There are few men in the TV industry with as much geek cred as Joss Whedon. After creating the wildly popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the spinoff Angel, Whedon went on to create his shortest lived show, Firefly, which eventually spin off into its own film. Thankfully for fans, Whedon didn’t stop there with his creations and (after a brief detour for the Dr. Horrible online shorts, that is) and he birthed Dollhouse. Amidst rumors of tumultuous scripts, a misshapen pilot and numerous other delays, the series finally debuted on the Fox network. Despite being shoved into a the Friday death slot from the start, Dollhouse has had a second season pick up and now the first, complete with unaired episodes, is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
From Joss Whedon, the creative mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, comes the provocative Dollhouse, a sexy, suspenseful thriller starring the stunningly talented Eliza Dushku. As an “Active,” the mysterious Echo (Dushku) serves as an unwitting agent of Dollhouse, an illegal underground organization that provides its elite clientele with programmable human beings. Actives receive personality imprints, allowing them to temporarily become anyone or anything—the perfect burglar, lover, spy, or assassin. Now, with the FBI and her own shadowy past closing in, Echo must face a rogue Active who will stop at nothing to bring Dollhouse down—forever.
Dollhouse is an intriguing concept and while I wasn’t jazzed about it from day one, I still looked forward to it. I was, after all, quite a Firefly nut and enjoyed Whedon’s other works, so I knew I’d have to at least give it a fair chance. The Friday debut came around and I eagerly tuned in and…well, I was disappointed. But I kept watching. For five more weeks I kept watching before I finally threw in the towel. The show started out rocky enough to begin with but why some of the earliest episodes dealt with some incredibly cliché and irksome scenarios, I don’t know. It seemed like they were trying to keep audiences away from this show…which for me (and numerous other Whedon fans I know) was enough to turn me off of the show.
For one thing the show started out to such a confusing extent that it was hard to really figure out where the series was going. The FBI sub-plot was the only interesting element of the show for me and every time Echo was sent on a mission, I honestly couldn’t care less. Her side-stories often had jack-all to do with the overall story of the show that I wondered how and why we were spending so much time on them. I get now that Whedon just wanted to stretch the story out to the point where we got very accustomed to our main characters (despite them never really having a personality at all because…well, they were all wiped dolls).
Really it was a hard show to even warm up to because the only constant was the organization and the FBI sequences, which struggled to go anywhere. I honestly and truly do not know how such mediocre TV got on the air with Whedon involved, because while he can have his own mediocrity at times, never has he had such a rocky start to a show. I also get that a lot of it was likely Fox involvement, butting in and deciding that doing something else would be for the better of the show. Needless to say that didn’t work (does it ever?) and once the show found its footing, it actually became very good.
I stopped watching the show about halfway through the season, mainly because of a few things. One, the series was pulling out plots that were more in tune with a teenage show like Buffy and not an adult oriented outing like Dollhouse. Second, but most importantly, the show lacked the Whedon brand of humor that his other shows were infused so beautifully with. This all changed about midway into the season though. In fact, right when I stopped watching it is when it got good. Within an episode or two of where I’d stopped watching, the series took a drastic upswing and got a lot more interesting. Twists were worked in, dramatic and “shocking” moments occurred and a few more of Whedon’s alumni popped up to fill roles on the series. The whole Alpha two-parter was very entertaining, as was the furthering of the FBI agent’s plot. I’m all for season long story arcs, but when they were holding this much awesome in reserve, you think they would’ve baited the audience with some of it rather than give them nothing for sticking around.
I honestly and truly don’t know who would find the first half of the season to be entertaining, but the last half may as well be a different show. It’s a fantastic upswing that the show took and I’ll definitely be looking forward to the second season now, but I honestly can’t see this show lasting unless Fox leaves Whedon be—it’d be horrible if the show managed to get to an enjoyable level that Firefly started off as and then only have it come crashing down when it’s cancelled.
Which will happen. I’m not bitter (maybe just a bit), but this is Fox we’re talking about. Unless they give the show better promotion and a better timeslot, I can’t see this one surviving the second season. Which is a huge disappointment as it showed some real promise in the last half (and that unaired episode, “Epitaph One”? Holy crap that was awesome. More on that in the Blu-ray review portion, however).
Overall the first season is half crap and half awesome, which garners a Recommended. I’m sure barreling through the mediocrity on DVD or Blu-ray will make the episodes seem less dull, but even on a repeat viewing I was still bored by those first episodes (and that teeny bopper music episode? Geeesh. I was genuinely embarrassed to have that on the TV).
Fox unleashes Dollhouse on Blu-ray in a standard width Elite Blu case that houses the three discs inside. On the exterior is a snot glued (to the cellophane wrapping) cardboard cover of…well, the cover. It’s an utterly pointless addition to the packaging that Fox seems to like doing now, likely in some effort to be more environmentally conscious. How about this, Fox: just stop with the cardboard altogether. No one cares. It doesn’t make the package look any more attractive. People will just chuck it in the trash anyway. Menus are simple and easy to navigate.
Video arrives in the form of an AVC encoded 1080p transfer. There is nothing really spectacularly original about the color palette of Dollhouse, although the Dollhouse itself is a very warmly lit and soothing place to look at. There are plenty of excellent shots to show off the visual clarity that this series possesses, with lots of detail and whatnot tossed about the season. There’s also a bit of grain for good measure, but overall the video for this series looks spectacular. Audio, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, is similarly exciting, with plenty of surround work and subwoofer output throughout the entire set.
Extras are plenty on this set and we start out immediately on the first disc with some goodies:
“Ghost” Commentary by Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku
“Man on the Street” Commentary by Joss Whedon
Never-before-seen episode “Epitatph One” with Commentary by writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen
Original Unaired Pilot – “Echo”
“Making Dollhouse” featurette
“Coming Back Home” featurette
“Finding Echo” featurette
“Designing the Perfect Dollhouse” featurette
“A Private Engagement” featurette
As usual the commentaries are well worth checking out, but it’s the third disc where the coolest extras reside. The aforementioned un-aired episode “Epitaph One” is a absolutely fantastic look into the future of the Dollhouse, with a future gone awry and a whole new load of dialogue and jargon to look forward to that goes along with the year of 2017. It’s a fantastic season finale (if that’s what it was supposed to be) and I hope it sees a television broadcast at some point, as I would love to see more of the futuristic world—the cast of the current incarnation is largely nonexistent in it, but it’s still a lot of fun to watch, with all of the flashbacks and the like.
The original “Pilot” is a different story. While I honestly feel it is better than the pilot that eventually made it to air, it’s also retains the same level of “what the hell is going on” that the eventual pilot contained. It did spill a bit too much about the Dollhouse in the first episode, however, so much so that if they had gone with this pilot then the entire structure of the rest of the season (and series) would be different. It’s an exciting outing to be sure, but it works best as an alternate pilot rather than the real one…it simply does too much too early. Which is a drastic difference to the first four episodes hardly doing anything at all, but it seems to be one extreme or the other with this show.
Other extras, such as the featurettes, is a great selection of goodies to check out. While the extras aren’t too long, they’re still well worth checking out for fans of Whedon and the show, as it goes into the history of the show, the difficulties it faced (which is also talked about a bit on the commentaries as well) and whatnot.
Overall a solid set and one that comes Recommended. Only time will tell where this show goes and whether it’ll become as loved as Whedon’s other outings (although with such a rocky start, I can’t see it too terribly popular). Still, as the season went on it showed more and more of what made Whedon’s shows so much fun to watch and with that in mind we can only hope for the best.
Dollhouse – Season 1 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.