Friday, March 20, 2009

Dollhouse, "Man on the Street": Here's where the strings come in

Spoilers for the much-hyped sixth episode of "Dollhouse" -- and whether or not it fulfilled its promise to heal the sick, feed the hungry and clothe the nude -- coming up just as soon as I look something up on Gloogle...
"First hurdle in my business is the people who will not accept the change that's already happened." -Joel Mynor
So, does "Man on the Street" change the way I think about "Dollhouse," about series television, about the classical tenets of storytelling and the merits of Aristophanes versus Brecht? Did it, in fact, cure my lactose intolerance?

Well, no. But even if we're focusing on its ability to reconceptualize "Dollhouse," it had a nearly impossible task. Because of the expectations that come with Joss Whedon's name, because the first five episodes of the show had been problematic in one way or another, and because Whedon and Eliza Dushku had given interviews suggesting that this would be the episode when the series came together (a PR strategy that even Whedon acknowledges may not have been so wise), nothing short of the "Buffy" high school graduation (which had three seasons of backstory to build on) was probably going to satisfy.

But "Man on the Street" was a marked improvement over what's come before and it, coupled with the eighth episode, "Needs," which Fox also sent out for review, have me feeling like I might want to watch this show for any reason other than affection for previous Whedon shows.

What was improved about it? In no particular order...

It was, simply, better-executed than what had come before. More action involving the man-mountain that is Tahmoh Penikett. More and better comedy (particularly Echo-as-Rebecca's "Porn!" panic when Ballard raided the house). A "Manchurian Candidate"-esque climax to Hearn's attempted hit on Mellie that, even if you suspected Mellie might be a doll, was still very effectively done. A great guest starring turn from Patton Oswalt. Overall, it was more entertaining than any of the previous five shows.

It better set up the larger arc of the series. I think we have to assume for now that what Echo told Ballard right before she shot the cop wasn't yet another game that DeWitt was running on him. As Joss said on the conference call (when someone asked him whether we would find out if Topher or Dr. Saunders or any other Dollhouse staff were really dolls themselves), "We have to pull ourselves back and say if we make this a lie within a lie within a lie within a lie, people are just going to start slapping us." At some point, we have to accept some things that happen at face value or there's no point in watching the show, and this seems like one of those moments.

And if what she tells him is true, then we know a lot more than we did before -- not only that there's someone inside the Dollhouse working to bring it down, but that there are Dollhouses all over the world, and that fantasy "is their business but NOT their purpose." I don't think it's a coincidence that the final talking head of the faux-documentary within the episode is of the professor explaining, "If that technology exists, it'll be used. It'll be abused. It'll be global. And we will be over. As a species, we will cease to matter. I don't know. Maybe we should."

Among the many premise problems people have pointed out over the last six weeks is why anyone who had this technology would waste it on what's essentially a high-priced escort service. But what if the Dollhouse's current business is simply a lucrative way to beta test the tech before the people who control it use it for some grander, vastly more nefarious purpose? Then you have Ballard, and Echo, and the mole inside the Dollhouse (my money's on the Liza Lapira character, since it would need to be someone capable of reprogramming one of Topher's imprints in a very short period of time) and maybe Boyd working to stop that larger plan, as opposed to Paul just trying to rescue Caroline and shut down this one place. That's much more interesting than seeing how Echo's latest mission goes awry, isn't it?

It more strongly acknowledged what a bad place this is. Outside of the plausibility issues, the biggest complaint the show has gotten is that the people who run the Dollhouse are monsters, but that the show doesn't always treat them as such.

Even outside of Echo's comments to Ballard, there were frequent nods to the skeeviness of the enterprise. We discover Sierra is being raped by her handler, an abuse that's only possible because of what the Dollhouse has done to her. Joel Mynor gives this eloquent speech about how much it means to him to have a doll like Echo help him live out the perfect moment he never got to have with his wife, and Ballard immediately punctures his balloon by replying in disgust, "And then you sleep with her." While a few of the documentary interviews feature people who would love to hire the Dollhouse (or work for it), there's more than enough disgust coming from the rest, and from other parts of the episode, to make it clear that the show itself doesn't view the Dollhouse as some kind of cool fantasy. When I asked Whedon on the conference call about the way the premise makes me feel uncomfortable sometimes, he said:
It makes me uncomfortable. I’m not going to lie. But for me, it’s part of what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with people who have power and are abusing it and people who don’t (have power) and are trying to regain it.
A comment like that, coupled with all the larger arc elements of this episode, makes me feel much better about where the show is going.

Now, there are still problems. Unless the writers are planning to give Topher some kind of come-to-Jesus moment before the end of the season that he's a monster, then he's a really unbearable character who comes across as if the show thinks he's supposed to be funny when he really, really isn't. And there are still plausibility problems about why dolls would be hired for half of the jobs we've seen. But this one was much better, qualitatively and thematically, as is "Needs." So even though my cat allergy has not subsided, I think I'm back in -- for now.

A few other thoughts:

• I really liked the moment when Topher tries to figure out what cop trick Boyd used to figure out that Hearn was abusing Sierra, and Boyd says, simply, "You do the work." Unlike the people he works with, Boyd isn't about cheating or quick fixes -- which makes his presence in this place increasingly difficult to reconcile. Joss said we're going to find out, if the show comes back, that Boyd's not so pure as he seems-- he couldn't be and work here.

