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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Dollhouse Season One [Blu-ray]

 

(Created by Joss Whedon, 2009)

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Television: Fox

Video: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

 

Disc:

Region: ALL (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 0:50:17.055 X 12 plus two bonus episodes

Disc One Size: 48,373,768,603 bytes

Feature Average Size: 9,816,188,928 bytes

Average Bitrate: 19.69 Mbps

Chapters: 12 each episode

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: July 28th, 2009

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

Sample Bitrate (disc 1-episode 1):

 

 

Audio:

DTS-HD Master Audio English 4374 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 4374 kbps / 24-bit (DTS Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 24-bit)
Dolby Digital Audio English 224 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 224 kbps

 

Subtitles:

English (SDH), English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, none

 

Extras:

• Unaired Pilot Episode "Echo" – in HD

• Audio Commentary on Selected Episodes by Joss Whedon, Eliza Dushku and others.

• 23 Deleted Scenes – in upscaled raw HD (29:46)

• Making Dollhouse – in HD (20:48)

• Coming Home – in HD (7:11)

• Finding Echo – in HD (5:07)

• A Private Engagement – in HD (5:47)

• Designing the Perfect Dollhouse – in HD (5:59)

 

Exclusive to Blu-ray:

• Episode 13 "Epitaph One" – in HD

 

 

Comment:

The Series: <7

I feel a long-suffering compulsion to begin my comments with a rant about the opening credits:  Part of what I want to say applies to a great many television shows, and has been the case for a considerable time: and that is the practice of not identifying the principle actors except by name: no images of their character and no cast credits at the end.  So, while SAG gets its day in the limelight, the audience is left in the dark as to who these people are.  In the case of new shows with fresh casts, we are left to ask: Who are these guys?  In the case of Dollhouse, the situation is abetted by the fact that several of the main actors’ names are not even identifiable by gender, at least not to the average North American man or woman on the couch, making it all the harder to make an educated guess.  If you didn’t already know, what would you have made of “Tahmoh” “Enver” “Dichen” or “Fran”?

 

 

 

The most effective way around this would be to offer a credit montage that shows the named actors in character. . . which leads me to gripe #2: The title of this show is “Dollhouse” not “The many faces of Eliza Dushku”  More established lead actors of other series are willing to share the opening credits with their colleagues – why not Eliza?  Worse yet, the montage fails to convey the meaning of the title.  By the way, why not include the title of the specific episode – who so elusive?  End of rant.

 

It’s been some five years since Joss Whedon has had a series on network television.  First there was the popular and critical success, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I and others with far more impressive cred’s continue to consider as one of the best drama series on television – ever.  Joss’s spin-off, Angel, ran successfully for some five seasons, but got into trouble once someone got the not very bright idea to make Cordelia a god of sorts.  Then there was the short-lived space western, Firefly, which Fox placed ignominiously in the attic in mid-sentence.  Joss replied with his feature film, Serenity.

 

Fast forward to February 2009, after hesitations and memos on the part of the network and other interested parties, Dollhouse aired its second attempt at an approved pilot.  Immersed in controversy about its alleged misogynist theme, the series did not find its mission or its proper voice until Episode 6 (Man in the Street).  It strikes me as – how shall I say it? – bad faith to imagine that, of all people, Joss Whedon would suddenly have an anti-feminist meltdown.  So I can only conclude that such reaction is simply political nervousness, fearful that the network would be deluged with protests and angry letters from viewers too lazy too stick around long enough to see what the show is trying to do.

 

And what is that?  At one level, Dollhouse is about offering very wealthy clients (as well as the occasional pro bono assignment) the fulfillment of their most personal fantasy – or: need, as it is sold by Adele DeWitt (Olivia Williams), the director of just one of several such Dollhouses throughout the world. That fantasy will involve the participation of a Dollhouse "Active" – a man or woman, who has "voluntarily" given up their personality for five years in exchange for a series of exciting assignments (which they won't remember anyway).  At another level, Whedon asks all the right questions about needs and desires, informed consent and coercion, slave and master, wealth and power.

 

As for the plot, there are three –make that, four – main arcs: the one involving the Active called "Echo" (Eliza Dushku), whose core personality cannot be completely erased and who seems to catalyze other more pliant Actives even in their dormant state.  Another follows FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) and his endless investigations into a missing person case – that would be "Caroline" (Ms. Dushku, again) and the existence of the Dollhouse itself – at this point in the plot, considered by the general public and national security agencies little more than an urban legend. 

