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October 14 2010

Geekscape reviews Dollhouse Season 2 on DVD. Columnist William Bibbiani recounts his troubled relationship with the show early on, but is happy to report the second season results in an overall, highly positive experience.

I swear, sometimes it feels like a majority of the world was watching a different show than I did when it comes to Dollhouse. Take this review for instance, I’m pretty much in agreement with him on when the show changed but what he takes as a vast improvement I would call the moment when the show went from troubled but brilliant to generic and uninspired. I’d argue any day that episodes like “Man on the Street” and “Briar Rose” are among the top episodes of any Whedon show ever. Very much because they have the ambition to go beyond pure entertainment and challenge the viewer, and maybe particularly the fanbase, to question their preconceptions. Contrast this with “Epitaph One” and at least the latter half of Season 2 which is almost pure fanservice, ditching carefully crafted moral conflicts to create a Firefly-style ”family” and foregoing any relevant discussion on exploitation and power in favor of an overblown “end of the world” scenario. Season 2 isn’t all bad, but I think it’s really sad that the prevalent version of history seems to be that Dollhouse only got good when it settled for lowest common denominator sci-fi.
Hyperbole, meet someone calling Epitaph One lowest common denominator sci-fi.
Not LCD IMO but E1 is quite conventional (deliberately I think) in that it's quite a standard sci-fi post-catastrophe world with fairly standard character types. If you watch/read much post-apocalyptic fiction it pretty much hit all the marks (again, as I say, IMO deliberately - showing the familiar then undermining/questioning it is something the show did from day one).

Funnily enough* I agree with both Printy and the review in parts. Season 2 had issues, largely revolving around time pressure IMO (the generic "found family" element started off having an ambiguous 'Dollhouse' style twist with e.g. Adelle still being quite calculating and doing questionable things even while doing the right thing but instead of watching her walk that line for 2 or 3 seasons - or even 8 or 10 episodes - we quickly saw it simplify down to "Oh actually she's quite nice really, let's kick some Evil Corporate Ass !") but flip-side, how anyone could watch 'Vows' or 'Belonging' and think "OK, i'm done with this show" is beyond me. Both episodes were brilliant TV, compelling character based stories that still spoke to the heart of the series.

I'm so glad they got the chance to finish it BUT I also think that was a bit of a double-edged sword (cos simplification is inevitable when you only have 4 or 5 episodes to wrap up such a complex package). DVDs should be here today or tomorrow, looking forward to re-viewing.

* OK, not that funny. It's no 'Ned and Stacy' for instance.
@The Dark Shape - I'm personally not a big fan of "Epitaph One" myself (I've felt this way for a while now), but I think Printy was referring specifically to Season 2 and its latter half. I don't particularly agree, but to each their own.

@Saje - It doesn't sound like William made it to "Belonging" in his initial viewing. I'm thinking he probably bowed out after "Instinct". BTW, I LOVE Ned & Stacy. I thought I was the only one who remembered/saw that show. :) My Bluray set for season 2 is on its way. Should be here in a few days. It's gonna feel weird having the Comic-Con standard DVD edition of season 1 and then getting season 2 in HD.
For one horrible moment I thought they were releasing 'Ned and Stacy' on Blu-Ray but then I got what you meant. Sorry to say (in case you thought the fandom had just doubled in size ;) that I was being snarky above kungfubear - N&S has long been my go-to whipping boy for LCD sitcommery, i've even joked on here before about how America inflicted it on an undeserving world (possibly unfairly BTW since I think i've only seen about 1½ episodes and in fairness, both leads did their level best with what they had). As with any traumatic experience, I definitely remember it though, if that's any consolation ;).

I'm thinking he probably bowed out after "Instinct".

That's more understandable I suppose. Just for the scene between Topher and Saunders in 'Vows' i'd be watching the season in its entirety - assuming I wasn't already I mean ;) - but the episode taken as a whole wasn't perfect and 'Instinct' also wasn't exactly the show on all engines (though it's got some great moments and I like the ideas).
I thought season two was far more entertaining and interesting than season one. Season one occasionally creeped me out to the point where I wasn't enjoying watching the show. Season two changed things up where the elements they had were used better, I thought.
gossi said:

Season one occasionally creeped me out to the point where I wasn't enjoying watching the show.

