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Premiered exclusively on the Internet -- for free! -- in July of 2008, the three-part web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is an absolutely wonderful gem of a comedy. The relatively brief super-villain musical brings needed mirth and frivolity to a field clogged with brooding "dark" comic sagas ... we keep waiting for a noirish, nightmarish film adapation of Dagwood and Blondie or Nancy and Sluggo to appear.
Originally brainstormed as a creative activity to fill time wasted by the Writers' Strike, Horrible showcases the talent of Joss Whedon & company and points toward the future of entertainment. As Whedon explains, industry "professionals" asked if the show could be extended to series length, or to some other commercial format. Strike rules put a limit on the show's commercial prospects, but the whole point was to make it for free, to get mass visibility and enlarge (engorge? embiggen?) the careers of the talent involved: Maurissa Tancharoen, and the collective genius of Whedons of the Joss, Jed & Zack variety. Joss Whedon's Firefly had been a stealth hit yet didn't quite penetrate the culture or convince the corporate powers that, when it came to mass entertainment, smart and witty could outpace dumb and loud. Leaping completely from Left Field, Horrible resurrects superhero fun with Broadway-quality songs and hilarious characterizations. Even better, it plays to romantic frustration in a completely non-cynical way -- the characters are quite sweet and sincere. Horrible may be contractually prevented from earning a dime, but it's the brightest and freshest show of the year.
From the very first frame the story is frivolous genre joy. The ambitious, sensitive Billy (Neil Patrick Harris, a top Broadway talent) strives for success as the nefarious Dr. Horrible, and to gain entry into the exclusive Evil League of Evil. He remains undeterred despite the fact that, even when his outrageous Evil weapons function, his schemes are thwarted by the smug, conceited & oversexed superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion of Firefly). Hammer repeatedly humiliates Dr.Horrible in public. Complicating matters is Billy/Horrible's crush on Penny (Felicia Day), the sweetheart of the Laundromat and an activist for homeless shelters. Our lovesick arch-villain is crushed to discover that she's dating the insincere womanizer Captain Hammer. Horrible's sidekick Moist (Simon Helberg) delivers a final warning letter from "Bad Horse", the chairman of the Evil League of Evil: Dr. Horrible must assassinate somebody if he expects to pass the entrance exam. And who better to kill than Captain Hammer?
Perfectly cast and performed, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has the sparkle that comes when talented people do what they love: put on a SHOW! When we're not dazzled by Neil Patrick Harris's spot-on delivery and great singing, we have the charming Felicia Day to admire. Nathan Fillion is a great sport to play Bluto to Harris' Popeye. He pulls off the he-man posing and sings well enough to make Captain Hammer deliciously hiss-able. Felicia Day, a completely non-standard beauty, is several times more effective for it, and sings like angel.
It would be easy to rattle off thirty clever gags and perfectly chosen verbal jokes from this show, but it's much more ethical not to. Much of it was filmed in standing sets and with props recycled from other Whedon programs. The visual effects are cute but completely beside the point, as Horrible strives for a heightened sense of farce, with college-level humor too refined to be wasted on college students. Am I communicating the idea that the show is really funny?
At only 43 minutes, one might be tempted to think that the makers couldn't sustain the fun. That's actually a perfect length for Horrible ... I'll be very interested in seeing what these people come up with next.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has been available on DVD for about half a year, but not through regular channels; this newest "edition" changes the label to list New Video NYC as the distributor. It may still be a DVD-R burned disc, as opposed to a formal pressing. Both copies I've seen look fine, with the enhanced widescreen image very sharply encoded. The audio is bright and clear, although I admit the subtitles are useful for understanding some of the convoluted, Stephen Sondheim- like lyrics. The show was a treat on the web, and only looks better on a large monitor.
Another reason to go for the DVD is its novelty commentary, Commentary! The Musical! Written by Jed Whedon, it's completely sung by all the creatives including Neil Patrick Harris. They explain the Writers' Strike through musical anecdotes, and then demonstrate their wit by riffing on self-important commentaries -- while, of course, providing yet another entertaining showcase for their talents. The same folk participate in a non-musical commentary that addresses the production more directly.
A trio of amusing featurettes also relates the making of the show with behind the scenes footage, coverage of the recording sessions, etc. The music and songs had to be worked out in advance of shooting, of course, and the actors are understandably floored by Neil Patrick Harris's professionalism, executing the difficult songs with precision while pulling off amazing character riffs. Frankly, it's like rediscovering the charm of old MGM musicals.
The promo for the show accompanies another unique extra called Evil League of Evil Application Videos. This half-hour of fan productions ranges from very good to inspired. If the "democratization" of widely-available pro video leads to the wider accessibility of this kind of talent, perhaps we're watching the beginning of a new age of good entertainment .... one that may avoid the clutches of corporate control.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.