Sunday, July 20, 2008

I’ve Got A Ph.D. In Horribleness

Here There Be Spoilers
So, that was kind of a downer, but I’m still crazy about Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. After many, many re-watchings, here’s how I feel about the songs, the characters, and the future of Dr. Horrible. (Also, this is crazy long and I promise this is the last I’ll post about it.)

Act 1

The first we see of Dr. Horrible is on his vlog, spouting off about the Evil League of Evil. He’s popular enough to be getting viewer emails and his ineptness at being a villain is apparent. A question about Penny (more on that later) leads us into the first song, “Laundry Day.” (Note: There are no official song titles yet, so I’ve taken the liberty of naming them for the purpose of this review.) “Laundry Day” is adorable—the rosy-tinted shot of Dr. Horrible and Penny dancing and the shoulder-jiggle by Dr. Horrible fits in perfectly as an introduction to the pair. The shot through the washer doors is fantastic—you can’t achieve that on stage. They’re so close to a real, audible connection! Dr. Horrible is interrupted by Moist, who brings in the mail, made limp by his powers of humidity. It’s the tiny details (like the mail) and the throw-away lines (like “I kinda thought I was supposed to end up with Bait.”) that make repeat viewings so enjoyable.

There’s a letter from Bad Horse, who really is a horse. Fun fact: one of the singing cowboys is Jed Whedon, but I can’t figure out which one. The Western-style of song would no doubt have been used if Firefly (RIP) ever had a musical episode. After, we get our first glimpse of Penny singing her “Helping Hands” song. She’s not pushy enough to get signatures, but her optimism doesn’t fade. The urgent spy music that accompanies Dr. Horrible on his overtake of the courier van is cut by the appearance of Penny. Their meeting is awkward, full of miscommunication, and mutual interest. Ah, young love! Dr. Horrible also goes by Billy—it’s unassuming and works for him without his lab coat. Her bit about how “if we can’t stick together, I don’t who can” is totally something I would say.

“A Man’s Gotta Do” is the last tune and the first time we see Captain Hammer. Sure, he’s got an ego bigger than his six-pack, but he sort of saves Penny. She’s instantly taken by his muscles and confidence. Can’t say I blame her! Captain Hammer tells Dr. Horrible that it’s “lacy, gently wafting curtains” for him—I’d bet anything that was a line they wanted to use for Mal Reynolds. Dr. Horrible walks off in shame, although he does have the Wonderflonium in hand. Balls!

Act 2

The duet (“Plain To See”) by Penny and Dr. Horrible is a musical masterpiece. It’s the exact same melody and timing, but the lyrics and emotion make Dr. Horrible’s part sorrowful and Penny’s part full of hope. That takes talent, my friends. Felicia Day really gets to showcase her lilting voice. Keep an eye out for the soup guy switch in the background! Also, the viewer can almost forgive Captain Hammer in the first act, but here he comes off as a complete jerkface.

Penny and Billy are now laundry friends and he “accidentally” brings her fro-yo. Question: Why do you eat fro-yo with a spork? Anyhow, the next five minutes bring some of the best bits of dialogue from Dr. Horrible. This is why I love Act Two the most.
1. What a crazy, random happenstance!
2. Like with pie!
3. I meant Gandhi…
4. Peace! But not literally.
5. Captain Hammer threw a *car* at my head.
6. Oh, look at my wrist! I gotta run!
7. I…don’t love these.
8. We’re meeting now for the first time.
The Bad Horse cronies show up after his epic freeze ray FAIL and tell him he has to kill someone. Bummer, because murder isn’t elegant or creative. He’s super depressed come the next laundry trip, but Penny reassures him that you have to have hope (“Penny’s Lament”). It’s interesting that this is a song about L.A. with lines like “Grief replaced with pity/For a city barely coping.” Some sort of meta-analysis on the writer’s strike when this was written, perhaps? They lean in for an almost-kiss that makes your stomach flip in anticipation. They so want each other. This scene is a lot harder to watch when you realize it’s the last time they’re alone before, well, you know.

Captain Hammer arrives and completely wrecks the mood. He’s got different plans than just French kissing in mind. This is the final straw for Dr. Horrible, who launches full force into “A Brand New Day.” This is the best song in the show, as far as I’m concerned. The rock ballad theme suits his desperation/resolve so well and the way the song is shot is powerfully memorable. Really, I just like it for the eye flick that NPH gives the camera during the first time he sings “So how can it be that you/Have shown me the liiight?” This was when I fell madly and deeply in love with NPH. Why must he not like girls?! Despite the fact that he’s singing about slaughtering Captain Hammer, you still root for him because he’s the underdog.