To be honest, I often found myself feeling that way about BOTH seasons. :)

@Saje - "I will go to the animal shelter and get you a kitty cat. I will let you fall in love with that kitty cat. And then on some dark, cold night, I will steal away into your home and punch you in the face." :)
I love Eliza Dushku. I think she did a BRILLIANT job as Faith, proving once and for all that she has excellent acting chops. I did however feel that one of the major flaws of season 1 was that it was -- IMHO -- TOO Eliza-centric (Who knew that was even possible). I fully realize that there was some issues between the network and Joss, and things didn't go entirely according to plan for either party, BUT. Big but. I think the discomfort and challenges that S1 brought me would have been much more interesting and less "How many ways can we make Eliza look slutty and misunderstood this week" had they used more of the ensemble from the getgo. Even the credits are so Eliza/Echo focused that it makes both Buffy and Angel pale in comparison. The show was called the Dollhouse, and as such, it makes sense to have utilized more of the dolls from the beginning, I think. Season 2 was more ensemble-oriented, and to me, that made it infinitly much stronger.

And Saje -- I entirely agree with you -- the relationship and the exchanges between Topher and Saunders were somehow chilling, heartbreaking and vicious at the same time.
Saje and Kungfubear stated my position better than me I think :-) Some of my dislike for E1 certainly has to do more with the hype of a non-exceptional episode and the adverse effect I think it had on the show that they started to cater massively to the fanbase that cheered E1 at Comic Con. However E1 was deliberately formulaic I don’t know, judging from E2 which was even worse I would say not but I see that the argument could be made in the light of the preceding episodes of season one. I agree that “Vows” is quite good, “Belonging” felt average and overhyped to me but to each their own.

I guess we will have to agree to disagree, especially if you feel that season one “creeped me out to the point where I wasn't enjoying watching the show”. That ironically is what I think was the genius of Dollhouse, that in its best moment it made the viewer uncomfortable and feeling almost complicit in the exploitation on screen. It seemed then like the logical next step after the late Buffy and Angel: To show how oppression works not in an “us against the demons” scenario but much closer to the real world. Too close for comfort a lot of the time, which I thought was exceptionally brave to come from Whedon who could easily have just went on giving the fans variations of Buffy and Firefly. I think almost all that was lost towards the end of the series and while I agree that the time-constraints had something to do with it, I still feel that the way they handled those constraints was very disappointing.
I thought E1 was one of the best episodes of the show, it reminded me of Babylon 5 which can only be a good thing.
Yeah, I completely agree on the "creeping out" factor Printy, that discomfort and refusal to allow the viewer off the hook of complicity in what we were watching (and likely had been watching our entire lives) was one of the great strengths of the show IMO, it raised it from "network friendly edgy" to, at times, genuinely disturbing and challenging, made you consider how our society works in a way that a more "us and them/black and white" portrayal wouldn't allow. Whatever agenda Buffy and Angel were arguably promoting, we as viewers were always on the inside, standing alongside the plucky underdogs - we were part of the enlightened few. 'Dollhouse' made you question all that (until 4 or 5 episodes from the end anyway - though even then you could feel the darkness and ambiguity bubbling away beneath as with e.g. Echo's treatment of Boyd at the end).

Unfortunately that disturbing quality's also partly what got it cancelled IMO but so it goes. "Better one day a lion..." as they say.
Oh, season one creeped occasionally because it showed exploitation without addressing it. Example - the sex without the examination of everything surrounding it. There's a moment in 1x07 'Echoes' where there's a flashback to Sierra gettin' raped by her handler, right next to the shots of Dom stroking his suit talking about kittens. That was the moment I remember thinking to myself 'The show Joss pitched to the studio said thinkpiece. This has been developed into a real mess in places'.

Then Epitaph One happened, which changed the show for the better. Then season two happened, which has 'Belonging'.

'Belonging' and 'Echoes' both touch on the same thing - Priya getting raped by the same guy over and over - but 'Echoes' played it with 100 other things going on -- and for laughs. 'Belonging' SAID SOMETHING and made the audience FEEL.

It was a great show I miss dearly.

[ edited by gossi on 2010-10-14 14:15 ]
@gossi - I saw that scene as everybody losing control, one way or another. The people who usually had control has lost theirs while those who were usually the ones being controlled were in control, but were quickly losing control of it.

I don't know. I tend to block out some stuff when watching TV.
Oh, season one creeped occasionally because it showed exploitation without addressing it.

See, "addressing it" can often mean "Give comforting, concrete answers as to where lines are, who the exploiters are etc. (i.e. not us, heavens no !)". Showing exploitation without "addressing it" (in that sense) leaves us to actually ask the questions ourselves, maybe even come to our own answers as to where the lines are, who the exploiters are, to what extent our own actions contribute to social injustice etc. (and even if it doesn't, a good question is worth a hundred answers).

