The first time I watched Dollhouse, I let my fan-girlish devotion to Joss Whedon and my big cheesy crush on Eliza Dushku cloud my judgment. The show starts out on shaky ground, and I've given up on shows for less. While powering through those first few episodes might feel like slogging through a marsh in cement shoes, you'd be wrong to discount Dollhouse before giving it a fair shot.
Dollhouse is so much more than its beginnings.
Admittedly, that's a problem. Pilot episodes are meant to be like speed dating, but Dollhouse's pilot is more like a bad Tinder match who shows up looking nothing like the photo. You were promised an existential exploration of memory and identity, but instead it's all motorcycle races, hot girls, and guns blazing. It's rife with cliché, and an interesting premise doesn't seem like enough to salvage it. But you can't see the whole picture, yet. The mythology of the Dollhouse is deeper and more compelling than it appears.
It gets better. Really, I swear!
The first five episodes rank at the bottom of the heap. Joss had fundamental disagreements with FOX about what Dollhouse should be, and it's never more plain to see than at the start. The show treads a tiny, wobbly line between what Joss envisioned and what the network would allow. While Dollhouse may not be the masterpiece it might have been if FOX had “Let go and let Joss,” it does eventually find its feet and become a show that's in turns thrilling, poignant, and emotional.
Come for Dushku, stay for Gjokaj.
Some of the most brutal critics of Dollhouse argue Elizah Dushku isn't a strong enough actress to carry the show. While I disagree, (see: Big Cheesy Crush) these complaints aren't entirely without merit. The acting in Dollhouse is a tall order requiring versatility and range, but where Dushku wavers Enver Gjokaj soars. Watching him slip seamlessly in and out of the minds of his characters, you start to wonder if Gjokaj isn't a doll himself.
Joss Whedon's shows are about people, and Dollhouse has some great ones.
The characterization in Dollhouse is a bit slow, but it kinda has to be. The lead literally has no personality. But Dollhouse's mistake early on was pushing its supporting characters to the wayside, presumably to make room for more FOX-mandated explosions. Fierce, conflicted Adelle. Funny, isolated Topher. Frustrated, paternal Boyd. Beautiful, tragic Dr. Saunders. Star-crossed Sierra and Victor. They are what make the show truly worth watching. Echo's journey is riveting, but Buffy without Xander, Giles, and Willow is.. well.. Buffy the Vampire Slayer... the movie!
Dollhouse bounds back from it's shaky start mid-way through season one to become a powerful action-drama liberally seasoned with the playful banter and pop-culture quips we've come to expect from Joss Whedon. Stick it out to the end of season one, and I promise you won't be asking, “Did I fall asleep?”