A second season of Dollhouse really had no right to exist. It's ratings were always abysmal, and its not like its first season reviews were particularly astounding. Plus, it was a Joss Whedon show on the Fox network, which surely meant it wasn't long for this world. You all know about Fox's history right, with the whole cancelling Arrested Development and Firefly thing. As much as I love Arrested Development, I don't hold too much hate on that one. AD got three seasons, primetime scheduling and several chances but nobody watched it. It was too clever for its time. With Whedon's Firefly though, Fox fucked up. They screwed with the airing order, gave it a death slot and cancelled it before it had time to find an audience. Then it became a massive cult hit and boy did they look stupid. Hence the existence of Dollhouse season 2. Fox owed Whedon one, and now their debt is repaid. Because its second year was watched by even less people then its first. Which is a shame, because there was more to this year then the last.
It became a much smarter show then it was at first, exploring the possibilities of its premise with more nous and less a sci-fi spin on Alias. Whedon brought more complexity to the table, both in its ideas and in its characters and thus it makes the loss of this show something more galling then had it gone last year. Sure its not perfect, the creaks and the compromises still exist and its not the show it could have been if it were on cable say, but as with all Whedon shows, its the level of creative energy that makes it worth the ride. Having said that, season 2 started with a clunk. Its first episode, "Vows", was disappointing, and the next two weren't much better. But with its fourth episode ' Belonging' it broke the ever problematic Echo goes on a mission pattern that never quite worked. Once it re-aligned its focus to its characters, things improved. And drastically. Episodes such as 'The Left Hand', ' the Attic' and 'Getting Closer' were straight-up great television, full to tipping point with questions of identity, (something the show has always quietly done well, at times way above its station. Its kind of awesome that the most intellectually intruiging show of 2009 was an action series starring Faith the vampire slayer) genuinely suprising twists and even a fair amount of people getting shot. So everybody wins. Without once compensating for the fact that they came out of a supposed clunker of a show.
I don't think it turned out to be what Whedon perhaps originally intended, as one could make the argument that this show just became about a makeshift family of heroes fighting evil, aka a Sci-fi Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but there was enough intelligence and innovative character development here for me not to mind this. Particularly with Fran Kranz's Topher, who in the first season was obnoxious, irritating and perhaps the show's greatest shortcoming. Yet by the end of the year, Dollhouse turned its biggest failing into one of its greatest strengths, with Kranz's arc perhaps my favorite thing about this season 2, perhaps because of how much it improved.
The show has a deceptively strong cast too, with some great work from Olivia Williams, Harry Lennix and in particular Enver Gjokaj as Victor who showed the kind of range and general awesomeness that almost every scene involving him was a treat. A couple of nifty guest turns from Whedon alums Summer Glau, Alexis Denisof and of course the returning Alan Tudyk created an almost impossible scenario in which a mythos-heavy show could be most enjoyed for its performances. But the main problem still remained. And that's Eliza Dushku. I was willing to cut her some slack for the first season, but this year as everyone grew into their roles and the show became something teetering on great, her sheer wrongness for this role came more noticeably to light. Dushku can be a good actress, but in a very limited range, so she really came unstuck in Dollhouse. Its a shame because if the show had been headlined perhaps by a less bankable but more talented actress, it really could have been something.
But, hell. It's a sci-fic action show that explores philosophy intelligently, character eloquently and never forgets to be entertaining. So what if there's bumps in the road if you're being taken to so many interesting places.