Dollhouse, the new sci-fi show from Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dr. Horrible), has been plagued with bad buzz from the start. There was the production shut-down, the scrapped original pilot, the Friday death-slot, and finally weak reviews upon its premiere. But there's something critics forget when they compare Dollhouse's pilot to Whedon's other work: Whedon shows never get good until the second season. I'm even counting Firefly, which you know would have gotten amazing had it been renewed. Season 1 is always too procedural, like Buffy's monster-of-the-week plots, and the good stuff never comes until later.
So the only way to judge a Whedon pilot is by its promise, and in that respect I think Dollhouse does pretty well. The show's about an illegal agency known as the Dollhouse that implants its agents, or "actives," with personalities tailored to specific assignments. In the pilot, we see protagonist Echo (Eliza Dushku) assigned to show a guy a good weekend, then negotiate a kidnapping ransom. It's all very high-concept, but so far there's little additional mythology. The procedural style will get old fast, but it's entertaining enough for now. That's mostly thanks to Dushku, who hasn't had a part worthy of her since Faith on Buffy/Angel. I'm sure her Echo will soon have an assignment Dushku can't handle, but for now she's the right mix of likable, badass, and hot to ground the rest of the show.
I wish I could say the same of the supporting cast. Most promising is BSG's Helo as an unorthodox FBI agent (is there any other kind?) deadset on discovering Dollhouse. So far his subplot seems out of place, but I'm sure his discovery of Echo means he'll join the action soon. I also have hopes for Echo's handler (Henry Lennix), who gives off a Giles/Wesley vibe as Echo's protector. Most disappointing is the Tech Guy (Franz Kranz). He seems set up to be the show's Xander/Doyle/Wash, but so far he's just annoying. Hopefully he'll chill out as time goes on. Too chilly though is Olivia Williams' Dollhouse leader, who shows little but her icy exterior. Whedon shows often live and die on the ensemble, so this group definitely needs some work.
Most of the other problems feel like opening night jitters. The pilot suffers some of Whedon's weakest dialogue, as characters feel the need to give stuffy, self-important speeches that would be more at home in the Matrix sequels. The pilot is also way too serious, showing none of the humor characteristic of Whedon's shows. It's still a vast improvement over Firefly's second-episode-as-pilot premiere. It just feels like Whedon was so determined to cram everything in to introduce the show, he didn't have time to make it fun. Once the show learns to relax and laugh a little, I believe a classic Whedon show will emerge, even if takes a season to happen. Let's just hope Fox gives it that time to find itself.