• For the most part, "Dollhouse" has been deliberately light on the trademark Whedon meta-humor, in part because it doesn't feel appropriate to this world, in part because the only character capable of delivering it is Topher, and he's a big creep. But I did like the post-coital moment where Mellie asks Paul, "Is this the part where you dress me up and use me as bait? Because those movies never end well?"

• Okay, martial arts experts, here's my question: if Ballard is every bit the bad-ass he's been shown to be so far, coupling tremendous skills with that big frame, what are the odds someone Echo's size, even imprinted with equal knowledge, could stay in a fight with him? The Dollhouse doesn't give people superpowers, after all, but I have to assume there are disciplines where size doesn't matter, even if the two opponents are of similar skill levels.

What did everybody else think?

70 comments:

Stef said...

This episode didn't cure the sick, alas, but I agree that it was a lot better. Patton Oswalt finally sold it for me on why someone might actually hire a doll. (The midwife scenario will never work, though.) And I liked all the Ballard-Mellie stuff, though I didn't realize her name and was just calling her Lasagna Girl until that last moment when he was worried about her. So, yeah, they've still got work to do on fleshing out these characters.

Like you said, I think the biggest improvement in this ep was finally admitting that the Dollhouse is one creepy/evil place. I feel much better about it if the show and I are on the same page about that. I couldn't tell at first if Echo really had been imprinted by a "friend on the inside," but I do agree with your approach that in general sometimes you have to believe what a show is telling you. (I have this argument with friends about LOST often.)

And as for how Echo could keep up with Ballard in that fight? Easy. She's a slayer. :-)

Stef said...

Oh, and 20 Dollhouses all over the world?? The theory that this is just beta-testing the technology that will take us all over is very scary indeed.

Erica Hanna said...

I really liked this episode! I laughed out loud way more times than I had in previous episodes. I'm a big Whedon fan, so I want this show to be good and stick around.

The only part of this episode that gave me consternation was the fight scene between Echo and Ballard. For the most part, they leveraged advantages that she could reasonably have - speed, agility, and fighting skills. She might also have an advantage being fully committed to fighting offensively with him being more defensive with a goal to get her under control but not down. He picks up two items right after shrugging off his jacket and holds them in a way to suggest he wants to protect his forearms against blows.

There were a few moves that rang false to me though. A lot of her initial moves were strength based, and I particularly don't buy that she went into this fight without some hand cover. She lays a lot of blows with elbows but even a few closed fist punches will split open skin. When I trained, we did knuckle pushups daily to build up callouses to help us in real fights. She also sends him flying with one kick and flips him with an arm toss. I might buy a hip toss where she could get some leverage.

All of that said, it was a really engaging fight scene. I loved how they used their surroundings and my eyes were glued to the screen. I'm curious what others think of the likelihood of some of the moves.

Grunt said...

I got completely sucked in. No, it's not season 3 of Buffy yet, but there's a marked improvement. Ballard's becoming a real human being, there were several twists I did not expect and I was greatful to get some Weadon humor finally.

I was going to give up if this episode sucked. As it was, I'm not planning on removing the season pass.

PaulRW said...

Alan, you summed up the episode and what it means to the series perfectly.

I was going to briefly comment on the fight, but Erica did that well, and, unlike me, seems to actually know what she is talking about.
I'll just say as an unskilled fighter that I can never believe fight scenes in TV or movies where a small woman lasts in a long brawl with a huge man. Either she has skills that end it quickly in her favor, or, as in this episode, they both have skills -- and one real blow from him lays her out.
And no matter what her skills, she does not have the strength to move a 225lb man across a room with one kick.
Other than that: this episode kept me interested in the series, when otherwise, I would have been done after last week's snoozer -- and my overall anathema to the concept.

Monica said...

Much better, now it has some real underlying issues to deal with. I really paid more attention this time. Before, just kind of had it on in the background.

I agree with these man vs. bad-ass female fights, I guess it is just something you have to accept as never a reality, but can be enjoyable to watch. Just like in Alias, Sydney is a bad-ass, but when you meet up with a bigger, stronger, and more often than not, quicker male opponent, you would get killed. And Dushku seemed tiny vs. the FBI guy. And I've seen that actor's name before, (which I am going to spare u the attempt to spell), but never watched him in anything. IN the first 5 episodes, lets say I was underwhelmed, but in this one, I liked. And I am not just saying that because of his numerous shirtless scenes - although he looked fine! I also liked the Mellie character this time, she seemed way less like a psycho - I guess I will chalk up poor programming to blame for her weird behavior previously!

Anonymous said...

One thing to add, the "man on the street" interview seemed poorly acted by most of the people. Did not seem very real.

Anthony Foglia said...

If I may add a reason: There was little emphasis on a doll's client-hired mission. Most of the missions so far have been either absurd (midwife, kidnapping negotiator, unknowing bodyguard) or boring (weekend date, camping date, fake wife). The only remotely interesting ones are the ones that go wrong. And if every mission went so terribly wrong, the Dollhouse would come across as inept.

I don't think they can do episodes like this regularly, though--Too much depended on revelations about the characters--but it worked this week.

Michael said...

