Eliza Dushku, TV Star or Geek Girl God?

I watched the first episode of Dollhouse — not the first first episode, the second first episode, which will be the first episode aired. I don’t want to say a whole lot about my impressions, because it’s hard to judge a show like this on just one episode, especially an episode that was slapped together in a hurry after the original opener wasn’t working. (Yes, that’s right: I think it’s OK to link to endless news items about how Dollhouse is in trouble, but not to speculate that it’s in trouble based on a viewing of an actual episode. I could try to justify this, but that would take a whole other post.) I think it’s much less promising than the first episode of Buffy, which immediately announced to the world that something new and different had arrived, or the efficient, amusing Angel pilot, but the potential for growth is certainly there

I’ll say, because I had a post earlier about the “funny-serious” style that I like in Joss Whedon’s shows, that it’s not much in evidence in this episode, which he wrote and directed. There are a few jokes, mostly comic-relief bits at the end of scenes, but the main story of the episode is played astonishingly straight, considering that it has Dushku transforming into a businesslike woman with librarian hair, schoolmarm glasses and asthma. Whedon is usually known for setting up an absurd situation like that and playing the comedy of it as well as the straight drama (as did Rob Thomas any time Veronica Mars went undercover), but here it’s mostly straight drama. Of course this may be due to something that’s inherent in the whole premise. For this stuff to be funny — or, for that matter, emotionally engaging — the story needs to play on the contrast between the disguise and the character’s real personality. But the whole point of this premise is that Dushku’s personality has been wiped away and she can be implanted with any personality that the Mad Scientist (Fran Kranz) chooses to give her. So when she becomes the asthmatic businesswoman with a dark secret in her past, she really is that person, for this one episode. The potential for amusement or involvement is much less when there’s no “base” character. That issue is at the root of a lot of the problems Fox has been having with the show, and it is a real problem to have a lead character who isn’t actually a character as yet. I’d feel more sympathetic to the network, of course, if they hadn’t picked up the show for 13 episodes without considering this problem in advance. They’re paid quite a lot of money to catch stuff like that before millions are spent on the episodes.

The key to the success or failure of the series, though, will be whether Eliza Dushku can carry it. Dushku has been known for doing a few things well — mainly the girly/tough act she did on Buffy — but here she has a part that requires her to take on multiple characters and personalities. In the first episode, she’s the “real” person her character starts out as (in the first and last scenes); she’s the personality-less “Echo”; she’s a hot fast-living chick who rides motorcycles and dances in short skirts (this scene will probably be in the promos a lot) and she’s the aforementioned asthma-lady. She’ll have to be a lot more people before this season is through; it’s like Toni Collette’s character on United States of Tara multiplied several times, and with more high heels. I don’t get the impression that she has the chops for this kind of thing; she plays all her parts kind of the same. Of course you don’t need range to be a TV star; David Boreanaz has done perfectly well with two facial expressions. But this show and this premise demand that we focus all our attention on Dushku and look at the many different things she can do, and it could just place the focus on her limitations rather than her strengths. And given that her experience mostly consists of a recurring guest role on one show and a flop show of her own (Tru Calling), she doesn’t have the kind of genuine star status that would make her limitations irrelevant. But again, this is a first episode and it may be that future episodes will show her to better advantage — or give her more of a character of her own that she can play.