Capsule review: neat, fascinating, and very self-aware, combining the unsettling and the banal in a fine mix. In pretty much every respect, better than I was expecting.
The high concept is weird even by Joss' standards. Somewhere in LA, there is The Dollhouse -- a super-secret organization that rents out programmable people. If you have the money, you can have a companion, a bodyguard, a negotiator or, yes, a sex toy for a time, with a personality designed exactly to your specifications. Our protagonist (or at least, the character that things revolve around) is Echo, one of these "actives", who spends half her time as a sort of half-person, blissfully semi-aware of the Zen garden that is the Dollhouse itself, and the other half out on her programmed missions.
Before you bother with your outrage: they know. Every argument about the fundamental sickness of the idea appears in the story, as does every rationalization for it, and increasingly the nasty questions about identity that it brings up. It is turning out to be really excellent science fiction, using the basic premise to explore the concept of identity in many ways. As I expected, it falls into the same genre as series like Nowhere Man or My Own Worst Enemy -- but where most of those were one-note tunes, this one is proving a symphony of disturbing questions.
Echo is the center of the series, but by her nature she is half character, half MacGuffin. Fortunately, this is a Joss story, and like all such, it's an ensemble cast. We have the staff of the Dollhouse, with their own agendas and varied feelings about what they are doing. We have the FBI agent who is on the trail of the Dollhouse, despite everyone's assurance that it is just an urban myth. (And who I suspect has his own secret -- we'll see if I'm correct about it tomorrow.) And we have the other actives, who are slowly bonding into a family even if they are barely aware of each other.
The series has been dinged by some people as not sounding like Joss, and that's a fair critique: it doesn't specialize in the sort of witty banter he has tended towards in his other work. Frankly, my reaction from the beginning is that the series doesn't *feel* like Joss. Instead, it has a distinctly JJ Abrams flavor (in particular, it has definite echoes of Alias), but with more depth of ideas than I've usually seen in Abrams' work.
The acting is quite good. In particular, all of the actives do a fine job of pulling off their different characters each week. I find myself relieved: the series demonstrates to me that Eliza Dushku is a better actress than I'd given her credit for, giving life to all these different roles for Echo.
I gather that the series is in danger of cancellation, and that's a pity -- it's probably my favorite show on at the moment. It started slow, with a few episodes that simply set out the concept without doing anything too interesting, but from there it's been rocketing along, with increasingly interesting assignments and a rapidly moving plot. And oh, yes -- there's a plot. Suffice it to say, like all Joss series, the real story is playing itself out in a granularity of seasons, not episodes, and we're slowly coming to understand that the Dollhouse itself is just the tip of the iceberg. There are still some isolated episodes (such as the one we just watched tonight, about a dead woman who has herself brought back to witness her own funeral and investigate her own death), but the focus is, as always, gradually shifting to the main arc.
Neat stuff -- not world-changing, but interesting and slightly dangerous science fiction. Well worth checking out; fingers crossed that, unlike its predecessors in this genre, it gets renewed...