1 of 2
Tahmoh Penikett, Enver Gjokaj, Eliza Dushku, Dichen Lachman, Fran Kranz, Olivia Williams and Harry Lennix on the elaborate set of the new Fox drama "Dollhouse.

If Joss Whedon didn't have anything to do with "Dollhouse," I'd be telling you that this is not a show worth watching.

But this is the latest show from the genius behind "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly." And "genius" is not a term I toss around easily when it comes to television writers/producers.

Because "Dollhouse" is Whedon's show, it's going to get better reviews than it deserves. Personally, I can't quite bring myself to tell you it's not good. Even though I fear that, in truth, it's not.

I can tell you without reservation that the premiere (Friday, 8 p.m., Fox/Ch. 13) is not good. It's confusing, off-putting and devoid of the sly humor that made Whedon's previous shows such a treat.

After seeing the second and fourth episodes, I'm still not sold on "Dollhouse." It's better but still nothing to get too excited about. And a show that's nothing to get too excited about airing on Friday nights is not exactly the formula for success.

The Dollhouse is a super-secret private organization that offers those with lots of money the chance to hire one of its Actives. An Active is an attractive young person who is essentially an empty shell — a person who can be implanted with any personality, any set of talents for a specific mission. And, once that mission is over, the Active returns to the fantastic, underground Dollhouse complex and has his/her memory wiped clean, awaiting the next mission.

Eliza Dushku, who played Faith the vampire slayer on "Buffy," stars as Echo. She's an Active. In the first episode, she becomes a negotiation expert, hired by a wealthy Mexican businessman when his daughter is kidnapped.

Of course, not everything goes as planned. Not that it's easy to tell because the plot is so muddled and confusing. And, again, it's so deadly serious that Whedon fans will hardly recognize it.

The show also features:

Adele DeWitt (Olivia Williams), the cold, severe woman in charge of "Dollhouse."

Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), an ex-cop who is Echo's "handler" on missions.

Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the geeky genius who is the brains behind all the technology involved.

Dr. Clair Saunders (Amy Acker of "Angel"), the resident doctor whose face bears the scars of an "active" gone wrong.

Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a new Active.

Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond), the Dollhouse's take-no-prisoners head of security.

Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, "Battlestar Galactica"), a federal agent who's determined to expose Dollhouse.

Lubov (Enver Gjokaj), a Russian mobster who availed himself of Dollhouse's services and is now being pressured by Ballard to tell what he knows.

Without knowing what "Dollhouse" is all about before you watch Episode 1, it would be pretty much impossible to follow what's happening. And this is not the original pilot — this was supposed to be a big improvement.

Episode 2 is a big improvement. Through the use of flashbacks, it clears up some of the story behind "Dollhouse."

But the third episode screened for critics — which is actually the fourth that will air — muddles things up again. Maybe that's because we didn't see Episode 3, but, on the other hand, Whedon assured critics that episodes would be self-contained.

But I am not at all convinced that Dushku is up to the acting challenge "Dollhouse" provides. In particular, she seems just, well, silly when she's trying to affect the childlike qualities of an Active between missions.

I don't know. Maybe "Dollhouse" is worth keeping track of for no other reason than Whedon's track record. "Buffy" started out good and got better. "Firefly" didn't start out so good and improved dramatically after a handful of episodes.

But I fear that, even if "Dollhouse" becomes something great in six or seven episodes, the show will already be dead. Even if it's still on the air, fans will have deserted in droves.

I wish I could tell you that "Dollhouse" is the latest great series from Joss Whedon. But I can't.

Too bad.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com