TV Review: Dollhouse

As someone who is not a member of the cult of Joss Whedon, the sense of excitement and anticipation greeting a new series from the mastermind of stylistic method drama falls for me more under the category of curiosity. I appreciated the artistic ambition of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" and the metaphorical depth of "Firefly" but never really hooked onto any of them.

Now arrives "Dollhouse," which might be seen as a futuristic merging of "Buffy," "Charlie's Angels" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," though in this context the latter would be more like "perpetual conflict of the repeatedly rebooted brain."

In the early episodes of this much-hyped new Fox drama, it's easy to see the high aspiration and grand potential of the series but far more difficult to develop any sort of attachment to either the conceit or its enchanting young star and co-producer, Eliza Dushku. The show carries with it an antiseptic quality that keeps our heroine sealed off in an emotional bubble as she takes on new personas every week by dint of the premise. It's good for helping Dushku exercise her acting chops, but not so good for forming a tight audience connection since we never really know who she is.

Dushku, who played Faith on "Buffy" and "Angel" and also starred in the short-lived 2003 Fox drama "Tru Calling," heads up the high-concept "Dollhouse" as a woman who has had her personality wiped clean as a consequence of taking a job with an underground organization that imprints new personas onto its fetching "Actives" to serve the needs of its wealthy clientele. Her character, Echo, has her head regularly cleansed of persona and memory by the Dollhouse's resident wisecracking brainiac Topher (Fran Kranz) and gets led from assignment to assignment by handler Boyd (Harry Lennix).

In the opener, Echo dons glasses and blazer to help rescue a kidnapped 12-year-old girl, only to have a technical flaw nearly derail things. In subsequent weeks, we'll see Echo get programmed with the mindset and persona of everything from assassins to prostitutes, and slowly the memories of her actual past begin to filter back as the Feds give chase.

Although Whedon infuses "Dollhouse" with an impressively detailed story line and social structure as well as nifty production values, the show lacks something for viewers to grab onto. Having a personality-shifting protagonist makes for a rooting challenge and, at its core, a disappointingly soulless exercise.

On the other hand, Whedon knows how to build a story like few others, and Dushku is an uncommonly talented performer who breathes vibrant life into the ever-evolving blank canvas scheme. So this could definitely turn into something special over time, if the Friday night ratings can justify the patience.

Airdate: 9-10 p.m., Friday, Feb. 13 (Fox)
Production: 20th Century Fox TV and Mutant Enemy Inc
Creator/executive producer: Joss Whedon
Co-executive producers: David Solomon, Elizabeth Craft, Sarah Fain
Writer-director: Joss Wheden
Producers: Eliza Dushku, Kelly A. Manners
Consulting producers: Steven S. DeKnight, Tim Minear
Associate producer: Chris Cheramie
Director of photography: Ross Berryman
Production designer: Stuart Blatt
Costume designer: Shawna Trpcic
Editor: Peter Basinski
Music: Mychael Danna, Rob Simonsen
Casting: Amy McIntyre Britt, Anya Colloff
Cast: Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, Tahmoh Penikett, Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman, Olivia Williams
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