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Dollhouse shows promise

Caitlin Ferraro | Tuesday, February 24, 2009

This past Friday the 13th was about more than bad luck, black cats and saw-wielding killers. It was also the premiere of Joss Whedon’s new science fiction series, Fox’s “Dollhouse.”

Whedon is best known as the creator of critically acclaimed sci-fi shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Firefly.” Whedon created this new series, and also wrote and directed the first episode.

The premiere, entitled “Ghost,” examined the Dollhouse, a secretive and illegal place where people can go to make their desires come true. The clients of the Dollhouse must have the right connections and enough money to hire “Actives,” people who have been programmed to fulfill their needs.

These Actives seem to have been chosen to surrender their bodies and minds to the Dollhouse. The first minutes of the premiere introduce Echo (Eliza Dushku, “Buffy”), an “Active” who seems less than thrilled for her five-year stay in the Dollhouse.

The opening scene shows Echo being gently coerced by a character named Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) to sign a contract that will take care of the ‘consequences’ for her actions.

We do know that Echo’s real name is Caroline; unfortunately we do not know much else, including what actions got her to the Dollhouse in the first place, leaving viewers wondering what her backstory may be.

Echo can be imprinted with any personality, skill, or muscle memory to be whatever the clients want, including the perfect lover, a spy or an assassin. But when the job is done, their memory is wiped away and they forget everything.

However, something is ‘wrong’ with Echo. As the first episode progresses, it seems clear that she is remembering flashes of the other lives she has lived, and is increasingly curious about her real identity.

Echo’s handler, Boyd Langton (Harry J. Lennix), seems to be conflicted about his role in the Dollhouse. As an ex-cop, he seems genuinely invested in her well being. Already in the premiere episode, he comes in conflict with the boss of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt. Fran Kranz and Amy Acker round out the important members of the Dollhouse as a memory-wiping technician and doctor for the Actives, respectively.

In a parallel storyline, FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, “Battlestar Galactica”) has been assigned to uncover information on the super secretive and elite Dollhouse. Unfortunately, he is met with criticism from co-workers who think he is crazy and accuse him of imposing on other investigations. The episode alludes that his obsession with discovering the truth has destroyed his marriage, and may lead to the demise of his career.

Dushku is a great actress, and she is the core of the show. The birth of “Dollhouse” came out of a conversation Dushku had with Whedon about the level of range an actress needs to fill different roles. “Dollhouse” definitely offers Dushku the opportunity to demonstrate her range as she plays multiple personalities in a single episode.

There is also great potential for Langdon to be an interesting character. Viewers can feel his sense of compassion and a true understanding of right and wrong. The second episode of the show, “The Target,” reveals how Langdon came to be a handler at the Dollhouse when an Active named Alpha went on the fritz and killed several people. It also further illustrates his bond with Echo.

The premiere of “Dollhouse” is a promising one, as it offers a balance of action and thought-provoking ethical questions. While the first half drags a bit, the second half of the episode picks up and shows great potential.

But for this show to work, viewers need more information. Who was Echo before the Dollhouse? Who is the naked man in the last five minutes of the episode, sitting among dead bodies and watching home videos of Echo before she became an active? And will his sending of Echo’s photo to Agent Ballard in an enveloped marked ‘keep looking’ force a meeting between Echo and the rogue cop? We will have to wait until next Friday to find out.

“Dollhouse” airs on Fox Fridays at 9 p.m.