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Will Dollhouse become another Joss Whedon cult failure?



Whedondusku He may be the best TV producer you’ve barely heard of.

But Joss Whedon — the quirkily creative, comic-book writing geek genius behind pop culture landmarks such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog — is taking another stab at network TV success (at 9 p.m. Friday on WTVT-Ch. 13), with his new Fox series, Dollhouse.

Like most Whedon TV projects, it began in fits, with a second pilot created and a fall 2008 debut pushed back to February as producers rethought their approach.

Hanging in the air is the concern that television — with its need for sympathetic characters, linear storylines and widely accessible concepts — won’t warm to a complex series about a woman regularly implanted with fake personalities by an illegal organization that rents her out for assignments serving the wealthy and powerful. Who wouldn’t understand that?

Dollhouse_logo I've seen three episodes, and what strikes me most about this concept is that it feels like a perfect metaphor for how some TV producers and directors must view some actors -- as vacant vessels for their ideas and stories. Fun as it may be for actors to play a different person or two in every episode, I wonder if she they thought much about whether this is some sort of passive-aggressive swipe at their end of the industry from a master of the disguised meaning. 

All this, inside a series struggling to survive on a night that has killed off everything from X-Files to Whedon's own space western Firefly. Here now, are three reasons each for why Dollhouse will and won’t succeed:

Dollhouseelizadushkuleatherpants2 It will succeed because:
It’s Joss
— Whedon is a brilliant writer whose resume includes the third Alien movie and the first Toy Story film. His taste for pop culture and witty dialogue is legend. And he’s working with an actress whom he has dubbed his muse, Buffy alum Eliza Dushku.

Its cast — Besides a sultry, appealing Dushku as the “active” or “doll” whose memories are re-created for assignments, ace character actor Harry Lennix plays the ex-cop who watches her on assignments, Homicide alum Reed Diamond is the Dollhouse’s ruthless second in command and Battlestar Galactica co-star Tahmoh Penikett is the federal agent who won’t rest until the Dollhouse is exposed.

It’s kinda cool — Dushku plays Echo, a woman who volunteers, reluctantly, to be a doll — sent out to be everything from the perfect weekend girlfriend to the perfect ransom negotiator, unaware of her previous lives.

It will fail because:
It’s on Fridays
— No network but CBS succeeds with expensive hourlong shows on Fridays, anymore. Whedon’s last TV series, the confusing 2002 sci-fi drama Firefly, died an ugly death on Fridays, mostly because its young target audience wasn’t home to watch.

It’s confusing — The dolls have their memories wiped and are implanted with new memories by mystery handlers who have a shadowy boss while an earnest FBI agent tracks them and Echo struggles with retained shards of wiped memories. Just writing that exhausted me; will viewers fare any better?

It’s a baldly male fantasy — Whedon specializes in writing the butt-kicking action babe. But it’s hard to see the Dollhouse as anything but a high-tech brothel; a tough sell on female-skewing Friday nights.


Here's a few words from Whedon himself on the project:

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:55pm]


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