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Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

"Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog" Web Series - Popmatters.com Review

Monday 18 April 2011, by Webmaster

There’s Nothing Horrible About a Whedon Musical

With a name like Dr. Horrible, a character has a lot to live down to. By the end of Joss Whedon’s webiseries, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, not only has Dr. Horrible discovered his true nature, but audiences discover a skewed perspective on the traditional hero story that emphasizes a growing moral darkness in the real world.

During the writers’ strike of 2007-2008, the Whedons—brothers Joss, Zack, and Jed—and Melissa Tancharoen decided to put on a musical. Of course, as Joss Whedon illustrated so well in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” the writers used the conventions of musical theater to make some intriguing points about life and the nature of heroes. With Dr. Horrible they flip the hero epic on its head by introducing new lyrics for the genre’s well-worn refrain.

The project not only filled the strike time for writers (and thus actors) waiting for a resolution, but it added more fuel to the fiery transformation of the hero story into the glorification of the villain. As well, Whedon (who doubled as director) initially made the story available only online, although the Emmy award-winning series later became available on DVD and as an iTunes download. The initial web-only viewing gained a wider audience for webisodes and created an instant web classic. Since then, Dr. Horrible’s story has been immortalized in comics and on stage, and, fans hope, will return once more to the web with a new adventure. Although a sequel has been rumored almost since the first act went live in July 2008, Dr. Horrible hasn’t yet posted a new blog.

A World Where Villains Win

Dr. Horrible’s creators collaborated with a winsome bunch of actors, including perennial Whedonverse favorite Nathan Fillion as “hero” Captain Hammer, Felicia Day as activist-with-a-heart-of gold Penny, and Neil Patrick Harris as villain wannabe, Billy/Dr. Horrible.

During the early scenes, Neil Patrick Harris’s performance harkens back to the actor’s early days of TV innocence as earnest, wide-eyed Dr. Doogie Howser. Dr. Horrible hardly looks like his moniker. Instead, he seems shy and socially ill at ease in his attempts to get ahead with the girl of his dreams, Penny, and his potential new boss. He creates a web blog outlining his plan to join the prestigious Evil League of Evil, run by crime lord Bad Horse.

Smirking at popular culture, Bad Horse is indeed a horse, and his henchmen come straight from the days of TV Westerns’ white-hatted sheriffs and black-hatted outlaws. Dr. Horrible hardly seems capable of joining such a league—he can’t get Penny to notice him, much less foil the resident good guy, hero Captain Hammer. His attempts at causing mayhem backfire spectacularly, making this junior villain a sympathetic character. Viewers probably identify more with him than with smarmy do-gooder Captain Hammer.

This hero knows how to run a photo op and score with the groupies who follow him. Hammer hits on truly virtuous Penny, who only wants to help the homeless. The hero helps her only in order to get what he wants—her “virtue”—and to show Dr. Horrible yet another way in which he has failed. Hammer performs good deeds to ensure the desired amount of citywide swooning over his latest heroic act, as shown on the nightly news.

This portrayal does what Joss Whedon has done best in series like Buffy and Angel: illustrate none too subtly the smooth self-interest of those in power, whether demons masquerading as lawyers (Wolfram & Hart) or “heroes” like Hammer running a city. The outcasts in his TV stories often become the true heroes, such as high school vampire slayer Buffy or vampire-with-a-soul Angel. In the Whedonverse, the monsters (especially vampires) sometimes can be redeemed.

In Dr. Horrible, the apprentice villain is the outcast, and according to countless traditional hero stories, he, of course, should be. This story’s social outcast is not looking for redemption or a way to help humanity. Whedon, however, carefully sets up a story in which viewers like the “wrong” character—Dr. Horrible. Hammer does make this choice fairly easy—Fillion gloriously goes overboard in a parody of his earlier Whedon role as Captain Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly, a dark hero who, for all his self-interest, manages to fight the good fight. Hammer, like Reynolds, likes to take the path of least resistance and get a job done as easily as possible, but, in both series, unexpected complications arise. Whereas Captain Mal at least has the good grace not to call himself a hero, even though he often acts like one, Hammer expects his reputation to protect him, even when he acts less than heroic. Hammer looks like a hero but, just like the villain, has his own agenda, one that doesn’t involve a lot of self-sacrifice.

