The Ultimate Binge-Watching Guide to Dollhouse
Of all of Joss Whedon's television shows, Dollhouse is the most underrated. Buffy has become a modern television classic, and was one of the first shows to be taken seriously by academics, while Firefly has one of the most significant cult followings in the history of television. Angel has mixed reviews, but is better known than Dollhouse as a result of its Buffy pedigree and ran for three more seasons. I'm a huge fan of all of those shows, but Dollhouse is by far the most ambitious and philosophical of the four. It also has a fascinating premise, a great cast, sharp writing, and it's on Netflix, so there's no excuse not to binge-watch it. Here's a guide to diving into this weird, brilliant little show:
Everyone's heard of the Dollhouse, but no one knows if it's real. It's an underground organization that recruits young, attractive people who are down on their luck to sign their lives away for five years for a multimillion dollar payoff. They then use cutting-edge technology to wipe their "dolls'" brains completely clean, of memories, personality, and identity. Wealthy, powerful clients hire the Dollhouse to imprint their dolls with completely new identities that are specifically tailored to suit the client's needs, whatever they may be. But when the dolls start showing signs of a continuous identity while in their tabula rasa state, they are all forced to confront the ethical and philosophical questions surrounding the Dollhouse.
Low. At a mere 26 hours, it's the perfect length for a binge-watch. A compact sci-fi show for busy people. If you're very ambitious, you can watch it in two days (I finished it in three while riding out my wisdom teeth surgery), but even watching a couple of episodes a day would only take about two weeks.
If You're a Joss Fan:
If you've already watched Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, Dollhouse is like a who's who of the Whedonverse. Eliza Dushku, of course, was Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her performance as Faith was a fan favorite, but it's on Dollhouse that she really gets a chance to show off her acting chops, as she gets the opportunity to play multiple characters every week. I wouldn't say she's the best actor of the Whedonverse (more on that later), but she's definitely talented and acquits herself well to such a difficult task. Amy Acker, who played Fred in Angel, recurs throughout the show and becomes arguably the most complex character on the show. Alan Tudyk, who played Wash in Firefly, plays a character who becomes extremely important to the show's backstory, and Alexis Denisof, who plays Wesley in Buffy and Angel, has a memorable recurring role as a politician who gets swept up in the Dollhouse's corruption. Cult favorite Summer Glau shows up to do what she does best: play a slightly unhinged Einstein-level genius, and beloved gamer and frequent Whedon collaborator Felicia Day makes an appearance in the finale.
And, incidentally, Tahmoh Penikett is a Battlestar Galactica alum. Although Battlestar isn't a Whedon project, its fanbase should have a great deal of overlap, as they're both extremely philosophical and dark sci-fi shows with plenty of social commentary and strong female characters.
Episodes to Skip:
Again, there are only 26 episodes, so it's difficult to recommend any episodes to skip. Almost every episode develops the mythology of the Doll technology, the societal implications of the Dollhouse, and the extremely complex themes. However, I can tell you for certain that you can skip Stage Fright (Ep 1x3) if you are so inclined, because I accidentally skipped it the first time around and didn't realize it until I watched it through again. It's perfectly entertaining, so there's no need to skip it, but it doesn't add very much to the mythology or philosophy of the show. You could argue that it demonstrates the good the Dollhouse can do in order to further the moral ambiguity, or that it shows a parallel between the plight of the female dolls and more run-of-the-mill objectification, but these themes are both done better and with more depth in other episodes.
For our in-depth (spoiler-filled!) list of the best episodes of Dollhouse, click here. But for those of you who would like to remain unspoiled, the moral of the story is to try to get to the second season, because most of the best episodes come later on. The fourth episode of the second season, "Belonging," is, in my opinion, not only the best episode of the series but one of the best hours ever aired on television, perfectly encapsulating the insidious power and gender dynamics of an organization that equates ignorance with a lack of consequences and treats people as nothing more than functional objects.
Best Character Arc to Follow:
Although the main focus of the series is Echo's self-actualization, the most fascinating character arc belongs to Amy Acker's Dr. Saunders. She begins the show as a character with quiet conviction who is forced to wear her tragic past on her sleeve, as her face is covered with disfiguring scars that play an integral role in her interactions with others. But then things really get interesting when we discover the nature of her tragic past, which is not only a major twist but lends her character an unprecedented complexity. I can't say much more without giving away the twist, except that in a show full of nuanced ethics and philosophies of identity, hers is by far the most compelling. It also helps that Acker is a fantastic actor; she is, in my opinion, the best actor to appear on the Whedonverse, based on her performances in both Angel and Dollhouse.
Themes to Watch Out For:
There are a multitude of lofty themes explored in this show, chief among them the continuity of identity (or lack thereof), the ethics of treating humans like commodities, and the insidious societal implications of burgeoning technologies. But the most consistent and well-developed theme explored by Dollhouse is the constitution of personhood. In other words, is a person solely the product of a specific combination of neurons and synapses? Is programming a person as simple as programming an extremely complex computer? Or is there some kind of x-factor, something that transcends Topher's knowledge of neuroscience, the sci-fi equivalent of a soul.
Things to Keep in Mind While Watching:
-Dollhouse, like many of Whedon's shows, had a tortured production history. The episode Epitaph One originally aired when the fate of the show's second season was hanging in the balance, and in fact was specifically made to show the network that the show could be filmed on a tighter budget. It was meant to serve as a possible series finale, but when the show was, in fact, renewed, some of the plot threads were explored in depth in the second season. If you're the kind of purist who wants to experience the show exactly as you would have during its original airing, then watch the episode as the first season finale, but you'll be spoiled for a couple plot points of the second season and you may not remember exactly where things left off by the time you get to Epitaph Two.
-Speaking of Epitaph Two, as I stated above, it was a great series finale, but it had one glaring flaw. I won't give it away, but there's one major reveal in the finale that is very underdeveloped and makes very little sense. A lot can be forgiven, however, with the knowledge that Whedon had a five-year plan before the show even started production. When the show ended after only two seasons, he likely kept that reveal even though he hadn't had enough time to lay sufficient groundwork.