Dollhouse the Complete Season Two DVD Review
Posted by Michael Weyer on 10.25.2010
The shortened second season of Joss Whedon's cult series manages to pack a lot into its run and bring closure to a show with a lot of potential.
Dollhouse the Complete Season
20th Century Fox
It can be frustrating to be a Joss Whedon fan. When he’s on his A-game, the writer-producer is capable of giving us some truly awesome stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer which linked teenage angst to slaying monsters with a great cast and quirky dialogue. Angel continued that with a bit more of an edge, the unique idea of a vampire trying to save the innocent. However, the man can have some rather annoying traits that keep his work from being truly classic. I’ve always felt that Firefly is highly overrated; don’t get me wrong, good show with great cast but it was pretty much just goofy fun, in no way one of the ten greatest sci-fi series ever. But there’s also stuff like his annoying tendency to think that the only way to make a female character strong is to massively screw her up (Buffy, Faith, Willow, River). He can also seem to go out of his way to ruin some characters and mess stuff up like Buffy’s uneven final season and the current “Season 8” comic book, to me, undoes so much of what made the series magic with Buffy basically turning into Supergirl and flying around tackling guys while a vampire-obsessed world turns on Slayers. His X-Men run was not too bad with Cyclops becoming an actually cool character but was marred with some rough stuff as, again, he put a big female character (Kitty Pryde) through hell seemingly just because he could.
This brings us to Dollhouse, Whedon’s latest effort. After a big promotional push, the series debuted in early 2009 to a rather mixed reaction. It had the ingredients for success with a cool leading lady in Eliza Dushku and a unique concept but it seemed to drag out some plot points and sometimes seemed to have difficulty figuring out what kind of series it could be. It still managed to get itself a decent cult audience that allowed it to get a second season. But, that wasn’t enough to keep up in a competitive fall schedule so it met its end in February of 2010, although the writers were given time to wrap things up well for the fans. Now, the final 13 episodes are on DVD and offer a unique look at a series that starts off slow and drags a bit but, ironically, its premature end allows the final half to truly shine and give you some cool stuff that makes you see the best and worst of Whedon unleashed.
For those who missed season 1, the Dollhouse is a secret organization headed by the powerful Rossum Corporation. Scattered throughout the world, the “Houses” hold in Actives, young men and women who can be programmed with the complete personalities and skill sets of whatever a client wants: Hostage negotiator, date for a rich guy, midwife, dominatrix and more. The Actives truly believe they are what characters they are imprinted with, overseen by handlers and when the job is done, they’re “wiped,” reducing them to child-like minds who inhabit the House.
The series focused on Echo (Eliza Dushku) aka Caroline, who’d basically been forced into the Dollhouse’s five-year contract. She took on a variety of jobs alongside fellow Actives Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman). The House is overseen by Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), aided by security chief Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) and Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the quirky genius who created the impritint process. Much of the first season revolved around Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), an FBI agent investigating the Dollhouse, who ended up falling in love with November (Miracle Laurie), a neighbor who was actually a Doll sent to spy on him. The season finale had some big events as the House came under attack from Alpha (Alan Tudyk), a psychotic Active who’d managed to control his personalities. In his attack, it was revealed that Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker) was actually an Active reprogrammed to become the House surgeon after an earlier assault by Alpha. Ballard eventually agreed to work with the House in return for November to be released from her contract and live as her original persona, Madeline, although that meant she no longer remembered Ballard. The DVD of the first season contained “Epitaph One,” a stunning episode that revealed the dark future in which the Dollhouse technology gets out of control and leads to worldwide chaos.
As season two begins, Echo is starting to remember pieces of her other personas and able to work with them. Ballard knows this and is using it to try and help Echo escape her fate. Meanwhile, the Dollhouse is being targeted by a Senator (Alexis Desinof) who wants to bring it down, causing concern for Rossum. Saunders, unable to cope with being a programmed person, leaves the House and that throws the normally amoral Topher for a loop. Despite the various mindwipes they’ve each received, Victor and Sierra find themselves falling in love, which points to an issue with the imprint process. As things move along, we get some major shakeups and looks into the pasts of the characters while the groundwork is laid out for that dark future we all know is coming.
Whedon has always been fascinated by the concept of identity, how we establish it and how it shifts so you can see why he enjoys playing with this concept. It’s a cool idea and allows the actors some amazing work as they take on various jobs and identities. One of the absolute most brilliant bits is when Topher has to leave the House on an errand and so imprints his own personality onto Victor as a stand-in and Gjokaj so perfectly copies him that their conversation is amazing (not to mention hysterical). The imprints aren’t just mental as Echo is given the personality of a new mother, even breast-feeding the kid and feels such an emotional connection that she goes on the run when “her” baby is threatened. The show also does a better job with the moral implications of these jobs such as when a rich benefactor of the House wants to use their tech to help his comatose nephew. In the process of the scans, Topher realizes the man is basically a sociopath and even he has issues waking him up (with Langton getting the great line “Topher has ethical problems with this. Topher.”) What was bothersome in the first season (that the Actives were basically being pimped out to clients and didn’t even know it) has been softened and it’s nice to see Ballard arguing about the merits of what they do while Adelle just smirks that “if not us, it would be someone else.”
