My reaction? Well, allow me to quote Joss Whedon's own knowing words (from his sharp, clever teleplay for "Man on the Street"). He has indeed "played a bad hand very well."
What I mean by that remark is simple. Conceptually, Dollhouse is intriguing, cerebral and creepy in a good way. It boasts some social relevance and pointed commentary (about the way our society views women; or even the human body...). But emotionally, the series doesn't resonate yet. It's as hollow as Echo herself. Or, to put it in the phraseology of Boogie Nights: the series is good technically...but it lacks passion.
It seems to me that Joss Whedon is giving his absolute all to make a flawed series (and premise) worthy of his participation; worthy of the lineage of the Whedonverse (namely Buffy and Firefly). To that end, "Man on the Street" does indeed help the situation. It's a better-than-average installment, judging by the episodes so far. It's a good episode. It indeed opens up the "mytharc" of the series, revealing that there are at least two "double agents" working the situation (one against Penikott's character, Ballard, one working with him...). Also, this episode makes the important notation that there is not merely one dollhouse in operation but over twenty worldwide. And that though their business may be "fantasy," they have a darker purpose.
This is indeed fascinating and tantalizing stuff; an epic opening up of the Dollhouse saga that grants it a sense of urgency and importance. And I enjoyed these elements. A lot. But in the end (unless Echo is herself operating outside of her imprints as the double agent inside the dollhouse...), she is still a "Buffy" (a larger-than-life hero) who doesn't even know she's having an adventure. She doesn't remember last week's episode. She doesn't remember the lessons of last week's episode. Thus she can't grow. Or learn.
And where's there no learning, there can be no emotional attachment. Yes, yes, Whedon is giving his damn finest effort, playing a bad hand exceptionally well, but he's still crippled by a difficult, if not impossible premise that limits the emotional availability of his great lead (Dushku as Echo).
If you read this blog on a regular basis you know that I'm a huge admirer of Whedon, so it gives me no joy to point out just how problematic this series is. Even a good episode like "Man on the Street" doesn't quite get the job done. Not the way Buffy did. Or Star Trek did. Or X-Files did.
But to quote Boogie Nights again: I'm going to keep trying if you keep trying, Joss Whedon. I'm going to keep watching...