Friday, September 25, 2009

Dollhouse: The Good Parts Version (a guide)

"When she was good,
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid...."

The first episode of the second season of Joss Whedon's tv show Dollhouse aired tonight, although I haven't seen it yet, because it doesn't go up on hulu until tomorrow sometime (and we don't get broadcast tv).

But in case anyone wants to catch up on Season 1 before watching Season 2 I thought I'd outline for you the good parts version. Because, far more than any Whedon show to date, Dollhouse is really uneven.

Hell, even Whedon & the rest of the Dollhouse crew admitted as much in talking up episode 6, saying that that was when they finally got it right -- stopped telling the self-contained and silly stories of the week (possibly pushed on them by the network executives in a highly misguided attempt to make the show accessible rather than good) and started to tell their overall story.

Now, to be clear, I wouldn't particularly recommend Dollhouse to anyone who isn't already a Whedon fan. Why watch the quite flawed Dollhouse when you can go and watch the sublime Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog? -- shows that, while not without flaws, are overall the best TV made this side of The Wire. But if you are already a fan of those shows -- or if for whatever reason you don't want to watch them but want to try Dollhouse -- here's how to do it.

Almost the entire narrative arc of the 13-episode Season 1 was contained in 6 episodes. You can definitely tune in to the first of these episodes and get caught up right away. And if you just watch those 6, you'll be watching a very solid, interesting, thought-provoking show. Those 6 are:
1.06 - Man on the Street
1.08 - Needs
1.09 - A Spy in the House of Love
1.11 - Briar Rose
1.12 - Omega
1.13 - Epitaph One

Now I'm not saying you won't miss anything watching only those six. To the degree that there was anything good about the bad episodes of Dollhouse, it was the dribs and drabs of the overall story sprinkled about among otherwise mediocre-to-bad stories of the week. But those six are definitely the best, contain the vast portion of the central story -- and certainly are perfectly understandable on their own.

As of right now, four of those six episodes -- all but the first and the last -- are available on hulu for free. But they take down all but the most recent episodes, so tomorrow when they post the first episode of season two they might take down "Needs". Update: Season one is no longer on hulu, but you can by the show for a couple of bucks an episode at itunes or Amazon, or can rent/buy/netflix them on DVD.

("Epitaph One" isn't on hulu because, for various reasons that are too complicated to go into, it was never aired on U.S. tv, although it was or will be aired in most foreign markets; but it is probably the best episode of Season 1 (although it would make no sense without the other five listed) and should definitely not be skipped.)

I think five of those six episodes are very, very good. The one exception is "Omega", the end of the two-parter that was the conclusion as the show aired on U.S. tv. It's good, although in a number of ways it was a bit disappointing. Still worth watching since it is key to the overall story -- and, again, it's pretty good.

So if you haven't watched Dollhouse, and want to try it, watch those six.

The other seven... well, they vary from quite bad episodes with only a few good touches here and there to flawed episodes that have some genuinely good stuff mixed in with the failures. By common consensus, the first five episodes were simply a bad start to the series; the two later ones I am suggesting skipping were the more stand-alone-ish of the good half of the season. If you want to watch a few more episodes, then the ones I would suggest adding in first are those two -- 1.7, "Echoes" and 1.10 "Haunted". Not great, but both have some good stuff in them. If you want to try one of the five misfire episodes that began the show, I think the best of them was 1.4, "Grey Hour", which had some genuinely nice touches. But don't try it first; start with 1.6, "Man on the Street", to see what the show can do when it's good -- and if you're anything less than utterly committed to it (in which case this entire post doesn't really apply to you, does it) then stick to the six above.

As for season two -- who knows. So far the few reviews I've seen have been mostly positive if not overwhelming. If they can stick to the promise of episodes 6, 8, 9, 11 & 12, it should be a very fun show to watch. If they can match the promise of episode 13, "Epitaph One" -- and the only negative comments I've seen from reviewers of it have been expressed fears that they can do anything to match the promises and expectations set up in that fabulous hour of television -- it will be an amazingly fabulous show -- worthy of the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. (If not -- well, we'll always have Sunnydale.)

So if you've liked stuff that Whedon's done in the past -- try Dollhouse. It's good, when it's good. But stick to the path. You know what happens to characters who ignore that advice in stories, and it ain't ever pretty.

(PS: I haven't seen the unaired pilot, included on the dvd, which was scrapped for parts which ended up in many of the later shows in the season. But a number of things I've seen indicate that it started the show out at the level of these six -- only to have Whedon, possibly at the urging of Fox executives, back down to the level of the first five before crawling back up. But it's not apparently good to watch except as an outtake, since it went in a different direction than they ultimately went -- it's not part of the same story. Ah well.)

Update for Season Two (first half):

Of the ten episodes (out of 13 total) that have aired as of this writing (December 19, 2009), no less than seven would fit unproblematically onto the list above, i.e. every episode from #4 ("Belonging") on. Starting with episode four they got their act together and have made a solid show (i.e. it took them just long enough to get them canceled -- or, perhaps, it was the fact of cancellation that made them focus and tell the good central story they have to tell and not waste time with silly stand-alones.)

The second and third episodes of the season are solid stand-alones, comparable to the later-season stand-alones of season one -- i.e. good but skipabble. #3, "Belle Chose", is better than #2, "Instinct", if you're only going to see one. But if you're sticking with the main plot, skip both.

The season opener ("Vows") is complicated: unlike any of the season one episodes, it mixes some key (and awesome) overarching plot material with a pretty blah story-of-the-week plot; basically, the B-plot belongs solidly on this list, while the A-plot belongs solidly on the skip-it list. If you want to watch the B-plot, the way to do it is to hone in on any scene with Amy Acker ("Dr. Claire Saunders") while fast-forwarding past any scene with Eliza Dushku ("Echo") -- with the possible exception of the last ten minutes or so. Otherwise, just watch the whole thing and remember I warned you.

So the current, updated list is:
1.06 - Man on the Street
1.08 - Needs
1.09 - A Spy in the House of Love
1.11 - Briar Rose
1.12 - Omega
1.13 - Epitaph One
2.01 - Vows (*B-plot only*)
2.04 - Belonging
2.05 - The Public Eye
2.06 - The Left Hand
2.07 - Meet Jane Doe
2.08 - A Love Supreme
2.09 - Stop-Loss
2.10 - The Attic

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