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It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how Joss Whedon came up with the name Dollhouse. It’s a show about (from what we’ve seen so far) beautiful people who are empty in their default state, only becoming “somebody” when they’re imprinted with a manufactured identity for their clients, to be anything or anyone the client wants. Want a motorcycle-racing hottie girlfriend for the weekend? No problem. Need a veteran hostage negotiator to get your daughter back from a Mexican drug cartel? Done.

The problem is that the dolls in this particular house are just that: Empty. Which means, of course, that we don’t really have any reason to care about them. Hit the clicky thingie to read more…

The pilot starts off with a scene between Eliza Dushku’s “former self” and Dollhouse’s headmistress, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams). Dushku’s nameless character is in trouble for something and is being forced to, quote, volunteer to be a part of the Dollhouse program to escape her past wrongdoings. Wrongdoings she claims weren’t so bad, without telling us what they were (something that I’m sure will be revealed later on). The scene wasn’t great. It wasn’t mysterious or interesting. It was just cliched (think Nikita, Alias, etc.) and, to be honest, not very well acted. In fact, it was uncomfortable enough that, knowing the premise of the show, I was hoping it was actually one of the imprinted personalities acting in a bad movie-within-a-TV-show to try to trick us. Alas, it was not to be.

Next we see Dushku, now transformed into Echo, her Dollhouse name, on assignment as the aforementioned motorcycle-racing weekend party toy. If the first scene wasn’t bad enough, when she and her boyfriend finally get to their destination in Chinatown, they hop off their bikes and argue about who really won the city-streets-at-night race, and Echo challenges Matt to a best 2 out of 3. His reply? “Nah. Let’s just dance.”

Yes, I was still hoping this was a cheesy movie-within-a-TV-show. Alas, it was still not to be.

Instead, we’re introduced to the rest of the main cast as Echo is programmed to be hostage negotiator Eleanor Penn, complete with her own tortured past. And athsma. There’s Boyd Langdon (Harry Lennix), Echo’s handler, who watches over her on assignment and takes her back to the Dollhouse for her “treatments” (the codeword spoken to the imprinted personalities when it’s time to go get another memory wipe). There are hints dropped that Langdon has a past, too, and is here as punishment of a sort.

Then there’s Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the 20-something who’s the tech behind the actual memory wipes (why is it always a 20-something tech? wouldn’t you want some older, experienced, emotionless person handling this to make sure that their non-existent feelings don’t get in the way of doing their job well?).

Next is Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond), DeWitt’s right-hand who’s probably a bad guy, because he has two first names. If one of them was Mikey or Bobby or something like that, we’d like him automatically. But one of his names is Laurence and the other is Dominic. Bad guy.

Outside of the Dollhouse is brooding, determined, loose-cannon detective Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), who is brooding over his determined, loose-cannon attempt at discovering the true nature of and exposing the Dollhouse. He does this by sneaking up on Russian mob flunkies in the bathroom of swanky nightclubs and threatening to…uh, I can’t remember actually.

Finally, there’s Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker), the lone, caring maternal type at the Dollhouse, who helps the Actives (as the dolls, like Echo, are called) deal with whatever scant and minor feelings crop up inbetween personality imprints. Dr. Saunders obviously has a tortured past, scarred as she is both literally and figuratively.

If the very concept of this show sounds recently familiar (more recently than Nikita or Alias), that’s because it’s very similar in many ways to the just-canceled Christian Slater show My Own Worst Enemy. That show was actually exciting and interesting from the first episode, and yet, despite some fun plot turns and twists and a really great performance as two very different people by Slater, Enemy lasted only nine episodes. One of the things that made Enemy fun was that Slater’s real-life spy, Edward Albright, and his cover persona, Henry Spivey, pretty much hated each other. This led to some very clever, funny and tense scenes throughout the show’s short run

There are also elements of Quantum Leap (yes, I did just write that) to Dollhouse, in that the main character literally becomes another person for the purposes of each episode’s central plot. Like Echo, Scott Bakula’s Sam Beckett was trapped in his situation. But unlike Echo, Beckett was always Beckett, and he brought himself to each person he became when he would leap through time. Whoever the person was originally, they were better off having Sam Beckett inside them, because he was a good, kind, always-do-the-right-thing kinda guy. And he did.

Echo, on the other hand, brings nothing to the people she becomes. We might as well have a different cast every week in that sense.

Obviously, there’s more to the show than just Echo and the rest of the dolls becoming other people and flip-flopping between party girls and spies: We’ve already seen a glitch in Echo’s “programming” (or de-programming) that’s allowed her to remember things she shouldn’t remember, and notice things she shouldn’t notice (again, similar to My Own Worst Enemy). I just wish that some big, “oh wow” revelation had taken place in the first episode to make me want to see the next episode as soon as possible.

To be honest, Dushku’s acting was pretty good after those first two scenes, and the rest of the cast was fine, too, but whereas in Whedon’s ill-fated Firefly, where the ensemble cast was so great that it became much more than the sum of its parts, Dollhouse didn’t make me feel the same way.

When I first saw Firefly (on DVD long after it had been canceled), I fell in love with that show & cast instantly. Great characters, even if a bit thin here and there, with great casting behind them makes for an experience you don’t find on TV often enough. I was hoping Dollhouse would make me feel that way again. Instead of falling in love, though, I’m left feeling like I’m not even sure I want to go on a second date.