Friday, September 25, 2009

Looking Ahead

Dollhouse: Vows
Season 2, Episode 1

I've mentioned it a couple of other places, most notably our lonely little podcast, I've mentioned the Year of Second Chances. I stopped watching Dollhouse two-thirds of the way through the first season after numerous reviews that bounced between adequate and disappointing. But I wasn't counting on one thing, my friends. I wasn't counting on "Epitaph One," the spectacular unaired 13th episode of the first season. After watching that, purchasing the BluRay and actually enjoying the last couple episodes (dominated by the hilarity that is Alan Tudyk) and the unaired pilot... I'm actually excited for Dollhouse. Who'd have believed it?! That doesn't even factor in my geeking out over the casting of Jamie "Apollo" Bamber and Alexis "Wesley Wyndam-Pryce" Denisof.

I honestly can't imagine higher expectations for a second season premiere of a show I stopped watching before the first season finale. These are strange times indeed. But could Dollhouse, which has never been as good when I've watched it on TV as opposed to later, actually deliver when it never had before? Yeah, I'm even one of those Whedon is My Master Now guys that couldn't get over the problems with "Man on the Street." So far this show has always fallen into the Heroes Hole (though not as deep) where a show has all the possibilities in the world (in this case the wonderful themes involving identity and self-discovery), but never came through with living up to its own potential.

I'm not too hesitant to label "Vows" the best episode of Dollhouse ever aired, trailing only "Epitaph One" and perhaps the unaired pilot, "Echo." This still isn't Whedon in his prime, but while one storyline takes on the larger themes of the show that were rarely fully addressed last year, the other is perhaps one of the better Engagement-oriented plots yet. Are there still issues? Hell yeah, but the future is looking quite a bit brighter right now.

One of the continuing issues with the series is that the Engagements are rarely as interesting as other things going on. The Dollhouse missions were never as interesting as the far too thinly addressed pursuit of the organization by Ballard. But this week I can't say how much Amy Acker rules from inside the Dollhouse. Unlike the psycho that Alpha became, or the altruistic Echo that remained wholly devoted to Caroline owning her body, Whiskey/Dr. Saunders has become pretty much her own person. She goes to so many places emotionally and thematically this week. From justifiable rage to depression and fear, her interactions with Topher, steal the show. The scene where in her confusion she unsuccessfully attempts to seduce him is actually somewhat haunting. Saunders would be able to handle things so much easier if Topher had made this all one of his games like so much else. In the end, admitting she has thoughts of her own and, unlike Echo, her fear of the death that giving her body back to the original owner would entail, is the first time we've really felt empathy for an Active character instead of the body's true owner. I give some credit making her disappearance mean something besides Acker has another show and can only be in three episodes.

As much as I complain about this show, they manage to pull an idea from the original pilot that I loved. I'm a big fan of roles within roles, and people playing characters playing at being someone else. One of my favorite examples is the final scene of Boogie Nights when Mark Wahlberg is playing Eddie Adams playing Dirk Diggler playing Brock Landers. So when Echo walking back in to Ballard's room and revealed she was an FBI agent pretending to be a blushing bride, I got a kick out of that. But even an Apollo-Helo grudge match couldn't make this plot much more than it was... filler. They continue to hint at Echo's glitching to other personalities, but I'm too anxious to see Ballard and Echo working to take down the Dollhouse (as glimpsed in the future in "Epitaph One") to put up with much more of this. As always the show manages to frustrate by taking so long to get where we want it to be and the adventures they use to fill time are uneven at best.

I have to say that I'm a little disappointing how thin the explanation of DeWitt allowing Ballard to be "the client" and let him use Echo as an undercover agent to go after an arms dealer that he failed to bring down while with the FBI. The idea that she's curious about the glitch-factory that is Echo isn't just paper thin. It isn't even toilet paper thin... well, certainly not two-ply. Not the best week for DeWitt or Boyd. The two were only really utilized to set-up the threat of Buffy/Angel vet Alexis Denisof's new character Senator Daniel Perrin. And then Boyd makes a play for Dr. Saunders (did he become an insensitive dick over the summer or is that just inherent in the Head of Security position?) that blows up in his face. Like much else, Perrin is barely introduced, just sceen giving a speech in Washington. His real level of information and motivations have yet to be hinted at or examined.

I've raged against Eliza Dushku's limited range as much as anybody, but give her credit for really selling the movements between the various personalities near the climactic showdown between Bamber's arms dealer and Echo and Paul. It might not have been the step forward I wanted, but I will admit it was handled quite well. And if the ending, which hints at her Echo becoming a more unified and consistent personality perhaps she'll be able to sell her "role" better. The end goal being her getting to the point where she is Caroline consistently and can play that character just accessing other abilities or skill sets.

The execution of the episode is above what we normally expect from the series, but it is frustrating that after an entire season was devoted to setting the scene that we have to endure another episode along those lines. I brought up Heroes earlier. Where that show is three levels past dead to me, Dollhouse at least looks like it is moving in the other direction. That Echo will evolve into Caroline and she and Ballard will take on this global conspiracy. That the larger dangers of the Dollhouse will be exploited. That the show will become what it could be. But for now we still have chess pieces moving slowly and we're still waiting.

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