It’s hard to truly judge the season as it starts slow but really clicks after episode six and the last half dozen are really strong. However, it should be remembered that the reason those last episodes do so well is because the cancellation was coming and they were wrapping up as many plots as they could, speeding up the storylines and bringing the long-planned arcs to a close. Had this been a regular-sized season, we’d be getting more dumb plots like Echo as a ditzy college student for a lecherous professor and such. Thus, you can argue the ending was really a good thing for the series as it helps to shine more. However, this has its drawbacks such as the final moment of the 11th episode in which we get a massive twist regarding one major character. It’s possible that if they had more time, the writers would have given us more of a build but it just comes out of nowhere without any real hints or clues dropped for it and thus it doesn’t come off as effective as it could have been.
Ironically, the best storylines aren’t really on Echo at all. One episode gives the origin of Sierra as we learn she was forced into the House against her will and Adelle and Topher are both horrified to learn the truth behind her and a client. It pushes Topher to a very extreme action to try and make things right. Another ep has Victor’s contract coming up and him leaving the House. In season one, it was shown that Adelle was posing as “Miss Lonely-hearts,” a client who arranged for liaisons with a studly Victor. A great scene has Adelle getting one last spin, confessing what she’s doing and Victor unknowingly rips her one by laughing about how surely Adelle wouldn’t “stoop to the level of those pathetic souls who have to hire your programmable love Dolls to get what you need.” That’s followed by a funny bit where she lashes at Topher who realizes Adelle is Miss Lonely-hearts and with terror starts going through all the jokes he’s had at her expense. Of course, there’s more to Victor’s leaving than meets the eye and that shows more of the complicated world of the Actives.
Things do get interesting with the plotline of Desinof’s Senator, which has a pretty cool twist regarding his reasons for doing this. That’s followed by Summer Glau in a great guest role as a scientist who flirts with Topher but has a wicked edge and a link with Echo. In the main role, Dushku easily handles the kick-ass stuff but sometimes seem a bit out of her depth with the quieter, more emotional scenes. She gets a good breakout scene in the finale but for the most part, she’s ironically not soft enough for the inner pain Echo is supposed to be carrying around, looking too much wide-eyed and not truly relatable enough needed for viewers to get behind her character’s struggles. The first episode has a scene that sums up those issues with Whedon I mentioned as Ballard literally beats Echo down to get her to flash onto a personality to fight off some bad guys, the literal translation of Whedon thinking you have to break a female character down to make her “strong.” Penikett can be in the same boat, either strident and moral or mildly sarcastic, rarely showing the true strength Ballard is supposed to have although he and Dushku do share a light chemistry to pull their connection along.
The supporting cast shines better as Gjokaj and Lachman are great in their various personalities (especially Victor’s impersonation of Topher and imprinted with a ditzy party girl) but also sell the harsh moments such as Sierra finding out the truth behind her entry in the Dollhouse and Victor with his former life. The two also share a good bond that makes you buy how, despite the mindwipes, their characters fall in love, a connection that comes through in the final episodes. Williams continues to have that wonderful cool air at first but her Adelle is given better material as she realizes how Rossum’s plans for the Houses will lead to disaster and takes some steps to prevent that, the actress doing a great job with her conniving and calculating attitude and a dry humor. The best character development is for Topher, who spent the first season defending using the Actives, claiming they were doing a public service. Here, however, the man sees the darker sides of his technology being used and, despite himself, begins to develop a conscience. Kranz is terrific selling this change, having a lovely chemistry with Glau, getting great laugh lines but still pulling you in with it all culminating in the powerful moment where he tells his eager lab assistant that she’s better off outside the House. “Don’t become me.” Lennix is still cool with his own dry humor although he has some big moments near the end that he seems out of his depth for, but that’s not really his fault and more the writers who didn’t prep it better. While their roles are sadly brief, Acker, Glau and Tudyk all make the most of their appearances; Acker is nice showing the agony of Saunders realizing her life is a lie and comes back with a major change; Glau is almost River-esque in how her character shifts from cold scientist to quirky love interest; and Tudyk brings a wicked intensity to Alpha, who plays a big part in the finale.
Again, it’s hard to judge the season knowing how they had to shift things up so much and speed up the plans for the ending. There is good stuff like the wild episode that goes into the Attic, the nightmarish prison for “bad Dolls.” The finale returns to the post-apocalyptic future with Felicia Day as a rebel leader and an ending that that bring things to a good closure. Yet the series feels wanting and not just because it ended so soon. While the whole conspiracy with Rossum and such is good, it takes away from what the pull of the series was, how these Dolls handle so many lives while trying to find themselves. Also, as noted, the big twists regarding some characters aren’t as effective as they might have been with more time to build them up. Still, the last half dozen episodes are very well written and tightly-paced to pull you in and entertain. The series may not be perfect (as, sadly, so few of Whedon’s works are) but it still offers a great concept, good cast and a bittersweet ending that at least lets you leave the House happy.
