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Welcome to the 'Dollhouse'

Fox has a new and improved dream girl for the Friday-night fantasies of teenage boys, and she arrives tonight wearing a hey-look-me-over, super-short dress - the perfect model of female allure and submission.

Her name is Echo, and she's at the heart of a dark new drama, Dollhouse, created by Joss Whedon, the Hollywood producer who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Sarah Michelle Gellar, once upon a time.

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I liked Buffy, and I even learned to find messages of female emancipation in its imitators, like James Cameron's Dark Angel, featuring Jessica Alba.

I mention these shows because Whedon is revisiting that same formula built upon the rock of a hot, young leading lady who can kick butt when she has to. In Dollhouse, she is played by Eliza Dushku (of Buffy and Tru Calling), who has every bit as much pop as Gellar or Alba and should be more than enough to draw some of those advertiser-desired teenage boys to Fox.

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Only this time, let's be honest: There is no possibility of reading an overarching message of female empowerment into the leading character - or the series. Based on the first three episodes, made available for preview, what we have here is a 21st-century version of geisha girl-meets-Charlie's Angels, with an unmistakable subtext of the heroine as prostitute always eager to please. So much for TV and women's liberation.

The Dollhouse of the title is a futuristic, high-tech home for young women and men who are called "actives" - individuals who have had their personalities and memories erased so that they can be "imprinted" with an endless variety of new personas.

Who determines what personas they will be imprinted with? The people who run the Dollhouse and rent the actives to wealthy clients who might want a weekend lover, a hunting companion, a hostage negotiator or someone to help with an art heist.

I kid you not - all of those roles are on display in the first three episodes, and they are all played by Dushku's character. But the actives don't just play the role for a given period of time, they actually believe they are the person the client desires once their memory is "wiped" and they are imprinted with the client's specifications. When not hired out and on the clock, as it was, the actives wander around the Dollhouse in a dreamy, spaced-out state of mind until they retire upon command from their minders to bed each night in little pods under the floor.

The only active we care about is Echo, a young woman who appears to have recently graduated from college and somehow wound up in the Dollhouse after trying to find a job that would help her "make a difference" in the world. For all the new personas and memory wipes she has experienced, she still flashes back from time to time on bits of her past.

Will she ever remember who she was and find her way out of the Dollhouse? And what about the mysterious FBI agent who seems to be on her trail, intrigued by what he's heard about the place in which she lives?

There is genuine drama in Dollhouse - or, at least, all-engaging narratives of action-adventure. Whedon is, after all, a first-rate TV storyteller, as Buffy proved on a weekly basis.

But I have to tell you the truth; I find it truly depressing that millions of teenage boys are going to be offered the image of Echo as the perfect woman at a time when many of them do not know any better. It's enough to make me take to my bed - I mean, pod under the floor - hoping for better TV images for the next generation of teenage boys.

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on tv

Dollhouse premieres at 9 tonight on WBFF-Channel 45.


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