Joss Whedon’s cult following is no secret, but he seems assured of attracting the faithful and little else with “Dollhouse” — a series that exhibits a kitchen-sink mentality, throwing in a half-dozen assorted plot threads that intertwine to create confusion. The writer-producer-director is clearly gambling on viewers to grant him time to develop this sci-fi concept, but the premiere’s unflattering resemblance to NBC’s already-axed “My Own Worst Enemy” — and its scheduling on Friday with the meritorious but low-rated “Terminator” — doesn’t bode well for enduring long enough to complete the show’s mission, whatever that might be.
Trying to explain the first hour required a bit of cribbing off Fox’s website, but here goes: Eliza Dushku plays Echo, a young woman who either volunteers or is drafted into an illicit organization that provides exclusive services to the mega-rich, using people that can be programmed for any occasion. Between tasks, these near-perfect specimens stagger around dreamily in something called the “dollhouse,” where — with their memories wiped — they speak in monosyllabic sentences, kind of like Tarzan. Dushku first appears in a micromini dress, showcasing her most formidable assets. This triggers an obvious thought: If you had the equivalent of a human blow-up doll resembling Dushku, one suspects her assignments would primarily be more of the indoor variety than action-adventure.
Ah, but where’s the fun in that, unless you’re producing the show for Cinemax? So the premiere involves Echo serving as a bespectacled hostage negotiator, before complications arise as her programming starts going awry — a development also found in “Worst Enemy,” the “Bourne” movies and “Total Recall”to name just a few –which all hinge on this notion that imprinting memories on the brain can have unintended consequences. Is poor Echo, too, remembering things that she shouldn’t?
Meanwhile — and there are a lot of meanwhiles in the debut installment — a tough, rule-bending fed (“Battlestar Galactica’s” Tahmoh Penikett) is investigating the dollhouse, an operation so shadowy that Echo’s taciturn handler (Harry Lennix) mutters to a co-worker, “We’d spend our lives in jail if anyone ever found this place.”
Viewing a second hour, which dribbles out a bit more of the backstory, helps matters only marginally. Dushku (who co-starred in Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” followed by Fox’s short-lived “Tru Calling”) does wonderful things to a tank top, but her grasp of this vague, personality-changing character is a bit of a muddle. What’s left, then, is a series with a hollow center that doesn’t initially make you care about its mentally malleable protagonist.
Nor do the technical elements particularly impress — beginning with the dollhouse itself, whose design isn’t as creepy as it should be, instead resembling a cross between a Silicon Valley office and a children’s playroom, a la Gymboree.
So is there a series here? Frankly, two hours in, it’s still impossible to say — which is why the low-risk timeslot is an expectations-lowering godsend. Even so, attempting to unravel this convoluted package suggests that by the time “Dollhouse” finds itself, there won’t be anybody but hard-core Whedon worshippers left to play with.