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Second Season’s the Charm?

September 26, 2009

I was incredibly frustrated by Dollhouse last season. It had a lot going for it: an intriguing premise, a solid cast (and… Eliza Dusku), and all the geeky wit and imagination of Joss Whedon. But somehow, it kept falling flat.

Yes, yes, the network interfered with Joss’ vision. (Oh, of course it did. It’s FOX.) Whatever the reason, the show often felt like it was glorifying the very kind of exploitation it was trying to criticize, which frequently left a very sour taste in my mouth. You know there’s something very messed up going on behind the scenes when the only episode that feels like it’s even hinted at a show’s true potential is an unaired extra on the DVD set.

But “Epitaph One,” a bleak look into a near, dystopian future when the Dollhouse technology will have finally been put to its inevitable (and much more logical) world-ending use, was easily the best, most entertaining, and least offensive offering of the entire first season. And it made me excited to tune into last night’s premiere.

I’m glad I did.

Dollhouse Echo’s story was — as usual — the weakest link. Mostly because it made very little sense. But I enjoyed seeing her get to kick ass again at the end, and I’m really curious to see where her partnership with Ballard is going now that she’s remembering past identities much more openly. One of my problems relating to Echo as a character in the past was her lack of agency, so this can only be a positive change.

But the main meat of the episode lay with the rapid unraveling of Amy Ackers’ Whiskey/Dr. Saunders, which makes me even more sad that she’ll soon be leaving the show. Her breakdown throughout the episode — whether tormenting Topher, gently menacing Echo, or needling Boyd on his lack of interest before she became a damsel to be saved — was fascinating to watch.

Speaking of Boyd, I’m really digging the hints of attraction and tension between him and Saunders. But at the same time, I was glad to see the show rather pointedly call out both him and Ballard, the only other supposedly moral man in the Dollhouse, on the way they are both complicit in the Dolls’ captivity while at the same time getting off on the hero fantasy of protecting them.

The rest of the supporting cast fared well too (even gone-but-not-forgotten November/Mellie rated a mention, which gives me hope that we will be seeing her again). It is infinitely easier for me to deal with Topher when he isn’t being coddled by the narrative or used as only the “loveable,” quippy comic relief. Which is why his confrontation with Saunders was the most interesting either character has ever been to me. Topher’s a monster, not a lost puppy. Now that it seems like both the show and the character are starting to realize that, his presence on screen is less likely to make me want to throw things.

Although we didn’t get much more than a glimpse of Sierra and Victor, their brief scenes were put to good use. Sierra’s bitingly racist intro with Ivy (Psst, Joss… can Ivy get more screen time this season, please?) did more to showcase the surreal creepiness of the Dollhouse’s identity manipulation than anything we saw all last season. Victor, still recovering from Alpha’s attack at the end of last season, bookended the episode — his reaction to Sierra touching his newly healed face provided a sharp contrast to Adelle’s similar but less welcome gesture at the beginning. Here, as with Saunders, the show is finally not shying away from the horror of the routine violations the Dolls must endure.

Finally, at the shallow end of the pool: Wesley Wyndham-Price, er, Alexis Denisof! With his real American accent! Jamie Bamber! With his real British accent! My world’s all topsy turvey! And thank you, Joss, for giving the gift of Jamie Bamber and Tahmoh Penikett sharing a scene again. It’s always fun when you know the showrunner fanboys the same shows you do.

All in all, I’m pretty optimistic about what the rest of the season will bring. If “Vows” wasn’t a fluke, then this show might finally be heading in the right direction. Here’s hoping!

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. incandescentflower permalink
    September 27, 2009 4:53 pm

    Welcome! I’m glad you’ve finally posted!

    Also, I agree that this episode was a strong one and heading in the right direction. Jamie Bamber was so enjoyable and I kind of squeed when he and Tahmoh Penikett were together.

    I didn’t know Amy Acker was leaving. That is unfortunate, because I also found that entire interaction with Dr. Saunders and Topher fascinating. Maybe her new show won’t succeed? I agree that I am hopeful that the show will be stronger this season, although I admit I was a bigger fan than you from the beginning.

    • tenillypo permalink*
      September 27, 2009 5:39 pm

      You successfully guilted me into it at last! Heh.

      It was great seeing Jamie Bamber again. There has been a shortage of men with arms as big as their heads on my tv lately.

      • incandescentflower permalink
        September 28, 2009 10:31 am

        Sorry, guilt is a family skill. I’m not even aware when I use it!

        It is amazing how some muscley men like Jamie Bamber, Tahmoh Penikett and Jared Padalecki make me melt, but others, like Tyler Christopher and Steve Burton, seem swollen and just look like they can’t put their arms down at their sides. Maybe it is a soap thing.

        • tenillypo permalink*
          September 28, 2009 10:58 am

          I think the difference is that with TC and SBu, their heads seem to have swollen too, which is why they tend to look so bloated. The other guys are much more proportional!

  2. calicobonny permalink
    September 29, 2009 9:55 am

    Did you watch the original pilot that was on the season 1 extras DVD? It was so much more enjoyable than the nonsense that Fox aired.

    I watched Epitaph 1 last night and I thought it was incredible. I think if the show kept going from that point I might enjoy it more, but I did enjoy the season premier.

    I am very sad that Amy Acker is leaving as she is one of the best characters on the show, but I have high hopes that she will return.

    Anyhoo, I get the sense that Fox is giving Joss a bit more free reign this season and that can only mean good things for the show.

    • tenillypo permalink*
      September 29, 2009 10:26 am

      I did see the original pilot. I thought it was better in a lot of ways, but worse in others — mainly the pacing. I think it actually worked better to stretch out Echo and Ballard’s first meeting and the revelation that Victor was a Doll over several episodes the way they ended up doing.

      I hope FOX will let Joss do his own thing a little more this season. *crosses fingers*

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