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Non-Review Review: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Who would have thought that the writers’ strike last year would have been a blessing in disguise? Not only did the condensing down of seasons of House and Lost give the series a tighter narrative flow, but we also got the highest-profile “web original” series ever written. It may have been somewhat disingenous of Time to name this little musical masterpiece “one of the best inventions of 2008” – as there have been web-based series before – but what is astounding is how well this little drama stands on its own. Produced with a shoestring budget using favours called in from all over the industry as a means of artistic expression circumventing the studio system (which was being boycotted by the strike), Joss Whedon continues to demonstrate his cult credentials with another sure-fire geek hit.

The doctor will see you now...

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is the story of wannabe supervillian Billy Buddy (aka Dr. Horrible, with “a PHd in horribleness”) as he attempts to both make a name for himself (by conducting one truly evil act) and also woo Penny, the girl from his laundromat. As with Whedon’s work on Buffy, the story is an exploration of people issues masquerading as escapist fantasy. Billy’s insecurities are all-too-familiar as he’s unable to find the words to express his feelings to the woman he’s beeing doing laundry with for years.

If Billy is the stereotypical insecure young man, than his archnemesis – Captain Hammer – is a jock. Arrogant, suave, insensitive, self-obsessed and vindictive for no apparent reason, Hammer represents the typical Whedon badguy, an authority figure who is embraced without question by those around him. Whedon tosses the “superhero origin” story on its head – here providing a “supervillain origin”, giving us a sympathetic lead character (at one point he refuses to fight his own wannabe-archnemesis “Johnny Snow” in a park because there’s a playground with kids present).

And he does it through a musical.

That isn’t really a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Whedon’s musical Buffy episode, Once More With Feeling, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Whedon pulls it off with aplomp. The music is infectious, the lyrics more than a little witty (“So you wonder what your part is, cause you’re homeless and depressed; but home is where the heart is, so your real home’s in your chest!”) and the serial manages to skilfully mix action and music in a way that it seems neither staid nor overly-staged. There are no big dance numbers, but equally the cast don’t just stand around delivering their notes either. As with the rest of the piece, the songs manage to walk the line between self-consciously funny (Everyone’s a Hero, Bad Horse) and serious (On The Rise).

Whedon is – as ever – a top brass pop culture chef. He knows the ingredients necessary for producing the kind of story he wants to tell – sympathetic lead, jerkass antagonist – but isn’t above spicing things up a bit if he feels it’s needed – note that the ‘villain’, Dr. Horrible, dresses in white and the ‘hero’, Captain Hammer, dresses in darker colours, or how Captain Hammer has a deeper voice (traditionally associated with villains) than Doctor Horrible.

The cast is every inch up to the material. Nathan Fillon superbly hams it up and demonstrates why he is destined for at least Bruce-Campbell-level cult followings in the future. Neil Patrick Harris continues to be insanely talented at everything he does, indulging both the ridiculousness of the set-up and the honest pathos of the character. Felicia Day works well as the romantic interest in the story, and does the best in the least-developed of the three leads.

It’s a solidly entertaining piece that came from the most unlikely source. There’s already talk of a sequel in the works, which sounds intriguing. One of the benefits of this being a web-original series is that it is still available on-line (on Hulu if you live in the States, available elsewhere if you life elsewhere). Still, since so much work went into producing this (with most of the cast and crew working for free), it is worth considering picking up the DVD if you like what you see.

In fairness, for the $10 it costs you on amazon.com (about €11 including shipping), you couldn’t go far wrong with just the musical itself, but the DVD comes with a fair whack of special features. There are two commentaries. The first is the now famous Commentary! The Musical, which is exactly as reflexive as you might imagine (“that’s like breaking the ninth wall!” a commentator declares at one point). It’s exactly what it says on the tin, with cast-and-crew playing exaggerated versions of themselves – check out Nathan Fillon’s Better Than Neil or Felicia Day’s It’s All About The Art – or just discussing the behind-the-scenes aspects of production – Strike! or the “deleted” song Nobody Wants to be Moist – or even just discussing what they did during breaks on filming – the awesome-beyond words Ninja Ropes. Highlights include the Sondheim-inspired Neil’s Turn delivered with broadway-style by Neil Patrick Harris or Heart by Joss Whedon, which serves as a good-natured criticism of the fixation on ‘behind the scenes’ materials on DVD’s and the over-analysis of art these days. For those not impressed by the obvious showing off of the creative teams, there’s a more straight-forward commentary also included. Both are worth a listen.

There’s also a variety of extras, from behind the scenes materials to audition videos from fans. There’s some good stuff here, but nothing as brilliant as the commentary musical. The DVD would be worth being for the feature itself, but there’s even more reason to fork out (beyond supporting a good cause).

Well worth at least a browse on Hulu and I’m already anticipating the sequel.

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