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PRIME-TIME TV

For 'Dollhouse' on Fox, the set is one of the stars

The two-story, 25,000-square-foot structure has some real personality.

February 01, 2009|Maria Elena Fernandez

If you were going to be held against your will in an underground asylum, where beautiful people would pamper you, erase your memory and imprint you with different personalities, you'd probably want your captor to be Joss Whedon.

The TV scribe-producer-director and filmmaker, known for his keen ability to draw female characters, has created a sanctuary on Stage 19 of the Fox lot that is so impressive in scope and detail that it hardly seems like a set for his new Fox series, "Dollhouse." With its serene reflecting koi pond, unusual but comfy sleeping pods recessed into the floor and meditation-massage area, the house feels as if it belongs on a Laguna Beach bluff instead of on a soundstage.

In the show, the 25,000-square-foot, two-story structure, unusually elaborate for a TV production, sits 10 stories below a Los Angeles high-rise, hiding its residents from the outside world. At once a Utopian spa and an illegal prison, the dollhouse is as much a player in the mystery thriller as Echo (Eliza Dushku), the central character. Echo and the other "Actives" live there between assignments that require them to be anything the clients of the underground organization want them to be. Before each job, they are imprinted with a new personality, and afterward, their memories are wiped clean.

"The idea of the show is what I consider any good fantasy to be -- your worst nightmare and your greatest dream," said Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly." "And the nightmare is: I don't know who I am. I'm exploited. I'm trapped. I'm helpless. And the dream is: I have no burdens, and I spend all of my time eating really good food and getting massages in the nicest place in the world."

One of the most anticipated shows of the season, "Dollhouse" premieres Feb. 13, after several stops and starts. Fox ordered the show directly to series last year after the writers strike, hoping to launch it in the fall. But the pilot, which was shot in April and May, fell short of expectations and the network benched it until mid-season.

Instead of retooling the pilot, Whedon decided to scrap it and start over, though he admitted on whedoneqsue.com that doing so made him "depressing to be around for a while."

The network wanted Whedon to "up the stakes, make the episodes more stand-alone, stop talking about relationships and cut to the chase," he wrote. "Oh, and add a chase. That you can cut to. Nothing I hadn't heard before on my other shows (apparently my learning curve has no bendy part) but frustrating as hell given our circumstances -- a pilot shot, scripts written, everybody marching together/gainfully employed . . . and then a shutdown."

Then Fox announced in November that it was scheduling it on Fridays, one of the most challenging slots in prime time, sparking "Firefly" flashbacks for fans and critics. Fox had given that short-lived series a Friday night graveyard shift in 2002 before canceling it.

At a media event last month, Fox President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly tried to quell concern by explaining that he hoped pairing "Dollhouse" with "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" on Fridays would create a new "X Files" night of appointment television.

"We were so keyed up and when Joss decided to scrap the pilot, we started to wonder, 'What did we do wrong? What didn't we achieve?' " production designer Stuart Blatt said. "But second chances are sometimes very refreshing."

Blatt, who worked on "Angel," says the "Dollhouse" set is the largest he's built in his 20-year career. Before settling on a design, Whedon pored over architecture books, focusing on traditional and modern Asian building styles and elegant spas. Much of his inspiration came from "Thai Style" by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni and William Warren and "Architecture in China" by Philip Jodidio.

"It's not normal for other producers to be so prepared, but it's normal with Joss," Blatt said. "We looked through everything, weeded out some ideas and came up with this world-class spa that's sealed off from the rest of the world and has a minimalist Japanese feel to it. Joss knows exactly what he wants, but at the same time, he's flexible and he allows you to surprise him."

Sensual and beautiful

The $950,000 set was completed in six weeks last spring. Although there are no windows, it feels open and expansive because there are almost no walls. Instead, there are Japanese screens to instill an illusion of privacy for the Actives, who are unaware that they are observed at all times, even when they're showering or changing clothes.

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