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The benefit of watching a series in one fell swoop is that you know its reputation. When Dollhouse first aired, the first episode left a lot of people cold, and it struggled to find a foothold with viewers. Sure, both series creator Joss Whedon and producer/star Eliza Dushku swore that with episode six everything would change, but that wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement.

However, when you know that something's building, and there's an intention behind every piece of information confirmed by other people telling you it's a great series, suddenly those first five episodes do get better. And in truth, if the show had been created by anyone other than Whedon, it's hard to imagine that people would have been so bent out of shape by how ordinary they are.

With very little (but crucial) subplotting that at least place them in a set order, the opening five seem like random adventures of the week for any undercover cop show. Echo (Dushku) plays hostage negotiator. Then she becomes the most dangerous game. One week she pretends to be a back-up singer in order to protect a pop star.

They're even shot sort of mundanely, as in that popstar episode where one back-up singer doesn't belong, dressed all frumpily while everyone else is near naked, just to cover that she's a stuntwoman about to be lit on fire. These are episodes weighed down by a nervous television network, wanting to get something unique and original but insisting that it not look like it.

Yet there's dynamic casting and a cool concept that keeps lurking in the background though serving more as a macguffin until… the sixth episode. Then things start to coalesce, the continuity tightens and guest-star Patton Oswalt will break your heart. Just as some serious actors like Alec Baldwin waited a while to prove themselves secretly hilarious, the brilliant comedian Oswalt turns out to be secretly a real actor, and a really good one.

For the most part, too, Dollhouse is so coolly plotted that it overcomes that at the center, Dushku is an actress who rarely veers from her base persona. It's only a little frustrating that so many of the blank dolls around her are able to have accents come and go, and fully different personalities including those of other actors on the show. When the "Big Bad" shows up - I'm not going to spoil it in case it's not well known - we catch a glimpse of a show even cooler if Dushku would or could stretch a little more.

But it's compelling as it is, though the review copy of the DVD sent to the Fanboy Planet Magic Mailbox was curiously incomplete, lacking the fabled thirteenth episode "Epitaph One" set a decade in the future and not aired on U.S. television. Allegedly (and I'll be sneaking Ric Bretschneider's Comic-Con exclusive edition to prove it) the thirteenth episode lays out a lot of direction for the series and proves that it has a lot of places yet to go after resolving its initial plotline.

Among the extras are the original pilot, called "Echo," which Whedon famously scrapped believing he could do better. Pieces of that show up throughout the season, so watching it is more an exercise in the writers' process, and how revising can save a work.

Whedon also provides commentary on a few episodes, joined once by Dushku. Together, they're understandably a mutual admiration society, and while it doesn't dim the candidness, it does up the fawning level.

Yet why shouldn't they fawn? Once again, Whedon has taken a somewhat simple concept (see "girl kills vampires," "western in space") and made it into an examination of what it means to be human. All the while it's disguised as girl kicking butt time after time, but what's wrong with that?

Derek McCaw

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