A version of this article appeared in The Age Green Guide, August 2, 2012.
Now that the multi-talented Joss Whedon has finally scored a mainstream hit as writer-director of The Avengers, there's the hope of a wider audience for his short-lived science-fiction show Dollhouse, still his most thrilling and ambitious work (sorry, Firefly fans). However many people claim that television has overtaken cinema as a medium for serious art, Whedon remains one of the only TV creators who deserves to be ranked alongside sophisticated filmmakers like Olivier Assayas or Steven Soderbergh. Where other shows are praised for their complex, rounded characters, Dollhouse goes down a less familiar and far more unsettling path, presenting us with a blank “heroine” – the aptly-named Echo (Eliza Dushku) – who is simply a vessel for the fantasies of others.
Echo is part of a workforce of “programmable people” known as “dolls” – good-looking young men and women who have volunteered to have their minds wiped. Temporarily implanted with new personalities and skill sets, they're rented out in secret to the rich and well-connected, typically (though not always) for sexual or criminal purposes. In between missions, the dolls are housed in an underground base somewhere beneath Los Angeles (where else?) resembling a luxury spa and run with military precision by the coolly ruthless Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams). Stripped of their identities, they resemble docile, simple-minded children – though as season one progresses there are increasing hints that Echo is starting to develop a personality of her own.
The self-reflexive premise of the show is both a cleverly literal riff on a standard TV format – at the end of each episode, the slate is wiped clean – and a comment on how narrative is shaped by the desires of creators and viewers alike. What role do we hope to see Echo, or Dushku, enact this week? Do we want her to seem sexy, vulnerable, empowered? Anything is possible, courtesy of Topher, the whiz kid responsible for programming the dolls, wonderfully played by Fran Kranz as a goofy, endearing, but not necessarily benevolent nerd.
Designed without apology as an alluring, violent spectacle, the show exists in a twilight zone between soft-porn fantasy and stern moral judgement. In a stand-out episode midway through the first season, the comedian Patton Oswalt plays a software entrepreneur who hires Echo to stand in for his dead wife. Is he a romantic or a sleazebag? Could he be both? If the creepy idea of the dollhouse makes us uncomfortable, that's more or less the point: Whedon is brave enough to admit there's a creep hidden in most of us, himself included.