... but 'Echoes' played it with 100 other things going on -- and for laughs.

Hmm, the episode was arguably "for laughs" but Sierra and Victor's past memories weren't presented in a jokey manner as far as I remember, they were depicted as the traumatic experiences they were. It's the serious juxtaposed against (and so highlighted by) the not-so-serious, as per Joss shows since forever ('Spin the Bottle', 'Something Blue', 'Tabula Rasa' and so on).

And in the previous episode we'd seen a rapist murdered for his crime without that being addressed. Again, asking who the good guys were (or if there even were any) without giving pat answers was a big part of the show.
I generally agree that Dollhouse massively improved in the second season, and I am so incredibly happy that Fox gave us those additional 13 episodes to allow Dollhouse to really come into its own. Although, I also believe that the back half of season 1 (once they got done with all the many stand-alones) was really really good.

Man, I miss this show. I would have liked to have seen the current-timeline ending handled a bit better (second to last episode) because that felt a little botched, but otherwise the second season was a roller-coaster that showed just how good a Joss series could be, especially when you remove all the filler and drive the plot forward. I think Joss would do well on cable with 12 or 13 episode seasons that could focus on his darker themes and have fewer stand alones and filler episodes.
I agree about the second half of season one being entirely great. Man, "Spy in the House of Love" is awesome. And I love love love the Topher birthday thing - it totally made me cry. Epitaph One is great, and I love Omega. And Stephen Kepler, for the win.

Season two, I think, it's almost entirely great. There's just that pesky 12th episode, which didn't quite hang together for me. It is interesting; as much as people talk about the bad episodes of Dollhouse, looking back over the 2 seasons, I think a majority of the episodes when you sit down and grade them are actually really good. Compared to the batting average of early Buffy or Angel, I still think Dollhouse comes out on top.
I'm going to be controversial and claim that Dollhouse is, after Firefly, my second favorite Joss show. Given such a limited span of episodes, they managed to cover a huge amount of material (especially when you throw out the 5 "pilots"). If only that 12th episode of season 2 had managed to nail it, they were doing so well up until then! But at least it goes out with a real bang in Epitaph Two. I would have gladly watched a whole third season in that Epitaph timeframe.

Dollhouse struggled to find itself, and I was never clear on Ballards motivations (the unaired pilot works better in that respect). But it also cut straight to the heart of a lot of really complex issues about identity and exploitation. Plus it had a lot of really cool scifi, especially in the Epitaphs.

Spy in the House of Love was indeed fantastic. I also loved Briar Rose and Omega, Epitaph One and especially Two, Belonging, The Attic, and pretty much most of season 2. Dollhouse is vastly underrated by the science fiction community, people just can't seem to get past the initial premise and the clunkier early episodes. I have a feeling it will be one of those shows that gains cult popularity much later, with people discovering the dvd sets.
I'll be interested to see how my feelings change after my upcoming rewatch of the series--I've already seen season one twice or maybe thrice, but I only ever did the first viewing of season two. I think Dollhouse was a top-tier Joss show between 1x05 (yes, True Believer) and 2x06. I think they just hit the perfect balance of episodic and serial, intense and exciting but also paced very well. After 2x06... I think Dollhouse hit highs higher than it had before (THE F'ING ATTIC) but also made a lot of mistakes in light of the impending cancellation. I agree completely with Printy that the "found family" aspect was rushed way too much in this, and felt very unnatural. I love the idea of the group coming together, but it just happened way too fast. And then the Boyd thing. That twist alone is, I think, worse than anything from the first five episodes. But oh well.

So yeah, 1x05-2x06. Golden age of Dollhouse.
I pretty much agree with what Jobo says. I really enjoyed 'True Believer' and found it to be the best of the so called "pilot episodes" (unless you are counting 'Man on the Street'.) From that point on, it seemed to have developed much more cohesion in what it wanted to be. Some of the episodes in that later half of season 1 were exceptionally good, such as 'The Spy in the House of Love', 'Briar Rose' and 'Epitaph One.' The opening of Season 2 was a little rocky (although my second viewing of 'Vows' on the DVD made me see it as a much better episode than my first viewing and not just because of the Topher/Saunders scenes,) but it quickly got back onto some stunning form with 'Belonging', possibly the best episode of the entire run. But things did start to go a little downhill not long after that, once the cancellation reared its head and we had to have plot and character development thrown at us at a rapid rate. The found family aspect of the show is probably the most glaring of these, but you can also see it Adele and Boyd.

