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A Cautionary Tale?
on 18 February 2010
This is a show that was never given the chance it deserved, by the network or by the critics. In the words of Alan Tudyk, "In my experience, Joss Whedon shows are awesome...and then Fox cancels them", something that makes it all the harder to watch as another greatly underrated show of his passes us by.
Those who have seen the first season will notice a remarkable change of pace here; plots and character development fly by, but know that these are not left unfulfilled. In truth, we learn much more about the Dolls themselves, Rossum (the company behind the Dollhouse), and how they set about justifying their actions in an empty and unsympathetic world.
Considering that Dollhouse was originally planned to be a 4 or 5-season show, with proper character and narrative arcs teased out (see: Dewitt's alcoholism, the mystery of the Head of Rossum and how the tech goes global), it is genuinely surprising just how well they managed to cram everything into this 13-episode swansong. One must remember that this second season was only one of a number of directions in which the show could have headed - anyone who has seen the unaired pilot ('Echo', a personal favourite) from the first season will know why. In retrospect, the creative team probably chose the most logical narrative direction to wrap things up with, but it's always interesting to wonder: what if?
Joss Whedon's shows are known for their symbolism and provocative themes, and this second series of Dollhouse is no exception. We watch as the main characters writhe beneath the clutches of a psychopathic corporation bent only on self-preservation and profit; how people are used, abused and discarded, marginalised from mainstream society; we see the mighty fall from power, and how the smallest of us can rise up; how technology, whilst simplifying our lives, may prove to be our eventual undoing. Throughout the course of the show, we are shown how ideas are never inherently good or evil, but it is how they are implemented that determines their nature: "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so". There are moral extremes demonstrated by both the 'heroes' and 'villains', but there are always shades of grey behind the characters' motivations. The many parallels with our own world are strikingly realistic, often to the point of being alarming. I wonder if some of it touched a nerve with Fox...
As per usual, Joss picked relatively unknown or little-heard-of actors and made small-screen stars out of them. Fran Kranz, Olivia Williams, Alan Tudyk (WASH!), Amy Acker and Enver Gjokaj stood out as some of the best for me.
The first season was panned by critics for being slow to begin with, and for contributing nothing to the overall story arc. However, for those of us who stuck with it, we were rewarded with some of Joss' best work ever; this trend of Whedon-y goodness heartily continues this season as well, particular standouts being "The Attic", "Belonging", "Epitaph Two" and "Getting Closer". The entire season is stellar, and should have lived longer, but these were just my favourites.
People could simply see this show as a stylish combination of 'Alias' and 'The Manchurian Candidate', but there's a lot more to it than that suggests. I guarantee you this: you'll feel conflicted. You won't know who to root for. You'll laugh along, cry with, and genuinely care about the characters Whedon draws up here.
Dollhouse, whilst not quite matching the heights of Buffy, Angel and Firefly, remains one of the most delightfully twisted, shocking, profound and intelligent series I've ever seen, and it's a trend that Fox probably won't continue. Dollhouse may be slightly sub-par for Whedon, but it still towers above every other show that aired at the time (most of which are still on the air today). It dared to ask questions others wouldn't, and was very much a thinking-man's thriller while it lasted. Science-fiction and social commentary are always a great pairing, and Joss doesn't shy away from either. It could well be the show's parting gift to show us that maybe we are programmable after all. If you're looking for something different, something that's not afraid to twist your perceptions and make you uncomfortable, you've found it. It's dark, cerebral and a really intense ride. Enjoy :)
Note: In case you read this review and wondered why there are so many negative references to Fox, just know that I tend to dislike their creative decisions with regards to several massively-popular-but-ultimately-unprofitable shows they have cancelled in recent years, despite incredible pleading and support from fans, I being one of them.