The final episode of Joss Whedon's sci-fi series Dollhouse aired tonight. I'm going to seize this last occasion to write about Dollhouse, since I will probably never feel motivated to do so again. The overall reaction to Dollhouse, from myself, the geek community and perhaps even Joss himself has been . . . meh. Whedon fans watched it, but they never really committed themselves to it.
So, a few final comments (warning, spoilers follow):
Best Character: Topher Brink. The egotistical, amoral technical genius went through a believable transformation into someone who cared, and therefore someone we care about. His style was so distinctive that you could never mistake his lines for anyone else's (the first law of memorable dialog).
Best Character (runner up): Adele DeWitt. The iron-fist-in-silk-glove leader of the L.A. Dollhouse had style, grace, and sophistication. She also went through a believable development, showing vulnerability as well as ruthless resolve. Somehow we always wound up cheering for DeWitt, even when she was being bad. In her final post-apocalyptic days, she was stripped of her title, power, and make-up, but she still had the bearing of authority. Her nursing of the deranged Topher was touching -- it was perhaps the first time her British stiff-upper-lip notion of moral duty was overshadowed by unadorned love. Amazing how restraint magnifies the impact of the smallest gestures.
Adele narrowly edged out Alpha for the runner-up position. Alpha really wouldn't be in the running at all, except that I enjoy Alan Tudyk so much and hope to see him again in future roles.
Worst Character: Echo. I loved Eliza Dushku in Buffy. She's a good actress . . . but only good. I don't know whether to blame the writers or to blame Dushku for the role of Echo falling flat. I had predicted from the very beginning that the conceit of beaming a new personality into her every week would prevent us from bonding with her, but it's more than that. All I know is that all the actors around her managed to make us care about their characters -- Topher, Adele, Boyd, Paul, Anthony/Victor -- and yet somehow I never really cared about Echo. This would be the second time that Joss managed to build a series around an actress who was consistently outshone by her ensemble cast. (I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but never really bonded with Buffy herself.)
Best Acting: I'll go out on a limb and say Enver Gjokaj's portrayal of Victor/Anthony showed the best acting chops among the whole cast. Most of the Dolls could never quite make me believe in the premise of uploadable personalities, but Gjokaj could. When he was imprinted with Topher's mind, he was a perfect Topher. Now that I think about it, he got the most widely varying roles -- Russian mobster, English playboy, American soldier, psychopathic killer, corporate villain, etc. -- and he played them all with equal convincingness. Use him again, Joss -- he can handle whatever you cook up for him.
Best Plot Twist: Adele going from kinda-good-guy to washed-up good guy to bad guy to really-good-guy in the course of three episodes. Joss kept me guessing -- how will she wind up? And when the dust settled, it was all believable in the realm of Adele's character.
Best Plot Twist (runner up): Whiskey/Dr. Saunders shooting Bennett. Joss openly acknowledges that all romances must be cruelly frustrated in order to make for good TV, so the moment Topher kissed her I knew Bennett was toast. But I didn't know she would be toasted quite so fast. And for Joss this was a two-fer, since it simultaneously shattered the romance of Boyd and Saunders. Speaking of which . . .
Worst Plot Twist: Boyd revealed to be the super-villain. It just . . . didn't . . . work. It's the sort of revisionist twist that signaled that Angel had jumped the shark. The romantic arch between Boyd and Saunders was carefully developed and then . . . totally forgotten about. You will never convince me that the writers planned to do that from the beginning, and I can't support such twists unless they were planned.
Best and Worst Themes: Mind and identity. The good news was the show was alive to all the mysteries of consciousness: what makes a person a person? Is person a body? A mind? Memories? Relationships? But the show's grasp of the issues was so muddled that it took different perspectives without even realizing it. One moment they act like the mind is identity, and the body just a shell -- a "suit" to be worn and discarded. But then the characters feel moral compunction for the body -- say, Echo trying to save Whiskey, even after she's been imprinted with an evil villain. But then when Paul is suddenly killed, Echo is reunited with his mind when she uploads him into herself. The premise of programmable people turns out to be too big for a prime-time series to sustain smoothly. We have to believe in the impossible on a regular basis, but then believe in enough limitation to sustain dramatic tension. For instance, we have to believe that Topher can reprogram an entire world of people with a bomb made of spare parts, yet somehow he can't rig it with a timer and has to blow himself up with it. When everything is possible, all limitations become arbitrary, and we stop caring. We drop them like, um, dolls, and go play with something else.
Good luck, Joss, on whatever comes next. Please let it be a Dr. Horrible sequel.
Not too surprisingly, some things hit me the same way and some didn't.
I thought Eliza Dushku was brilliant in the show. I thought she successfully conveyed a remarkable range of people and a remarkable range of emotions and did it all well. (I also thought Sarah Michelle Geller was brilliant as Buffy.) So that's pretty different. On the other hand, I agreed with you that Adele Dewhitt's character transformations worked, and Boyd Langdon's did not at all.
The only time I was really impressed with Victor was when he did Topher, but OH MY GOSH that was awesome. Similarly, I thought the character of Topher was a bit one-dimensional and got old, but he completely saved it in the final episode, being so different.
Overall, bottom line, I think the Dollhouse worked. Thumbs-up. But it was no Dr. Horrible.