 

Then there are the machinations of the particular Dollhouse that concerns us in Season One: the science team led by the maddenly endearing Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), who makes certain that memories are erased and new personalities, complete with the requisite physical and kinetic abilities, are installed for each assignment; the various Actives – in addition to Echo, we get to know Victor (Enver Gjokaj), Sierra (Dichen Lachman) and two others who shall remain anonymous so as not to spoil the fun of their outing, the scarred but caring Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) and the aforementioned Miss DeWitt.  Then there are the "handlers" who monitor their assigned actives in the field to ensure that they complete their mission and don't get into any serious trouble while doing it.  Well, it would be a pretty dull series if these guys weren't kept busy – Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), Echo's handler, most of all.

 

The fourth arc involves the medical research company that funds the Dollhouses.  The fees collected from their clients pays for the research, but we are led to believe there is another agenda lurking in the wings.

 

 

 

 

So much for the story.  What about the execution?  I may be of a minority opinion but, so far, I find the concept of the series exceeds its execution.  I feel that Whedon has overestimated Eliza Dushku's talents.  The pre-2009 Eliza model may be more talented in many areas than were evident 6-10 years ago: she may be faster, prettier, and more linguistically capable, but her concentration isn't as focused and the footage of her dancing with Buffy was hotter and sexier.  Her character on BTVS and Angel was allowed to take shape over many episodes, even years, and though we would all agree she nailed Faith from the start, her writers and directors were able to take the necessary time to shepherd the actress through Faith's dissolution and eventual resurrection, so to speak.  But here, she is asked to persuade us that she is a new personality every episode, yet maintains a vague sense of a core that gradually comes to learn what she is about.  

 

This would be difficult for any actor, but Eliza really hasn't the acting chops for this, unlike double-lifers like Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow or Michael C. Hall as Dexter.  Other Dollhouse Actives become their characters more convincingly, especially Enver Gjokaj as Victor.  Enver doesn't get as much screen time as Eliza, but whatever new personality Victor inhabits, he is that character, and we believe that those around him accept him as such.  I often felt that Eliza was acting the part instead of owning it and so I would like to believe I would not have asked for my money back were I a client.  In a backhanded complement, I'm not sure that it serves the series very well that Olivia Williams is so mismatched to the rest of the cast.  Of the principals, she is the only serious actor among them.  Amy Acker and Enver do a journeyman job, but most everyone else seems studied and lacking spontaneity.  Alan Tudyk has the opposite problem – and we are swept along in his tour de force, even he's more than a little overwhelming.

 

Remember Marshall Flinkman, the tech wizard from Alias, and how Kevin Weisman's nervous bits that were at first endearing eventually became cloying and annoying?  Fran Kranz plays Topher Brink like Marshall to the third power.  My opinion: a kid in a candy store is not the sort of scientist that the likes of Adele DeWitt would trust with her store.

 

A quick word about Tahmoh Penikett: Agent Paul Ballard is one righteous dude, and Tahmoh plays him that way – but where did he get that walk!  It's like Paul Newman (whom he resembles, as he does Jean Paul Belmondo with a little Laurence Fishburne thrown in) crossed with the all-shoulders walking style of animé figures.

 

The difficulty with a show where the characters are constantly changing is that it can devolve into little more than a series of vignettes – some of which, as occur in "Man on the Street" and "Omega" are quite good; others, like "Haunted" and "True Believer" are not at all persuasive.  Still others, like "The Target" and "Echoes" are based on stories done better elsewhere.   It might have helped if the cast was of more consistent quality or if they were all on the same page.  At times, I doubted they knew what page that was.  The philosophical questions raised are provocative – and that's a good thing, and the idea of nature finding its way despite the efforts of science and technology – though old – is always timely.  But Dollhouse still lacks an emotional core.  No doubt this core is evolving (which is part of its point) – as is evident through the morass of subplots that nearly come together by the final episode.

 

 

Image: 7/9  NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.

