Dollhouse’s Main Weakness

Even though this is a subject that could potentially get me crucified among Dollhouse fans and potentially subvert my part of the Save Dollhouse campaign, “Belonging” solidified a belief I’ve held for a while:

Eliza Dushku is the weakest aspect of Dollhouse.

Dollhouse 1I’m not going to say she is a bad actress. I am just going to say that for her acting range and style, Dollhouse is not a good role for her. Dushku’s acting is so stilted, I have yet to honestly believe that she is any character she portrays.  To me, her acting range is not conducive to a lead actress; it is more appropriate for supporting roles—like Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

If I had to put my finger on a single aspect of Dollhouse that drives away potential viewers, it would be that skeptics are turned away by her consistently subpar and awkward performances.

And yet, I really like Eliza Dushku in Buffy.  Even though Faith is far from my favorite character, I never dislike seeing her on screen. She never gets old or tired like she does in Dollhouse because I only have to watch her when a plot necessitates it rather than having the narrative center on her.  And luckily, Dushku’s stilted acting works well for Faith because she is herself stilted.

But Echo in Dollhouse is also stilted. When she is in her inactive state around the Dollhouse itself, I don’t mind Dushku’s performance.  She perfectly portrays the vapid husk of a person Echo is supposed to be.

Dollhouse ED It is only when Echo is imprinted with a new personality and Dushku tries to widen her acting range that things become painful.   I cannot think of a single imprint in either season that Dichen Lachman or Amy Acker would not have portrayed better than Eliza Dushku did.

Dollhouse has a fantastic supporting cast, however, and that’s where the quality acting shines.  It is, though, typical Joss Whedon fare.  In all of his shows, the main character is important but only marginally moreso than the ensemble.  In Buffy, Xander and Willow are far more interesting characters to me than Buffy herself.  In Firefly, I’m partial to Book and Wash instead of Mal Reynolds.  And in Dollhouse, whenever Topher, Adelle, or Victor are on screen, I have a hard time remembering why I should care about Eliza Dushku.

But important she is, but not in any way relative to the narrative.  Here’s the short version of the story as I understand it:

Eliza Dushku had a contract with Fox for a new, unspecified series.  She and Joss Whedon are friends.  They go out to lunch, and she mentions the contract to him and asks if he has any ideas.  He does not.  Later during the meal, he excuses himself to the restroom and comes back to the table having thought of the premise for Dollhouse while he was gone.

Put simply: Dollhouse would have never existed had Eliza Dushku not been in need of a new show.  So even though her performances are at times painful, there is a sort of catch-22 when it comes to wishing someone else were in her position.  Because there is really no other way for anyone else to have her role. The series would not even exist if Dushku were not involved.

Dollhouse - Eliza Dushku And for that, I suppose I can deal with a bit of stilted, awkward dialogue and unbelievable personalities.  Even if Dollhouse is cancelled after this season (which seems unfortunately likely) there was still much good in it.  So, in the end, I’m glad that Eliza Dushku is involved for no other reason than to get a new Whedon show on the air for a couple of seasons.  I guess that’s worth putting up with Eliza Dushku trying to sound like a college kid.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I’m not sure I think as poorly of her performance of you do, but I was questioning this last week when I noticed her name under a Producer credit. That would make sense given what you’ve said about how the show came about.
    .-= Dickie´s last blog ..DPS LOL =-.

  2. It’s tricky. Eliza Dushku is indeed vital to the show, as Echo. Now that she’s been in the role for a while, it would be sacrilege to replace her (I mean, no one would replace her anyway, she’s Eliza Dushku).

    In essence, Dushku and Dollhouse are tied, so fans either have to take her with the show as long as it exists, or choose to stop watching.

    Tough break…
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..THE notebook =-.

    1. I think it would be interesting if they’d let her be Caroline for a while and find another person to fill the role of Echo, much like they did with Priya being the “new Sierra” in “Belonging.”

      1. Oh, that’s true. They can be replaced…interesting. However, I would definitely be bothered if Eliza Dushku left the show, but she could just another character like Caroline and not a chameleon.

        They definitely need a heavy hitter to be Echo though, someone who has plenty of versatility. No name comes up at the moment but…
        .-= Robert´s last blog ..THE notebook =-.

  3. Absolutely terrible article. Not only is Eliza NOT the show’s worst performer (have you SEEN Tahmoh, the guy’s acting consists of him clenching his jaw, and both Dichen and Miracle have a variety of vacant), the writing has numerous plot holes, and hey, imagine a person who has no character being difficult to emphasise with. Imagine that.

    And let’s see, Sierra was forced into being a doll.

    And Caroline was an animal rights activist who arrogantly broke the laws because she thought she knew better than everyone else and her beliefs were more important than the law of the land.

    Seriously, who’s more sympathetic?

    I have no problem admitting Acker, Williams, and Lennix are better than Eliza, but the rest of the cast? No chance.

    Get a writer who can close up some plot holes (an active being hired out for a years long gig as a mother, a teacher being able to afford a doll, a FBI agent is apparently the only person in the world who can’t find the Dollhouse etc, etc).

