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Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog Review

on Mon, 07/15/2013 - 00:00

At the start of the 2007-2008 strike by the Writers Guild of America, Entertainment Weekly speculated on a potential scenario regarding the central issue of compensation for Internet video content. “It’ll be interesting to see what 12,000 unemployed screenwriters can do on the Internet,” the magazine wrote on November 8, 2007. “In fact, that could be the ironic twist ending we’ve been looking for—Hollywood writers figure out a way to make so much money from the Internet, the studios and networks end up asking them for a piece of the action.” The words later proved to be prophetic when television producer Joss Whedon used the strike-induced hiatus to create a three episode web series, Dr. Horible's Sing-Along Blog.

“During the strike I started writing a musical intended as a limited Internet series, three episodes of approximately 10 minutes each,” Whedon posted on the fan-based Whedonesque weblog in mid-March 2008. “Writing with me was my brother Jed, his fiancée Maurissa, and my other brother Zack. To my shock and surprise, we finished it. To my greater shock and surprise, we managed to drag it into preproduction. And today, after a grueling week of writing everything ever while trying to be a producer, I got to start shooting.”

The completed web series—which Whedon described as “the story of a low-rent supervillain, the hero who keeps beating him up, and the cute girl from the laundromat he’s too shy to talk to”—stars Neil Patrick Harris as Dr. Horrible, Nathan Fillion as Captain Hammer and Felicia Day as Penny. While a musical in style, and both entertaining and comic in nature, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is actually more detailed and depth-oriented than one might expect. Each of the characters evoke a naïve innocence, for instance, while the narrative itself explores what happens when that innocence both fades and eventually shatters.

All the elements of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog likewise click in top-notch fashion, from the writing to the acting to the music itself. Neil Patrick Harris in particular shines as the title character. His vocal abilities go beyond impressive to Broadway-quality, while his acting effectively switches from comic to knee-weak-romantic to determined-evil without ever missing a beat. Nathan Fillion, meanwhile, portrays the self-indulgent Captain Hammer with straight-forward smugness coupled with the same charisma he brought to Firefly’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Just as Harris instills a likeable quality in Dr. Horrible despite the character’s inherent villainess, Fillion does the same for the arrogant Hammer.

The music itself is reminiscent of the classic Broadway vein that Joss Whedon mined in the “Once More With Feeling” musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and runs a full gamut of styles. The initial laundromat sequence is whimsical in nature while later numbers range from rock to a touch of gospel, and the song collection even conjures comparisons to both Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Jonathan Larson’s Rent. The underlying instrumental score, composed strictly by Jed Whedon, effectively evokes the comic book nature of the web series while also adding to the impact of the heartbreaking climax.

The inherent comedic talent of Joss Whedon is evident throughout the web series, with some of the funniest moments and dialogue occurring in Act III. The resolution of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is also a classic example of the filmmaker’s ability to pull the emotional rug out from under the viewer’s feet. The inevitable final confrontation between Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer not only effectively brings the web series to conclusion, but transforms the two arch rivals from isolated simplicity into full realization of their inherent natures. Suffice it to say that after their epic battle, neither Dr. Horrible nor Captain Hammer will ever be the same again. The whimsical texture of the web series likewise evaporates in the final musical sequence as the title character completes his evolution from wannabe to full-fledged supervillain, while the simple, abrupt ending adds to the emotional wallop that Whedon has developed into a personal trademark.

“When the strike happened, everything was about making online content,” Joss Whedon explained to Matt Roush of TV Guide at the time. “But everything was very overblown. Or underblown. It was either me and my video camera in my backyard or let’s partner up and get millions of dollars. Neither of these things was gonna fit the paradigm that will make me a musical, so I finally decided to do it myself.” He added that the idea “was to show that you can do this on a very different scale than people are thinking about. I felt like we stretched our dollars just as far as they will go. It’s a pretty extraordinary piece even at the price tag it would cost to normally produce it if you couldn’t call in any favors.”

Before the strike, the prevalent attitude within the industry was that if you wanted to be a writer in Hollywood, then you had to accept what the production companies were willing to offer in terms of both financial rewards and creative leeway. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, meanwhile, was produced without the backing of traditional Hollywood and demonstrated that a television writer in the Age of the Internet was not necessarily beholden to anyone. During the opening monologue, Dr. Horrible makes the comment, “It’s not about making money, it’s about taking money. Destroying the status quo. Because the status is not quo.” The statement could just as well have summed up Joss Whedon’s own attitude towards the television industry and the underlying message of his groundbreaking web series.

In the end, however, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is more than a just a trailblazer on the World Wide Web terrain, but a classic parable about the perils of naïve innocence, “watch what you wish for” lesson-learning and the cost one eventually pays when guided by blind ambition. It is also whimsical, romantic and comedic while equally living up to the “sing-along” wording of its title. The Whedon Clan created a web series that not only brings attention to the potential of the online medium, but a forty-two minute narrative masterpiece for these technologically-changing times in which we live.

Anthony Letizia

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