Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
directed by Joss Whedon
(Mutant Enemy, 2008)

The Hollywood writer's strike of 2008 bore bitter fruit for a great many television viewers, but there was one rose among the thorns that made it all worthwhile.

OK, so it's not a perfect metaphor. But Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog might never have seen the light of day if those writers hadn't struck, and that would have been a terrible loss to the artistic world.

Joss Whedon, the creative genius behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, opted to make use of some of that downtime to put together a little project with his friends. Drawing on the writing talents of his brothers, Jed and Zack Whedon, and Jed's fiancee Maurissa Tancharoen, Joss created a series of three brief episodes that aired, free of charge, online to unprecedented audiences.

Much of the series is presented as a video blog by the eponymous Dr. Horrible, played with a finely nuanced style by Neil Patrick Harris. Harris hams it up with delight from the very first scene, in which he practices his sinister laugh for viewers before responding to his latest batch of e-mails. Dr. Horrible has visions of achieving social change through villainy and has designs on joining the Evil League of Evil, led by the "thoroughbred of sin," Bad Horse. He also has a terrible time getting his inventions -- including a matter transmitter and freeze ray -- to work properly, and he has a delightfully bashful crush on Penny (Felicia Day), a girl he sees twice weekly at the local laundromat.

What, you didn't think supervillains did their own laundry? Not everyone has an army of minions at their disposal, my friends.

Penny is the sweet girl-next-door type with a love for frozen yogurt and a real passion for helping the homeless. Unfortunately for Dr. Horrible, a.k.a. Billy, Penny is swept off her feet -- literally, and a little violently -- by Horrible's self-absorbed arch-nemesis, Captain Hammer. Hammer, played with immeasurable superiority by Nathan Fillion, is a cheese-and-muscle hero sandwich of epic proportions who likes little more than throwing punches and stomping on Horrible's plans.

Oh, did I mention this was a musical? Anyone who saw the landmark Buffy musical "Once More with Feeling" knows what Whedon and his crew are capable of. The songs aren't just catchy, they're invasive; expect to hear them running through your head quite often, and you might well find yourself singing along. Still, while you might expect this all to boil down to comic fluff, Whedon packs the show with clever shifts, deep thoughts and unexpected twists.

Let me draw your attention to a couple interesting facts about the show. According to a reliable online source (OK, the trivia section on imdb.com), Dr. Horrible was rated the top TV series on iTunes for five consecutive weeks. Even more impressive, Time magazine named the series the fourth best television series of 2008, even though it never aired on TV.

Take that, network bigwigs. As Tasha Robinson, associate editor for The Onion's A.V. Club, notes in her review, "maybe the networks will treat him better once they see how readily he can cut them out of the profits." Ha! Maybe those short-sighted folks at Fox should think again about pulling the plug so quickly on Firefly!

Dr. Horrible is now available on DVD along with a few special features including a musical commentary reel. Get it. Enjoy it. And make sure you know what "the hammer" is.

review by
Tom Knapp

24 January 2009

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