Eliza Dushku stars in Dollhouse, on Fox. What is she up to?
Television critics and Joss Whedon fans alike haven't known quite what to make of the cult writer/producers latest sci-fi/action series, Dollhouse. Prior to the show's February 13 debut, Salon's Heather Havrilesky said that with Dollhouse, Whedon is "combining intelligent layers of mystery with sly dialogue and a steady flow of action," but those kind of raves have been rare. More typical is the response of The Washington Post's Tom Shales, who called Dollhouse "a pretentious and risible jumble." And though Dollhouse is outperforming other shows that Fox has previously aired on Friday nights, its week-to-week average of four million viewers hardly qualifies the show as a hit.
Even before Dollhouse premiered, Whedon and his star Eliza Dushku have given interviews practically begging fans to hang in there, and insisting that the show really finds its groove in the sixth episode. That episode, "Man On The Street," airs tonight at 9 PM eastern.
If any other TV producer tried to convince viewers that one of their faltering shows finally starts getting good halfway through its first season, he'd be roundly and properly mocked. But Whedon isn't any other TV producer. His long-running, still-popular cult horror series Buffy the Vampire Slayer started out as a cheap-looking, fairly corny monster-of-the-week show, but developed into an epic, operatic tale about growing up, embracing destiny, and coming to grips with the idea that good and evil aren't always absolute. And though Whedon's outer-space western Firefly was too-quickly canceled by Fox back in 2003, its 14 episodes (plus a film, Serenity) are still held in high esteem by fans of ambitious, witty fantasy fare.
So when it was announced that Whedon was developing a new series, starring Buffy favorite Dushku as a foxy, athletic woman-for-hire with multiple, programmable personalities, legions of Whedonites prepared to welcome the arrival of their new favorite show. And those die-hards barely batted an eye when the news leaked that Whedon had completely re-shot the pilot episode, then scrapped it altogether. Or when they heard he'd shut production down in order to re-think Dollhouse's direction. But then when Dollhouse finally aired-with its confusing, unlikely premise and kitschy, Charlie's Angels-like plots-even the faithful had to scratch their heads a little. Just how good could that sixth episode be?
One critic who's seen "Man On The Street," The A.V. Club's Scott Tobias, reports that it's good. He says the episode offers a broader understanding of how the automaton-for-hire organization known The Dollhouse operates. Geek-friendly comedian Patton Oswalt makes a guest appearance, playing a man who's not what he seems. But is "Man On The Street" too late? Whedon's been beating the bushes trying to scare up more viewers, even holding a conference call this past Wednesday to remind critics to tout "Man On The Street." On the call, he acknowledged that maybe he and his writing staff didn't fully think through certain aspects of Dollhouse's premise—like why clients would hire a programmable person instead of a regular person—and admits that he may have sacrificed some depth in the name of making Dollhouse a fun, "watch whenever" show, as opposed to a show with a rich mythology. He says that "Man On The Street" will answer some key questions about Dushku's character, while introducing a new storytelling style that's more intense, less frothy.
Given the success of Whedon's online mini-series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog last year, the man clearly has options should Dollhouse fail. But TV could use another show with the humor, emotion and scope of Buffy and Firefly right now. Tonight, devotees of quality television will be tuning into Fox with high expectations. Here's hoping those expectations will be met-and that enough of those devotees turn out.