I liked it a lot, if there is a mole it still did not all make sens to me (why would he have knowen about the atempted murder? The Dollhouse boss was alone with the killer wen she ordert it) but it was fun to watch and had me care for what happens (the kiss, the sex, the murder... notice that most of what i care is in the real world, not the dollworld)

As for the Fighting. There are a lot of Fighting skills that are not based on strength... based on using the power of your oponent against him. - You might not want to look to deply into how the fight fit´s in that context - but it´s plausible enough.
But i personaly feel that this show should not be about Buffy Comic fighting... so it realy felt of and to long wen they got it on.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, Mellie was being choked and held down and she was still able to take out Hearn when activated. Maybe being a Doll does augment your limitations a bit. Perhaps you get pushed to your physical limits, like an adrenaline thing.

knitkid said...

I think the fight was fairly plausible, as someone with some martial arts experience, there are a number of styles that teach you to use your opponent's size and strength against them. As for Echo throwing Ballard with just an arm toss, I thought it looked more like she locked up his arm and he dove out of it.
Overall, I definitely thought this episode improved on previous ones

Byron said...

Alan, I think you describe it well. It wasn't the game-changing episode I had been predicting, but it simply executed everything 200% better. I do have to question whether your prediction on the mole will be accurate: isn't that just a bit too obvious? My money remains on Reed Diamond somehow being undercover, and I don't think they've done anything yet that doesn't leave that possibility open.

Real purpose of the Dollhouse? Alien. Invasion. Or a fake alien invasion that is really just a power grab.

Shaun said...

I still don't understand why people think/thought Whedon was trying to portray the Dollhouse as anything else but evil. Just the premise alone shows that these guys are bad, it's just a matter of how bad.

Blissfully Black said...

I really enjoyed the ep. Yes, there were some logic issues. Yes, there were some obvious reveals. But it kept me watching with a minimum of eye rolling. This feels more in line with the original pilot, which didn't have the "case of the week," element. Makes me wonder if this serial episode was more in line with Joss Whedon's original intent/concept for the show. If so, it's too bad that he couldn't do it.

BigTed said...

Definitely an improvement, and I'm glad it's really going somewhere, except.... I'm incredibly tired of shows based on huge world-domination conspiracies. I can't even count the number there have been in the past few years alone, and for me, it's just overload at this point. Is the government about to be run by space aliens or the Illuminati or the Vice President from "30something"? I just don't care.

Anyway, if there are 20 Dollhouse branches worlwide, are we supposed to think that the L.A. one is the worst by far, or do all 20 experience similar problems? If so, it can't be that great a conspiracy to begin with, given the fact that they narrowly escape disaster on an almost weekly basis. (And are we really supposed to believe that this technology has been around since the late '80s? Was it made possible by the founding of Pixar?)

On the plus side, the situations were more "real" in this episode, and the acting was good, too. I don't think I've even seen Patton Oswalt in such a dramatic role, and he was fantastic. The idea of good-guy moles withing the Dollhouse, which is setting up bad-guy moles everywhere else, was a nice piece of symmetry. And even Lasagna Girl started to grow on me, despite her inevitably turning out to be a Doll.

The hardest part to believe? Joss must have lived in L.A. long enough to know how much local TV news broadcasts like to sleaze up salacious stories. The last thing they would do with this one is half an hour of man-on-the-street interviews.

James said...

It's funny that I never thought that we were actually supposed to take the idea that Echo was telling the truth to Ballard that there was a mole inside until you brought it up.

I just read that whole scene as a clever way to get Ballard to back off for a while. I hope you're right, though.

Cree said...

I enjoyed the episode, but still agree with almost every one of the logistical problems that you've mentioned.

That being said, when the revelation came that there were 20 dollhouses and that the fantasies were their business, but not their purpose I immediately lit up. My first thought was that they were beta testing the technology on the dolls in order to eventually use it to control leaders, presidents, and governments. And with that the whole idea of the show suddenly got a whole heck of a lot more interesting.

It seems like that big picture might be a ways off though and I don't know if I can hang around long enough to see it happen. The lame "freak-of-the-week" formula gets old really quickly.

Patton Oswalt rules!

Jennifer said...

Wel, it cured the sick to me. This is the kind of thing I wanted to see in a pilot. Patton Oswalt...what can I say? GREAT job, great plot setup/use of Dollhouse, great way to track him down.

The Sierra rape plot worked well- disturbing, but gets the point across. Especially how Adele handled it. Mellie, well, I would have been brutally disappointed if she hadn't been a doll, and her brief remote (heeeey, remote activation, ahem?!) activation where she pounded that guy and then went back to being Mellie still shocked me.

Not that I am all "yay rape scenes", but...it worked. It all worked for me.

I like the idea of the doll Ballard rescues being Mellie rather than Caroline. Switch! Loved how PO called him on his fantasy.

So, placing bets on the insider...I want to vote for Adele as the most audacious pick. Saunders is a more logical one.

It's probably too late to save this show in the ratings now, but I'll wish anyway. It proved itself here. Fox, take note.

Pamela Jaye said...

I'm trying to find some cute was of using the Kindle quote - and failing miserably. So I'm going to bed.

PLEASE no Illuminati. I get enough of that from the roommate. (so tired of hearng about "they")

LoopyChew said...