Act 3

“It’s a good day to be homeless!” says the newsanchor and what a good day indeed, with Captain Hammer on your side. “So They Say” is awfully upbeat for fairly downtrodden song from both Penny and Dr. Horrible. Another Whedon writer (Maurissa) makes a cameo as one of the hilarious groupies. Dr. Horrible is prepping for his overtake with a fancy new Death Ray, which means he misses out on fro-yo with Penny, who thinks Hammer is “pretty okay.” It alludes to “Brand New Day” and is a strong opener for the act. Cut to the new homeless shelter, where Captain Hammer gives a rousing speech without the aid of tiny cue cards. At least, it would be rousing if the Captain weren’t so wrapped up in himself. My favorite part is “Don’t worry that it’s hard/If you’re not a friggin’ tard/You will prevail.”

Holy tonal shift, Batman! Dr. Horrible is hiding under the blanket with a warmed-up freeze ray ready to fire. He shoots Captain Hammer and proceeds to wreak absolute havoc in the room. “Slipping” is bizarrely freakish and disturbing. Dr. Horrible keeps his cool, reigning in terror, and pauses to correct the spelling of his name. He wants all the cash, fame, and social change, but when it comes to doing the deed, he pauses for too long. The freeze ray stalls, leaving Captain Hammer ready for action. Just when Captain Hammer goes to shoot Horrible (“Give my regards to St. Peter, or whoever has his job, but in hell.”), the death ray explodes. Captain Hammer is left in crippling pain and cries out for “someone maternal.” Just when Dr. Horrible is feeling great about his victory, he notices Penny in the corner. She’s been hit with shrapnel from the death ray and even though he’s in his lab coat, she’s still able to identify him as Billy. The last words on her mouth are “Captain Hammer will save the…”

Dr. Horrible has all that he wished for, but not the girl. “Here Lies Everything” is tinged with melancholy from a chorus of ethereal angels. The Evil League of Evil (The Fake Thomas Jefferson and Dead Bowie are my favorite bad guys) gladly accept him and Moist helps in bank heists. The wicked party in his basement features a techno version of “A Brand New Day” and a bunch of his new friends. His new outfit is the color of bloodshed, but he doesn’t feel a thing. The show closes on a shot of Billy, vulnerable and haunted in his empty basement.
The End.

Joss Whedon’s religious and personal views have always affected his work. His fans are accustomed to the way he casually kills off characters and leaves things not-so-happily ever after. The way the musical ended is not terribly shocking, but it’s still confusing. Did Penny really have to die? I don’t think so. I can understand his choice to do so, but that still doesn’t keep us from wishing that things had ended where the villain gets the girl. Ultimately, there's this part of me that secretly loves sad endings, because those are the ones that stick with you.

In a traditional, full-length musical, things would have played out a little differently. It would have started with an ensemble number, introducing why the city has heroes. “A Brand New Day” would make for the perfect Act 1 closer in a traditional, two-act musical. After the climax at the homeless shelter, Penny would still be alive. She and Dr. Horrible would have a duet together that would end in a much-deserved kiss. They’d go on to do good things for the homeless and Dr. Horrible would maybe come over to the hero side.

The show is best compared to my third-favorite musical, Ashman and Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors. The music is lyrically similar and the plot lines aren’t terribly different. The movie version from the 80’s originally stuck with the ending of the play, but the producers requested that they change it because test audiences hated it. (Spoiler alert! Seymour and Audrey get married—in the play, everyone dies and I do mean everyone.) Plenty of musicals feature sad endings, such as Les Miserables, Light in the Piazza, Camelot, Sweeney Todd, and Rent. The difference between those and Dr. Horrible is that they leave you with at least some degree of hope in the world.

The dvd will provide two commentaries, a regular one and a musical version. It will be worth buying the dvd for the musical commentary alone. I’m hoping that it will provide some sort of insight into what Joss hoped to accomplish with the characters. There might be a sequel (I beg The Powers That Be to let there be a sequel) and there’s rampant speculation on the internet that Penny is still alive. (Jean Grey, much?)

2 Reasons Why She Could Still Be Alive
1. During her “Lament” scene, she’s dressed exactly in the colors of Snow White. It’s a little different than a poisoned apple, but the allusion stands.
2. “With hope, you can do your part to turn a life around,” she sings. Hope is a strong theme through the show, so keep that hope alive.

2 Reasons Why She’s Not
1. Dr. Horrible knows that there is no happy ending in his life. This isn’t how Joss rolls.
2. The viewer email inquiring about “her” is signed “Dead, Not Sleeping.” I think that’s about as clear as it gets.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is not what I expected, but I love it completely. Dr. Horrible may not feel anymore, but Joss Whedon is determined to make sure that we feel the impact of his work. It will be taken off the internet shortly, but for the love of Bad Horse, buy it on iTunes and support the cast and crew. And Joss, I’m kind of mad at you for what to did to my new favorite couple, but you can still be my homeboy. Deal?


Elisabeth said...

The more I rewatch it, the more I want a sequel, and it's less and less important that Penny (alive or not) or Hammer Man (I love that from the first act) be in it.

Act II was my favorite.

Wickedly Scarlett said...

