You’re rich. You’ve got more money than you’ve ever imagined. Maybe it happened via a business idea that bloomed, maybe you have less savoury methods of gaining money, it doesn’t matter. The problem with being rich is that you very soon find that while money doesn’t buy everything, it can buy the illusion of everything. You fall in love and pretty soon it’s clear that the person you loved was a lie concocted to get close to the money, like some kind of stealthy moth driven towards the flame. You find yourself hungering for something real, for someone to actually love you for who you are without the money getting in the way. That’s where the Dollhouse comes in. You pay several hundred thousand up front and they will tailor make someone’s personality traits so that they have been waiting to meet you and only you for all of their lives. Yes, the money is what gets you their love, but this love is actually genuine, it’s real and, like all love, it’s fleeting because the money you’ve paid is only a couple of days rental fee. This is the premise behind Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s latest cult hit, which will be appearing on European DVDs on Monday. Due to a clerical error we were sent our copy a weekend early and, having watched the entire series, I’m writing this to hopefully get you to watch it too.
People are messed up inside, all of us are. We’ve all had times in our past that we’d like wiped from our minds completely (personally I believe we need these times to make us whole people, but that’s another post) and in this show, people can do just that. They sign their lives away for five years and have their memories wiped completely. In return they will be given their personalities and memories back at the end of their contract, their bodies will be at the peak physical condition and they will be very wealthy people. During their contracts the dolls are kept in a childlike state, programmed to trust the people around them and obey their instructions. They exercise regularly and are kept within a highly controlled environment where they are kept calm and docile. When a contract comes up they have a new personality and ability set programmed for them and inserted into the husk their body has become. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph these can be soulmates for lonely businessmen, but they also include one nights stands, assassins, thieves, scientists, government agents or whatever else the job requires.
The show focuses primarily on “Echo” (played by Eliza Dushku – best known as Faith from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel), one of the most requested dolls. Each episode she goes on an assignment, programmed with a new personality and must face different challenges, finally getting wiped back to her docile state at the end of each engagement. As the show goes on she starts to remember different parts of her past, sometimes retaining tiny parts od the personality she just took on, other times recalling her own history. As she acts on these impulses she increasingly becomes a danger to herself and a key player in the power struggles going on at the Dollhouse.
There are several Dollhouses in cities around the world that reprogram people, but the show focuses on the Los Angeles Dollhouse. They are tied to the highest levels of government and law enforcement in each country making it almost impossible to investigate them. As the Dollhouse is underground and sounds like a science fiction concept most people consider it to be an urban legend. Due to Echo’s incresing evolution in her docile state, as well as the evolution of other key dolls, and other events the Los Angeles house is having problems. They’re under investigation by a lone FBI agent (played by Tahmoh Penikett – best known as Helo in Battlestar Galactica) who got stuck with the job as punishment but pursues it doggedly with help from an unknown informant. Someone inside is acting as a traitor to the house and, finally, they have a rogue doll on the loose who managed to kill a hell of a lot of people on his way out, sparing only Echo.
The show has a hell of a lot of potential in it’s storylines due to the basic premise of programmable people alone. Each show can feature a whole new set-up with new characters (all played by the same actors), settings and genres. One week could be a twist on a slasher movie, the next could be a murder mystery and the next a comedy. The premise has left a lot of room for the writers to experiment with stand alone episodes, while the threads of the mythology (a rogue doll, traitors inside the Dollhouse, the dolls starting to hold onto their memories) allow a deeper show that leaves you wanting to find out what happens next. The greatest achievement of the show has to be the character design and acting. The dolls are characters that you come to care about. When they’re held at gunpoint or in any other kind of danger you don’t care that they’ve probably been programmed with the skills to get them out of that situation, you’re worried for the childlike doll that they are between missions. To take characters that are basically perfect killing machines and make you worry about them like children is a master stroke in television as far as I’m concerned.
The show is scripted and produced almost exclusively by a team of people who’ve worked together on one or more of Joss Whedon’s other cult shows before and it shows. The team obviously know each other well and like working together which is reflected in how easily the show exudes quality. That’s really about as far as I can go into Dollhouse without revealing too many of the secrets of the show. Hopefully I’ve intrigued you to get as interested in it as I am and buy the DVD, ensuring we all have more of this quality programme to come in the future.