Actually, as Ballard started going into the restaurant kitchen, I started thinking that it the subversion might be that Ballard gets offed, and Mellie tries to pick up on everything based on all of Ballard's notes.

I'm in, still reluctantly, but not as reluctantly as before. I mean, if I can watch Heroes, why wouldn't I be bothered watching this?

Zack Smith said...

Watched this on Fox's website after seeing GALACTICA live -- and was treated to the same promo for GLEE six times in a row. I might have it memorized. Ugh.

Thought on the ep:

-Mellie winds up proving Joel right about Ballard. He's given a sweet, supportive woman who believes in him, and then she's threatened. Ballard is in his own was as weak as the Dollhouse's clients.

-Speaking of Joel, good work from Patton Oswalt. I enjoy his comedy and his various pop-cultural writings, but this is the first time I really got into him as an actor. Looking forward to BIG FAN.

-Good wider arc for the show introduced here, but hopefully it's something where Echo will be more active...um, as opposed to "Active" in taking the Dollhouse down.

-DeWitt might be the mole, or at least a "good madam." Not only does she support Sierra and try to keep the incident from repeating at other houses, but she seems compassionate toward Mellie and supports Echo's desire to finish things with Joel. On some level she realizes what's happening with Echo (she'd have to, given the house painting), but isn't sending her to "The Attic" over it.

-Ballard is really quite stupid for sharing the files with Mellie, bug or no.

-Topher still bugs.

-Nice subtle connection between the interview mentioning that the Governor denying the Dollhouse, and Sierra visiting the Governor's neice on her last assignment.

-The show has at this point covered all the bases touched on in the original pilot (the script for which is online at http://leethomson.myzen.co.uk/Dollhouse_1x01_-_Echo.pdf ). Whedon has said that this episode represents a more accessible take on the pilot's style, and I can sort of see that -- it tells the story mostly from "inside" the Dollhouse, and sets up longer-running storylines.

-That said, this still doesn't solve the overall problem of doing a show where the main character lacks a consistent personality and is being mentally abused each episode. The creep factor is part of the show, but I'd like a little more light at the end of the tunnel.

-With the announcement that Fox will end "Remote-Free TV," I think DOLLHOUSE will improve from being a 42-minute show, as opposed to a 51-minute show. Whedon's plots work best when they're short-an'-snappy, and most of the episodes of DOLLHOUSE to date feel a couple scenes too long. Of course, this presupposes a second season.

-This episode really made me want some Chinese food. That is all.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I still don't understand why people think/thought Whedon was trying to portray the Dollhouse as anything else but evil. Just the premise alone shows that these guys are bad, it's just a matter of how bad.

Part of the problem is that, because Echo either has no personality or has one that's constantly changing, we spend so much time with Topher, DeWitt, Dominic and the others just going about their jobs and trying to solve problems that arise from Echo's malfunctions. So even if the show didn't intend for this to happen, they've come across more as the protagonists than Echo.

By focusing so much on Ballard this week, and by showing how easily the tech can be abused even outside the missions, this one makes it clear that no matter how much time we spend on seeing things from Topher's POV, this is an awful place.

Alan Sepinwall said...

It's funny that I never thought that we were actually supposed to take the idea that Echo was telling the truth to Ballard that there was a mole inside until you brought it up.

I don't think they would have lingered so much on the way that Topher briefly left the imprint disc alone in his office if we weren't supposed to contemplate the possibility that someone else ran in and messed with it while he was elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I missed it, but did anyhting happen with Victor or was that just misdirecton?

tj sondermann said...

I've been finding the parallels between Dollhouse (eps 1-5) to Alias to be a bit grating. You can imagine my eye-roll then during the 20 Dollhouses reveal.

The most pivotal moment in all of Alias being Vaughn's revelation to Sydney of the org chart in which SD6 is but a tiny fraction of a much larger conspiracy.

The biggest problem this show will face (aside from the fact that the lead is outacted at every single turn) is that it just isn't Joss' wheelhouse. This is a JJ clone, and Joss isn't JJ.

Which is not a slight against Joss, it just is what it is.

Tracey said...

Hmn... well, it definitely didn't heal the lame, but it's a big improvement. Several times during the episode, I found myself thinking, "Why wasn't this the first episode? Why did I have to slog through five episodes of hostage negotiators and backup singers and museum robbers and cult members before we FINALLY got something resembling an interesting premise for the series?" Just take this episode, cut the man-on-the-street interviews that added nothing, add a scene at the beginning where Adele is making a pitch to a prospective client to establish the superficial purpose of the Dollhouse (we can program our Actives to do or be anything you want; you don't need to know where we got these people from; we have handlers to make sure everything goes right), and tweak the first Ballard scene to make it clear that he has been assigned to the Dollhouse, he is obsessed with it, others make fun of him for it... you don't even need to know about Alpha to get this ball rolling. There's your premiere episode.

But even though this is a dramatic improvement, I'm not sure I want to continue with it, mostly because I feel like I've been jerked around too much. For example, it was widely reported that Alan Tudyk of Firefly/Serenity was going to be in this week's episode, and what character he would be playing. Well, no Alan Tudyk this week, and no That Character. And the promised Big Reveals in this episode -- that Dollhouse is evil, that Mellie is a doll -- were not remotely a surprise to anyone who was paying attention, so where is the big game changer they promised?

