Revisiting ‘Dollhouse’

By Special Correspondent Arturo R. García

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WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

I’m not ready to excuse Joss Whedon for the issues Thea Lim brought up in February, but I’m glad to see that POCs are the most compelling characters on Dollhouse this season.

Sure, Eliza Dushku still takes center stage as Echo – she’s the star and a producer, so whaddaya gonna do? — but the show’s improvement over the past few weeks is, for my money, directly related to it taking on more of an ensemble feel, rather than Echo’s Tough Girl Adventure Theatre. And in a welcome change from Whedon’s usual formula, it’s an older black man, Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), who has emerged as the series’ conscience.

topherboydIn the early going, Boyd was the POV character for the audience – the rookie Watcher handler trying to make sense of what and why the Dollhouse does what it does, and overcoming the creepiness of being the go-to guy for a girl with the brains of a CD-RM. Further inverting Whedonite expectations, resident geek Topher (Fran Kranz), who looks like the kind of guy fans would be asked to “relate to,” is revealed as an utter skeeve-bucket, closer in character to Warren Mears than Xander Harris. (I’m hoping Topher’s Asian assistant, played by Liza Lapira, plays a bigger role later in the year — one tied in to a come-uppance for him.)

We don’t know why Boyd, a former cop, ended up working for the ‘House, but his sensibilities translate to action when he saves another Doll, Sierra, after she’s molested by her own handler, an act which gets him put on the bench when Echo is sent on double-secret operations like attacking hapless FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) or “allowed” to escape for the sake of removing a glitch in her programming. It’s Langton who’s the cool guy in this collection of broken psyches, without being a stock Cool Guy.

sierraechoSpeaking of Sierra, Dichen Lachman has gotten the chance to shine in both her Doll persona and, in last week’s episode, as her alter-ego, Priya. When Sierra, as a safe-cracker, is dispatched to save a wonky Echo, Lachman demonstrates her action chops. And as the viewers are asked to consider the possibility that two Dolls (Sierra and Victor) can be attracted to each other both in and out of their mind-wiped state, Lachman and Enver Gjokaj’s performances, so far, have made it plausible, if not quite believable. And another POC, Mellie/November (Miracle Laurie), was at the center of the single best twist of the series so far; “There are three flowers in a vase” still makes me squirm when I think of it.

By the way, my take on the Dollhouse decor looks to be holding up: the Asian affectation is just a “pleasantly” blank slate to both match the Dolls and lull them further into submission, concealing stark hallways, a fleet of vehicles and a decidedly not-blank arsenal at the handlers’ disposal. To say nothing of the anonymous, Agent-like security forces backing up the handlers. Thankfully, there’s been a lack Geisha sightings since the pilot episode.

The series’ improvement might be too little, too late; though Fox has reportedly said it will air the rest of this season’s episodes, low ratings (2.2 last week, or 8th for its’ time slot) don’t bode well for a renewal. But, even if Whedon can’t see fit to create relevant Latino characters despite setting three series in frakking Los Angeles, it’s good to see at least a couple of positive POC on one of his programs.

Boyd/Topher image courtesy of Watching Dollhouse
Sierra/Echo image courtesy of IO9