'Dollhouse': On Fox, a Strange New Toy

If only she could remember her name: Eliza Dushku stars as a woman given secret missions to carry out but who has no idea who she is.
If only she could remember her name: Eliza Dushku stars as a woman given secret missions to carry out but who has no idea who she is. (By Isabella Vosmikova -- Fox)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009

Few situation comedies are as nakedly nutty as Fox's newest drama, which goes to show you how topsy and turvy pop culture is becoming. If "Dollhouse," a pretentious and risible jumble premiering tonight on that most quixotic of national networks, were a piece of music, it would have to be some sort of funky-junky, hip-hop, rinky-tinky, ragtime madrigal.

If that sounds like a mish-mash of mumbo jumbo, good, because so is the show.

Slices of mumbo don't come much more jumbo than this new entry from producer Joss Whedon; it's enough to make one long for the days when TV dramas were criticized for being too pat, too predictable, too much like one another. Whedon, who directed the pilot, certainly dressed it up stylishly, but I'll take simple coherence over fancy-pants trappings any day. After all, this is television, not an art-house cinema in Greenwich Village.

The premise is admittedly intriguing, though it has a familiar ring to it. A tough, nimble, high-stakes secret agent named Echo is an "Active" in a hush-hush outfit of domestic do-gooders known as the Dollhouse, which might be a very tenuous homage to everybody's favorite mad romantic Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. Echo has a honey of an identity crisis: Every night when she's zippered into her cozy little mummylike chamber for sleep, her memory bank is wiped clean and she'll start the next day with no idea of who the devil she might be.

This particular form of torture makes her an ideal secret agent, it seems, although the precise benefits of her condition are not very impressive at first blush -- or 13th. It does make Echo an ultimate existentialist, a woman whose past is a mystery even to herself but doesn't do much complaining about this awkward condition.

The show is a two-stream drama in which Echo jumps through hoops to complete her latest assignment -- freeing a cute little girl from the clutches of some filthy rotten old kidnapers, for instance -- while in the B story, Echo follows clues that may point the way to her real name and personality and parents. It's not so much a plot as a blueprint; Whedon tries to offset the tidiness with some wild flourishes, like a scene in which we see, according to my notes, "barefoot babes in high-tech beds!"

At times, the drama suggests a collaboration between David Lynch and Michael Mann, but not in a good way (if a "good way" would be possible between those two macabre cutups). Oh, Quentin Tarantino's influence seems apparent, too, especially in a bathroom scene. A man standing at a urinal is understandably displeased to feel the barrel of a handgun pressed against the back of his neck.

Man with gun: "Dollhouse. Say it."

Man at urinal: "Dollhouse."

Man with gun: "Say it again."

They could keep on like this all night. It begins to play like a Flomax commercial, actually. Although this scene is harmlessly audacious, the producers and director get carried way away in the second episode, the camera languishing over shots of naked, nubile bodies scarred by slices and other gruesome wounds. It's way too explicit (probably worth an R rating if this were a theatrical film) and self-consciously congratulatory.

Eliza Dushku, veteran of another Whedon series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," plays Echo; would she like to be praised for doing a darn fine job of playing an empty outline of a human being? She does contribute some ruffles and flourishes designed to fill in those gaping gaps and fill in a blank canvas, but it's awfully hard to play a character who barely exists -- and harder still to inspire much concern or interest in the audience.

Others in the cast rise to adequacy or beyond, but the decor is so outlandish that the actors really have to fight it more than just act upon it. Naturally, the secret headquarters of the Dollhouse is a fabulous layout worthy of a James Bond villain (albeit one who buys some of his furniture at Ikea). Echo's apartment is similarly snazzy -- very shiny and sleek.

Dollhouse is apparently a private or semi-private enterprise, which deprives us of an obvious prescription: Cut off its funding and shut the thing down so that Little Miss Echo can find out who she is and go home again. All the bogus hocus-pocus about wiped memories and forgotten identities and running around after strange shadows in the dark (or in the light, as the case may be) simply isn't worth the trouble, and just the money spent on interior decorating could probably keep the National Gallery of Art lit up for a month.

Dollhouse (one hour) premieres at 9 tonight on Channel 5.

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