If this had been the first episode, I would have given it six episodes more to prove itself. But I'm not sure I want to invest six more hours of my life to find out if there is any substance in this thing. The characters just aren't interesting enough, and the plot arc is just beginning to manifest after six episodes.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this episode was much better, even if it didn't live up to to the ginormous expectations everyboday has had after the hype. I would have kept watching either way, but am very glad that I do not have to force myself to do it now.

As for the fight with Echo and Ballard: I was wondering if a person Echo's size coulld realistically stay in it so long, too. She doesn't really have superpowers like Buffy (or Faith, rather) after all. But since Ballard was a bit injured, that was good enough for me as an excuse.

Anonymous said...

Apart from the situation of a smaller woman fighting against a trained larger man, the thing I take issue with is the idea that imprinting an untrained (presumably?) body with the mind/personality of a trained ninja or martial arts expert will give you someone who can fight like the source mind. Even if the new mind knows how to fight, the body it's in doesn't, and won't have the necessary strength & agility. The mind will be telling the body to make the moves, but the body won't be able to follow through for long (due to tiredness), if at all. The capabilities of the current body will fall way below the capabilities that the mind 'knows' it has... with potentially disabling consequences.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea that's there a man on the inside trying to take the place down (my money is on Dr. Saunders. She's pissed about being attacked by Alpha.) but I think it might be one too many arcs at a time. We've got Alpha, we've got a mole, we've got the mystery of Echo's real identity. They're all intriguing, but it's an awful lot to juggle for a show that's still figuring out what it wants to be.

Bix said...

Where was it widely reported that Alan Tudyk was going to be in this week's episode?

Alan Sepinwall said...

No more talk of Tudyk, guys. Period.

Bobman said...

It's funny that I never thought that we were actually supposed to take the idea that Echo was telling the truth to Ballard that there was a mole inside until you brought it up.
------
I don't think they would have lingered so much on the way that Topher briefly left the imprint disc alone in his office if we weren't supposed to contemplate the possibility that someone else ran in and messed with it while he was elsewhere.


I thought it was all just a big red herring ; towards the end of the episode, when teh Dollhouse people were talking about Helo being suspended, they made reference to the fact that Echo fooled him using the mole theory, didn't they? Did I completely misinterpret that scene?

I was excited that there was a mole, and then that scene happened and I thought "ohh, it was all just a scam to get the FBI guy.... shucks."

(Somehow six episodes in I still haven't gotten half the character's names, sorry)

David said...

I thought it was much better. It still seems quite flawed, but for the first time I'm looking forward to the next episode.

I find it interesting that the episode Dushku was pushing so hard in interviews is the one that she has the least screen time in.

Every scene Dichen Lachman is in just makes me think how much better the show would be if she was the lead. Besides being a stronger and more versatile actress, I think an "unknown" star would be easier to believe in each role because she has virtually no baggage.

Anonymous said...

Apart from the situation of a smaller woman fighting against a trained larger man, the thing I take issue with is the idea that imprinting an untrained (presumably?) body with the mind/personality of a trained ninja or martial arts expert will give you someone who can fight like the source mind. Even if the new mind knows how to fight, the body it's in doesn't, and won't have the necessary strength & agility. The mind will be telling the body to make the moves, but the body won't be able to follow through for long (due to tiredness), if at all. The capabilities of the current body will fall way below the capabilities that the mind 'knows' it has... with potentially disabling consequences.


The dolls appear to spend all day doing nothing but excercise and massages. Their bodies are probably in good shape

Michael Cowgill said...

I've been pretty forgiving of the show as a whole, but this episode certainly improved things. Though it wasn't as "special" as episodes of Buffy like "Hush" or "Once More With Feeling," it fell in roughly the same part of the season -- well, since it's a half-season, not really -- and served the same function -- a powerful episode that sets the big story fully in motion.

I agree that it addressed many of the concerns with the premise head-on, and in subtle ways, it reinforced some of that. For instance, there was something sad but lovely about Sierra sharing the picture book with Victor, but it also reflects on the rape of her and makes it that much creepier -- they really are children as dolls.

It also addressed some of the elements from previous episodes. If there's a mole, and I believe there is, is he/she responsible for Alpha, too, and may be in cahoots with him (or using him for his/her own goals)? Is the mole also responsible for some of the other things that have gone wrong with engagements? In other words, are they more than just plot conveniences?

It also seems the show is becoming more of an ensemble, and it's nice the Dushku was out there promoting an episode in which her character flits in and out of the storylines but is far from the focus.

tj sondermann said...

I couldn't agree more with David re: Dichen Lachman. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Art Heist episode where Dushku and Lachman are imprinted with the exact same identity.

Dushku was predictably bad and Lachman ate up the screen.

Anonymous said...

For the past few weeks Dollhouse has been a show with a not-clearly-sustainable premise executed not-so-competently. This episode improved the execution considerably -- snappier dialogue, better fights, multiple storylines -- but I don't think it did much about the premise problem. We did see that Dollhouse works better as an ensemble Big Conspiracy show than as a case-of-the-week show, but I don't see how the Big Conspiracy stuff is that sustainable. We already have the mole, Alpha, and Ballard working (not quite in concert) to bring the place(s) down. How many more people do you need? You can throw in a lot of double crosses and twists (Is Mark Sheppard a doll?) but as Whedon recognize that will just get off-putting after a while.

