In the second episode of Joss Whedon’s new Fox series Dollhouse, an FBI agent who has been obsessively pursuing a human trafficking operation gets a tip from a co-worker.
“We got a call,” his colleague says. “Couple of kids found a house in the woods all made of candy and gingerbread. Thought that might be up your alley.”
There’s real nastiness in this joke: though its target, Agent Paul Ballard, is working a case his skeptical coworker regards as a fairytale, the operation he’s chasing actually exists. The Dollhouse is a luxe dormitory stocked with pretty young things who have their memories repeatedly erased by a boy-genius scientist and replaced with designer personalities tailored to the needs of wealthy clients. After their engagements—as the perfect girlfriend, a hostage negotiator, a backup singer, or a thief—the Dolls’ memories are erased again, and they return to a blank and blissed-out state. The series follows Echo, Ballard’s most concrete lead on the case, as she moves in and out of assignments and identities, and begins to show signs of a renewed awareness and humanity.
Whedon built his reputation as a genre artist, and Dollhouse, with its souped-up science and conspiracies, is no departure from that trend. But even if you’re not interested in his themes—teenage girls killing vampires in Southern California, a science-fiction spin on the Wild West, or cops investigating illegal uses of futuristic technology—his work matters because he uses those genres to explore the same question as realist directors: what it means to be human. Unlike his best work, Dollhouse hasn’t yet escaped the constraints of its genre. But if Whedon manages to use its risky combination of human trafficking, memory loss, and science to move into head-on explorations of consent and identity, Dollhouse could succeed as his most ambitious attempt to tackle the problem of what makes us who we are.