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3 out of 5 stars

It has been six years since television writer and producer Joss Whedon had a television show. Though he has dabbled in a variety of media outlets since then — from comics to the online musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” — Whedon’s last effort, 2002’s “Firefly,” ended badly enough to make him take a sabbatical from the medium. But fortunately for his legion of fans, time heals most wounds. Bringing “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” alumnus Eliza Dushku with him, Whedon returns to television with his latest show, “Dollhouse.”

Whedon’s work has always been known for its dense premises and plot themes, ranging from sci-fi westerns to supernatural noirs. Still, “Dollhouse” stands out as one of his most ambitiously plotted shows.

Dushku plays Echo, a member of a group known as Actives. The Actives are controlled by a large corporation that keeps them in a laboratory nicknamed the Dollhouse and rents them out to buyers for various high-end jobs ranging from hostage negotiation to party escorts. The Actives regularly have their memories wiped and get new personas for each job. But problems start once Echo’s erased memories start to reemerge.

To the show’s credit, it manages to maximize its premise’s potential, fleshing out Echo and the world of the Dollhouse. With shows like ABC’s “Lost” and NBC’s “Heroes” readily employing flashbacks, flash-forwards and a variety of narrative tricks, the show’s relative narrative simplicity in focusing only on Echo might seem like a throwback, but it gives the show a chance to build an especially dense narrative.

Though the show relies on the standard “case of the week” format, with Echo being sent to clients in different personas, it raises enough questions about Echo and the origins of the Dollhouse to keep episodes interesting. It moves at an unforgiving pace for intermittent viewers, however, because it builds narrative layers upon narrative layers with each viewing. But Whedon constructs these threads skillfully enough that it’s hard to not to be interested in seeing where they go.

Predictably, Dushku is the highlight of the show. As someone changing personalities several times in an episode, a less capable actress could easily push Echo into camp territory. Dushku plays Echo with the right touch, shifting between her continually changing personas without making the episodes feel like an extended Theater 101 exercise.

Even with Dushku at the lead, though, Echo’s character doubles as the show’s biggest issue. Echo and her problems within the Dollhouse are the anchor of the show — while the pilot hints at her life before becoming an Active, it’s touched on only briefly. Echo’s ability to change completely from scene to scene makes it hard to connect to her as the show’s protagonist, and the show’s emotional strength suffers as a result.

Still, even with these problems, fans of Whedon’s past work will find a lot to dig into in “Dollhouse.” The show relies on convention more heavily than it should. But within these constraints, Whedon’s intelligent storytelling comes through in a compelling, if inconsistent, package.

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