A couple of questions:
So is the idea that having Mellie kill Hearn will bring Mellie and Ballard closer together and is therefore "win-win"? Because Mellie and Ballard already seemed, um, close. I guess they'll have Ballard and Mellie move in together or something, so he can protect her. But I would think the decent thing for Ballard to do would be to move far far away, apologize for endangering Mellie's life by discussing a case with her, and let the FBI know she's been compromised.

Also, what happens when Mellie listens to her answering machine messages the next day? The postman dies?

Anonymous said...

One more question:

Though Oswalt was good, was I the only one who still found the ending (Echo replays the fantasy on a different day) horrifying rather than sweet?

Matter-Eater Lad said...

One other reason this episode was such an improvement? Very little Eliza Dushku, and she didn't have to do much when she WAS in it.

Anonymous said...

Last night was the first episode that made me think this show could work for more than one season. Here's hoping they get Echo out of the Dollhouse and working against it... or something like that. It's not too exciting to have Dushku be either a blank slate or, worse, a frightened waif.

We need to see Alpha soon- the most interesting character on the show has only been seen once, from behind.

And did Congress pass a bill requiring Mark Sheppard to be in every show on tv? I'm pretty sure they did. Nice.

One last thing- how about Topher as the mole?

Tracey said...

@Bobman: When they were talking about Ballard being fired, they talked about the "sleeper" working -- that's Mellie, not Echo.

The Dollhouse had two things going on: get Ballard out of the FBI by having him shoot a cop; and get him to back off by putting his girlfriend (their operative) in danger. Echo was programmed to get Ballard to shoot a cop for the first part of that plan, and she had to go through with that to keep the people at the Dollhouse from finding out that her programming was compromised. The second part, with Mellie, went as planned. Hearn, presumably, did not know that Mellie is a sleeper Active.

At least, that's how I read it. Your mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...

tahmoh penikett is always falling in love with cybernetically programmed agents.

Ariadne said...

Alan, I agree with everything you said. And it was nice to finally find out what Ballard's purpose was because until now, he alternated between being a loony and beefcake.

Because it ran opposite BSG, at one point I could flip between Tahmoh Penikett fighting Echo and Tahmoh Penikett fighting Cylons.

I think that Echo was telling the truth about the Dollhouses and the inside person. Just because it would make for a better show and Joss Whedon is a pro.

To give a dissenting view, Eliza Dushka may not be great but I think she's better than Dichen Lachman. For some reason, Lachman's scenes leave me cold.

Monica said...

Dushku may not have huge range as an actress, but she does have charisma and is appealing. I don't see any other leads in the cast, including Lachman.Now its true that the lead in this would be better with someone with more range, perhaps it will work because the active's "true" personality is always there under the surface, as the imprint is compromised, and the true personality = Dushku's normal persona.

Bobman said...

@Bobman: When they were talking about Ballard being fired, they talked about the "sleeper" working -- that's Mellie, not Echo.

Ohhhhhh, THANK you Tracy. That makes much more sense. My viewing comprehension sucks :)

La G said...

Isn't the point of the fight scene that he's not going to want to hurt or kill her, just stop her - and she's been programmed to hurt and kill him. Bit of a handicap for him there.

I'd also presume that in a show universe where you can manipulate neural pathways, you can tone down the pain receptors. Then back to the Dollhouse for recuperation and sports massage.

Mozart said...

damn, you better erase the talk about Alan Tudyk, it spoiled it for me... :-(

Karen said...

Although this episode had more of the Whedon touch (I especially liked the man-in-the-street who talked about the possibility of strings-free homoerotic experimentation, while his girlfriend laughed awkwardly), I don't know--it still isn't thrilling me.

I don't understand how an FBI agent believes it OK to talk in depth about a case with a civilian, including giving names of prominent but unindicted people.

I don't understand how the Dollhouse is this widely known urban legend, one that the actually wealthy can apparently find without any trouble, but the FBI still thinks it's one odd agent's stupid obsession. Also, didn't the reporter at one point say that the urban legend's details changed over the decades? So how long has this been going on? In this format? With this technology? And, if there are 20 of them around the world (also, say, for decades), who invented the technology? Topher's not old enough. Is he just one expert? I had gotten the impression this was his deal.

More implausible to me than the Echo-Ballard fight (since he's also recovering from injuries) was Mellie's ability to go from being choked to bad-assing Hearn, a professional bad ass himself. Although, on the Echo-Ballard fight, I confess to cracking up when the camera drew back to reveal Echo in her skin-tight white pants. I am beginning to suspect that the entire show exists to showcase Dushku's body.

Now that the premise has been...explained, or broadened, or whatever it's been, I'm still not 100% sure that this is a premise that is of interest to me.

But I am so besotted with Joss that I will continue to watch. Who's the idiot here?

Tyro.k.y said...

First episode I completely enjoyed.

I thought Topher was amusing in this episode.

Dushku wasn't bad. Maybe the other directors need more time to shape her abilities to screen.

That fight scene was badass. Great use of the environment to beat the hell out of each other.

And, did I not call some of the major plot lines in the past couple of weeks? Kind of predictable but it's about execution and this was enjoyable. Need more like this.

Tyro.k.y said...

