Okay, Ms. Dushku, how long again until the show gets awesome? (Three more, apparently.)
Tonight’s monster-of-the-week episode, “Stage Fright,” was a reminder that series are a marathon, not a sprint, and they often need some time to find their legs. And yes, these are the sorts of excuses I feel inclined to make until Dollhouse works out the kinks and hopefully finds its purpose in the back half of the first 13 episodes. Because much like the first episode—only worse—this didn’t seem much like a Joss Whedon show, and for much of the time, it didn’t seem like something I’d be all that excited to watch every week.
Even more than the pilot, “Stage Fright” struck me as an effort to please the network suits, thoroughly dominated by a standalone plot and heavy on the Dushku cheesecake. We saw last week that the show could pull off a standalone plot just fine—its premise of “actives” imprinted with personality traits that can be wiped clean is practically a metaphor for television—but very little worked about this one, which had Echo playing dancer and stealth bodyguard to a Britney-like pop star named Rayna Russell (Jamie Lee Kirchner).
With ample references to current pop stars, with their suffocating stage management, nightclub lifestyle, diva meltdowns, and “shave your head, flash your junk” phases. Lately, Rayna has dodged a couple of dangerous stage “accidents,” most recently an exploding flashpot that sent one of her dancers down in flames. That leaves an opening for Echo to come in for security purposes, but the twist is that she auditions as a backup dancer, so neither she nor Rayna know the real reason why she was brought in. (That’s the sticking point with Dollhouse: The show will always have to come up with a reason why a client would come to them rather than go with a professional.)
Turns out, Rayna knows full well that her #1 fan, a pallid weirdo with a bad haircut, intends to kill her onstage and she actually welcomes the stagecraft. She knows all-too-well about the caged bird singing, and figures that if she’s going to die anyway, she might as well secure her legacy by dying colorfully. (Just listen to her lyrics. Or better still, don’t.) Most of the backstage pop-star stuff felt pretty generic to me, but the episode really scraped bottom once Rayna’s death wish was revealed and we were hit with a lot of psychological gobbledygook about why she would collaborate with her own killer. I’d have liked to have seen more with the super-cool Sierra, who returns after taking a week off to play Rayna’s other #1 fan, who orders a Shirley Temple at an nightclub so she can remember every moment with her.
But in the MOTW cloud, a silver lining: What little intrigue moved the overall plot forward was all very well-handled. The massive twist that Victor the Russian thug was, in fact, an active send to misdirect Paul and lead him to his demise was something I didn’t see coming. There was also some nice behind-the-scenes character work establishing Boyd’s (perhaps overreaching) sense of responsibility as a handler and his (perhaps inappropriate) friendliness with Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker), and Echo’s useful/dangerous ability to find creative solutions to a situation when it veers off script. Then there’s the matter of Paul’s neighbor, who everyone seemed to peg as a Dollhouse plant, but whose motivations may be a little cloudier than that.
And finally, it ends with maybe my favorite moment of the series so far, a surreptitious glance between Echo and Sierra while in “tabula rasa” mode. Very intriguing…
• “You’re going to get married and have scowl-y babies.”
• Okay, so Dushku could more or less hold up her end if Whedon ever wants to an all-musical episode. Vocally, I’d put her well below Anthony Stewart Head and Amber Benson, well above Alyson Hannigan and Michelle Trachtenberg, and maybe slightly better than every other major cast member who sings on “Once More, With Feeling.”
• Echo to Rayna: “You can fire me, but bitch don’t think you can take me!” How did this not lead to fisticuffs?