Dollhouse: Season One

(2009) *** Unrated
540 min. FOX. Director: Joss Whedon. Cast: Eliza Dushku, Harry J. Lennix, Alan Tudyk, Fran Kranz, Reed Diamond, Tahmoh Penikett, Olivia Williams, Amy Acker.

/content/films/3503/1.jpgAll people have their fantasies, whether they're confined to dreams, worked out in sexual role play or enabled by the sex trade, or explored in the vast multimedia jungle in which we now live. This reality is the starting point for Joss Whedon's provocative science-fiction serial Dollhouse, which imagines the consequences of our need for fantasy.

The FOX series presents a contemporary Los Angeles in which a secret compound called the Dollhouse dispatches "programmable people, made to order" to the rich and well-connected. The dolls, properly known as "Actives," are individuals who have voluntarily signed five-year contracts to have their memory wiped. As needed, they receive imprinted personalities and skills from super-nerdy computer and neurological whiz Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), then head out into the world to play their part, ranging from glorified escort to highly-trained mercenary operative. The most in-demand doll is "Echo" (Eliza Dushku), who in Season One becomes a swaggering safecracker, an unconscious bodyguard, and a dominatrix, among many other roles. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is on a quixotic quest to expose the Dollhouse, considered by most to be an urban legend, and rescue "sleeping beauty" Echo.

Every Active has a handler, and Echo's is Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), a serious and competent agent who quickly bonds with his charge. He's also troublesomely moral, which leads to clashes with Dollhouse's head of security Mr. Dominic (Reed Diamond) and its manager Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), who intriguingly promises that not all is not what it seems around the Dollhouse. That remark applies to resident physician Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker), whose secret emerges midway through the season. Stolen freebies with dolls are not uncommon among the top-level Dollhouse employees, whose nerves are frayed after a recent attack by a former Active named Alpha. His grudge with the Dollhouse fuels a season-long storyline that explodes in time for the last couple of episodes, when Alpha's identity is revealed.

Dollhouse's complicated premise takes a bit of getting used to, which exacerbated its low ratings when the series premiered midseason in a dead-end Friday timeslot. But the show proved worth a viewer investment, and seems poised to deepen into an even-more exciting and fascinating run if given the opportunity. A second season is on the way, which will hopefully build up enough steam to let Whedon (Firefly/Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel) follow his five-year plan for the series. In a move that's both wisely practical and pleasing to genre fans, he's surrounded himself with top talent from his earlier shows and another beloved sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica. Aside from BSG regular Penikett, Whedon commands a writing staff that includes Tim Minear (Angel/Firefly), Steven S. DeKnight (Buffy/Angel/Smallville) and Jane Espenson (Buffy/Angel/Firefly/BSG).

While establishing its premise and fleshing out its ensemble (which also includes Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman, and the sweetly offbeat Miracle Laurie), Dollhouse hasn't yet gotten guest-star happy. Still, Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille), Gregg Henry (Payback), Jim Piddock (Best in Show), Mark Sheppard (BSG) and Whedon fave Alan Tudyk (Firefly) turn up in memorable roles. Dollhouse finds its way surprisingly quickly in its first season as a show that's a smart pseudo-anthology vehicle for Dushku to spread her wings (not unlike the way Quantum Leap showcased Scott Bakula's versatility) with a touch of The Prisoner in the dark overtones of the show's ongoing mythology. The home-video release also includes the unaired thirteenth episode of Season One, a clever, mindbending outing shot ten years into the future (and featuring Dr. Horrible star Felicia Day).

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 7/28/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Dollhouse looks spectactular in its three-disc Blu-ray release from Fox. Other than the rare halo side-effect from artificial sharpening, the image quality is excellent. Steady contrast, rich color, and deep blacks make for a very pleasing image that no doubt leaps and bounds over its standard-def counterpart. A dynamic, immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix also heightens the experience of watching this TV series under optimal conditions.

A nice complement of bonus features located on Disc Three makes this set a great value for newcomers and Whedonites alike. First up is a commentary for "Epitaph One" by writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. This real-life couple has an easy and entertaining rapport as they explain what led to the unusual episode's creation and how they wrote it from creator/executive producer Joss Whedon's story. They also share some production details, from the episode's tech specs to its tricky shooting schedule to their pleasure in the performances of the guest cast.

As Whedon and Tancharoen mention in their commentary, the "Original Unaired Pilot - 'Echo'" (45:47, HD) was cannibalized over the course of the first season, so many of the scenes in it will be very familiar. But it does have unique content (primarily a first contact between Echo and Ballard) that shines light on Joss Whedon's process, partly guided by network demands and largely working out for the better.

Also collected here are twenty-three "Deleted Scenes" (29:46 with "Play All" option, HD).

"Making Dollhouse" (20:48, HD) is an interesting and reasonably candid look at the struggle to figure out a series that would satisfy the network and keep Joss Whedon happy. Whedon wittily comments, along with other interview subjects Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Olivia Williams, Miracle Laurie, Dichen Lachman, co-executive producer Elizabeth Craft, Jed Whedon & Tancharoen, consulting producer Tim Minear, Enver Gjokaj, staff writer Andrew Chambliss, co-executive producer Sarah Fain, Tahmoh Penikett, Alan Tudyk, and Felicia Day.

"Coming Home" (7:11, HD) focuses on the family of cast and crew that have worked with Whedon before on one or all of his shows. Participants include Whedon, Dushku, Penikett, Williams, Amy Acker, Tudyk, Day, stunt coordinator Mike Massa, production designer Stuart Blatt, costume designer Shawna Trpcic, Kelly A. Manners, Robert Nellans, Ross Berryman, Tony Politis, and writers and producers Minear, Steven S. DeKnight, Jane Espenson, Craft, and Fain.

"Finding Echo" (5:07, HD) chats with Whedon and Dushku about how the series came to be expressly as a vehicle for Dushku.

In "Designing the Perfect Dollhouse" (5:59, HD), Whedon gives a tour of the set.

Lastly, "A Private Engagement" (5:47, HD) is a whimsical featurette in whic Minear, Fran Kranz, Lennix, Whedon, Day, Craft, Fain, Williams, Gjokaj, Lachman, Penikett, Tudyk, Jed Whedon & Tancharoen, Laurie, Acker, Chambliss, and Espenson all comment about whether or not they believe in the world of Dollhouse, and how far they would go in pursuing their fantasies.

The Dollhouse Blu-ray set is hours of fun, and hopefully will garner new viewers as the series enters its second season.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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