'Dollhouse' Offers Joss Whedon Another Chance

The new series "Dollhouse" premieres on Fox Friday. This marks Joss Whedon's return to television. From "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to the Internet sensation "Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog," Whedon has crafted one sardonic sci-fi project after another. They all inspire incredibly devoted fans.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day, I'm Madeleine Brand. The premiere of the new Fox series "Dollhouse" on Friday marks the return to television of Joss Whedon. Since his big breakthrough with the WB series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," there may be no television writer/producer working today with a more passionate fan base. Critic Andrew Wallenstein is not among them.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: Now that it's been about six years since "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" left the airwaves, it's time to finally get something off my chest: I never liked "Buffy."

(Soundbite of TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer")

Mr. NICHOLAS BRENDON: (As Xander) You're not bone; you're Buffy, eradicator of evil, defender of, um, things that need defending.

Ms. SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: (As Buffy) Tell that to Theresa. She could have used my defending before she was ripped apart by that...

Mr. BRENDON: (As Xander) Werewolf.

WALLENSTEIN: Understand this is pure heresy among TV taste makers and fan boys who hold "Buffy" sacred. I'm not sure what the statute of limitations is, but just making a statement like this could get my critic license revoked. While I'm being honest, let me add that the work of Joss Whedon has always left me cold. I'm not saying it's bad. He obviously is a creative, intelligent guy. But his stock and trade, I don't know. It's like there's a Joss Whedon gene that I'm missing. To some degree, maybe it's because a Joss Whedon production comes in a certain mold.

Like "Buffy" before it, the new series "Dollhouse" is a mix of sci-fi fantasy and sardonic wit that features a butt-kicking ingenue. But instead of a suburban teen stabbing vampires, "Dollhouse" features Eliza Dushku as Echo, a brainwashed operative whose mind can be programmed like a computer.

(Soundbite of TV show "Dollhouse")

Unidentified Man: Hello, Echo. How are you feeling?

Ms. ELIZA DUSHKU: (As Echo) Did I fall asleep?

Unidentified Man: For a little while.

Ms. DUSHKU: (As Echo) Shall I go now?

Unidentified Man: If you like.

WALLENSTEIN: The premise of "Dollhouse" couldn't be more hackneyed. The tortured assassin has been done about a billion times, from "La Femme Nikita" to "Alias" to last year's remake of "Bionic Woman." But that's kind of what Whedon does. He takes schlock and elevates it with more depth and character. My problem is I still can't get past the schlock factor. Still, there's many out there who disagree. Whedon's following is so rabid they don't let his work ever die. "Buffy" continues on in comic-book form. When another show of his, "Firefly," failed, it was resurrected as a movie called "Serenity." And most impressively, he scored one of the few Webisodic series that could justifiably be called a hit: a mock musical called "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog."

(Soundbite of Web show "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog")

Mr. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Dr. Horrible) (Singing) My wish is your command.

Mr. NATHAN FILLION: (As Captain Hammer) (Singing) Stand back everyone. Nothing here to see. Just imminent danger In the middle of it: me. Yes, Captain Hammer's here, Hair blowing in the breeze. The day needs my saving expertise...

WALLENSTEIN: But will Whedon's fans come out strong for "Dollhouse"? The "Buffy" comparison is inevitable, considering its lead actress, Dushku, was a standout late in the show's run. And even though she's got a star quality that rivals Sarah Michelle Gellar, my guess is "Dollhouse" will challenge even Whedon loyalists. "Dollhouse" seems such a pale imitation of "Buffy," even as most ardent champions may have to second-guess themselves.

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein is digital media editor for the Hollywood Reporter.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Well, if spending your Valentine's Day weekend reliving the glory of "Buffy" isn't your thing, coming up later in the program we'll have a few suggestions for some forgotten romantic films. Mark Jordan Legan will make a special non-Friday appearance to help you plan your Valentine's Day celebration on the couch.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: NPR's Day to Day continues.

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