I tried to watch Joss Whedon's buzz-generator Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on its premiere day, but traffic was so heavy I gave up. Here's the complete three-act musical (42 minutes, with some short commercial breaks), and it's worth a watch.
But how do I feel about it? Not so easily capsulized.
The most obvious observation is this: When you're a cult celebrity with a body of successful work (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity), a relatively small amount of money, plenty of talented friends and too much time on your hands (Dr. Horrible came out of the writer's strike), you can get plenty of publicity and great production values out of a low-rez media form like web video.
Another obvious observation: Neil Patrick Harris is an extremely funny guy.
Yet none of that particularly interests me. Yes, Dr. Horrible likely will be remembered as a historic milestone in the development of web video as an independent medium, but that was almost assured from the moment that news of the project started racing around the Twitterverse.
No, what I want to talk about requires spoilers. So don't read past the jump until after you've watched the final act.
Up until the final minutes, when Dr. Horrible's death ray malfunctions and improbably kills Penny whilst turning Captain Hammer into a blubbering basket case, everything about this piece fit nicely into the super hero satire genre. That's not a slam on Dr. Horrible, by the way -- it's funny and clever and it picks up on Greg Kinnear's brilliant Captain Amazing from Mystery Men and has fun with the hero-as-jerk-jock concept.
Killing Penny is so unexpected based on the wind-up that it's actually unsettling. And here's the thing: A family of TV/film professionals like the Whedons knows EXACTLY what the conventions of those genre narratives allow. So it occurred to me: They're on the writer's strike and they thought, "Let's not just do a Web video: Let's do something we couldn't do in another format."
There isn't an ending to Dr. Horrible so much as there is a set-up for another episode. But I don't think they're really planning to do another episode as much as they are returning to the genre's serialized conventions. The stunning reality is that Dr. Horrible, a sympathetic closet romantic, is now really horrible. There isn't any redemption. There is no celebration in victory or lesson in defeat.
We sang and joked and had fun and anticipated a big laugh at the end, and the filmmakers set the whole thing up to surprise us by violating their unwritten happy-fun-time contract with the audience.
Why did they do it? Because they could. Because they thought of it. Because they understood that they were breaking the rules and doing it deliberately and deviously and joyfully.
And that, my friends, is both liberating and admirable. It wakes us up. Without giving us any message to think about, it makes us think.
It isn't fun at the end. But it's fucking brilliant.