Spoilers for "Dollhouse" (one of the most underrated shows ever) after the jump:
"Dollhouse" is the best Whedonverse series to date. A bold statement, I know, but that is my honest opinion after devouring the show's 26 episodes over the past few weeks. And there are a number of reasons for this opinion, starting with the central concept itself: which is that the technology exists to make people into "dolls" that can be programmed for any purpose imaginable.
I don't know about you, but I find that fascinating. It's an absolutely ingenious idea, and one that the show's writers take full advantage of after a few early hiccups. The thirteen episode seasons allow for a more tightly focused series, and I do hope that when Whedon creates another new show (he's busy with "The Avengers" right now) he finally decides to make the switch to cable. It's where he belongs, and I think "Dollhouse" proves it. Indeed, one could make the argument that this show has more in common with most of the programs on HBO and FX than it does with anything on network TV. And that's a good thing.
Season one begins with five mostly self-contained episodes which introduce many of the ideas that will be explored over the course of the series. If there's a weak spot in the show, this is it. While I personally enjoyed every episode (apart from "Stage Fright"), they are decidedly B/B+ quality at best. But they do a great job of establishing "Dollhouse" as a far more morally ambiguous series than any of Whedon's other shows.
While characters in "Buffy" and "Angel" did occasionally cross the line in terms of good and evil, there always was a line. Not so in this series, which has a cable-style approach to questions of morality even if its characters do remain sympathetic throughout. Adelle DeWitt is perhaps the show's best creation in this regard: a person who has deluded herself into believing that running the dollhouse is some sort of humanitarian endeavor, and that she's helping people by giving them their heart's desire. And she's not entirely wrong.
In any case, episode six ("Man on the Street") is when the show finally kicks into high gear. Call it "Dollhouse's" "Innocence", if you wish. As you'll see below, it's one of my all-time favorite episodes of the series: containing some fascinating dialogue about the nature of fantasy as well as an extended fight between Echo and Paul that may be the best action scene I've ever seen on television. (Side note: the action scenes on this show are second-to-none, particularly during season one.)
Everything from that point on is basically pure gold. Even the more self-contained hours like "Echoes" and "Haunted" are somehow better than the early episodes, mainly because they advance the plot and/or themes in meaningful ways. But it's the serialized episodes like "A Spy in the House of Life" and "Briar Rose" that really grab the attention. Had "Dollhouse" ended after its first season, they would have ensured that it was yet another quality entry in the Whedonverse. But there's no way it could be considered the best.
Instead, Fox elected to bring the show back for a second season despite the low ratings. And in short, that season is stunning. It begins with an episode that's technically the season one finale: "Epitaph One". Set a decade later, it portrays a grim post-apocalyptic world in which the doll-making technology has resulted in nothing short of the destruction of humanity. It's a fine episode on its own, but the impact it has on the second season is what makes it the best installment of the series. The final thirteen episodes (well, twelve of them) have a grim "march towards doom" feel to them, as we watch the characters attempt to prevent a future that's already set in stone.
And the episodes themselves... wow. As with the first season, the opening few installments are basically single-episode stories (pretty good ones) that do a great job setting up the season's plots and themes: most notably that of the way power corrupts. That theme is on full display in the darkly brilliant "Belonging", which depicts how Sierra came to be a doll.
From there, the show continues on a magnificent eight-episode run in which the members of the L.A. house go head-to-head with the Rossum Corporation (which runs the dollhouses all over the world) in an attempt to stop them from developing the technology to turn everyone into dolls. Whedon and co. apparently learned early on that the show was being canceled, and they basically leave no stone unturned. Stellar episodes include a trip to the sinister "attic", a fantastic two-episode arc involving a senator controlled by Rossum (guest star Alexis Denisof), and the shocking "Getting Closer". Every installment during this stretch would get an A from me, which is almost unheard of for a non-cable show.
The final two episodes, alas, can't quite match this streak of brilliance. "The Hollow Men" is effective and enjoyable, but there's a decidedly rushed feel to it that prevents it from rising to the level of the show's best episodes. Our heroes manage to prevent the apocalypse, but of course they don't. It still happens, but the fact that we never get to see it makes the episode feel a bit too triumphant (when it was designed to be darkly ironic). Again, it's still pretty solid: just not as good as it could have been.
The same can be said of "Epitaph Two". It's a fine finale, no doubt. But I can't help but feel like it would have been even more effective had it come after two or three more seasons: preferably after we'd spent a lot more time in the post-apocalyptic world. It certainly seems like "Dollhouse's" plan was to destroy humanity only to build it back up again. Obviously the show never had the chance to fully realize that plan: only half of it (the destroying part). As such, ending with a celebration of people's "mysteries" doesn't really feel in keeping with the decidedly dark tone of the previous 25 episodes.
I can't fault the execution, though. The big emotional moments are all so well-done that it's impossible not to be moved by them despite the rushed feel. Topher's death, Victor and Sierra's final moments, and of course Echo finally "letting Paul in"... it's all handled with quiet brilliance. And I suppose that's fitting for a show that for some reason never has received the accolades it deserves. "Dollhouse" isn't perfect by any means, but it's superior science fiction. It's superior TV period, actually.
Series Grade: A-
Best Season: Season 2
Five Best Episodes
1. "Epitaph One"
2. "Man on the Street"
4. "The Attic"
5. "The Public Eye"