If you haven't seen Dollhouse skip this one. Watch the show instead. If you have, and liked it, enjoy vicariously. If you have, and didn't, this Bud's for you, asshole.
There are lots of reasons you might put forth for why you didn't like the one or two episodes you saw of Joss Whedon's new Dollhouse. But let me suggest that most of your negative reaction actually has nothing to do with the 'technical' concerns you think you have, or the 'structural problems' you think you've noticed, or the 'limited range' of the lead actress, or the writers' 'tin ear' for dialogue...these are largely self-justifications, I think. I know this is a graceless tack to take, but I'm dead serious about the following criticism-of-critics, who (after all) tend not to know much if anything about how to structure TV stories, how to act for television, how to reproduce the rhythms of dialogue in a unique poetic language, or what the economics of high-tech prostitution might look like. I realize, too, that this probably sounds like fannish defensiveness - you don't like a Joss show? There must be something wrong with you!
You didn't like the first few episodes of Dollhouse. Well, let me suggest the main reason why:
There's nothing satisfying about it, by design.
In other words, I'm guessing that you don't like it because you don't know what to like.
(I am quite possibly objectively holier than all y'all thou.)
Every vector of possible satisfaction for the viewer has been poisoned, from the outset, by the show's premise. That doesn't mean the premise is bad - the premise is extraordinarily fertile - it just means that you (we) don't get to do your (our) normal routine of using borrowed jargon to rationalize your visceral satisfaction. Not the clunky mannerisms of academic criticism, nor the easy cynicism of what passes for 'media criticism,' nor the pop-schlub pidgin of newspaper/magazine critics and their Internet kidz.
The premise of the show is: What if a group of pimps - who happen to be neuroscientists - could erase the memories of whores who happen to be well-paid, extraordinary well-taken-care-of volunteers, and could use this power to effect amoral change in various economic strata? What would it take to suspend judgment toward such an operation, toward the whores, the pimps, the clients, the team of scientists and programmer-types who make it all possible? What sort of person would avail him- or herself of such an organization's services?
What kind of cop would become obsessed with shutting it down?
The complexity of the political allegory - depicting the quite literal return of individual and collective memory and desire heretofore repressed for economic reasons, the power of spontaneous organization to overcome institutional stricture, etc. - should be enough to overcome one's suspicions that Dollhouse is made in ignorance, with exploitation in mind, etc. And the writerly pedigree should cause one to think twice before assuming that the show's plots have been glibly chosen, its lines tossed off.
But I don't actually have to defend the show on those grounds; if it's well made and well-wrought, it'll stand on its own.
Here's my critical stance: It is not made to be liked. Nor to satisfy.
(I'm satisfied with my reading of the show, you know.)
Dollhouse asks the same questions of its characters as it does of its viewers; the unusual thing about the series is its total ambivalence toward the answers. One difference between Dollhouse and other (let's say...) antifoundational stories it that Whedon's questions are well-posed, i.e. it's clear what questions we're being asked, and the questions are complex and meaningful and pragmatic (unlike, let's say, 'Is there an outside-the-text?' or somesuch).
The security guard (Boyd) is sympathetic but his role is Male Protector of Helpless Female Who Nonetheless Can Not Help. He hates himself, doesn't know why he puts up with this shit. You can latch on his decency - but his job is indecent and he knows it. He's the primary father in the show, and variably effective in that role. He does evil.
The Madam is of course a Madam, a cold bitch by the looks of it, and whatever second thoughts she has about what she does, she runs whores and lets 'em die if necessary. Yet she's the primary mother figure in the show - and quite possibly effective in that role. She does evil.
The lead character, Echo, is barely a human being, doesn't even know to defend herself when endangered. And each week she's put in the position of victim, and finds her way out of that role, and gets to enjoy none of her victories. They're meaningless - they're not even hers. She works for the Bad Corporation like the rest of them.
The FBI agent is bugnuts, and wants to help kidnapped girls, and is a fuckup, and has no sympathy for anyone, and he's being lied to, and is a sap, and doesn't know how to work with people.
The Russian is a lie.
The Asian is a lie.
The obnoxious nerd is an obnoxious nerd, and hyper-competent, and sadly compensating, and clearly crazy, and a mind-raping pimp who happens to be the sole Artist Figure in the story - that's where his god complex comes from. He does evil, and knows it, and doesn't stop.
The characters with self-knowledge do evil, and the ones without it are pawns. The deck is stacked.
How could you possibly enjoy this story? There's no blinking arrow saying 'This Is Right.' Order is provisional, law is ad hoc, love is electrically-induced, pity is corporate, memory is false, the good guys are nuts, the bad guys mean well, and everything the lead character knows about her personality the viewer also knows.
She's going through the same thing we are. To the extent our moral outlook on the characters differs from hers, it's because we are judgmental and unfair and self-centered. That's the hazard, right there: we are self-centered, and can't pin that on anyone else in the storyworld.
Atop which: the obvious Male Romantic Lead and the obvious Female Romantic Lead are separated by the inconvenient fact that the goddamn FBI guy hasn't shared a single scene with anyone from the Dollhouse (well, sorta). How can such a sexy show be utterly devoid of romance? Why would Joss Whedon do this to us who LOVE HIM SO MUCH. Why.
(I think I'm very smart.)
I don't particularly enjoy the familiar melodramatic inner structures of the episodes, in part because I'm conditioned to cringe at explicit genre cues (ahem grad school), in part because the very falseness and generically pat quality of the stories is a lie, that's the whole goddamn point of the show, and like any little boy I don't know how to be lied to. But I've loved every framing story, every flashback, every tangent, every glimpse into the Dollhouse itself. When Eliza Dushku looks like a woman acting-but-not-acting a part, I'm reminded that Echo is precisely that.
I trust Joss Whedon; the man has changed American culture for the better, and writes like a demon, and is burning this one at both ends. He knows what he's doing. I think you don't like the show because you also know what he's doing, and you don't like it. Your rationalizations are your own.
Give the goddamn thing a chance. Meet yourself. [And oh by the way, in case you didn't notice: Dollhouse isn't Buffy. Your expectations, embarrassingly, are your own too.]