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Joss Whedon's 'Dollhouse' seems too empty

TELEVISION REVIEW

A group of people who have had their memories erased, led by Eliza Dushku's Echo, can be hired to do just about any task. But there's no emotional connection.

February 13, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

To say there has been anticipatory buzz surrounding Joss Whedon's return to television with Fox's "Dollhouse" is like saying octo-mom has gotten some media attention. The moment Whedon announced the project, fans of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly" began their internal countdown. When bad things began to happen -- the network wanted so many changes in the pilot that Whedon chucked it and began again from scratch -- the buzz only got louder.

But although buzz can indicate an excited crowd on the brink of satiation, it can also serve as a warning that you're about to get stung.

If you sense a pause at this moment, it's me taking a break to wring my hands and brush away a tear. But no amount of fondness or admiration for Whedon and his work can disguise the fact that "Dollhouse," which premieres tonight, is beyond disappointing. Overcrowded with plotlines, high-tech gimmicks and ambition yet empty of emotional connection and purpose, "Dollhouse" tries so hard to be so many things it winds up being nothing much at all.

It would be nice to blame the network and all those dreaded notes, but of the three episodes Fox made available, the pilot is the strongest. Here we meet Echo (Eliza Dushku) and the people who have created her. Echo is an "active," one of a cadre of incredibly good looking young people who are part of a sleek action-brothel where the super-rich and semi-deranged can rent people capable of just about anything. Need a partner for kinky sex, white-water rafting or kidnapping negotiation? Meetcha at the Dollhouse.

Echo and her pals are able to perform such disparate tasks because their memories have been wiped away, leaving them as blank slates onto which other memories, and therefore personalities and abilities, can be downloaded.

You can see why Whedon was drawn to the conceit. It provides a nice action-adventure A plot -- in the pilot it's Echo, programmed to be an ace negotiator, helping a father whose daughter has been kidnapped -- along with, potentially, a lot of larger questions about identity and the nature of reality. A sort of "Alias" meets "Bourne" by way of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" with a lot of lovely "dolls" milling about, often naked.

A show like this is built on being maddening and mysterious. But "Dollhouse" takes it to a noticeably pleased-with-itself extreme. Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) is the madam of the house, and she's so icy and buttoned up she seems to be experiencing full-body Botox. We watch as she offers to get the woman Echo used to be out of some kind of trouble (Murder? Bad credit rating? It's unclear) in exchange for sucking all the memories out of her head, and we have to wonder: At what point did something like that sound good?

Then there's the blank-stare thing. Between gigs, the actives are memory-free. (They each emerge from their wipe-downs with the line "Was I asleep?," which someone in Fox marketing apparently already envisions on a T-shirt.) So how come everyone knows how to swim and hold a fork and do tai chi? And what about all that mixed-gender nudity? Are we saying libido is strictly a product of memory?

Unfortunately these are the kind of thoughts you have watching more than one episode of "Dollhouse," if only to avoid the larger, more disturbing questions. Like who thought Dushku was up to the formidable task of portraying several different people per episode? (Hint: It takes more than a different hairstyle and glasses.) Or why the wisecracking, memory-wipe geek played by Fran Kranz seems to have wandered in from another, more lighthearted show? (His name is Topher, for cryingoutloud). Or why we don't get an episode or two to just get used to the whole Dollhouse concept before it's front-loading it with two "enemies," one an FBI agent determined to find this legendary Dollhouse, the other a Doll Gone Wild.

But these are all surmountable problems of any science/fantasy show. The real problem with "Dollhouse" is that everyone involved was so caught up with its concept, complications and set design that they forgot to build the viewer a point of entry.

Echo is the natural choice, except that she's a non-person, which makes it a little hard to get attached. Despite its spa-like setting and occasional desire to save kidnapped children, the Dollhouse is just plain creepy, a moral half-step above the organ-harvesting joint in "Coma." It would be easy to root for the FBI agent except that Tahmoh Penikett plays him so teeth-gritted dull. Echo's handler Boyd (Harry Lennix) is the closest thing to human the show has. He at least sees Echo as a person rather than a robot. But though he raises all the necessary moral and ethical questions, he still takes the paycheck.

That leaves Doll Gone Wild, whoever that may be. And, of course, all of us Whedon fans who are hoping against hope that he somehow manages to pull all this together and make us care a little less about his return and a little more about the show that brought him back.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Dollhouse'

Where: Fox

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

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