Dollhouse

Fridays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Seven episodes into the first season.

The premise of Dollhouse gets creepier and creepier, verging on distasteful, the longer you thing about it. A shadowy company manages a collection of “Dolls”: people whose memories and personalities have been erased, to be replaced with the personas and skill sets demanded by the company’s clients. Want a temporary bodyguard who looks like Eliza Dushku? A master thief who looks like Eliza Dushku? A date guaranteed to put out (i.e., a glorified whore) who looks like Eliza Dushku? Done and done and done. And deeply creepy.

Fortunately, creator Joss Whedon is reflective enough to keep his latest garrulous, genre-bending show from becoming the vacuously salacious T&A extravaganza that the Fox advertising geniuses clearly wish they were selling. If you’re going to play around with themes of selfhood and human trafficking and, frankly, rape, you can’t be superficial about it. You have to take the characters and their predicament seriously, and to his credit, Whedon does, even amid the banter and stunts and all that. Dollhouse still has weird flaws and shortcomings, but seven episodes in, it’s beginning to find its way and develop an intriguing, thought-provoking mythology. I’m interested to see where it goes.

Dushku, best known as Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, tackles the incredibly tricky role of Echo, one of the L.A.-based company’s most popular “Dolls,” and thus far, she’s handled the part admirably well. As Faith, she mostly got attention for being a sassy, ass-kicking brunette, but her troubled character on the earlier show had a vulnerable side, too. Watching Dollhouse, for example, I’m reminded of how much I loved the way Dushku portrayed Faith’s almost-but-not-quite-functional relationship with her quasi father figure, the Mayor (the best villain Buffy ever had). Like Faith, Dushku is more than a video game avatar made flesh, and given enough material, she can make us understand that about Echo, too.

The problem is that Echo, by definition, lacks a self. She gets a new ID with each mission (usually one per episode), and in between, her character is wiped down to that of a slow, sedated child. We see flashbacks of Echo before she was Dollified, back when she was Caroline, an irritatingly idealistic college student, but we have no way to link Caroline to the Echo we “know.” The Dollhouse leaves no connective tissue, no constant to give them a single self.

That said, one of the central conceits of the show is that Echo’s programming is coming undone. We catch tantalizing glimpses of awareness in what should be her zombie-child state, and isolated bits of memory and installed persona appear to be lingering post-wipe and surfacing at odd moments. Dushku teases out those fleeting malfunctions with quiet flair, and they never fail to create a shiver of anticipation for what may lie ahead on the show. Still, at the moment, Dollhouse revolves around an enigma or, worse, a void—an unusually shaky foundation for a TV show.

The supporting cast helps to some extent. Harry Lennix plays Echo’s handler, Boyd, and finds real pathos in the way Boyd has grown paternally protective of his charge despite the fact that Echo can never remember any of the traumas they have endured together. Without memory, their “relationship” will always be entirely one-sided, not a relationship at all, and Boyd’s rueful grasp of that essential fact is strikingly poignant. Olivia Williams gives Adelle, the manager of the Dollhouse, a beautifully sad, no-nonsense manner—not the ice-queen vibe you expect but something more brittle and human—and Reed Diamond hints at the mutinous undercurrents in her lieutenant, Laurence; both Williams and Diamond suggest that there is much to their characters than we have yet seen.

And then there’s Fran Kranz, delivering a highly obnoxious, thoroughly unconvincing performance as Topher, the Dollhouse’s resident brain-programming prodigy. You could argue that the writers are undermining him with too-clever dialogue, but I blame Kranz. In terms of personality, Topher is basically a super-smart version of Xander from Buffy, and although Xander was hardly my favorite character, actor Nicholas Brendon never made me feel murderous. Kranz’s Topher, however, is charmlessly quippy and flippant, and I don’t for a moment believe his supposed genius at tooling around with brain chemistry. I, for one, am clinging to the hope that Topher’s put-upon underling Ivy (Liza Lapira) is the infiltrator I think she is. Maybe she’ll have the opportunity to kill him off!

Not likely, perhaps, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility. In the past few episodes, the show’s overarching mythology has begun to reveal just how mind-bendingly labyrinthine it truly is. We still don’t know the fundamental motivation of Paul (Tahmoh Penikett), the rogue FBI agent obsessed with tracking down Caroline and the Dollhouse, but the revelation that his dreamily affectionate neighbor Mellie (Miracle Laurie) is a “sleeper Doll,” so to speak, was a fabulous twist. And then there are the dark murmurs about Alpha, the Doll who went violently haywire and escaped. Plus the Dollhouse’s shadowy ties to a multinational pharmaceutical company (who doesn’t love an evil multinational? timely!). Plus the intense action scenes and Whedon’s trademark linguistic fun (somewhat absent in the first few episodes but now beginning to surface). Plus the intermittently plausible explanations for why someone would bother hiring a Doll when he could just, you know, hire a normal body guard or master thief or whore.

That, for me, was one of the biggest roadblocks to getting into Dollhouse—I don’t buy the business model—but I’m beginning to let that go. The sixth episode offers one of the stronger rationales yet, in a gem of a monologue, perfectly delivered by Patton Oswald. His account is twisted but thoughtful, horribly wrong but emotionally persuasive, and with that episode, I began to think that suspending my disbelief might be worth the effort. Whedon and his team deserve time to find their way. Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t become truly extraordinary until its second season. The prematurely cancelled Firefly never had a chance, but its follow-up movie, Serenity, is a small masterpiece. Angel—well, OK, I didn’t watch Angel long enough to learn whether it stopped sucking, but I’m willing to acknowledge that it could have, and Dollhouse offers much richer raw material than Broody McVampire’s vehicle ever did. Maybe Dollhouse won’t ever fully coalesce, what with its unusual protagonist and landmine subject matter, but it has more than enough potential to be worth watching.