Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Showcases Joss Whedon’s Evil Genius

When Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog debuted on the Internet in the summer of 2008, it was instantly acclaimed as perhaps the finest content ever developed directly for the Internet. Fans responded so enthusiastically the day the first segment was released that they crashed the server, making it both a popular and critical success. A flurry of awards followed, including an Emmy, despite its never having appeared on television. When Dr. Horrible star Neil Patrick Harris hosted the Emmys, there was a moment in which Dr. Horrible hijacked the telecast, bringing together fellow stars Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day, and Simon Helberg. The show also won a Hugo and a People’s Choice Award, while Time named it the fourth best television series of the year, like the Emmys, ignoring the fact that it had no connection to television. The American Film Institute deemed it one of the top eight “moments of significance” in pop culture for 2008.

After its initial release for free on the Dr. Horrible web site, it was available on iTunes and then later on DVD. Now, it is available on Blu-ray amid reports (confirmed by the lead actors from the project) that work on a script for Dr. Horrible 2 is underway, though perhaps as a feature film, rather than an Internet event.

Dr. Horrible is the story of a would-be evil-doer – actually, more of an anarchist who wants to destroy the status quo, than someone who has truly embraced the dark side – who is on the verge of being accepted into the Evil League of Evil, led by the “thoroughbred of sin”, Bad Horse. Being a modern guy, the Doctor recounts his struggles to join the ELOE on his online video blog, where he also denounces his nemesis Captain Hammer (a self-absorbed, pompous ass, wonderfully portrayed by Nathan Fillion). Meanwhile, in everyday life, our antihero (whose name may be Billy Buddy, based on twice being called that in song, with obvious references to Melville) harbors a huge crush on Penny, a woman he sees at his local Laundromat (played by Felicia Day, the queen of online series due to her involvement in both this and in her own series, The Guild). Being a musical, the various characters repeatedly break into song. The music is irresistibly infectious and far more delightful than one would expect from any Internet production, and all three of the leads – and especially Neil Patrick Harris – do superb jobs in their musical performances.

Although four writers shared credit for the production and it is therefore difficult to assign blame or praise for any particular element, the end of the musical is sheer Joss Whedon, with a particularly nasty twist that transforms what had been a light-hearted musical comedy parody of the whole superhero/super villain genre into an out and out tragedy. The moral of the story is a familiar one: be careful what you wish for.

Joss Whedon had been toying with the concept behind Dr. Horrible for some time, but during the 2007-2008 Screen Writers’ Guild strike the Whedon clan – Joss, his brothers Jed and Zack, and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen – decided to undertake the project in earnest. Joss had already proven himself adept in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode “Once More, With Feeling”. More recently, he directed another musical television episode, reuniting with Dr. Horrible himself, Neil Patrick Harris, on the “Dream On” episode of Glee.

When Dr. Horrible debuted in the summer of 2008, it raised hopes that the Internet might become the home for widespread independent series that avoided the stultifying limitations placed upon artists by the studio and network system. So far, that hasn’t happened. While we have seen isolated successes like Dr. Horrible and The Guild, for the most part the best way to get widely viewed on the Internet is to produce pieces that can be shown repeatedly on YouTube. It is too early to conclude that Dr. Horrible was not a harbinger of things to come. It may well be that economic and artistic models for Internet success may be found, but so far these series have been exceptions rather than rules. There still is a rather minimal amount of on demand scripted Internet content. It is too early to say that the kind of hope that Dr. Horrible inspired was misplaced, but we certainly haven’t seen the kind of blossoming of great independent talent we hoped for when it first appeared.

We can, however, note that Dr. Horrible is yet another example of how Joss Whedon has been on or near the cutting edge of popular art and media for the past fifteen years. He can’t take credit for every phenomenon possibly spawned by his projects, but going back over the list is instructive.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, was a trendsetting series for several reasons. It was pivotal in making TV safe for female heroes. Although earlier in the decade Dana Scully and Xena had emerged as female TV heroes, it isn’t at all clear that they would have made the appearance of additional female heroes inevitable, while Buffy certainly has. Buffy was the first show to establish the Body Count, which has since become a staple of adventure television series. While a few TV series had had notable deaths before Buffy (Deep Throat and X on The X-Files, for instance), they had never done anywhere close to the quantity that Buffy had. On series that followed, it was not at all unusual to have multiple characters die. Buffy was also important for the development of the dramedy (a series that possesses both significant comic and dramatic elements) and other types of genre hybridity.

Furthermore, although Buffy was not the first TV series to appear on DVD, it was one of the very first to achieve tremendous success in DVD sales due to establishing appropriate pricing. While The X-Files was already out on DVD, it had relatively low sales due to pricing each season close to $100. Buffy achieved significant sales by keeping the cost of each season under $50.

Buffy was also the first TV series to be downloaded via file sharing in massive numbers. We even know the precise episode with which this began. After the Columbine killings, the WB decided to pull two Season Three episodes that dealt with violence at Sunnydale High School. The episodes were, however, shown in Canada, where fans uploaded the episode onto the Internet for American fans who were unable to see them.

A few years later, Joss Whedon’s series Firefly achieved huge success on DVD after having been a lightly-watched series on FOX. Only Family Guy preceded it as the first series to get a second life on disc. Later, Whedon became one of the first TV producers (along with J. Michael Straczynski) to enjoy great success as a comic book writer, first with his hugely acclaimed Astonishing X-Men, while also becoming the first TV creator to continue his own series as comics: first with Serenity and then with Buffy the Vampire, Season Eight. While there had been a host of TV series continued in comic book form, this had not been done by the shows’ creators. Several other writers have already or will soon continue their shows as comics, such as Rockne S. O’Bannon, who has produced a string of stories for the comic continuance of Farscape, while Bryan Fuller has produced a series of scripts for DC Comics’ Wildstorm label for his great series Pushing Daisies.

Thus, it is not surprising that another project associated with Whedon is on the cutting edge of popular culture. Perhaps this is an instance of a show where he is out in front of popular culture and it has yet to catch up.

The Blu-ray edition contains the same extras found on the original DVD, including video applications to the Evil League of Evil, featurettes on the making of the musical, and two sets of commentary, one by the cast and characters, and the other, “Commentary! The Musical”, in which the cast and crew sings songs about the making of the production.

Now comes the consumer guide portion of the review: does the new Blu-ray represent an improvement over the original DVD and, if so, enough of one to justify an upgrade for those who already have the DVD? Yes, the Blu-ray does sound and look better than the DVD, but as to how much improvement this represents, I would say, not so much. The improvement is so slight that many viewers may find the upgrade to be too inadequate to justify the upgrade.

It would have been nice if the Whedon clan and the performers had provided a few additional features so that the disc would have involved an improvement both in quantity and quality. For those with Blu-ray players who do not yet own a copy, getting the inexpensively priced Blu-ray is a no-brainer. For those with the DVD, given the dearth of new features, upgrading probably makes little sense, but sometimes a little improvement is enough.

RATING 8 / 10