Good news! I can tell you about most of the upcoming Dollhouse DVD set!
Bad news: reviewers only get the first 3 discs with the aired episodes, but not the final disc with the extra goodies. So I can’t tell you about the unaired episode 13 “Epitaph One,” or the original unaired pilot, or the features, or the deleted scenes. FOX wants to keep those under wraps until the release date and I can understand that even as I secretly hoped their shipping department would mistakenly send me the wrong disc. But I did get to listen to the commentaries from creator Joss Whedon and star Eliza Dushku, and those were well worth it.
The Dollhouse is an illegal underground company spoken of in whispers, where you can hire an attractive young person for literally any purpose you can imagine. These people, known as “actives,” have had their memories completely removed so that they can have new memories and new personalities imprinted in them to order. Actives can temporarily become perfect lovers, thieves, assassins, companions, detectives, whatever the very well-heeled clients want, and afterward their new identities are stripped away again so they’re ready for the next engagement. Only, one of them is starting to remember…
Dollhouse stars Eliza Dushku as Caroline/Echo; Harry Lennix as Boyd Langton, Echo’s handler; Fran Kranz as Topher Brink, the amoral genius behind the Dollhouse tech; Olivia Williams as Adelle DeWitt, the boss of the place; Reed Diamond as her creepy chief of security Laurence Dominic; Enver Gjokaj as Victor; Dichen Lachman as Sierra; and Tahmoh Penikett as FBI agent Paul Ballard. Regular guest stars included Amy Acker as staff physician Dr. Claire Saunders and Miracle Laurie as Mellie. The series had an uneven start, with the first episodes being mostly standalones that simply showcased what actives from the Dollhouse are hired to do with only a passing nod to any ongoing story arcs or show mythology.
Now, there are three types of DVD commentaries. There’s the one where the people talking get caught up in the show and forgot to comment on anything, but I’ve rarely seen that on a Whedonverse DVD. Talkative bunch, they are. Then there’s the type where the commentators are just having a blast, reminiscing and cracking each other up and offering funny little behind the scenes moments. That’s what Joss and Eliza do in their commentary on the aired pilot episode, “Ghost.”
“Ghost” sets the stage for the series, with an active named Echo (Dushku) being sent out on various assignments while an FBI agent searches for the woman she used to be. Joss is in full goofball form, Eliza is keeping right up with him, and they joke about sexing it up for the network, Eliza’s shirt-dress, Amy Acker’s “mood scars,” the problems of writing hostage negotiation scenes without the slightest idea how they go, why things seem to go wrong in the Dollhouse every week, and much, much more. I’m wildly tempted to just transcribe the whole thing but I’ll control myself and stick with my favorite line from Joss about the broad strokes of the plot: “Subtlety is for little men.”
You don’t get a lot of introspection about the complex themes of the show but it’s great fun to hear them point out some of the same incongruities that the fans did. There’s also a moment in the end when they say something about the people in the closing “Alpha” scene that I don’t recall as ever being mentioned in the show, so watch for that and let me know if I’m right.
Then there’s the third type of commentary, where the creator of the show tells us exactly what he was thinking, what effect he was going for, what moral questions he was asking, and how the show was crafted. That’s what Joss gives us in “Man on the Street.”
“Man on the Street” is the 6th episode and teh one where the show really took off. Joss wrote and shot it like a second pilot and it feels that way, giving us a very different show than we’d previously seen. From this point on every episode moved the plot forward with secrets and hidden agendas and wheels within wheels, and a headfirst dive into the moral complexities of using human beings.
The show itself is packed until you can’t believe they fit it all into an hour minus commercials. Every moment contains a revelation or development, every action has several layers of meaning, and everyone involved has a story to tell. And so does Joss. I thought this was similar to his non-stop, detailed commentary on Firefly’s “Objects in Space” in the way he explains how carefully they presented the story to evoke specific expectations in the fans which would be dashed to the ground moments later, such as the love scene between Ballard and Melli:
“They are clearly into each other,” he said. “And he wants her to help him, and she believes him. This is a huge thing. What it is, of course, is me saying ‘I’m going to kill her now.'”
And he talked about the moral aspect, the most troubling and interesting aspects of this show. Fans have been discussing the competing issues of the Dollhouse and its employees, clients, and enemies, and while he doesn’t provide any answers, he does address the questions head on. Is it right to sell people if they’ve previously agreed to be sold? Once a person has agreed to let their body be used, does it make a difference who’s using it? If you don’t remember what happened to you, did it really happen? What makes a person want to rent another human being? What person would consent to be rented, and why? And when you take away a person’s memories, is there anything left?
“Man on the Street” was the first episode to tackle these questions head on. Interstitial clips of a news feature on the “urban legend” of the Dollhouse tell us what the public thinks of the idea, and we see a schlubby Internet mogul (played beautifully by Patton Oswalt) with a very good reason to hire an active. The episode mixes political correctness and layers of moral entanglement and the fact that they can do that is, according to Joss, “what scares me about the show and is absolutely what makes it worth making.”
As I said I haven’t seen the extras so I can’t comment on them. And I don’t know if the screener copies I have are identical to what you’ll be buying, so the fact that I couldn’t find any easter eggs may not mean that you won’t (I’m hoping for bloopers, me).
I can tell you that the final episode, “Omega,” which aired without a promoted scene that was cut for time, is presented here just as it aired. Hopefully the deleted scenes feature will include the missing Sierra/November bounty hunter segment.
The regular Dollhouse DVD is presented in widescreen format with English and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital plus English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles. The Blu-ray version is in 16×9 aspect ratio with English 5.1 DTS HD Lossless Master Audio.You get all 12 episodes, with the two commentaries I described above. Then you get the never-before-seen episode “Epitaph One” with commentary by writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, the original unaired pilot “Echo,” deleted scenes, and the featurettes “Making Dollhouse,” “Coming Back Home,” “Finding Echo,” “Designing the Perfect Dollhouse,” and “A Private Engagement.”
Dollhouse Season One goes on sale July 28. You can preorder it from Amazon now ($31.99 for the regular one, $48.99 for Blu-Ray), or if you’re going to the San Diego Comic-Con you can get a limited edition copy with a note from Joss.
And there may be other ways to get one, he said foreshadowingly…
All photos (C) Fox Broadcasting Co.