Doing Time in the Big DollhouseI can't help but think that Joss Whedon was intentionally invoking a connection to Ibsen with the name of his new series - Dollhouse rather than A Doll's House. Both look at cultural attitudes toward women. In both, women are supposed to play roles to please men. And each of the central characters faces coercion. From what I've heard of the television series, the main character will also start to question the circumstances surrounding her and, presumably, ultimately find a way out.
Past that, I find that Whedon's new work compares both positively and negatively with that classic of theatrical realism. In favor of Dollhouse, although most commentaries and interviews I've heard stress the potential for misogyny and the "fantasy" treatment of women, I think there is far more going on. The technician is a young callow man, but the ultimate power behind the theme of people being repeatedly brainwashed and turned into fantasy characters for a rich person's amusement is a woman. And although the series, at least from what appears in this first episode, focuses on women, there are also men involved, both as the subjects who are leased out and also as "handlers," who are responsible for the safety of their charges. As becomes quickly clear, all of the people involved are bound up in this web of activity. There are men who are also subjects, and all the men and women who profit from the Dollhouse are locked into their roles, in some ways becoming subservient even while exploiting. To me, that makes the point that one part of society cannot be enslaved without all of society being so. The relative freedom that some face is only imaginary; they must live their lives to maintain their position, which is hardly freedom.
So, conceptually, I like the show. But the writing and execution of this first episode left me disappointed. Much of the screen time was spent on exposition - dialog in place only to explain what the circumstances. Not only is that poor dramatic practice, but it also creates an ongoing difficulty. Will people need to see each and every episode to understand what is going on? If so, Whedon is writing off allowing anyone who did not immediately become a viewer. If not, then the exposition will have to continue, making the show potentially dull.
The flow of the first episode was also fractured and bordering on the incoherent, which is quite a feet given the number of expository scenes. I think it would be better if he could forget trying to lead everyone through and let the clues arise naturally. The next few episodes will give a better sense of whether this could be a daring approach to an intriguing concept or a case of old habits killing new practice. I did think that Eliza Dushku was not the best choice for the part - it requires an actress who is capable of actually becoming other people, not just acting like other people. To be fair, that is a tall order, because it essentially requires a genius at the craft.
I also found the attempts at literal seductive marketing by the network both before and after the episode to be in poor taste and even repulsive. Yes, the two women are attractive, but the "come hither" approach to getting people to return the next week didn't seem ironic or even self-aware. Instead, it was vulgar and just another example of the entire attitude that Whedon is trying to examine.