Joss Whedon's return to television has been plagued by problems -- production shutdowns, a replacement first episode and a lousy Friday night time slot -- but none of that will matter to fans of Whedon's past work ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly") if "Dollhouse" turns out to be fantastic.
So, is it?
If "Dollhouse" were from a producer without a track record, the answer would be an unqualified "No." But because it's Whedon, reviewers and viewers may be more willing to go along for the ride and see if it leads to a better show than the one that premieres tonight.
"Dollhouse" (9 tonight, WPGH) isn't awful, but neither is it remarkably good. It's a passable hour of entertainment that shows potential to improve but flails and confuses (and occasionally bores) from the start.
Eliza Dushku (Faith on "Buffy") stars as Echo, an "Active" who is part of a secret organization that sends out its employees to complete often illegal jobs. For every mission an Active is imprinted with a new personality suited to the task. Afterward, their memories are wiped. (Aspects of the concept are similar to NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy," but "Dollhouse" is different enough.)
Whedon created a new premiere episode because there were "clarity issues" with the first pilot, he said in July, but tonight's episode doesn't resolve such concerns. It begins with a scene of Echo signing up to become an Active with Dollhouse boss Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams). Then it jumps to a scene of Echo on a date and returning with handler Boyd Langdon (Harry Lennix). What's not clear is that Echo's date was a mission.
Viewers probably think of "missions" more like a plot that plays out later in the episode -- Echo must facilitate the payment of ransom for a kidnapped child -- not a date with a guy. But Actives can be sent on all sorts of tasks requested by wealthy clients.
Tonight's episode also introduces FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, "Battlestar Galactica"). He believes the Actives have essentially been murdered by having their true personalities erased. He's trying to expose the Dollhouse.
Viewers also meet the Dollhouse head of security, Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond, "Homicide: Life on the Street"); the programmer who wipes the Actives, Topher Brink (Fran Kranz); and a doctor with facial scars and a mysterious bearing, Claire Saunders (Amy Acker).
In the premiere, viewers get barely a hint of these characters' personalities. Next week's episode offers more backstory by framing the story with flashback scenes of Langdon's first day on the job three months earlier, after an attack on the Dollhouse facility by Alpha, an Active who went berserk.
Next week also finds Echo on another date-as-assignment with a guy whose real goal for their time together turns out to be more dangerous than he lets on in his meeting with Adelle.
The second episode allows for more humor than the premiere. When Echo's date takes her bow hunting, she assures him she knows how to use the weapon, saying, "I have four brothers. None of them Democrats."
Each of the three "Dollhouse" episodes sent for review suffers from moments of confusing and incoherent storytelling. There's also a misogynistic streak in the show as men keep paying for female Actives as dates or for target practice. Whedon, of course, is not a misogynist -- his shows have always been about powerful women -- but the situations Echo gets into do feature men lording their power over Echo. She may have signed up to join the Dollhouse, but that doesn't make her any less of a victim in some of these scenarios.
Another concern with "Dollhouse": Some of the casting seems less than ideal. Early in tonight's episode Dushku comes across as wooden and, as Adelle, Williams is a bit of a cipher.
There are clearly some interesting ideas behind "Dollhouse" -- Whedon discusses many of them below -- but few of these notions are apparent in early episodes, which makes the series a disappointment at the outset.
In May, Fox said "Dollhouse" would be paired with "24" on Monday, but the network revised its plan in the fall. Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly said sticking with Monday would have put "enormous pressure" on the show.
"We're going to let the show play out for 13 episodes and hopefully catch on," Reilly said last month. Whedon is happy with that plan because it doesn't require "Dollhouse" to be an immediate ratings hit.
As for throwing out the original pilot and creating a new one, Whedon said it was an attempt to satisfy the network, which, rather than an introduction to the series, wanted the premiere to be an example of what the series will be on a weekly basis.
"There was definitely some differences of opinion about what was going on and what we were going to stress in the show," Whedon said in a teleconference with reporters last week, "but mostly it was about how do we bring the audience in."
"Dollhouse" attempts to explore notions of identity through the Actives, particularly Echo, who will slowly recover memories of her past.
"They're supposed to be empty vessels and the constant struggle with 'Dollhouse' is that they're not quite," Whedon said. "Echo is clearly evolving in a way that they had not imprinted her to do."
Whedon said as the season progresses, the show gets to where he initially intended as the mythology builds. That process of revealing character bits begins in earnest next week, but it will be surrounded for at least seven episodes by mission-of-the-week plots mandated by network execs.
"It's more work for a staff to drum up that enthusiasm and that identification for the guest of the week," Whedon said. "That's just difficult, but we knew that was part of the show going in. ... I do feel like we got back to our vision in a way that really works for the network."
Time -- and ratings -- will tell if viewers have the patience to stick with "Dollhouse" long enough to see Whedon's vision unfold.
This week Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Battlestar Galactica," "Important Things with Demetri Martin" and Nickelodeon's "Spectacular!" Today's TV Q&A responds to questions about "Leverage," "24" in syndication and a news anchor's jewelry. Read both at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's Tuned In Podcast includes conversation about the Grammy Awards telecast, Fox's "24" and DTV conversion. Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.
Contact TV editor Rob Owen at email@example.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com./tv. First Published February 13, 2009 5:00 AM