I do not, on the whole, have an issue with spectacle. I enjoy being blown away, caught up in something so extravagant and intricate and utterly insane that there is no danger of it ever getting mistaken for anything resembling reality. On the other hand, I can appreciate the argument that our obsession with extravagance can lead some to mistake spectacle for art. And so, while I adore something like Moulin Rouge with every molecule of my being, I would prefer not to see any more debacles like Chicago. In other words, there is certainly a case to be made for simplicity.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog embraces simplicity, though mostly by necessity. Basically, during the 2007 WGA Strike, Joss Whedon and some of his hyper-talented family and friends were bored and wanted to make something to show their solidarity with the writers. So they got together, called in a shoestring budget and a whole bunch of favors, made Dr. Horrible, and threw it up on the Internet for free. The whole thing is interwoven with whimsy and barely contained glee at being able to make something just for the sake of making it. I loved it so much that I bought the DVD (which, I would like to point out, means that I willingly paid for something available online for free), watched 13 times the first week I had it, and have spent hours poring over the special features (there is a musical commentary – as in, where other, lesser works might stick in a self-congratulatory shlockfest, these people took the time to parody such a phenomenon in song).
But first, the plot: Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) has two equally ambitious and equally momentous goals – to get into the Evil League of Evil (ruled by the nefarious Bad Horse) and to win the affections of the sweet, idealistic Penny (Felicia Day). But Dr. Horrible’s attempts to pull off a crime big enough to win the attentions of the League inadvertently push Penny straight into the arms of his arch-nemesis, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion). With growing desperation and social commentary, Dr. Horrible tries harder and harder to rule the world and win the girl.
There’s a lot of great little stuff here – for example, Dr. Horrible’s sidekick is a guy named Moist, who boasts the power of super-sweat and ruins the top few pieces of mail by making them all soggy, Bad Horse’s letters are sung in 3-part harmony (to a tune which is, incidentally, also Dr. Horrible’s ringtone), and Captain Hammer makes sure we all know who he is by wearing a t-shirt with an insignia of a garden hammer. The dialogue is sprinkled with blink-and-you-miss-it one liners and punctuated by a few utterly brilliant gags. And Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day, and Nathan Fillion are all fantastic, carrying the show with their depiction of the most developed characters I have ever seen in a 45-minute time span. Felicia Day is lovely as the kind-hearted, doe-eyed Penny, and Nathan Fillion comes out swinging in all of his most deliciously douchey glory. Now, I am of the camp that questions whether Neil Patrick Harris has ever turned in a bad performance (his presence in next summer’s sure-to-bomb-spectacularly Smurfs is the sole reason I am considering putting myself through that assured nightmare). But his Dr. Horrible is simply beautiful, a tour-de-force of naiveté, humor, and a surprising amount of suppressed intensity. His eye twitches alone are worth watching for.
But the true star is the music. As with any musical, this is in many respects the make-or-break factor. While I am, to be sure, an unapologetic musical theater geek, I am pleased to report that it unequivocally makes Dr. Horrible. The songs mesh perfectly with the situations, telling the story in a way mere dialogue could not. The music allows the story to be much more complex and expansive than 45 minutes should allow, and speaks perfectly to the emotions and tone of any given scene. But more than all that, the music is simply good, ear-catching (that may or may not be a word) and fun and undiminished on the tenth listen. Sure, they’ll get stuck in your head for days, but for the first month or so, you won’t even mind – and that, friends, is the greatest complement I can give to music.
I’ve been considering recently the difference between “good” and “great.” There are lots of pop-culture works that I would consider good, but never great; movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Despicable Me, hell, Star Wars all come to mind here. I absolutely, emphatically enjoy these films, but my response to calling them “great” would have to be a skeptical eyebrow raise. Ultimately, I think the difference between “good” and “great” lies in a willingness to challenge the audience, whether by plot complexity, character or moral ambiguity, tragedy, etc. Without giving too much away, I can say that, by this criteria, Dr. Horrible is great. It is fun and enjoyable and hysterical but not afraid to have a (fairly dark) emotional core, and to embrace this core. I have not seen much of Joss Whedon’s work (still a Buffy virgin, with increasingly less justification for this), but from what I have read and from my limited experience, this is characteristic of his work. And I, personally, love this. I think it constitutes a fairly rare form of bravery to be able to so deftly maintain the balance Dr. Horrible embodies, and I think it reveals a fundamental respect for the audience many contemporary makers of film and television seem to lack.
But most of all (and I hope that my getting so serious about this does not detract from the fact that Dr. Horrible is the most enjoyable and entertaining and whimsical 45 minutes I have ever had), Dr. Horrible is art in its purest form. There are some who claim that true art is art created to be destroyed, to be experienced by the author alone – a proverbial tree falling in the forest. But I disagree. Art is, in its most basic form, a means of communication, the simplest means we have. And so true art is art created for no other reason than to share with others. Because Dr. Horrible was made mostly for the fun of it, it is untainted by the corporatism and cynicism which permeates most of what is put out today. There is a freshness, a sincerity to it. I am not saying that this is a divinely-inspired, transcendent change-all end game, but it is something fun and exciting and different, an entertaining peek into the mind of genius.