Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Let's go back to fall of 2007 for a moment: the new Golden Age of Television is about to end. Why? Because the WGA is set to go on strike in November. When it hit, the writer's strike effectively ruined the 2007/08 T.V. schedule, all because writers had the temerity to ask fair recompense from companies that made billions off of them without having to make a damn thing other than phone calls to advertisers. Actors and directors showed solidarity with the writers, and showrunners even halted production of pre-written episodes to join them on the picket lines. While all this happened, Joss Whedon, whose initial deal for Dollhouse was naturally postponed, needed something to sink his creative teeth into now that he finally decided to get back to writing. So what did he do? Oh, not much, other than try to change the entire model of television.
Now, let's get something straight: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is not the first legitimate web series; hell, it's not even the first legitimate web series made by one of its participants. Felicia Day's ongoing series The Guild has been a notable hit for its two seasons, and Day even inked a groundbreaking deal with Microsoft that actually earned her a profit for her work. Whedon was clearly taken by The Guild, so he brought Day, who had a minor role as one of two Potentials that were actually fun in the final season of Buffy, on-board just as soon as he figured out what he wanted to make.
As you might ascertain from the title, Joss, with the help of Maurissa Tancharoen and his brothers Zack and Jed, wrote a musical. One's mind naturally turns to the great and timeless Buffy episode "Once More, With Feeling," and those instincts would be fairly accurate: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is, for all of its too-brief 43 minutes, a hysterical, acerbic, subversive and, in true Whedon fashion, brutally tragic ride that was easily the best thing to come out of the writer's strike.
And who better to play the titular Dr. Horrible, blogger-cum-supervillain wannabe, than Neil Patrick Harris who, in his words, helped invent the blog with his Doogie Howser character? Harris is wonderful as the cynical, ever-bemused Horrible; his recent roles, from his perverted self-parody in the Harold & Kumar films to his essentially cleaned-up-for-primetime Harold & Kumar part for the excellent sitcom How I Met Your Mother, generally see him as a cocksure lothario who's either desperate for a friend or a borderline psycho. But Whedon loves to challenge people, so Horrible is lovesick, awkward and insecure; he seeks to enter the Evil League of Evil, but because he wants to better mankind who to him don't understand how their ignorance hurts them.
In between his schemings, he pines for Penny (Day), the bookish activist who he sees at the laundromat three times a week. Horrible spends as much time trying to muster up the courage to ask her out as he does pleasing the nefarious Bad Horse, leader of the ELE, into gaining acceptance. He has a chance when she surprises him on the street and asks him to sign a petition to raise money for a homeless shelter, but he's busy stealing "wonderflonium" to power his new freeze ray. Things only get worse for our villain when the heroic Captain Hammer swoops in and foils Horrible's plans and, even worse, Penny falls for his arch-nemesis.
And that's just the first act! The rest is even funnier and more heartbreaking. The songs are all humorous, but they work outside of novelty; these are genuine show tunes, as ready-made to be sung by fans as anything you'd expect to hear on Broadway. There is also Whedonesque humor a-plenty, with a sizable majority of the lines being instant quotables. And the climax ends in the way you might expect from Joss, but he plays it perfectly. The phrase "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry" is so overused that it's meaningless these days, but the ending of Dr. Horrible may be the only time where I found that statement completely true. It's a transcendent moment that'll leave you wondering if Joss snuck in the tragedy under the laughs or vice versa.
But that's all just stuff on the surface, waiting to be enjoyed by anyone, Whedonite or neophyte. No, it's when you really start to dig into Dr. Horrible that you see its true genius. Joss' shows are all about subverting expectations, whether it be the hot blonde horror victim suddenly rising up and attacking those who would do her harm or a western in space. Horrible wants to be a feared supervillain, yet his motivations have that oddly benevolent bent to them, like a robot programmed to protect humanity that ends up attacking people to save them from themselves. In his normal life he is clearly shown to be a gentle, caring individual whose cynicism and misanthropy is born more of loneliness than insanity.
Captain Hammer, on the other hand, is narcissistic and churlish; the only reason he does not beat Dr. Horrible senseless in the first act is that an attractive woman clearly exhibits a crush on him, which he focuses all of his attention on exploiting. When he gives a speech in the third act about how "we're all heroes," it only displays his delusion and selfishness. There's also a delicious bit in his reaction to experiencing pain for the first time. That last part is a possible reference to the novelization of Serenity, in which, Fillion says (no, I didn't read it), author Keith DeCandido portrayed The Operative as a man so good at fighting that he never learned how to take a punch. I heard this little nugget on the Serenity cast commentary.
OK, that's probably not a solid link and the only thing I did was prove how sad I am. But this is so full of Whedon callbacks that anything's possible. He's not only subverting heroes and villains, he's subverting his own previous subversion of heroes and villains. And NPH isn't the only person he plays against type; Day plays a gaming shut-in on The Guild and in real life describes herself as a "misanthrope," yet Penny is optimistic and open, and she's doing her best to help other people. Fillion, naturally, thoroughly deconstructs Malcolm Reynolds by using Hammer as the perfect mirror image: where Reynolds was gruff but fiercely loyal and a capable leader, Hammer is vainglorious and irresponsible – he seems to be a hero solely for the fame and the women. He even makes a passing reference (in song, of course), that Penny might become the first woman he's ever had sex with twice.
If this perfectly constructed miniseries doesn't give you enough Whedon to fill you up – which is understandable considering that, combined, Dr. Horrible is barely as long as a single episode of one of his shows – then you should pay the paltry fee for the DVD, which boasts the magnificent Commentary! The Musical. Though it almost never references the actual series, Commentary! is a creation every bit as masterful as Dr. Horrible, even if they songs don't invite as much singing along. A tune about the writer's strike betrays Joss' bitterness over the whole thing and its outcome, while Maurisa's "Nobody's Asian" has a sting of truth behind her lines about how roles for Asians in Hollywood are few and far between. But don't let this convince you that the commentary is dour and cynical; it's brimming with in-jokes (including something about Fillion's delicious seven-bean dip) and tongue-in-cheek humor, but that level of darkness just makes it better.
As great as Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is on a surface and subtextual level, it's possibly even more exciting when you consider what it could mean for web shows. Shortly after the first act hit the web, the servers of drhorrible.com crashed for days and the initial DVD-R offered exclusively through Amazon was the #3 highest-selling DVD shortly after release and even at the time of this writing remains in the top 50.
While its financial success certainly doesn't prove that the future is here when it comes to independent production: Whedon himself recently mentioned that we still need studios for more epic works. But if an established auteur like Whedon can make something this brilliant with no budget and total creative freedom, who's to say that the notion of at least small-scale productions isn't possible within the next 10-15 years? Even if it isn't, even if we never get the rumored sequel or some other Web project from Joss, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a near-perfect little slice of heaven whose deceptively simple structure entertains with every viewing.