Rating: 8.0 out of 10.0
Dual Layer Widescreen 1.78:1, the DVD does an excellent job with the visuals of the show. From the mood lighting to the action sequences, it also brings things in vibrant detail, balancing interior and exterior scenes well and always delivers a good visual punch.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10.0
5.1 Dolby Digital with subtitles in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. The audio is quite clear, no need to adjust your volume often as it balances both action and dialogue scenes. The subtitles also help with the techno-jargon scenes and accents, allowing you to enjoy the series in sound as well as sight.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10.0
The 4-disc set comes in a thin plastic slip-case. It contains a 21-page mini-comic that bridges the time gap of the series, showing the day the imprint technology went crazy and led to the downfall of society.
Only two episodes have audio commentaries. “Vows,” the season premiere, has Whedon, a pretty good track. He admits how they did the “Epitaph One” episode not expecting to get a second season and thus had to change a lot of things. A lot of talk is on the mood of the show, how they used the smaller budget to adjust lighting, making things darker and how he was able to fight the networks more on the sex stuff while sticking to the mandate of doing away with blank-slate Echo. Saunders was supposed to be around for the entire season, slowly breaking down but when Amy Acker had to leave for another show, he had to consolidate it into the one episode but is pleased with how it ended up. That first ep was supposed to have “flash forwards” to the future of “Epitaph” but ended up getting cut out and saved for the finale. He gives props to guest star Jamie Barber and cracks about how, awesome as it was, “Battlestar Galactica didn’t have enough fabulous gowns.” A fun tidbit is how Olivia Williams got a haircut between seasons and was afraid to tell him. This leads to an interesting bit where Whedon says people think he’s Topher “I play with the toys, create these personalities and then wipe them away, I’m amoral and end up going insane and that’s all true” but he actually thinks he’s more Adelle “and not because I have a fabulous haircut.” He shares the frustration of having to stage a fight scene in an airport hanger under severe orders not to mess up the car, plane or ground.
“Belonging” has Whedon with writer/co producer Maurissa Tancharoen. It’s not as gripping as the first commentary but good as they bring up a lot of stuff on identity and how it pertains to the episode. Tanchareon talks of the research she did to make it as medically realistic as possible and feeling sorry for the actors having to deliver the techno-babble. She and Whedon both enjoy how the episode basically ruins the “Dollhouse does good” line Adelle and Topher cling to and enjoy seeing both forced to think of the consequences of their actions. Both good tracks but you’d think we’d get more, such as on the finale and the big twists in it so it feels lacking there.
Defining Moments (13:25) is a behind-the-scenes look at things. Whedon talks of how he wanted to enhance what worked in the first season after being given new life with a renewal. He says he didn’t want to turn it into “Joss Whedon’s house party” but it just happened that so many former stars (Acker, Glau, Desinof, Tudyk) all came around. The actors have a good time on set doing stuff and liking the chance to continue the series. Whedon touches on what might have been had a full season gone on, that he would have had the House turning on Rossum and the gang becoming “Adelle’s Angels.” The announcement of the cancellation came during a party for the holidays, an interesting feeling for the cast. It’s a bit short but still good in showing how the actors really enjoyed things and wished the series had gone on.
Looking Back (16:14) has Whedon and the cast reuniting at a restaurant to share memories of the series. They discuss favorite bits like Victor impersonating Topher and Echo imprinted with a wealthy woman in season one. A telling comment from Joss is how he realized early on in the second season that he had just done way too good a job with “Epitaph One,” that it was just too good to go back and top. It’s fun hearing them talk with stuff like Gjokaj doing his “girly dance” at the wrap party and the alcohol obviously loosens folks up so it’s a shame it only goes sixteen minutes as an hour of these guys together would be worth the price of the DVD alone.
There are ten deleted scenes, lasting about ten minutes total, most are obviously cut for time but some interesting bits. There’s Caroline at a “welcome back” party dealing with lingering memories of the House; Topher annoyed that Victor and Sierra, imprinted as his lab assistants, are flirting; and a great scene after Victor leaves the House with Adelle meeting him at a bar, him not remembering her as she wrestles with her feelings for him.
Finally, we get a five-minute outtake reel. Not too bad a mix of extras but one would think for such a geek-tastic show, we’d get more.
Rating: 8.0 out of 10.0
The 411: The series has its flaws (sadly common for Whedon shows) but boasts a good cast, cool concept and often-sharp writing. The cancellation actually seems to help as the last half-dozen episodes are incredibly well-paced with amazing twists and the finale brings things to a nice closure. The extras may not be as plentiful as you hope but overall, Dollhouse is a show that deserves to stay active on DVD for a long time to come.