SPOILER ALERT: This post contains information from the first episode of a new series, as well as some details gleaned from teh internets. You have been warned.
Witty dialogue, quirky and well-rounded characters, and plots that are a constant surprise - these are the staples of the Whedonverse. It should come as no surprise that I'm a fan. I own the box sets of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly. I watched Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog when it first went online. I own t-shirts, graphic novels, refrigerator magnets. And I expected that Dollhouse would be another amazing Joss Whedon creation, and that I would have found a new obsession-worthy show.
A quick recap for those who don't know - Dollhouse tells the story of a company that combines all the convenience of a temp agency with all the evil of brainwashing supervillany. People "volunteer" to become Dolls, and have their personalities wiped out so that they can be reprogrammed to the client's specifications. Whether you need a biker chick in a super short skirt (I saw Eliza Dushku's butt!), an assassin or a hostage negotiator, The Dollhouse can provide. All for an unreasonable fee, of course. The protagonist is Echo, a Doll (aka "Active") who throws off the brainwashing and starts to become self-aware.
The season premiere last Friday was good ... but not great. Somehow, Dollhouse doesn't feel like a Joss Whedon project. There were no camera-angle shenanigans, no devastating one-liners, no sudden OMFG!!1!!one! moments. Apart from the science fiction theme, it could have been any other show on the market today. And maybe I missed it, but there was no hint in the first episode that Echo is becoming self-aware. Take that element away, and the show loses all value. Echo can't exactly go on a Hero's Journey if she can't even remember what she had for breakfast. I'm sure this theme will come to light in future episodes, but I would have expected Joss to toss in a teeny, tiny hint that would have me begging for more. I can't help but wonder if this show represents a compromise between Whedon-esque writing and the tastes of a more mainstream (read: mindless) audience.
Still, the essential Joss-ness does peek through. The scene in which the main antagonist, federal agent Ballard, is called to task by his superiors, is brilliant. The dialogue from Ballard's meeting, where he's taking flak for pursuing rumors of The Dollhouse, is cut by images of Ballard in the boxing ring, fighting a much bigger opponent. As his superiors order Ballard to drop the case, Ballard in the ring turns it around and beats the shit out of the muscular, tattooed man he'd been fighting. The message is clear - Ballard will never, ever, ever give up. You kind of love him for it.
At the end of the day, I give Dollhouse a six out of ten. But only because I'm holding it to a higher standard. Joss, don't think that having Eliza Dushku and Amy Acker bat their eyelashes my way is enough to earn you a passing grade. Throw in a little James Marsters, though, and we'll talk.