Go watch Act III.
I don’t have a high opinion of webisodes generally. The most professional have probably been Battlestar Galactica’s and even those were shot between episodes on a shoe-string and very obviously constrained by their resources. (I’m discounting the ‘Razor’ web content since those were deleted scenes).
Dr. Horrible is, essentially, a web-based mini-series with professional actors and crew, a decent (if modest by TV standards) budget, told in three Acts and adding up to the length of one TV episode.
It doesn’t entirely escape the curse of the webisode: opening with a prolonged “blog” delivered straight to camera doesn’t help to quell the sense of being delivered on a tight budget. Although it feels slick and is peppered with effects work, and even ropes in plenty of extras for the third Act, there’s still a slightly constrained “shot on three streets” feel.
Nonetheless the overall slickness and the sheer quality of the content goes a long way to proving that the web can deliver good entertainment. As a means of distributing original content it seems to have been a roaring success, although of course without Joss Whedon’s pre-established fan base this would have been far more of a gamble. It appears to have been entered into as a self-financed proof of concept, in which all those involved expected to turn a loss, and I’m very happy for them that the gamble is paying off.
As for the actual plot it’s essentially a deeply, deeply traditional comedy-musical with a single high-concept twist: that it centres around the supervillain and his love-life angst rather than the superhero. Being a Whedon production (written in fact by three Whedon siblings Joss, Jed and Zack together with Maurissa Tancharoen) the comedy has a big side-order of pathos and drama, but it remains essentially a musical-comedy. Just a very dark one.
Neil Patrick Harris is excellent as Dr. Horrible, imbuing him with just the right mixture of empathy and darkness and (like Wash in Firefly) channelling some very Whedonesque delivery at times. Nathan Fillion has a ball in an extremely broadly written-role as Captain Hammer, the muscle-bound, preening oaf of a superhero. Felicia Day gets to play the equally broadly-written Penny, saintly campaigner for the homeless and the object of both the men’s affections. Amazingly she manages to turn this character into someone who doesn’t feel entirely one note, and she has the best singing voice of the three leads. Neil Patrick Harris does a fine job with the songs too, and Fillion certainly doesn’t embarrass himself.
The songs are all pretty good, embracing the wide range of styles that the musical can encompass and playing around with recurring themes and counterpointing melodies without getting snared in pure pastiche. A few are a little bland, but several are outstanding, and the level of lyrical wit is well up there with Whedon’s previous foray into small-scale musicals, Buffy’s ‘Once More With Feeling’. Musicals require a very particular and skewed reality and the world of Dr. Horrible has just the right cinemascope sheen to make that awkward leap from dialogue into song feel like the most natural thing in the world. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the genre, but I liked this one just fine.
It’s hard to know what more to say. This is a slight, characterful, hugely entertaining piece of entertainment with no great aspirations to be more than it is.
The darkness of the ending seems to have caught some people off guard (judging from a variety of online comments I’ve seen), but it’s a perfectly logical extension of the premise and compared to ‘Sweeney Todd’ this is positively sunny. I’ve never really understood the feeling that the author has “betrayed” the audience or shown contempt for a character by having a death or a downbeat ending, as long as it serves the story and themes. Here it clearly does, making for a supremely ironic victory for Dr. Horrible, who simultaneously retains our sympathy, wins and gets his comeuppance.
You can argue too that the gender roles are somewhat unquestioning, particularly for Joss, but that’s part of the DNA of the style of musical he’s making. The male and female roles are equally stereotypical and if it’s the woman yet again1 who dies it’s hard to see how any other death would have been so thematically satisfying. It’s fair to say that Penny is a little shortchanged in the third act, but she dominates the first two to the point where, viewed as a single drama, I think everything will balance out.
“It’s odd that I’m way more excited right now about ‘Dr. Horrible’ than the Emmy nomination,” said Neil Patrick Harris on his recent Emmy nomination for ‘How I Met Your Mother’. “I’m not saying ‘Dr. Horrible’ is the most high-brow of shows, but it’s good. We’re not reinventing the theatrical wheel…”
That sounds about right. Fluffy, witty, slightly macabre, and way more exciting than an Emmy nomination.
1 Whedon, it has been observed, often kills off female characters, although of course he’s also the one who makes them great characters in the first place and he did notably kill Wash too.
EDIT: More discussion here.