I'm definitely planning to buy the DVD when it comes out, and I tried to buy the shirt with NPH's face on it, but they were ALL out of stock. Completely. Somehow, I think this turned maybe a little huger than they expected.

It's been a long week of really heart breaking endings to amazing shows, and I will admit that I was hoping that Dr. Horrible would be the ray of sunshine rather than another dark shadow, but after some time mulling it all over, I do think I get what Joss was going for. This wasn't a show about a loony villain and the girl he loves, I think it was more the origin story for why Dr. Horrible becomes the truly sinister super villain that he does. I thought Felicia and Nathan were both amazing, but NPH was just... incredible. That he was able to create a full fledged character with so many layers (like pie!) that people really care about and have conflicted emotions about says pretty huge things about his ability as an actor. Oh, and "Slipping" felt a little bit Sweeney Toddish to me, and that's a pretty huge compliment from where I'm sitting ;)

Dr. Horrible was not at all what I was expecting, but the writing was sharp and witty, the songs were catchy, and I really grew to care about the characters so I would say that Joss and co. certainly achieved their mission!

(I just wish they'd release a soundtrack and get some more damn shirts in stock!)

Gretchen said...

Elisabeth--I don't think we've seen the last of Hammer Man!

WS--I know, I'm glad it's getting the recognition it deserves. I'd like the shirt with the show's logo on it, so I'll have to get one once they order more. NPH is my new favorite actor. I need to start watching HIMYM. And I totally meant to mention Sweeney Todd in my paragraph about musicals--it really is a huge compliment. And I need a soundtrack, like, NOW.

redcloud said...

The ending was just heart-breaking for me. I guess having just watched Felicia Day's The Guild, following her on Twitter, and then seeing this, I was liking her a little too much when it was lacy, wafting curtains for her character. I watched act 3 one more time; not a dozen like acts 1 & 2. Real life has enough depressing happenstances.

But slow reflection over the next few days definitely leaves me feeling this is a masterpiece. Everything is set up so perfectly. We want to like Billy, so much so that we forget that he is horrible. "Dead, Not Sleeping" is great foreshadowing, as is the "loving you to death" line from the act 1 closing song. Give me just a sec to catch my breath, indeed.

In the end, Dr. Horrible has a third layer, just like pie. His surface is villain, but underneath, he is someone we sympathize with. Ultimately, though, he is a bad guy. He doesn't "deserve" to get the girl. (But neither does Hammer.)

I do want to hear the musical commentary track, but this isn't a work I want to own. It isn't one I want to revisit. Penny's death is just too depressing. A sequel could change all that, and it wouldn't have to bring Penny back to do it. But it would have to offer some kind of hope.

BTW, I'm betting Ben Edlund had some influence in creating the Evil League of Evil and its members. He is the creator of The Tick. Check out the original comics for more of his work, if you like these kind of super-hero & super-villain parodies. They are way better than the TV series and cartoon series based on them. (IMHO)

JB said...

About the Snow White reference. I, too, caught that, but couldn't quite capture it's meaning. Hoping the commentary sheds light on it.

Most of the people I've talked to who've see Dr. Horrible have been disappointed with the ending. Personally, I think it's brilliant! Yes, it's sad that Billy and Penny never had a chance to get together. However, I don't think they were ever meant to. If Penny hadn't died, Dr. Horrible never would have become the super villain he always aspired to be. He always would be the goofy always-foiled bad guy. Besides, before Penny's death, he was always a villain attempting to do bad things to achieve goodness (alluded to when he talks about the non-quo status quo). You just can't have both. You can't be doing evil for good, and you can't be a bad person and be with a good person. Her death was a necessity to realize Dr. Horrible's true potential.

allthewine said...

excellent recap! Sadly I missed Act 3, so I'll be buying the DVD anyway.

srah said...

I have one thing left to say about the ending:


Gretchen said...

redcloud--I will definitely check out The Tick. Awesome!
JB--I think you captured the whole point of the series with "you can't be a bad person and be with a good person." It's still hard for me to accept that Dr. Horrible really is horrible, though.
allthewine--Yes! You must!
srah--I've picked up "Balls!" as my new exclamation. It is very effective.

seven said...

So I don't get the whole "Season Pass" thing on iTunes. If you buy it, do you just get to keep it forever, or is it only for a certain amount of time? Because I'd be willing to buy it if I get to keep it, but if it's going to go away I'd rather not pay the $4.

redcloud said...

@seven: You get to keep it forever. It's just a cheaper way of getting the whole "season", and getting the "episodes" automatically as they come out. Make smore sense for a series where the season lasts 9 months, instead of just five days like "Dr. Horrible".

seven said...

@redcloud: Awesome. That does make sense... It just makes it sound like a season pass at an amusement park or something, like you can access it an unlimited number of times during a specific time period. Thanks so much.

redcloud said...

Here's a Flickr set with more Tick-style heroes: Enjoy!