Progress Report provides ongoing impressions of serials or sets I view them.
Dollhouse is yet another unfortunate casualty for Joss Whedon in that the series got cancelled just as it was finding its footing. But, fortunately, the series also got enough notice on its cancellation to actually finish its story. And while the series stumbled out of the gate and then rushed things at the end, I thought it had a serious amount of potential embedded into its mythos and, despite its short run, managed to successfully wrap up the story. Unfortunately, I don't think the show really had the opportunity to stretch its wings and reach its potential heights. Still, as it was, it was a surprisingly satisfying and atypical approach to cyberpunk and actually managed to address genuine science fiction matters, rather than being a fantasy tale set in space/the future/alternate reality.
The idea behind the series revolves around the existence of technology that can be used to copy people's minds, erase people's minds and "imprint" the copied minds, as well as synthetic minds, onto people's bodies. The titular Dollhouse is a company that provides dolls, programmed human beings, to serve the wealthy elite, often in romantic encounters, but often for a variety of other purposes. The show's protagonist is (sort of) Echo (Eliza Duskhu), who we first meet as Caroline. Echo, slowly develops the ability to retain memories from her encounters. As Echo, the other dolls and the staff of the Dollhouse deal with their "engagements", we learn more about the darker implications of the Dollhouse technology via an escaped superdoll, Alpha, as well as the conspiracies of the greater Dollhouse corporation.
The biggest weakness of Dollhouse is that it starts out of the gate with a rather mundane "engagement of the weak format", as such being limited to building the greater story in tiny pieces. Furthermore, as Echo is a bit of a blank slate at the start, it becomes very difficult to connect with her as a character, which is troublesome as she is the principal protagonist. However, as the story and Echo develop, and the rest of the characters also gain depth, the show becomes more compelling. I especially like the morality questions that are asked by the show when it comes to the employment of this technology and the development of technology in general. Furthermore, the show does a great job of seeding plenty of interesting mysteries for the full run, like the secret mole inside the Dollhouse sending messages to FBI Agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) and the fantastic plot involving US Senator Daniel Perrin (Alexis Denisof), even if not all of the ideas get to see their ends (or, in the case of Alpha, doesn't quite satisfy).
Some might fairly complain about the show's end, which takes a rather abrupt turn after what seemed like a legitimate conclusion in the twelfth episode of the second season, however, I've actually come to find that the extended conclusion in "Epitaph Two" actually helps complete the story for Echo, even if not completely as well as providing more complete thematic closure to the series. The series does suffer a little towards the end when there's so much plot being stuffed into the final episodes in order to finish the story that there's little breathing room for characters and story development (as well as wrapping up all the loose ends). But the most disappointing aspect of Dollhouse is simply that it never got a chance to really dig in deep and explore the different ideas that were built into its larger story.
Eliza Dushku brings all the necessary charisma to drive Echo/Caroline and the rest of the cast is actually quite strong as well, even the bit players and while the action is decidedly small screen, it's still surprisingly enjoyable. I think the team did a great job of creating a believable underworld for Los Angeles and should be commended. Also cute were the many allusions to previous Mutant Enemy productions as well as Battlestar Galactica, from which a good amount of guest cast is gleaned.
Overall, Dollhouse is actually a fairly satisfying series. It does start quite rough, in part due to a poor choice of introductory episodes, but also just stemming from the storytelling weakness inherent in having such a blank character central protagonist. However, if you stick with it, you actually get both a smart and dramatic science fiction show, that manages to match big questions with big plot. I do wish the series was better able to build to higher moments, especially for the characters--Echo's last moment in the series when she cracks doesn't really feel earned because we just don't see her developing relationships--but that's also partially because the show just didn't have the time to develop that for its characters. As such, I'm glad that Dollhouse had its chance on the small screen and got to actually finish its tale. An enjoyable and intelligent science fiction series. 8/10.