  4. You stated:

    “Later during the meal, he [Joss] excuses himself to the restroom and comes back to the table having thought of the premise for Dollhouse while he was gone. ”

    But, I need to fix the next sentence.

    “Put simply: Dollhouse would have never existed had Joss not needed to take a sh**”

    Interesting what we can come up with in the restroom.

    PS: We officially took the show off our household playlist. It just is not working for me and the family…and we feel Stargate Universe has more promise, potential and dedicated ourselves to it instead…

    Good luck Dollhouse
    .-= TempestOfNews´s last blog ..Age of Conan – Ending? Beginning? =-.

  5. I don’t know, Beej. I wonder if you’re missing the whole point of the show. Here’s the thing about Echo: she is the Doll who is always somehow breaching her personality imprints. She’s *supposed* to be a bit “stilted” in her engagements, because there’s a part of her that has always resisted imprinting. That’s her “soul” shining through, her indomitable echo-ness — thankfully left ambiguous in the exposition of the show.

    I wonder if that’s why this show is the star vehicle for Eliza, because there’s always a bit of “her” shining through any and all of her roles. We tend not to like this in our actors and actresses, because it makes it harder to “see” the character of the story. Dollhouse, though, isn’t as much story as it is *myth.* Myths are stories that never happened, but are always happening. This myth explores the indomitable human spirit. Eliza is perfectly Echo, perfectly. But this is to look at Dollhouse mythically, spiritually, more as ritual than theater. I’m astounded by Eliza: I think she’s literally transcended herself through this role, because I can’t tell where Echo stops and Eliza begins. Eliza is more than an actress, she’s a priestess.

    The weakest part of Dollhouse isn’t the writing, or the acting, or the special effects. The weakest part has been the compromises made by the artists in dealing with the network. *That* is the perfect example of weakness, of being on the short end of a power struggle. The weakest aspect of Dollhouse is Joss.
    .-= jane´s last blog ..The Apocalypse of Belle Chose =-.

  6. Why bother analyzing the weakest component of a show when those who do not like Dollhouse blames Joss Whedon? It’s like saying the only problem about you is you. What a generously impossible comment to dialogue about.

    I believe the point of Beej’s article is not be the best at figuring who to blame, but how to save a show that he sees potential in. If Dollhouse is not your fancy, don’t watch it, but there’s no point in going headfirst against someone who likes Whedon and want to see his work properly illustrated.
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..To script or not to script? =-.

      1. I have the greatest respect for Whedon, and yes, I’d probably call myself a Whedonite… he just happens to be in a very weak position. He wants to free Dushku from her contract – he can’t; he wants to make smart TV – and the network forces him to cater to lower common denominators, and put his work (again) in the worst possible time slot. Just because Joss plays a bad hand very well doesn’t negate the weakness of his situation.
        .-= jane´s last blog ..Dollhouse Belonging =-.

    1. I can understand that, Jane. I agree with you that Dollhouse is about far more than those who put it together and that, yes, it’s greatest weakness is likely the power struggle between artistic vision and corporate profiteering, but I still just really don’t like Eliza in a main role.

      I agree with Tom in that Tamoh is likely a worse actor, but he’s not a main (yet). He’s still only on the sidelines. That’s the main reason I could deal with Helo in BSG: because he was rarely there. And he’s also right in saying that them making Caroline a animal rights activist/vandal doesn’t endear her to me. I can’t stand that stuff in real life, so that bias translates right into my feelings toward the character in Dollhouse.

      In the end, though, I think her acting range isn’t adequate for such a taxing role. I think that *anyone* in the show they’ve cast as a Doll has more versatility than she does. Her performances are passable most of the time, but I never get away from the “she’s acting” feel that I do when I see Enver really get into a character, or even Dichen (like when she was Topher’s friend on his birthday). Those two actors take the roles and make them their own instead of trying to fit themselves to the personality when it might not be the right direction to approach it from.

      1. Beej, where you see weakness I see strength. Echo is *supposed* to be “off” in all of her active engagements. We are supposed to notice that she’s different from Sierra and Victor in this respect. Echo has a way of preserving herself despite being imprinted, and this is reflected by her “affect” in her active engagements. So I don’t see how you can fault the actress for doing *exactly* what the role requires.

        Of course it’s fair to say that you don’t like watching Eliza, and that you don’t like characters who are animal activists (you puppy-kicker, you) but that isn’t reflective of the show so much as your own tastes and predilections. I wasn’t fond of Eliza so much until I started watching Dollhouse; on the other hand, I do have a soft spot for animals — I’ve quit my job to work with a dog rescue for the next year, after all. So I have my biases, too.

        Mostly, though, I think you’re wrong because you’re not seeing the big picture of the Dollhouse itself, which has roots not only in Eastern philosophy but Gnostic teachings as well. In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Christ says his cornerstone is the one the builders reject; he says that perceiving deficiency in the All is a deficiency of self. Dollhouse tackles the notion of “error” in its mythos – it’s practically a central motif – and turns it on its head (gnostically) by challenging the perspective that would find mistakes in the first place, because mistakes don’t really exist except in relation to some imaginary ideal.
        .-= jane´s last blog ..Dollhouse Belonging =-.

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