Also, instead of having Duskua as the major character they should branch out and have episodes were there's only one Doll as the focus.

Additionally, they could easily do lots of episodes on major back stories for each character.

Michael said...

I just got a chance to watch the episode tonight and my first thought when hearing about the other Dollhouses was the big map reveal in "Alias". But I see that tj sondermann got there first.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Re: comparisons to "Alias," let's not all go kneeling at the altar of JJ just yet. Say what you will about Joss, and about this show's problems, but he generally plans things out much better long-term than "Alias" ever did. So even if this is just his version of that show, I imagine it'll make sense in the end if it gets to be around a while.

Anonymous said...

would it redeem topher in your eyes if he were revealed to be the mole?

Michael said...

I'm not comparing Whedon to Abrams or Dollhouse to Alias (Alias was not the first TV show about a conspiracy and evil groups). I was just commenting that the "reveal" of the larger organization seemed familiar.

I'm not accusing them of ripping of this particular plot point, as I'm sure it's been done before (that's the cue for someone to point out an early 90's episode of The Simpsons.)

Melanie said...

So, 54 comments in and not one word from anyone about Miracle Laurie's acting. Am I the only one who thinks that Mellie is being played ineptly? I'm just not buying the character (before or after I knew she was a doll) and don't feel any chemistry between her and Ballard. And I agree that it just seemed wrong that the dedicated (ok,obsessed) FBI agent would so openly discuss his case with a civilian he has been shown to barely know before now.

Loved the fight scene, which brought back memories of many slayer smackdowns.

And as someone named Melanie, I feel qualified to express my extreme dislike for the name "Mellie".

Number Five said...

I remember commenting back after episode 2 that the Dollhouse was probably a set-up for future military/intelligence uses, but I loved that this episode, through the scientist, suggested a pitch-black scenario in which the technology is used not just for that or a conspiracy to brainwash key political leaders, but to possibly use it on everyone, effectively ending all of our lives. The man-on-the-street interviews were worth it for that alone.

I liked that they not only were clearer about the intent of the people running the place, but also the hideous implications of the concept itself. I imagine what happened to Sierra has happened to others before.

I liked getting Ballard's investigation getting somewhere, and the Manchurian Active reveal was great (I half-wish DeWitt on the phone had said "why don't you pass the time with a game of solitaire?"), but his part of the story is still not being handled very well. How long has the Dollhouse had her in position? They're willing to devote two Actives to manipulating him, but it would be too hard to kill him and make it look like an accident? Aren't there better ways to get her involved in the story without pretending it's believable an FBI agent would enlist his next door neighbor in the sensitive details of an investigation?

To answer Melanie's question, I think Miracle Laurie's acting is fine (as is most of the supporting cast...Fran Kranz and actor playing Victor being the weak links), it's just that they overplayed her characterization in the first few episodes to set up why she would get involved with the case like this. Dachen Lichman is very compelling as Sierra but I don't know that she would necessarily be better than Eliza Dushku in the lead role. The funny thing is, as many have already pointed out, the perfect actress for Echo is playing a killer robot one hour earlier on the same channel.

This was definitely the kick they needed to get going. Looking forward to the next episodes now.

Anonymous said...

A step in the right direction but there is still big issues.

And why kill the rapist handler with a sleeper doll. If he was more effective in what he was doing or that the remote start didn't work they would sacrifice months of setup work for the lasagna girl neighbour roll and still kill the handler in the end.

The mole on the inside must have great tech skills to be able to change the imprints. Also think that the mole was the one that made alpha break out. It would be great if he kidnaps echo so she could play one character and the other dolls could do the case of the week thing. he two of them should then work to bring the house down.

maura said...

would it redeem topher in your eyes if he were revealed to be the mole?

That might make it better. Right now, he seems like a bad imitation of Warren from "Buffy".

Pretty much the entire episode had a different feel to it. I've been more positive than negative about Dollhouse so far, maybe because I want it to be better, but I'm fully aware of its flaws. This week, it showed some real promise. It seems like a show with an actual story now.

I wouldn't say Miracle Laurie is a bad actress, but her characterization has been inconsistent. In earlier episodes, she came across like an Amish girl who's been forced to go on Rumspringa. Then suddenly she's funny and sexy. Who knew she had a personality?

Ballard's interest in her came out of nowhere. And why would he discuss a case with someone he barely knows? I was waiting for a reason, but none came.

This episode wasn't the equivalent of a trip to Lourdes, but it kicked the show into another category. So that's good.

It was all Tahmoh all the time on Friday. Not a bad way to start the weekend.

Justin said...

On the fight scene:

It's not that there aren't scenarios where somebody Dushku's size couldn't fight someone Peniket's size plausibly - there are.

But Ballard, as a character, is an almost superhumanly good fighter. A man with a still healing bullet wound is able to shrug off being tasered and then beat up half a dozen large goons? That's action movie and comic book reality.

There's no real way for Echo to be able ot last against someone that good. Usually.

They did give themselves a plausibility out here - Ballard is presumably holding back. Echo even mentions she is counting on it, so I think we can probably safely assume that he was fighting with restraint.

Michelle said...

