Dollhouse (Fox, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), created by Buffy the Vampire Slayer maestro Joss Whedon, stars Buffy alumna Eliza Dushku as a sort-of Stepford wife, a not-quite Nikita. The character, named Echo—like the Narcissus-type nymph and the Marvel Comics supervamp samurai—has an obscure past and a nonexistent present. An "Active" controlled by a stealth organization, she lives as a supple puppet without a real memory or a stable consciousness. Regularly brainwashed and reprogrammed by a computer geek with an indie-rock haircut, protected by a dark-skinned handler to whom the script allots just the slightest Driving Miss Daisy-ing, manipulated by a head honcho with the viciously posh accent of Olivia Williams, she is whatever the Dollhouse's ultrarich clients want her to be. "Where I come from, we called them 'hookers,' " Lisa de Moraes has quipped in the Washington Post. "Whatever."
Prostitution is indeed on the bill. Echo functions as a classy motorcycle-racing escort, as an outdoorsy rock-climbing escort, as a thief pretending to be a trashy thigh-high-boot-wearing escort. But her superiors also, for some reason, seem to program her as an Alpine midwife, and she has great potential as a killing machine. In her downtime, she is supposed to be oblivious to her dirty deeds—glitch, natch—and further unaware of the Actives who have gone rogue in order to work on the show's body count and of the dull, dull, dull FBI agent working the Dollhouse case. No, she is a sweet moron who doesn't know what prison is and believes that a Picasso portrait looks "broken." "You are a talking cucumber" is one character's generous assessment. Living communally with her fellow Actives in a comfortably appointed secret lair, she invariably slips into a tank top and yoga pants after stepping out of the unisex shower.
With Echo presenting two or three distinct reverberations per episode, the role would seem to require an actor of great dexterity, and Eliza Dushku is not exactly Toni Collette or Cate Blanchett. However, Eliza Dushku is exactly Eliza Dushku, and that is not a slight achievement. She powers convincingly along here as a scream queen, a comic naïf, a Sydney Bristow-level gunslinger, and a trembling faun—and also whenever she shows a lot of leg, which is obviously as often as possible, maybe more often than possible. Dushku, who is also an executive producer on the show, has already done wonders for her demo reel, but merely donning Sarah Palin drag to convey the personality of a tough negotiator in a kidnapping case will not cut it, and it will be a test of her abilities to reach the existential depths to which the show aspires. The Williams character kicks off the pilot with some blather about the distinction between being and seeming, and someone else, by way of clearing up that Cubism issue, says, "That's what art's for—to show us who we are." Correct! But nonresponsive.
Crucially, Dushku always conveys both joy in performing and vulnerability as a performer, and the combination incites protective and possessive feelings from viewers. We want to take care of her, but in order to want to take care of her, we need to see that she wants our care, that she is being abused. Dollhouse asks questions about the exploitation of women in general and actresses in particular—and might even come to answer them with rich ambiguity. What is a starlet but a person who lives in an odd colony, pampered but imprisoned, emptying her head out after every job, possibly robbed of her selfhood without an awareness of the theft? Do Actives dream of insipid sheep? And what, exactly, does the passive audience dream about Dushku's body and Echo's soul? While the show's ostentatious and superficial philosophizing ranks high among the qualities bogging down the three episodes I've seen, it might, almost despite itself, be engaging questions of identity and media in a perverse and nifty fashion.
Though the show is quick and exciting in its particulars, slick and captivating in its details, it is unfolding slowly as a whole, with perhaps one too many investigations, conspiracies, return-of-the-repressed traumas, and busy backstories curling leisurely into view. Will that pace test the patience of the remarkable cult of Joss Whedon? After all, when TV connoisseurs hear that producer J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost) is creating a new show, most will perk their ears at least long enough to hear what he has to say. When they get wind of a project from Josh Schwartz (The O.C., Gossip Girl), a sizable number will start drooling in anticipation and, wetting a finger with this saliva, test that wind to see which way it blows. Meanwhile, Whedon elicits not just steady curiosity but high passion, and the Dollhouse reviews from sharp critics less abnormal than I are lukewarm so far. But if you can cleanse your mind of expectations, then Dollhouse stands all of a sudden as the best action show on network television.