The early plots of the new Fox series, "Dollhouse," have a few serious cracks in them, but it's a visually arresting show that is hard to keep your eyes off of.
The title conjures up images of a program that has a childlike innocence. But nothing is as it seems in the latest adventure series from Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel"), whose image needs a little repairing after the flop of his last Fox series, "Firefly."
That failure apparently meant Whedon had to accept some Fox criticisms of an earlier pilot of "Dollhouse," which was re-shot to satisfy the network.
The interference may be one reason that "Dollhouse" has multiple identities. Too many identities. It is loaded with fantasy, action, suspense, violence and sex appeal. There also is some humor, though not as much as "Buffy" fans may expect or want.
The biggest cracks concern the improbable but involving plot developments that unfortunately usually are solved in ridiculous and disappointing ways -- even by loose Jack Bauer standards.
The sexual appeal comes courtesy of series star Eliza Dushku, the thin actress with the sensual lips. She plays Echo, a so-called "Active" who takes on the weekly personalities given to her by a highly illegal and underground group.
Echo is described by the show's characters as "an empty hat until you stuff a rabbit in it" and "a talking cucumber."
The underground group is hired by wealthy, powerful and well-connected people who want Echo to be sexy and fun or disciplined enough to solve a serious problem like child kidnapping.
The wealthy people, their enemies and the people who work for them can have some serious and weird issues. Let's just say the "Dollhouse" crew that sends Echo on missions won't do the vetting for any more prospective members of the Obama administration.
In the three episodes made available for review, Echo becomes a red-hot lover, a calm negotiator and an art thief, and has to deal with a pedophile, a psychotic killer and a greedy thief.
Fortunately, she has a handler, Boyd Langston (Harry Lennix), who is around to try to keep her alive. Boyd is hired by the group's clinical British leader, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams). The cast also includes Reed Diamond ("Homicide") as DeWitt's adviser, Laurence Dominic; Fran Kranz as the resident geek responsible for programming Echo and other "Actives," give them their personalities and provide comic relief; Dichen Lachmann as another sexy Active, Sierra; Enver Gjokaj as a Russian informant, Lubov; and Tahmoh Penikett as FBI agent Paul Ballard, who is out to uncover what's going on in the Dollhouse even though everyone in the department thinks he's a fool.
A women-in-jeopardy pattern is established in the early episodes with a few variations. Echo is hired to be some kind of fantasy woman; something technical goes haywire; and she needs to be saved in some explosive manner or has been given a personality trait that helps her figure out how to do it herself.
After the episodes end, Echo's memory -- or slate -- is wiped clean and she goes back into her cubicle in the "Dollhouse" until she is needed again. However, there appears to be another glitch. Echo supposedly will start remembering some things slowly about her true identity.
Whedon claimed on a conference call that he is pleased "Dollhouse" is airing on Fridays after another strong action-adventure female series, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," when initial ratings expectations are low.
Whedon said "Dollhouse" was inspired by his fascination with questions of identity and identity manipulation in a computerized, medicated world.
"I think it's . . . it's fairly new means to ask very old questions about who am I and what am I as I get older, and what's really sticking?" Whedon said. "What's the part I can point to and say this is me and what is just coming and going and what has been imposed upon me, and who the hell am I, and why aren't I prettier?"
Pretty heavy stuff, huh? And gee, before I went on the call I just thought it was a fun, absurd show with a sexy leading lady that is difficult to turn off even when it becomes too violent or too silly for its own good.
Review: Three stars (out of four)
9 p.m. Friday, Channel 29