Much More than a Dark Horse

An LA Times blog neatly summarized the way Joss Whedon (the miniseries’ writer usually singled out for praise) makes audiences fall in love with Dr. Horrible: “He makes bad guys into good guys and good into bad, writes a superhero epic where every three minutes the characters break out in song, and most death defying of all, he puts the whole thing on the Internet.”

In July 2008, Variety saw Dr. Horrible in terms of coin, noting that “Whedon’s gambit is the most high-profile example of a movement underway among Hollywood scribes to harness the marketing and distribution power of the Internet for their own creative (and moneymaking) ends, sidestepping the major studios and networks in the process.” Indeed, Dr. Horrible proved there is a market for high-quality webisodes and their product spinoffs.

Whedon fans saw Dr. Horrible in terms of creativity. Over three days in July 2008, one act at a time, Dr. Horrible was unleashed on the public. Its viral publicity backed by high-quality performance and production made it a prime viewing attraction and one of the first streaming stories to gain so much attention. Fans also voted the miniseries as “Best Internet Phenomenon” at the U.S. People’s Choice Awards.

Reviewers and awards-makers saw Dr. Horrible in terms of critical acclaim. The miniseries won several of the newly founded Streamy Awards for online media, including Best Web Series. At the Hugo Awards for science fiction, Dr. Horrible won Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. When Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer visually broke into the recorded broadcast of the Creative Arts Emmy Awards and interrupted the proceedings with their banter, they stole the show, but they legitimately carried away an Emmy.

No matter how audiences see Dr. Horrible—as money maker, innovative entertainment, or technically superior production—they want more. Although Zack and Jed Whedon told comic book fans at a 2010 signing event in Hollywood that they had begun writing a sequel, a new edition has yet to hit the net. Other media, however, tell more of the Horrible story.

A Dark Horse comic book featuring Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer presents a prequel to the webisodic adventure. Zack and Jed Whedon’s stories at Dark Horse Comics’ MySpace site provide additional insights into Dr. Horrible characters. Issue 12 (July 2008), for example, introduces Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible through “Captain Hammer: Be Like Me,” and Issue 23 (June 2009) illustrates Penny’s pre-Horrible life.

There’s even a live-stage version in Seattle, so popular that it was brought back from last year’s sold-out performance to a bigger venue in February 2011. At this point, Dr. Horrible might someday make the rumors come true and become a big Broadway musical. Whether small screen or big stage, the concepts behind Dr. Horrible are well worth the attention of ever-larger audiences.

Hammering out a Modern Hero

Viewers might laugh at the way Hammer’s hugely inflated ego is pinpricked and deflated in Dr. Horrible, except for one other plot point found in many other Whedon stories: the “villain” really is villainous, and innocents get killed. The everyday characters audiences get to know and love in the Whedonverse, such as Tara (Buffy) or Fred (Angel) or Wash (Firefly, Serenity), often die in unexpected ways. Whedon’s stories have a lot of collateral damage in battles, big and small, between Good and Evil. Despite his quirky, strangely uplifting songs and nerdy charm, Dr. Horrible really is a villain. Whedon doesn’t misdirect the audience by emphasizing the sincerity behind the lead character’s blog entries.

Perhaps this jolt of reality is the strength of Joss Whedon’s stories, best distilled in this miniseries’ three acts: Evil does exist, and Good often can’t—or won’t—be able to overcome it. The people we consider society’s Heroes may be just as flawed as Villains, and innocents can and do get in the way.

Whedon’s stories make us laugh because we understand their irony, and today’s audiences can be very cynical indeed. Nevertheless, Whedon’s series do what all good hero stories should do: enlighten us about the nature of our world and show how we are part of the human struggle. Quite literally, in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, we’re all part of the chorus.