A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this sci-fi/action series from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer plays with the concept of identity. The Dollhouse's "actives" have no personality of their own; each is temporarily imprinted with another identity before a mission. Between jobs, they're left with no character at all, existing as childlike innocents. Those elements could appeal to teens, who are still in the process of figuring out who they are and what they want to be -- but it also means that the characters don't really gain enough traction to become role models. Expect some swearing ("bitch"), social drinking, and sex (nothing too sensitive is shown), and quite a lot of violence -- though relatively little blood.
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What's the story?
It's not quite clear what Echo (Eliza Dushku) has done, but it must have been pretty bad for her to end up in the secret, highly illegal DOLLHOUSE. The project specializes in transplanting other people's entire characters into the minds of its agents (known as "actives"), including memories, special skills, and even mundane details like needing glasses. Whoever they were before becoming an active is scrubbed away completely, making them empty vessels ready to be sent out to do whatever a client has requested, complete with any and all talents and abilities necessary for each mission. Need a Spanish-speaking negotiator with a background in handling kidnappers? No problem. How about a highly trained military commando or a motorcycle-riding girlfriend with a taste for bondage? The Dollhouse can create whatever a client wants -- for a hefty fee. The downside -- and it's a big one -- is that to accept a new character, the actives must remain blank slates; between jobs, they wander though their very comfortable base like innocent children, completely unaware of who they really are. It may not be prison, but in a way it's much worse.
Is it any good?
All of that adds up to a fascinating conceit for a series, giving creator Joss Whedon the freedom to take the show in just about any direction he wants while still providing a compelling framework to hook viewers who will want to know more about the Dollhouse operation. And fans aren't the only ones: FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is also trying to track down the Dollhouse, though his superiors are convinced he's wasting his time on an urban legend.
But it's no legend, and the idea that personalities and experiences can be archived and implanted into other people means that Whedon can place his characters into a huge variety of exciting situations while examining the very nature of what makes us human. Many producers would be happy enough to focus on the action possibilities, which would make Dollhouse just another spy series with a unique concept. But Whedon has track record of creating some of the most fully realized, original characters in recent years, which suggests that he plans to spend some time here evaluating the philosophical underpinnings of identity and reality. And he'll make it really cool.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about identity. What makes you who you are? If you take away someone's memories and abilities, what's left? If you suddenly had another person's memories, how would that change you? Does this concept seem plausible? Do you find the idea of having your entire self removed from your mind scary? Why do so many sci-fi TV shows and films play with the idea of shifting a person's identity into a new body?