The Most Dangerous Game
Fridays on Fox at 9/10 E/C
Written by Steven S. DeKnight
Directed by Steven S. DeKnight
This is marginally better. Not by much, but better. Once again, we begin with Echo being pimped out as the perfect weekend date possessing all the traits her master has custom-ordered for her–lively, athletic, outdoorsy. Wealthy Richard Connell (Matt Keeslar, The Middleman) claims that all his previous dates have been unsatisfactory. After a day of river running, rock climbing, bow hunting, and of course, lots of sweaty sex, in which Echo and Richard seem to be soulmates, he turns on her and tells her she has a ninety second head start. Then he’s coming after her with the bow. This is, of course, more or less the plot of the famous 1924 short story by the real Richard Connell, “The Most Dangerous Game”. A story of a wealthy man who uses his private island as a human game reserve, it has been adapted countless times for television and movies. In fact, serial killer Robert Hansen seems to have been doing his best to actually live the story. Panicked, vulnerable, unarmed and out of her depth, Echo takes off running. My first thought was “why doesn’t she grab a knife and gut the guy right there”, but maybe I’m more cynical. Anyway, she does exactly what Hansen wants, dashing down rocks and rivers and hillsides in long, dry “action sequences” that consist mostly of Eliza Dushku sweating into a tank top.
This is all background to a series of flashbacks that tell us about her start in the Dollhouse. I have to say that this episode would have made a much, much better pilot than the insipid story we got last week. At least it nicely intercut action sequences with the talking heads that told us how Echo met her handler, Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix, 24). Langton, supposedly an ex-FBI agent suffering from serious burnout, is recruited to be Echo’s “handler”. But as he sees what uses she is put to, he begins to object, and no wonder. Burnout does not necessarily mean he’s abandoned all moral values. How is this stern, upright ex-lawman supposed to become a pimp for a high class call girl, one who is not even really consenting to her own prostitution? As a black man, how will he handle the realization that he is, in fact, enabling a form of slavery? Will he rebel against the cold corporate masters, Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond,Journeyman) and Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams, X-Men)? Of all the characters in Dollhouse so far, only Langton shows any depth or character. He’s the only sympathetic character at all; even Echo fails to elicit sympathy, because we don’t even know who she is from moment to moment, much less week to week.
Even as Echo dashes around mountainsides evading Connell, and Boyd starts beating up henchmen trying to find her, the Dollhouse corporate bigwigs are trying to figure out a dangerous puzzle: apparently one of the “actives” has gone rogue. Several months ago, an active code named Alpha invaded the house and razored several dolls and clients to death. He even got in a few disfiguring licks on the Dollhouse’s own Dr. Saunders. We also learn that Echo’s previous handler wound up as a bloodied corpse no one will explain to Langton. We see how Topher forges an artificial ‘bond’ between Langton and Echo through painful electronic means, placing code phrases in Echo’s memory that will force her to trust Langton, even if she does not recognize him. Since the code phrases are as obvious as “You can trust me” and such like, one has to wonder what would happen if a stranger uttered them.
Langton is wounded by Connell but catches up with Echo, they work together to bring the nutjob down, and all is well. But even after her memory is supposedly erased, Echo retains a salute that Connell taught her, implying that not all of the memories got erased. It’s an interesting puzzle–perhaps the Dollhouse can erase memories past a certain age, but new memories carve new channels in the neurosystem, evading Topher’s mental broom. That would mean that “actives” would always retain the most recent memories, or at least fragments of them. What memories inspired Alpha’s killing spree, one wonders? This is a vaguely interesting question, but really, can one build an entire series on a slow exploration of a programming bug? Where, I ask you, is the famous Whedon humor? Where is the sparkling dialogue, the ironic self-awareness, that made Firefly and Serenity and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog the wonders that they are? Is Joss Whedon even involved in this show?
And then there’s the whole sex and murder thing. While I realize the Dollhouse was not consciously sending Echo out to be bait, their assignments for her routinely put her in danger of her life. Her assignments also routinely have her having sex with strangers. None of this is what could be called informed consent. It smacks more of date rape, as if Echo had been given a humonguous does of Rohypnol and sent out into the world as entertainment. Although Whedon claims he’s aware of this moral ambiguity (to give it no better name), and although he claims to be a feminist, and although he has written strong female characters before, this one is just not cutting it. Echo is not even an echo; she’s a cypher, a disposable object. She’s the ultimate projection of sexist objectification, and while I don’t expect even Joss Whedon to be writing egalitarian propaganda for an episodic TV show, I do expect a little more sensitivity from him than this. Yes, even on the Fox Network.
Production values were okay for this ep. Lots of location shooting in Southern California brush country. The Dollhouse continues to be pretty and sterile. The real problems with this show are threefold: the acting is dull, the stories are not compelling, and the dialogue is flat. There is no reason to care about any of these characters beyond a mild curiosity. There is certainly no reason to plan Friday night around them.
Ratings for Dollhouse dropped 15% from the previous week, ending up at 4.2 million and losing, once again, to Supernanny. Its 2.7 rating/5 share is pretty lackluster for a major network offering. Unless it can get a bigger bump from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which is struggling on its own behalf, it may not be around much longer. This is the Fox Network, after all, which is notoriously quick on the trigger when it comes to cancellation.