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A shaky foundation

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse gets off to an uneven start

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Joss Whedon is one of the few TV creators with name recognition, but it’s not a good sign when fans have to save a show before it even launches.

In a surprising move, fans of TV writer-producer Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly) have already mounted a campaign to save his new show Dollhouse (Fox, Fridays, 9 p.m.) before it’s even premiered. Whedon has unusually dedicated fans who tend to be well-connected online and highly invested in his creations, but even so, the move to preemptively assume the worst about Dollhouse’s chances for success is unprecedented. It’s just one indicator of trouble for a show that should have been one of this season’s sure things; Whedon is one of only a handful of TV creators with broad name recognition, who can draw fans to a show on his involvement alone, yet the fans behind the “Save Dollhouse” campaign are probably on the right track.

Dollhouse’s original pilot was scrapped, and production was shut down for a few weeks last year to reassess the approach to the concept. Top that off with Fox’s decision to air the show on the notoriously low-rated Friday night (where Whedon’s Firefly died a quick death), and you have what appears to be a recipe for failure. It doesn’t help that the new pilot is bland and unexciting, with little of Whedon’s trademark clever dialogue and creatively oddball ideas. Instead, it’s a straightforward introduction to the show’s basics, featuring a standalone crime-solving plot that’s only a shade removed from your average episode of CSI.

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Which is a shame, because the idea behind Dollhouse is original and complex: The titular organization rents out people (called “actives”) whose own personalities have been wiped clean and are replaced for each new “engagement” with tailor-made personas to fit clients’ needs. A rogue former active who’s now out to destroy the organization and an FBI agent obsessed with uncovering the Dollhouse’s secrets add to a world with depth, intrigue and plenty of story possibilities. Each episode features a done-in-one engagement along with serialized elements, similar to another Fox sci-fi show, Fringe.

So why, with a unique concept and a top-notch creative team (Whedon has brought along a number of writers and producers from his previous series), does Dollhouse still not quite work? Obviously the underwhelming pilot is a big problem; stick around for at least another episode or two, as the familiar crisp dialogue and sharp characterization do show up, and the plots make better use of the concept’s potential. A larger problem, though, comes from the concept itself; although star Eliza Dushku (who worked with Whedon on Buffy, and is also a producer here) does a good job of giving each of main character Echo’s new personas a distinctive identity, ultimately there isn’t enough to latch onto from week to week. We’re watching a show about someone who’s a completely different person in each episode.

Many of the supporting characters aren’t actives, but their roles are generally peripheral, and the show really depends on investment in Echo. Seeds are already planted in early episodes to learn about Echo’s past and her mysterious connection to the rogue active, but the fact remains that she’s a cipher, and what happens to her one week often has no bearing on how she behaves the next. Story-wise, Dollhouse has plenty of places to go; the second episode, with a client going all Most Dangerous Game on Echo, has a few nice twists. And Whedon has proved many times that he’s a master of long-form storytelling. There’s every reason to think that Dollhouse could develop into something great—but it may end up needing that fan campaign to help it get there.

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