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Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog"Dr. Horrible Sing Along Blog" Web Series - Nytimes.com Review
Monday 25 August 2008, by Webmaster
It was a tiny sign of the times: the latest politician’s mistress to make headlines — Rielle Hunter, with whom John Edwards says he had an extramarital affair in 2006 — was no one’s nanny, secretary or intern. She was Edwards’s Web videographer. For $114,000, she turned out video installations (what people a few years ago called webisodes) in an online serial drama. “I have come to the personal conclusion that I actually want the country to see who I am,” Edwards says in the opening scene of “Inspiring Politics,” Hunter’s four-part series. “But I don’t know what the result of that will be.”
This is public relations? The series offers an oddly downbeat narrative that chronicles the candidate’s mounting concern with ’60s-style authenticity and how he might manifest it. It reveals him as a lonely man chronically afraid of sounding like a “used-car salesman,” as he puts it in webisode 4. At times, he sounds downright sick of himself.
Time will tell, but right now Web serials — no matter how revealing, provocative or moving — seem to be a misstep in the evolution of online video. Introduced with fanfare again and again only to miss big viewerships, shows like “Satacracy 88” and “Cataclysmo” have emerged as the slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly “viral videos” that also arrived around 2005, when bandwidth-happy Web users began to circulate scrap video and comedy clips as if they were chain letters or strep. Top virals — “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” “Chocolate Rain” — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.
By contrast, Web serials smack of planning and budgets and all that vestigial Hollywood stuff. The earliest ones were interludes in existing fiction franchises like “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Office.” The natural audience members for serials are obedient and obsessive — the John Edwards supporter who just has to know everything about him, the “Battlestar” viewer who can’t stand a few months’ hiatus from the show. From Charles Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop” to radio’s “Shadow” to Fox’s “24,” serials have always attracted completists. Serial fans don’t trawl YouTube for crazy junk they’ve never seen before; they turn to reputable sites for “more information” on their beloved franchises. They’ve seen one installment and feel dutybound to see what comes next.
The producers of Web serials — including the name-brand ones like “Afterworld,” “lonelygirl15” and “quarterlife” — seem forever anxious about their audience numbers, and they crunch and recrunch them. The producers of “lonelygirl15,” a thriller about a teenager stuck in a cult, claim that they have attracted 100 million views over more than 550 episodes. Marshall Herskovitz, the creator of “quarterlife,” a repertory drama about artsy 20-somethings, counters that his show has drawn 10 million views over 36 episodes — 50 percent more, on average, than “lonelygirl15.” This is possible, since the unit of success is the flimsy “view,” meaning virtually any click on any part of a series, anywhere on the Web. But it’s clear that we’re not talking about numbers advertisers can remotely trust. Are there really any hit Web serials?
Just as some people don’t like to receive their humor under the banner of “funny” — their smiles fade at comedy clubs called Chuckles Café or Laugh Lane — I don’t like to watch Web serials as serials. What I loved about “lonelygirl15,” when its status as amateur filmmaking was still unclear, was not so much that I couldn’t tell if it was real or fake but that I could never tell if there would be another one. Poor, beautiful Bree, the housebound heroine, appeared to be uploading videos whenever her home-schooling overlords would permit it. At the end of an episode, you had no idea if she’d survive to make another. This thrill is present in all Web interactions in which a Facebook friend or far-flung colleague or gchat buddy is so there, writing the long 4 a.m. communications about Russia or his cat, until he isn’t. When you kick off an exchange with someone online, you don’t know how many episodes have been ordered, what shape or course the relationship might take or how much of a commitment it requires.
During the Hollywood writers’ strike last fall, new online serials popped up everywhere. In protesting how little money they made online, writers refused to work for movies and TV. They did, however, write for the Web — and more than one press release suggested that the talent of the pros would finally enliven the form. The strike came and went, and I saw some funny one-offs, but no series that rivaled “lonelygirl15.”
Not until recently, at least. In July, Joss Whedon, the television maharishi behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly,” started “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a downloadable series that was conceived during the strike. People went for it. It’s a ’70s pop musical starring Neil Patrick Harris, who is cute and likable and known from TV, as an aspiring supervillain. It mixes wacky sci-fi with stumbling young-adult dating dramedy. “Dr. Horrible” bills itself as the most-downloaded TV series on iTunes. Indeed, iTunes is the only place you can see “Dr. Horrible,” exempting it from the view-based ratings system, the one used by shows like “Roommates,” “The Guild” or the comedy shows of My Damn Channel, which are streamable and not downloadable. An episode of “Dr. Horrible” costs a cruel $1.99, though seen in a download it looks gorgeous — a lush, sound-mixed studio series on par with anything on the networks. What makes it Web-specific, I guess, it that it’s a little weird, but it’s hardly less paranormal than the shows recommended as complementary to “Dr. Horrible” fans: old-media sci-fi like “Stargate,” “New Amsterdam” and “Tin Man.”
The French artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once decried the high barriers to making movies, suggesting that the cost of cameras, film, editing machines and other equipment had inhibited filmmakers by making them too nervous about bottom lines. “Film will only become art,” he proposed, “when its materials are as inexpensive as paper and pencil.” When Cocteau died in 1963, he must have been confident that his hypothesis would never be tested. But with 13 hours of video uploaded every minute on YouTube, the Cocteau test is now fully under way.
So where’s the true art? I’m not sure. I know I continue to prefer the strange, beautiful, comical and mysterious stuff of YouTube — the unclassifiable stuff — to the laudable efforts at nouveau serials by bona fide directors. But I still believe that, one day, another serial — not called a serial, maybe, and certainly not webisodes — will exploit the eccentricity of the virals and manage to make new and serious jokes about the truth-illusion-truth-illusion of cinéma vérité, which is what “lonelygirl15” once did. With that, the thrill of filmed “reality” will be returned to viewers, as it was in the early days of film, radio and television.
As John Edwards puts it in “Inspiring Politics,” praising the spontaneity of Web video as an antidote to the scripted Hollywood style of contemporary politics: “We’re conditioned to be political. And it’s hard to shed all that. I can be in the middle of being what feels real and authentic to me, and I’ll get into a little reel, you know, in my head. . . . That’s why this” — he indicates Rielle Hunter’s shoestring Web video crew — “I absolutely believe has the potential to change the way people do this, in a very good way. In a very good way.”