Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thoughts on Dr. Horrible (Now With Spoilers)

Joss Whedon's new web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog is a curious and bold experiment. Inspired in part by the success of web series like The Guild, it's probably the first web show by a "name" producer that isn't an ancillary show designed to promote an existing mainstream series.

As a producer who's had mixed success with movies and television, Joss Whedon is a pretty logical choice for experimenting with the web as a content platform. His work has always had a distinctive blend of genre spanning humor, action, and tragedy. Dr. Horrible is no different. Starring TV veteran Neil Patrick Harris as Billy (AKA Dr. Horrible) is video weblog of the rise of a wannabe supervillain. Not only is it jam packed with veterans of other Whedon series (it even includes two news anchors who are played by long-time Whedon writers David Fury and Marti Noxon); it is also full of the hallmarks of Whedon's work: great dialog, a sardonic sense of humor, and tragic twists and turns.

The show opens with a video weblog of Dr. Horrible answering his emails dropping hints about his latest nefarious scheme. But he's distracted by Penny, an adorable little redhead played by The Guild's Felicia Day (who also played Vi on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) with a social conscience and a fondness for frozen yogurt. For example his attempt to hijack of a shipment of "Wonderflonium," the missing ingredient of a "Freeze Ray" which Dr. Horrible is building to stop time, is foiled by his nemesis superhero Captain Hammer when he stops to chat with Penny. I say "foiled" in a very loose sense because Dr. Horrible actually does manage to steal the Wonderflonium even as he inadvertently helps Penny and Hammer meet when Hammer "rescues" her from a runaway van by throwing her into a pile of garbage.

Even though he's a superhero, Captain Hammer is the real bad guy in this story. Played with smarmy glee by one of Whedon's favorite leading men, Nathan Fillion, Hammer is a total douchebag whose only superpower is the ability to hit things very hard. He's mostly into the superhero business because it's a convenient excuse to beat people up and hit on women. Nevertheless, Captain Hammer does do some good. He helps Penny get a new a building for the homeless shelter where she works. He also taunts Billy mercilessly when he finds out that he has a crush on Penny.

Since this is a Joss Whedon production, tragedy strikes at the least expected moment. It seems to me that there are two basic Whedon heroines, the bad girl with daddy issues who is at the front and center of the action and always triumphs in the end even in the face of multiple deaths. The other kind of Whedon heroine is the sweet girl whom usually plays second fiddle to the lead and either evolves into a bad girl or dies tragically. (One of the few reliefs of the quick end to Whedon's brilliant series Firefly is that we never got to see what Whedon had planned in store for Kaylee.) Penny is clearly the in the latter category and dies tragically when Dr. Horrible's death ray malfunctions and sends a hail of shrapnel in all directions.

This event is essentially the origin story for Dr. Horrible. While he existed before it happened, he was basically a joke. He was The Trio from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer -- a big nerd who wanted to be a supervillain because he felt alienated. But just as Warren, the leader of The Trio, turns becomes truly evil once he kills his ex-girlfriend Dr. Horrible similarly becomes truly evil when he kills Penny. This exploration of the origins of good and evil is the most interesting hallmark of Joss Whedon's work and Dr. Horrible pulls it off quite with a lot of panache.

Overall, Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog does a tremendous of blending comedy and tragedy in an appealing musical format.

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