When Dollhouse first aired I was with most people in not liking it. (you can actually read my reactions at the time by clicking the Dollhouse link below). As lots of people noticed, Dushku was not much of an actress -- they guy playing Victor put her to shame later with these amazing impressions of Topher and Reed Diamond. Dushku was just Dushku in a variety of sexy outfits, rather than personalities, which is what was called for. This could have worked in a cheesecake factor, as in Alias for example, but of course Whedon did not want us to mindlessly salivate as Abrams does, because he has important points to make about IDENTITY, and WOMEN, and FREE WILL, and OPPRESSION. Also Echo was hard to latch onto a POV protagonist, since she was almost totally wiped from episode to episode. The show tried to do lots of one-off stories -- also like a lot of Alias -- which did not help, and led to some silly ways to advance the theme: do you see how the dolls are like performers in cages, or women (as generally treated by men), or cult members and so forth? It maybe needed a bigger canvas like LOST. When more meaty continuity and character and personality showed up in the form of Alan Tudyk's Alpha at the end of season 1 (alas, too late) the show got better -- ideas about identity suddenly mattered more. It was not just about slavery and freedom -- there was a kind of post-human element here too, and an apocalyptic one, as we saw in the season one epilogue Epitaph One, brilliantly set in a post apocalyptic future where the seemingly simple Dollhouse tech was taken to its natural endpoint. That really gave the show the context it needed.
I had high hopes when the second season started, but it had too much in common with the start of the first -- goofy one off episodes (a bride! then an unrelated mom!) with vague thematic connections to a main line. Echo was learning but not really fast enough to get attached to her. People kept punching her and she would change personalities and it was all pretty dumb. Like she was a Jukebox. It was off for all of November. When it came back something interesting happened. I started to like it.
The thing picked up a bit with the Daniel Perin senator plot -- all of a sudden we are no longer in the slow reveal territory inspired by LOST. Perrin is a Doll! From a rival house! Which we get to see and is run by Summer Glau who is terrifying! And Ray Wise is also terrifying! Perrin is like the Manchurian Candidate! It is all fun, and could have lead to a great season finale, in which Perrin and his house have to be stopped once and for all.
I am not sure what happened in the writers room next, but it made for striking as hell television. They must have known cancellation was imminent. Everyone was SHOCKED the show got a second season at all. New Dollhouses episodes were getting worse ratings than House Reruns. I think what most writers would have done is kept their best ideas for next time, maybe for a Dollhouse Movie or some other project with a similar theme. You expect them to let the clock run out, phone it in, and then go home and lick their wounds. Or turn it into a comic book or something. But these guys did something I feel like I have never seen before -- they went for goddamn broke. They took out the show bible, with all their best ideas for like the next five or six years or more -- and ran ALL OF THEM in the last 5 episodes. Every episode became like a different season finale. In a world with LOST this was like watching a show on crack. It was not always perfect, but rather than let us vaguely bemoan what the show could have been, they kind of SHOWED us in fastforward. The sheer energy and frequency of ideas was exciting, like nothing else on TV.
The next episode jumped forward three months, for kind of no reason, and now Echo is post-human, able to access every skill she was ever imprinted with -- and she loves Ballard, the long simmering plot suddenly brought home with a slam. In the same episode DeWitt hands Rossum the plans for Topher's doomsday device -- a machine that can wipe anyone, anywhere (an extension of something he invented for the Perrin story, only one episode earlier). And Echo returns to the Dollhouse undercover and fully aware. Imagine that as a season finale and it is perfect and big -- as a seventh episode it is downright excessive. (and not for nothing, but this should have been the PILOT.)
The next episode jumps to what could have been the next season finale -- the return of Alpha, to confront Echo now that she is like him: multi-personality as post-human evolution. Echo, Ballard and Boyd recruit Topher to join their little revolution. Alpha attacks the Dollhouse by turning all the actives into psycho zombies and basically KILLS BALLARD by wiping his mind, turning him into a vegetable. See you in 4 months for the season premiere!
Except this is just the 8th episode. The next one is very smart -- Victor, his contract up, gets involved with soldiers owned by Rossum using Dollhouse tech to have a hive mind. This is not quite season finale material until DeWitt, at the end, sends Echo Victor and Sierra to the attic, which we have only heard about in whispers as the most horrible thing ever.
The next episode just keeps churning along as if that was not as big a reveal as it was -- only to reveal more: the attic is basically a computer system sort of like the matrix that uses human brains for processing power. And it holds secrets (and an original Rossum founder) capable of taking down the company, except no one every gets out to tell anyone. Echo of course does get out -- and it turns out this was an undercover thing by DeWitt and she is part of the conspiracy to take down Rossum with Langdon, Topher, Victor and Sierra. AND Ballard, who surely should have been out of commission for a year, has been brought BACK by Topher but damaged a bit (in what way we don't yet know). But we have our group of rebels to root for -- this would have been a season great finale.
The next episode reveals the WHOLE backstory with Caroline and Bennett, shows us that Ballard no longer cares for Caroline (that was how he was damaged), mercilessly SLAUGHTERS Bennett after she and Topher declare their love, THEN reveals BOYD is the big bad of the SERIES basically. Huge.
In the next episode Rossum is destroyed. The end.
Except there is one more after the end in which the Apocalypse gets turned back and people get to live normal lives in the world of 2020.
Dollhouse is a total mess, but I don't think I have ever seen a TV show just go INSANE like that before and it was pretty awesome to watch. The only thing I cannot figure out is if it would have been better if it had been on the air for many years, or if the focus provided by the hangman's noose was the only thing that was going to make it work. But the point is it did eventually work. I am shocked to say I will miss it.