Welcome To The 'Dollhouse'

Tonight marks the return of Joss Whedon to our TV sets with the debut of his new series "Dollhouse" (Fox, 9 p.m.)

While his legion of fans are no doubt giddy over the return of one of TV's best writers, "Dollhouse" marks a different change for Whedon from his previous shows, "Buffy," "Angel" and "Firefly."

For starters, little of Whedon's signature humor is present in tonight's pilot. The series centers around a young woman, Echo (Eliza Dushku), a "doll" who can be programmed to be anything the secret organization that runs the program wants her to be. The dolls are leased out to rich people or corporations for whatever purpose they want -- everything from sex fantasy to hostage negotiator.

After the assignment is finished, the dolls' minds are wiped and they are left in a child-like state until the next assignment. Echo, we learn, is starting to have other memories -- memories of her real life before the Dollhouse -- return. Meanwhile, an FBI agent (Tahmoh Penikett) is on a crusade to expose the Dollhouse and bring it down.

The series has enough intrigue to keep the viewer returning. However, the premise does have a few flaws. While it's no leap of logic to think that a rich guy would want to hire Dushku as his own personal Fembot, it makes less sense why they would hire her to be a hostage negotiator when they can go and hire a real one.

Fox made Whedon reshoot the pilot to be more of a "typical" episode rather than the original one, which had more background. More insight into the Dollhouse would have made things less confusing for the viewer.

Whedon has surrounded Dushku with a solid supporting cast, including Olivia Williams, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz and Amy Acker, though they are all given little to do in the pilot (except for Kranz, who plays the eccentric programmer in charge of remaking Echo's brain).

Whedon fans who remember the shabby treatment Fox gave "Firefly" a few years ago have been worried that "Dollhouse" won't survive given its Friday night timeslot. If Fox shows patience with the series and lets it find its legs, the move should be OK in that it's paired with a natural lead-in ("Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles") at 8 p.m. and ratings expectations are lower on Fridays. Fox showed some patience with "Fringe" and the ratings on that series continue to climb as the viewer gets more explained each week.

Here's hoping that Whedon's return to the tube isn't short-lived.

WEEKEND'S BEST BETS: The return of three of Whedon's best leading ladies (Dushku, Acker and Summer Glau) is enough to make Fridays one of the best nights of the week.

If you can manage to tear yourselves away from them, there's other new fare on the other networks. Diane Sawyer hosts a special "20/20" (ABC, 10 p.m.) that looks at rural poverty in Appalachia.

Jason Street (Scott Porter) returns to "Friday Night Lights" (NBC, 9 p.m.), while CBS is all-new with "Ghost Whisperer," "Flashpoint" and "Numb3rs."

On cable, "Battlestar Galactica" (Sci Fi, 10 p.m.) continues its awesomeness with the return of Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon). Most interesting theory I've heard this week: Galactica itself is the dying leader told of in prophecy. That just blew my mind a little bit.

"Monk" (USA, 9 p.m.) and "Psych" (USA, 10 p.m.) are also new.

On Sunday, "The Amazing Race" (CBS, 8 p.m.) begins a new season and includes the series' first deaf contestant. It's followed by a new "Cold Case" and "The Unit."

A new "Simpsons" (Fox, 8 p.m.) kicks off a new night of Fox animation, while on NBC, the second part of the miniseries "XIII" concludes at 9 p.m.

On ABC, "Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers & Sisters" are new, beginning at 9 p.m.

On cable, HBO has a new "Big Love" at 9 p.m., while Showtime has new episodes of "United States of Tara" and "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," following a new "L Word" at 9 p.m.

Finally, "Masterpiece" brings us a new version of "Oliver Twist" (PBS, 9 p.m.)