulder the depth of more story unlike her counterpart Dushku), and not even for our likeable handler in Harry Lennix.

    4. This is a series about people without central identities - they've been robbed of them so, though Joss Whedon has come up with a very cool concept, it sort of works against itself because our lead doesn't really know who she is. So, by extension, how can we?

    Whew! Had to get that off my chest. Not sure why, but I guess it's frustrating to see something with so much potential get steered so wrong.