It’s almost as if creator/exec producer Joss Whedon and the rest of the “Dollhouse” gang knew that year two was going to be it for them, so they put all their cards on the table. Improving over its good-but-not-great freshman outing, the sophomore season — while not always simpler — is smarter, sexier and stakes-raising.
It still may not have been quite appointment viewing, but an improvement is an improvement, making this ripe for DVD discovery. Lord knows — and so do the ratings — you weren’t watching the first time around.
The title site is an underground facility where beautiful women referred to as “actives” can be rented to fulfill any client’s fantasy (not necessarily sexual) by imprinting their brains with a fully tailored personality. Whereas the first season focused on active Echo (Eliza Dushku) doing her doll-of-the-week thing, the second and final utilizes a yearlong arc.
Still, that doesn’t mean you don’t get to see Echo assuming a number of identities, including those of a newlywed, a paranoid new mom, a dim-bulb college coed, a homeless waif and, of course, a gun-totin’ ass-kicker.
But Echo kind of blurs into an ensemble player, which is good, because Dushku is not the greatest of actresses, and those seeing super-sized roles — namely, Fran Kranz, Miracle Laurie and Dichen Lachman — are more interesting characters. They all take part in a mythology-expanding storyline that peers deeper into the secrets of the Dollhouse, and a conspiracy that threatens to shake it to its foundation.
While the 13-episode swan song takes a hit by reducing Amy Acker’s role to just a pinch, it aims to make up for it by adding Summer Glau, as a slightly sunnier, much nerdier version of her character from “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” Also making welcome appearances are Ray Wise, Keith Carradine, Vincent Ventresca and a returning Patton Oswalt as one of Echo’s former renters.
I’m not one of the Whedon faithful who thinks everything the man touches turns to gold, but “Dollhouse” does have a luster, however a tad dulled. For example, fans rave about the “Epitaph” future-jumping episodes that have closed both years, but I find them semi-baffling.
The four-DVD set includes a comic-book insert that may further confuse anyone who hasn’t watched and re-watched each episode several times. More accessible is a behind-the-scenes featurette and a somewhat charming reunion at a restaurant, where Whedon and his cast reminisce openly amid food and wine. They are family. —Rod Lott