Fans of Joss Whedon have been collectively counting down to tonight's debut of Dollhouse for a while now. None of the previews had really done anything to impress me, but as I got in the car to drive to a friend's house to partake of the horrors of network television (commercials!) I was cautiously optimistic. Eliza Dushku certainly seems capable enough of carrying a series, and Mr. Whedon hasn't really let me down yet.
I said "yet", right?
For those of you unfamiliar, Dollhouse revolves around a fairly simple premise. The Dollhouse itself is some sort of agency that lends out "Actives", memory-wiped individuals who get Matrix'd ("I know kung fu") into having whatever abilities their clients desire. When the job's done, they go back to being blank slates until they get hired out again. Eventually their commitment to the Dollhouse is up and they get let back into normal society. The problem here is that instead of taking this solid premise and building it up over time, Dollhouse tosses us in the deep end of a pool of shit.
Characters, plotlines, subplots, background... all of it is thrown out on the table here. Active word "thrown" - "Ghost" is a scattered mess of information. At first, Whedon goes out of his way to explain just what the Dollhouse is, how it's Actives are nothing more than perfectly brainwashed drones, doing whatever their clients hire them to do. Whedon really babies his audience through this background, and it rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not a fucking child, and although most network television viewers are, Whedon has never really made a career out of pandering to them before this.
Then there's the characters themselves. Hoo boy. We are introduced to Dollhouse with Echo/Caroline's recruitment to the entourage. She's escaping a mysterious past where she fucked up somehow and now needs to erase her memory for five years and make it all go away. It's like the French Foreign Legion for babes, without the kickass hats. We meet Echo's boss. And her boss' partner. And Echo's "handler". And the nerd/tech guy who does all the science! And another Active. And the doctor, who has more characterization than most of these others because she has nasty scars on her face, ooo! Aaaand then there's the FBI agent.
Yep, the FBI! Scary boogeymen of terrible subplots everywhere, the FBI are apparently involved in some kind of human trafficking investigation. We learn this long before we really know anything about the Dollhouse, of course, ruining any tension it might have created down the line. Our FBI agent, played by the pucker-mouthed Tahmoh Penikett, is a rogue fed who plays by his own rules and likes to stick it to the man. We meet Agent Paul Ballard as he's getting chewed out by some sort of suit for his crazy antics. This scene is oh-so-brilliantly overlaid with another of Agent Ballard kickboxing against a much bigger, tougher, scarier opponent. (Who is apparently some sort of Samoan/Viking hybrid, judging by his mix of clipart tribal tattoos.) As his boss gives him a dressing down, the tattooed menace in grappling (not Muay Thai) shorts trashes our hero Ballard, ultimately sending him to the mat just as his boss-figure asks him if Ballard will finally be able to swallow his pride and play by the rules, damnit. In-the-ring Ballard rises to the occasion and smashes his opponent with an elbow and a flying knee, while in-the-office Ballard agrees to play nice. The fighting is miserably choreographed and pathetic, and the lameness of this scene could sedate a horse.
The whole FBI subplot illustrates nicely the biggest problems with Dollhouse. Terrible characterization, cheesy themes, and a complete disregard for pacing or story arcs. I mean, jesus fuck christ, the very first episode has Echo taking on the role of a hostage negotiator trying to save a little girl who's been kidnapped. An abduction episode would be awesome a way down the line, once we've gotten to know Dollhouse better, but in the pilot it just feels like so much cheese forced onto our plate. We haven't even had time to sit down at the table here, Joss. Let it settle.
Gone are Whedon's playful marriages of whimsical insults and light action. There is not a single laugh to be had in Dollhouse. It feels like Mr. Whedon is going for a more dramatic approach here, amplifying all the worst parts of the River Tam storyline from Firefly to 11. When Echo starts to talk like a child as she regresses further into her implanted memories, any Firefly fan will see echos of Summer Glau.
"Ghost" is utter shit. There is no subtlety, no fun, and no reason for me to want to revisit the Dollhouse present here. This is a ball being dropped in the worst way. io9 claims that the second episode is an improvement upon the first, and that doesn't really surprise me. From "Ghost", there's nowhere to go but up.
Verdict: Epic Fail [2/10] (these 2 points are for Eliza)