Still, there is some great stuff in that second half of season two. I really can't wait to watch 'The Attic' again and, obviously, 'Epitaph Two.'
I actually like the found family stuff, I think it hung together well. I actually liked the Boyd twist, I just didn't like the execution of it in 12.
I loved the found family, or as they call them on the DVD, "Adelle's Agnels".

I'd say 2x07 was great, but 2x08 was just ok and 2x09 was blah. The Attic and Getting Closer were *amazing*, The Hollow Men was super disappointing and 2x13 was what it was.

It was an amazing season, even with all of the constraints they had to deal with and the amount of money they didn't have. Belonging is one of the best Whedon episodes ever, and the more I watch Vows the more I love it. Not to mention underrated gems like Belle Choose.

It's hard to rate Dollhouse compared to Joss' other work and I have a hard time saying it's better because we didn't have 7 or 5 years of build up of characters. But what we did have was extremely brilliant.
It's fun to speculate with friends just where on earth Joss would've gone had Fox given him a back 9 for season two.
I think he'd have gone to Cyprus and just chilled but i've got kind of a loose grasp of the "work ethic" concept ;).

Basically, not having a found family was one of THE big complaints from a lot of people early on ('Dollhouse' is the first Whedon series that didn't have one pretty much straight off the bat) so it's not surprising that when it appeared folk would be happier, maybe feel like they were back on familiar ground.

Personally I didn't miss it, thought the friction generated some nice sparks, enjoyed a workplace drama that actually dared to have characters be just colleagues (like, y'know, real life) rather than a family substitute for each other but it's pretty well established by now that most don't see it that way. Academic now of course.

(I kind of wish they'd had the time to develop more of a "strange bedfellows" vibe, gradually building respect and regard between them could've provided a lot of great emotional hits but the time pressure forced them to move awfully quickly from them being enemies to them being "brothers" in arms, not just part of a common cause by necessity but actually more or less friends)

ETA: I'm also kind of surprised BTW that rewatching hasn't mellowed more people towards the first 4 or 5 episodes, most of us seem to still see them as unworthy of much consideration. Mostly liked them (with reservations) from the start myself (particularly 'True Believer') and it makes me a bit sad to see them almost being Trotskied out of 'Dollhouse's existence, they're better than that IMO.

[ edited by Saje on 2010-10-14 23:00 ]
I actually enjoyed the first 5 episodes the first time I watched Dollhouse. I just didn't love the show yet, not the same way I loved Firefly, Buffy, or Angel. It took much longer for Dollhouse to reach that level.

I even like Stage Fright for what it is, although it is definitely the low point of the series. And eps 2 and 4 were both pretty great. Plus I loved the revelations that were spread out here (which all occurred in the unaired pilot). Victor being a doll, Mellie being a doll, etc. I only wish that Ballard's motivations were handled better. The boxing scene at the beginning was confusing, and his obsession with specifically Caroline didn't make much sense from just seeing a picture of her. I liked better in the unaired pilot when they actually met, which would perfectly explain why he wanted to save her.

I also will say that I *liked* the reveal of Boyd as the founder. I kept wondering when we'd get his backstory, wondered if it was sacrificed due to cancellation, so this killed two birds with one stone. But the execution failed. They didn't adequately explain his motivations, and the action finale lacked the layers and depth that the rest of the series had, and basically had gaping plot holes in it.

Character development did feel a bit rushed towards the end, but there wasn't really much they could do about that. I'm amazed how much ground they managed to cover with such a limited number of episodes, and I'm glad they decided to tell the whole story even if they didn't have very many episodes to cram it into.

The biggest loss to me was Whiskey. When Amy Acker came back to the show, they were cancelled and had to wrap everything up and didn't resolve her character at all (instead having her printed as the co-founder.) That was a major disappointment. I would have preferred 212 to be entirely about Whiskey, and then concluding with Epitaph 2. We don't need to see Rossum brought down - which was clearly unsuccessful anyway.
I agree about Whiskey in 212. Claire being wiped into Whiskey would have been a scene which would have floored fans, methinks. Especially if Topher did it, and they were revealed to be related somehow.
212 should've been a bittersweet episode where everything goes awry and the tech gets out of hand. Boyd, as the founder, basically wins. And we see when Claire is wiped to being Whiskey where she will remain at the Dollhouse until we see her again in Epitaph 1. Now that would be an amazing ep!
Hopefully the one shot and the miniseries next year can answer many of these questions. We need to learn about Whiskey's past as well as Boyd's motivations more. Gloriously, Jed and Maurissa have provided us with a wonderful opening for this in Epitaphs.

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