@maura - Ballard's interest didn't come out of nowhere- Patton Oswald called him out on his obsession with Echo and his lack of real life, and so his reaction to that was to make the moves Lasagna Girl. This was his way to prove, if only to himself, that he had any sexual interest in Caroline. The reason you don't see chemistry between Ballard and Mellie is because there isn't supposed to be. He's not attracted to her, he's attracted to a thinner, more complex version of her, which is to say: Echo/Caroline.

As to why a FBI agent would discuss details of his ongoing case? I got nothing, other than that no one else in the bureau will listen to him so he's desperate to talk things out.

dez said...

That might make it better. Right now, he seems like a bad imitation of Warren from "Buffy".

If he is a Warren analog, there's a possibility he'll get flayed at some point, right? That would keep me watching.

Rob Rogers said...

Maybe it was my imagination, but...

Right before Sierra ends up getting accosted by her handler, she's walking down the hallway with several actives, one of whom is a blond woman. Just a few minutes earlier, was that same woman one of the ones being interviewed for the TV program, saying that she thought the concept of the dollhouse could be "OK" or "even beautiful"?

Anonymous said...

Excellent comments. I'll stick around a bit longer, and YES- BEING ABLE TO PUNCH AND KICK DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN KEEP TAKING THAT KNEE IN YOUR GUT WITHOUT EFFECT!

A good big man beats a good little man everytime- them is just facts!

Anonymous said...

To me the good/badness of the Dollhouse all hinges on their "hiring practices." Are the dolls fully free and fully informed to consent to what they undergo beforehand? It doesn't appear to be so and that's where I'd really have most issue with it. Once free informed consent is given...well the handler is no more raping her than any client. He just got caught trying to cheat the company out of money and damaging its assets. No actual rape occurred.

I still hope Topher dies soon.

-EmeraldLiz

Anonymous said...

Rob- I noticed the same thing about the woman but came to no conclusion.

-EmeraldLiz

Anonymous said...

FAIL! Just think, this was written by the "God of TV Whedon" LOL. And still not very good. What's going to happen when the crappy staff writers pick up an episode. It's not like Whedon can write every episode himself, and if he could, they would still suck because, let's be honest, he's lost his touch - big time.

Nahara said...

Definitely an improvement.

My issue: I can't wrap my brain around why it's soo hard for others to wrap their brain around why someone would hire a "doll". You receive a good reason from the Oswalt character. I said a *good* reason, not that it was right. Some people with money/power will do whatever they will/can get away with. So, I'm not disgusted by what they want, because I'm not surprised by it.

My only issue is do they (the dolls) do this by choice or are they kidnapped, forced, etc.

N.

Shao said...

This episode was a huge improvement over previous ones, but its payoff (the reveals, the confrontation between Echo and Ballard) drew much clout from the prolonged drought we had been subjected to.

I am somewhat pleased that the Dollhouse is a more extensive organisation; having just the one in LA made the scope of the show seem too limited.

As for the fight, yes it is possible for a skilled martial artist of Echo's size to throw someone like Ballard. He was stunned, she spun her whole body mass to create the torque to throw him.

Styles such as Judo, Aikido and various kung fu styles employ similar principles to either appropriate an opponents momentum or capitalise on one's full body mass. When force is applied on a joint to take it in a direction its not normally designed to go the rest of the body will move to preserve the natural degrees of motion, or else you end up with a broken joint. Observe this with a wrist lock or bending someone's pinky back.

Still, that Echo didn't evidence broken ribs after being kneed by someone of Ballard's brawn and Muay Thai training did beggar belief. However, lets give it to them that Ballard was holding back and connected far fewer blows than Echo did.

It is a plus for the show to have someone like Tahmoh given that he is a trained martial artist and more than capable of being convincing in a fight. But if he keeps on getting whupped by Dolls its not going to be credible. Note that unlike most fights in Buffy the Echo-Ballard fight scene didn't appear to use any fight doubles, which we should give them props for.

Here's hoping that the quality of the show is on the up from hereon, cause we don't have Battlestar anymore...

maura said...

Ballard's interest didn't come out of nowhere- Patton Oswald called him out on his obsession with Echo and his lack of real life, and so his reaction to that was to make the moves Lasagna Girl. This was his way to prove, if only to himself, that he had any sexual interest in Caroline. The reason you don't see chemistry between Ballard and Mellie is because there isn't supposed to be. He's not attracted to her, he's attracted to a thinner, more complex version of her, which is to say: Echo/Caroline.

Sometimes I really do need to have things the most obvious things explained to me. I'll blame my obtuseness on still being in a post-BSG fog. :) Thanks, Michelle.
That makes sense.

To me the good/badness of the Dollhouse all hinges on their "hiring practices." Are the dolls fully free and fully informed to consent to what they undergo beforehand? It doesn't appear to be so and that's where I'd really have most issue with it. Once free informed consent is given...well the handler is no more raping her than any client. He just got caught trying to cheat the company out of money and damaging its assets. No actual rape occurred.

Considering Dewitt's reaction, I think it's fair to assume that informed consent doesn't mean the handlers get to have sex with their charges whenever they want to. In their unprogrammed state, the dolls are less capable of making a decision than my cat is.

mkr said...

great episode. i believe there is a mole. i see 2 possiblities: 1) topher is the mole. 2) boyd and ivy are the moles. boyd did a nice job of distracting topher while ivy snuck back in and modified the imprint. anyway, i'm hooked. i hope joss keeps the story moving.