Thursday, October 15, 2009

how dollhouse got its groove back...sort of

Joss Whedon's FOX series Dollhouse and I have kind of a dramatic love-hate relationship. I love the premise, a handful of the episodes have been outstanding, the show asks interesting and ambitious questions, and I have total Whedon Fan Loyalty Syndrome. However, Dollhouse is probably the most uneven show I've ever made a habit of watching. During the first season the show struggled to find its voice, sometimes painfully, but several promising episodes and interviews with Joss Whedon convinced me that the writers had settled into a groove and that Dollhouse would reach its full potential in season two.

The season premiere left me feeling pretty nervous. Despite the best efforts of Amy Acker (a regular Whedon player who really killed during her Dollhouse stint) and some intriguing philosophical questions, I couldn't help noticing what's been bothering me about the series all along: Dollhouse takes itself way too seriously.

Sure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer explored some pretty heavy issues. My favorite episode showed the death of a parent in a way that I've never seen on television and film before. And Angel and Firefly have certainly had their deeper moments as well. But some of the best moments in those series occurred when the writers let themselves go and have fun with it. Everything needs some levity now and then. Even season six of Buffy had the musical episode.

But Dollhouse seems to be in a constant battle with its own sense of self-awareness. The subject matter is so heavy and so philosophical, that even with actors who get to portray different characters in every episode, it seems like everyone involved is tied up with little room to play and actually have fun with it.This brings to me to last week's episode of Dollhouse, the third in the second season.

The two central storylines involved some pretty heavy parallel stories. Both involved men turning women into sexualized dolls, willing enthusiastic prostitutes. Amusingly, one was a liberal arts college professor and the other was a serial killer. But the stories informed one another in an organic and disturbing way. Pretty heavy stuff with some quite shocking moments. But despite the dark subject matter, the writers injected the show with some moments of genuine humor. Enver Gjokaj's dance routine was my favorite moment of fall television so far, and the normally exhausting holier-than-thou handler Paul Ballard was allowed numerous clever quips. Really, let Tahmoh Penikett make a joke now and then. He doesn't need to be constantly put-upon (I'm looking at you too, BSG). That, plus the always entertaining Adelle DeWitt (played with excellent precision by Olivia Williams), and I was in Whedon heaven.

Hopefully this episode's critical acclaim and (relatively) successful ratings mean that Dollhouse will keep this momentum up. Worst case scenario, FOX will let Whedon wrap up the season before potential cancellation. So writers, please remember that this is an ensemble show with an excellent cast. Give them a chance to show off their comedic chops.

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