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Doll parts

The reigning 'it' boy of cult-TV geeks and his cockeyed new action series

Hello, dolly: Elizha Dishku of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse.
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Published 2/25/2009

Is Dollhouse more like a house of cards?What monumental hype. What resounding disappointment. If you saw the same episodes of Joss Whedon's elaborate new future-shock action series I've watched the past two weeks (9 p.m. Fridays, FOX2 in Detroit), you have to wonder big-time about this show's blueprints, foundations, and how high this shaky structure can possibly rise.

Whedon, you may know, is the reigning pinup boy of cult-TV geeks everywhere because of a creative résumé that includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and his delightfully weird Web-only horror musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, recently released on DVD. Given his impressive history of off-kilter hits — plus the fact that, let's face it, "Joss" is way cooler and more mysterious than his given name, Joseph — Whedon's disciples lined up to embrace his latest invention faster than Michiganians in an unemployment line. Fan sites sprang up across the Internet months before Dollhouse's Feb. 13 debut; my favorite, the Google-hosted dollverse.com, featured a timer that eagerly counted down the seconds to the show's premiere.

FOX sent Whedon's initial pilot episode back to him for a rewrite — to make it more accessible, the network said — and his followers must've sensed something hinky might be afoot. After all, how many series have "Save Our Show!" campaigns launched on their behalf before they go on the air?

"It was my idea to do a new pilot, because once I was clear on what [FOX] didn't have that I planned to provide in the show anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer," Whedon explained in a recent phone interview. "As the season progresses, it ends up going exactly where I hoped it would go before all of this happened, so I feel like we got back to our vision in a way that really works for the network."

Ah, but will it work for us? Dollhouse revolves around one undeniable asset: the lithe, beauteous Eliza Dushku, Whedon's muse in both Buffy and Angel. Here she plays Echo, an agent for a "highly illegal, underground group" (FOX's description) that wipes clean the personalities of its "actives" and implants them with new skills and backgrounds so they can perform dangerous tasks for the rich and powerful. Once their assignments are completed, they return to the high-tech "dollhouse" where their minds are purged again. But can anyone completely forget their past? Can memories ever be totally erased?

There's your premise. Brainy, eh? This ultra-high-concept stuff seems to fail as often as it succeeds on television. For every X-Files, there's a New Amsterdam. While Whedon's track record would offer some hope for Dollhouse, this show has several hurdles to clear before it implants itself in the public consciousness.

The biggest — or maybe tiniest — is Dushku herself. While Whedon gushingly considers her "as great a star as I have ever known," the extraordinary physical and acting demands of Echo (she is, essentially, a different character every week) are a heavy load to place on her willowy shoulders. "I wanted to have a strong ensemble around Eliza, because I didn't want her to have to carry the burden of every single day of shooting or she would burn out," Whedon acknowledges.

Good theory, but the supporting cast is just large, not strong. Most are unknown faces to the majority of viewers. You may recognize Harry Lennix from roles in 24 and Commander in Chief, and I'm a big fan of his work, but he seems sadly miscast in the role of Echo's "handler," Boyd Langton. Ditto for Topher Brink, who plays the genius mental programmer of the dollhouse; give Whedon credit for going in a different direction from the typical stereotype for this kind of character, but cocky ass is no improvement over antisocial nerd.

Add the fact that the "hero" doesn't always perform heroically — playing a buttoned-down hostage negotiator in the premiere episode, Echo manages to get nearly everybody killed in the ransom exchange — and it looks like Dollhouse has some issues to resolve before becoming a permanent prime-time residence. "My concern isn't whether the show gets saved," Whedon says. "It's whether these fans who are panicking about it love it." The ranks of those "Save Our Show!" groups may be swelling.

Change we can't believe in: Here's the definition of irony: The day after America inaugurated its first African-American president, Tony Mottley, the outstanding Emmy-winning producer of American Black Journal since 1993, was given his pink slip by Detroit's Channel 56 (WTVS) as part of a major staff cutback that also sent the station's talented media relations veteran, John O'Donnell, packing. Mottley also was producing Am I Right? and numerous other assignments for our PBS outlet. WTVS executives have claimed repeatedly that the station's move from New Center to Wixom won't diminish its commitment to its Detroit community. Well, what do you think?

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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