Dollhouse offered its best episode yet on Friday (not coincidentally, its funniest), but it kind of got buried by two things: one, it was up against the BSG finale, and two, Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku spent weeks telling every interviewer that this was going to be the episode where the show got good, meaning that what should have been a pleasant surprise wound up as an anti-climax. Even the Fox promos might as well have said “Forget what you’ve seen before, watch the episode where it doesn’t suck any more.”
Oh, well. It’s still an improvement. Not so much for the increased arc/mystery elements; those just remind me of the many dropped hints from the early part of season 7 of Buffy, which wound up leading to many moments of anti-climax and cop-out-ery as the season went on. The improvement was in the increased amount of dark humour (and the more humour this show has, the more freedom it will have to ask us to take its serious themes seriously) and the greater attention paid to non-Dushku characters. I still get the feeling that the theme of the show is weirdly insular; there are many little references on the show to the idea that the show is really about Hollywood and its exploitative nature. Doing a mock interview feature about the Dollhouse just seemed to make the connection even stronger. If Buffy was about regular teenage obsessions, Dollhouse sometimes comes off as being about the things that Hollywood insiders are obsessed with. Which is not to say that Hollywood types are the only people who are worried about whether they’re being exploited and forced into different roles by their jobs. Just that when you get lines like “The dollhouse deals in fantasy. That is their business, but that is not their purpose” — that sounds a lot like a description of a Hollywood studio.
Speaking of Buffy, it’s interesting that one thing Whedon fans sometimes say is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer started out slow and took a long time to get good. I was surprised to hear that, because that’s not the way I remember it, and that’s still not the way it seems to me when I watch the first season. The first season started with an extremely strong (if low-budget) two-part pilot that was a spectacular success, the first critical hit that the WB had ever had; like many shows, it then had its ups and downs as subsequent episodes tried to figure out what the format of the show would be, but the basic style and tone of the show was pretty much set, and all the first season’s episodes have some very good scenes. By the end of the first season, the format (monster of the week as metaphor for teen problem + overarching evil conspiracy + teen soap/romance) was pretty much established.
I guess my point is that every first batch of episodes has growing pains, but if the early episodes are building character relationships and appealing performances and coming up with cool scenes (“I Robot, You Jane” is rightly seen as the worst episode from season 1 of Buffy, but the final scene is my favourite part of the whole series), viewers can feel like the show is living up to its potential, even as it promises even more in the future. Dollhouse‘s sixth episode had potential, but I’d still rather watch Buffy‘s sixth episode.