The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale.  The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

 

With high bit rates in the mid-30s, Fox's image is solid, if variable, no doubt because of the source material.  The variability tends to be mostly a matter of contrast, brightness, black levels and shadow detail in ways that are not entirely explainable by story content.  I was not distracted by artifacts.  I generally liked the image which often has a cinematic feel about it.  Yet there is a softness that pervades – very likely some DNR.  One point off for the inane idea to add faux scan lines to what is obviously HD video news footage in "Man on the Street":  They even show up on the standard definition DVD.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

NOTE: BIG THANKS to our good friend Bjørn Erik Hundland for permission to use the first nine captures below from his site HD SCREENCAPS located HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unaired Pilot "Echo" and unaired episode 13 "Epitaph One":

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 6/6

With most of the content stereo front, there's not much in the way of specific directional information in the surrounds (as we should have expected during the kitchen fight between Ballard and Echo). There's plenty of oomph, bass and enveloping music cues, even if there's a certain absence of focus.  The surrounds come into play for the sake of spatial power.  Dialogue is a bit wooly at times.  Compared to Dexter, another TV series that doesn't really require a snappy audio mix, Dollhouse is positively flatulent.

 

Operations: 4

I found the menu operations frustrating.  I'm not a fan of the hidden agenda type of menu. For example, the only way you can be sure if an episode has a commentary was to click on the episode.  If it had a commentary, it would bring up a pop up that says so and you then have the choice of activating it or not; but if there is no commentary, the episode would start right off.  The Special Features sometimes indicated commentaries, other times not.

 

Extras: 8

The big draws here are the two extra features – both in pretty good HD and very acceptable 2.0 audio.  The first is the Unaired Pilot Episode "Echo" – the one that made Fox very nervous about what they may have bought into. Episode 13 "Epitaph One" – exclusively on the Blu-ray edition - is a very different sort of concept in every way, including its reliance on handheld video, as if being shot by a war correspondent.  The action takes place ten years in the future when a kind of civil war (I don’t want to give away too much here) has taken hold and several refugees find themselves in what remains of the Dollhouse.  (I’d better stop here.)  The plan, as I understand it, is that at least one of these new characters will reappear from time to time in coming seasons in a flash forward.

 

There are three commentaries: the first for the aired pilot "Echo" has Eliza Dushku & Joss Whedon oohing and aahing over their lovechild and every actor and supporting crew member.  There is the occasional glimmer of useful information – like why it is that Dr. Saunders’ scars appear raw and angry one day and almost invisible the next.  Whedon solos for the commentary on "Man on the Street" – here he is more informative between joking asides, for which he is a constant source. I was gratified to hear him comment on a number of the show's technical shortcomings that I noted as well.  His son, Jed, and daughter-in-law Maurissa, comment on "Epitaph One" (presented in HD with only a Dolby stereo audio track, as is the original unaired pilot "Echo".)

 

In addition to 22 (count them!) deleted scenes of about a minute each in raw HD, there are five featurettes of between 5-7 minutes in variable to poor quality HD.  Among other failures, such as weak contrast, my pet peeve regarding the now common practice of focusing beyond the person at the center of attention is taken to new depths of inanity: e.g. a series of interviews where the focus clearly rests at the far side of the room – a room with absolutely no interest, while the person interviewed takes up 2/3 of the frame!  Making Dollhouse is a broad look at how Dollhouse came into being.  Coming Home reunites those who worked with Joss on previous assignments.  Finding Echo explores how Eliza came to the role.  A Private Engagement queries the cast with the question: Would you want any part of your personality exchanged?  Designing the Perfect Dollhouse is just what you think it is – it does it well and in short order.

 

 

 

Recommendation: 7

Being a Joss Whedon fan, and of Buffy in particular, I had high hopes for Dollhouse, which certainly gets much better after episode 5.  Much better.  And by the end of the season, we're really set up for exciting things to come in Season Two.  Epitaph One, aka Episode 13, while it strikes us at first as an afterthought or a way to conclude the series in case it failed to be renewed, offers Lost-like time shifting possibilities for future seasons.  All of which makes the present season that much more attractive.  The Blu-ray does a fairly good job in terms of both image and sound (better than the DVD certainly), though not as well as the best TV series – and supplies those tasty bonus episodes.

 

BTW, be certain you have the latest firmware update.  Even so, your player may not be able to play these discs until your player's manufacturer sorts out Fox's attempts at keeping pirates at bay by making the rest of us wait for updates to play catch-up.

 

Leonard Norwitz
August 1st, 2009

 


 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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