Joss Whedon is usually the master of the otherwise unworkable conceit. With both the successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the canceled Firefly, he wrested innovative, quality television from head-scratching concepts (teenage demon-hunters and space cowboys, respectively). So it’s a shock to see that while Dollhouse, his latest series, has a decent sci-fi premise, it’s brought down by tepid execution.
The title refers to a supersecret organization that imprints computer-generated personae onto the brains of operatives (called “dolls” or “actives”), who are then hired out to the ultrarich for particular jobs. Each episode follows Echo (Eliza Dushku) as she becomes everything from a motorcycle-riding sex kitten to a master thief (apparently it’s easier to “create” a safecracker than simply pay for an existing one). In several of her missions, she’s programmed to do little more than have sex with her clients, making the Dollhouse a very expensive brothel. After each mission, the doll’s memory is wiped, leaving it to wander around the elaborate laboratory set (decked out in the earth tones of a Brooklyn Heights yoga studio) in a childlike state.
Since Echo is a different character in every episode, you never really care about her fate. Dushku, who helmed the doomed sci-fi series Tru Calling and was known to Buffy fans as the brassy Faith, projects plenty of attitude, but acting has never been her strength. Her weakness becomes apparent every time she takes on a new persona; the best she can manage is the same iteration of a badass yo-girl with different talents—like hostage negotiation or mountain climbing or, yes, kinky sex. Whedon’s decision to build a series around Dushku, with clunky dialogue to boot, makes us wonder if he’s truly invested in the show.
The best ideas—subplots revolving around an FBI agent played by a scowling but buff Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica), trying to prove the Dollhouse’s existence; a rogue doll on a killing spree—are left creeping around the outside of the main story, begging the show to be less episodic. Alas, Dollhouse will no doubt be shut down and the show wiped from our memories before the snow melts.
Dollhouse premieres Fri 13 at 9pm on Fox.