'Dollhouse' improves --finally

Wednesday, 18 March 2009 10:45 AM Written by 

Echo (Eliza Dushku) meets Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) in It's about time. After weeks of episodes that were boring and not up to the standards previously set by TV scribe Joss Whedon, his Fox series "Dollhouse" (9 p.m. Friday, WPGH) finally turns out a worthwhile episode this week. Another episode airing April 3 also merits a rave.

What changed?

Rather than another repetitive mission-of-the-week episode, Friday's episode actually moves the greater story forward with some surprising revelations and an opportunity for Echo (Eliza Dushku) and FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) to finally meet. Ballard is pursuing the notion that the Dollhouse exists.

The episode is wrapped at its start and after each commercial break with footage from a news report comprised of man on the street interviews on whether or not the Dollhouse exists. These brief snippets do a much better job of illustrating the premise of the series than anything in past episodes. It's a smart, savvy setup. Why couldn't they have done this earlier?

Sadly, I suspect Fox is to blame. Whedon has said in past interviews that by the latter half of the season "I do feel like we got back to our vision in a way that really works for the network."

If tomorrow's episode had aired earlier in the episode's run -- or the April 3 episode, in which some of the dolls try to escape their captivity -- there would have been much more incentive for viewers to tune in. Other than a slight uptick in ratings (up 21 percent last week in viewers but still dismally low), "Dollhouse" has been a disaster, garnering even fewer viewers than perennially low-rated "Friday Night Lights" on NBC.

In a teleconference with reporters today, Whedonthe concept for Friday's episode, which he wrote, came together very quickly and "for the first time there was a real sympatico" with the network.

"It really was a game changer for us on set and in production," Whedon said. "It's an episode somebody who'd never seen the show could walk in on. It's about explaining the premise and at the same time really getting under the skin of the Dollhouse and what's going on. ... We're coming at it sideways rather than just showing an engagement and slipping in information around the engagement. This is the one where we get to look at all the cogs in the clock."

And "Dollhouse" is the better for it. So how much were the earlier, lesser episodes a function of Whedon trying to get the show on its feet and how much was it pushback from the network? Whedon said it was both.

"[This week's episode] contains elements that were pitched or developed by people at the network in terms of the motivations of the peopel at the Dollhouse and the feel of the thing and the thriller aspect. ... It's very much full of the stuff they were pitching but it also is storytelling-wise much more how I had envisioned coming at it," Whedon said. "It was really about finding the code to a show that I can do my best work in that the network can still really get behind, a meeting of the minds."

Next time, I think everyone would be better off if Whedon's mind was allowed to drive the train from the beginning.

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