In the first few weeks of Dollhouse’s life, Whedon and others associated with the show said ‘wait for episode 6 — that’s when it gets really good.’
The reason given for the change in Ep. 6 is that FOX high-ups stopped having as much direct input as of the episode, which means that less was done to make the show fit the exec’s ideas of what the show was supposed to be. At least, this is the story that is told.
Whatever the reason, “Man on the Street,” “Echoes,” and “Needs” are stronger, tighter episodes, with more ongoing momentum and more of the humor we expect of a Joss Whedon property.
The themes of the show all ramp up in these episodes, most especially the degree to which the Actives/Dolls are treated as not-human.
Using a documentary frame that might have been useful to implement right away in the Pilot, the unseen documentarian/reporter gets a variety of responses and commentaries on the idea of a Dollhouse, ending with a validation of the redeemable qualities of the Dollhouse concept, which goes hand-in-hand with the engagement-of-the-week with Patton Oswald as the grieving widower who contracts an Active each year to be imprinted with the memories of his dead wife so that he can have the day/weekend with his wife he was denied by fate.
In “Needs,” Lawrence Dominic tells the powers that be in the Dollhouse to think of the Actives as pets rather than people. We also get several data points which suggest that manner in which the Actives come to the Dollhouse are less altruistic than Adelle DeWitt would have us/the Actives believe. If the rapist client is to be believed (not exactly a reliable witness), then Sierra was sent to the Dollhouse not because she wanted to be there, but because the client wanted to make her go away, or at least, her personality and memories. We see that Caroline coming to the Dollhouse was in no small part to learning too much about the Rossum Corporation, also known as the People In Charge, owning/sponsoring not just one, but twenty Dollhouses.
The plot, it thickens. In “Echoes,” Sam, the scientist who conspired to steal the memory-altering drug to sell to Rossum’s competitor is brought in by DeWitt and is given the same ‘offer’ as Caroline/Echo. This leads directly to a reading where the ‘offer’ given to would-be-Actives is far more morally compromised. November may have wanted to escape the grief of her dead daughter Katie, but for Caroline and Sam, going to the Dollhouse was much like Taking the Black in George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire — the only option given to someone who would otherwise (likely) be killed.
When I saw the preview for “Needs” and then the one-line description of the episode following it, I was afraid that the plot was going to be completely irrelevant to the overall story, much the same concern that I’d had since the beginning of the show. If the events of the episode and each engagement are wiped away for the Actives, those episodic plots become even less relevant. But for “Needs,” where Echo, November, Sierra, and Victor have their original personalities (but not memories) restored as a therapeutic release valve, we learn not only that the whole plot was a deliberate control technique implemented by Dr. Saunders and Dollhouse executive staff, but also that Caroline was cagey enough to contact Agent Ballard, making the events of the episode moreover relevant to the overall story.
Ratings have not been good, but haven’t been so abyssmal as to immediately call for cancellation from FOX. FOX put at least enough confidence in the show to include shortened commercials, allowing episodes to clock in at around 50 minutes rather than 43-45. Its timeshifted (TiVo, DVR, etc.) numbers are good, however, which makes sense for a Friday night snow.
Time will tell whether the show will make it past one season and develop its threads, from a confrontation with Alpha to a possible composite event for Echo/Caroline. In the course of three episodes, Dollhouse has found a stronger voice and is a stronger show. If the first couple episodes didn’t quite do it for you, it might be worth your while to watch through to episode 6 and beyond.