Sunday, March 08, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "Gray Hour"

Our Favorite Active, Echo (Eliza Dushku), goes on an "engagement" imprinted as a master-thief in this week's Dollhouse, titled "Gray Hour." The job involves stolen art, and a secret vault rendered penetrable for a brief span by a security update 'gray hour.'

Unfortunately for Echo and her fellow thieves, a mysterious cellphone transmission from Alpha -- a remote wipe -- transforms her back into innocent, skill-less Echo in mid-assignment
. Which means that Topher, De Witt and Sierra at the Dollhouse facility must scramble to rescue Echo from the locked vault before security guards capture her.

In her "blank slate" persona, Echo is understandably confused to find herself far from the safety the Dollhouse womb, and Topher reports that she might undergo "extreme sensory overload," meaning Echo could become either passive or "Carrie at the prom."

Unfortunately, Echo doesn't really go either way, and the episode -- to adopt the lingo of the writers themselves -- becomes "one giant anticlimax."

"Gray Hour" features a terrific plot device (an Active wiped in mid-assignment), hints at the capabilities of the season's "big bad," Alpha (who has apparently developed technology far beyond even Topher's genius level...), and offers some interesting background information about the Actives, particularly that -- even wiped of memories -- they possess "instinctual survival tools," meaning that the strong will flock to the strong, and so forth.

There are many such good concepts at work on this series, and even underscoring this very episode of how come I don't like it better? Especially four episodes in?

Perhaps the answer rests with the dramatis personae: the characters -- usually Joss Whedon's strong suit. But Ballard (Penikott) is a cliche -- the dogged cop. De Witt (Williams) is a cold fish, and, if not a villain, at least playing her cards so close to the vest that we can't read her. And Topher (Kranz) is glib, arrogant, irritating and over-the-top. However -- most critically -- in terms of Sierra and Echo, it is extremely difficult to sympathize or identify with a blank-slate.

Dushku is a good actress. Perhaps even a remarkable one. To the extent that she manages to exude shades of Echo's "core" personality from week-to-week while "imprinted" with different characters is a testament to her talent. But it's simply not enough to make a viewing of Dollhouse feel...I don't know...intimate. Instead, the series feels distancing, not inviting...which makes it the exact opposite of Firefly or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Since there are no compelling characters to undertake this journey with, there's some kind of emotional void marring Dollhouse. That void gets filled with action scenes that aren't that well-staged, quips that aren't that funny, or philosophy that is tantalizing...but also maddening, since it is tossed out in the form of minuscule bread crumbs.

I'm still being patient, and I still detect the glorious potential of the series. I love the idea that an individual maintains some sense of identity or self-awareness, even without memories...but I just really, really want to see the execution of the episodes improve.

A lot.

An episode shouldn't feel like a "giant anti-climax." If you hint at "Carrie at the prom," you better deliver Carrie at the prom. And if Echo as a "blank slate" is so helpless that she can't handle herself in a crisis...why are we following her? Why is she an interesting heroine? Why is she worthy of our time and attention?

I hope we find out. Soon.


  1. Dushku gave quite an interesting interview in The Onion AV Club where she told fans to hang in there until the sixth ep. that Joss has written where the show reportedly really hits its stride and breaks out. She said that the network made them make the first five more stand-alone eps. in order to suck people in who aren't part of the Joss cult so we shall see if she's right. I'm waiting for that Joss magic to kick in.

  2. Yes, this episode left much to be desired, but I have to wonder if Echo in "Carrie goes to the prom" mode would have been that much of an improvement. After all, Point Pleasant--a TV series written by former Buffy scribe Mari Noxon--was basically an updated version of Carrie yet that series was awful.