Saturday, April 9, 2016

Stubs - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008) Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day. Directed by Joss Whedon. Written by Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon. Produced by David Burns, Michael Boretz. Music by Jed Whedon and Joss Whedon Run Time: 42 minutes. U.S.  Color. Musical, Comedy, Drama

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a by-product of the 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America strike, which impacted U.S. film and television production during its 100 days, November 5, 2007 until February 12, 2008. Idle during that time, Joss Whedon decided to produce something working with his brothers, Zack (a television writer), Jed (a composer) and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen (an actress and writer). Made for the internet as a three-part series, the production was financed by Joss and shot in and around Los Angeles with the music recorded in a home studio.

Perhaps best known for his roles on TV series Doogie Howser M.D. and How I Met Your Mother, Neil Patrick Harris is also a veteran of the Broadway stage, having appeared in the play Proof (2002) and the musical Cabaret (2003). In the mini-series, he plays the lead character, Billy Buddy, a would-be super villain, Dr. Horrible, with a video blog. On his vlog, Horrible recounts for his viewers his various capers, his applying to the Evil League of Evil and reads viewer emails, one of which asks Horrible about the woman he keeps referring to as “her”. This prompts him to sing “My Freeze Ray” as he recounts his unrequited attraction to Penny (Felicia Day), a woman he’s run into at the Laundromat, and his inability to actually talk to her.

Dr. Horrible aka Billy Buddy(Neil Patrick Harris) has a video blog.

Enter Moist (Simon Helberg), a minor villain, who can make anything damp, with a letter from Bad Horse, the leader of the Evil League. Literally a horse, Bad Horse’s minions sing the letter which informs Horrible that his application has been received and that Bad Horse will be keeping a close look at his next caper, which happens to be set for the next day.

Letters from Bad Horse come with a singing chorus.

He is in need of something called wonderflonium for his Freeze Ray, which would stop time, allowing him to speak his mind to Penny among other things. There is a van carrying a supply, which Horrible plans to commandeer using a remote control device. Penny just happens to be in the neighborhood gathering signatures for one of her worthy causes (“Caring Hands”) and interrupts Horrible’s caper by actually engaging him in conversation and asking for his signature on her petition asking the city to give a deserted building to a homeless shelter. Torn between his evil work and actually talking to the woman of his dreams, Horrible fails at both. Penny walks off disheartened by his lack of attention to her and her cause and the theft of the wonderflonium goes awry.

Enter Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion).

Enter Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), a cocky, self-assured superhero who foils the theft, but also nearly destroys the radio device which Horrible is using to control the van. With Penny in the way of the runaway car, Hammer pushes her out of the way and into a pile of garbage, just as Horrible gets the controls to work, thus it appears as if Hammer stops the van, even though he clearly doesn’t touch it. Hammer confronts Horrible, banging his head against the hood of the van before Penny emerges from the garbage. She looks upon Hammer as her savior, adulation he can’t refuse, and which makes him forget about Horrible, who manages to walk away with the wonderflonium.

Captain Hammer  sings his own praises to Penny (Felicia
Day) while Dr. Horrible steals the wonderflonium.

Episode two, or Act II as it is labeled, opens with Horrible stalking Penny and Hammer on their first date and sings about the misery of the human condition. Meanwhile, Penny sings of hope and the possibility of redemption. Their duet “My Eyes” leads to Penny and Billy talking as friends at the Laundromat. Penny is gushing over her new boyfriend, while Billy is trying his best to undercut Hammer without coming right out and admitting he loves Penny.

Billy and Penny talk at the laundromat.

On his vlog, Horrible tells his viewers that the Freeze Ray is complete and that he plans to use it the next day. However, on his next entry, Horrible confesses to his viewers that Hammer and the LAPD also watch his blog and were waiting for him. This brings a phone call from Bad Horse and his minions tell Horrible in song that his application now rests on a successful assassination. This gives Horrible pause as murder seems to be a line he hadn’t wanted to cross before.

Dr. Horrible with his Freeze Ray, tells his viewer his plan.

But that line gets easier to cross when at his next meeting with Penny at the Laundromat, Hammer shows up. While Horrible tries to hide behind his Billy Buddy persona, Hammer sees through it. When Penny is out of earshot, Hammer tells Horrible that he knows who he is and knows that he has a crush on Penny. He then rubs salt to the wound by telling Horrible that he’s going to have the one thing Horrible wants, Penny. Suddenly, Horrible is not only willing to kill, but knows his target (“Brand New Day”).

Horrible sings "Brand New Day".

Act III opens with “So They Say,” a song shared by two news anchors, who report about Hammer’s sudden crusade for the homeless, no doubt inspired by Penny; Penny in turn ponders her relationship with Hammer while waiting at the Laundromat to speak with Billy; Hammer, who seems excited about being able to do the sexual weird stuff with Penny; and a trio of Hammer groupies (Maurissa Tancharoen, Stacy Shirk and Steve Berg) who obsess over all things Hammer, including a lock of his hair and his dry cleaning bill as well as offer themselves to do the weird stuff with him.

Hammer's groupies (Maurissa Tancharoen, Steve Berg and Stacy Shirk).

Meanwhile, Dr. Horrible is building his death ray to kill Captain Hammer at the opening of a homeless shelter. Mayor Hankins (no relation) is there to dedicate a statue of our hero, but Hammer turns out to be a self-absorbed jerk (“Everyone’s a Hero”). Hammer is condescending to everyone, including Penny, who looks embarrassed. That is until Horrible uses his Freeze Ray on Hammer, cutting his self-congratulatory song off. Everyone in the crowd is scared and Horrible knows it. He produces his more deadly Death Ray which he taunts the audience with.

Hammer gets the Freeze Ray, but doesn't listen to Horrible's warnings.

Instead of just killing Hammer, Horrible hesitates. That hesitation allows the Freeze Ray to malfunction and a suddenly unfrozen Hammer punches Horrible across the room. He drops the Death Ray, damaging the gun. Hammer picks up the Death Ray and holds it on Dr. Horrible. Despite Horrible’s warnings that the ray has been damaged, Hammer aims it at Horrible and fires. But the ray malfunctions, just as Horrible had predicted, exploding in Hammer’s hand, rather than firing. Hammer, for the first time in his life, feels pain and runs off looking for “someone maternal.” Having shown Hammer’s true self, Horrible declares victory, but it is short-lived. Penny, who had been nearby when the Ray exploded, has been struck by shrapnel and is mortally wounded and dies in Horrible’s arms.

Penny dies in Dr. Horrible's arms.

But the assassination is enough to get Horrible admitted to the Evil League of Evil and he celebrates with his friends before attending his first official meeting with Bad Horse and other like-minded villains. Hammer, meanwhile, spills his guts to a psychiatrist. The end of the movie is a last vlog entry from Billy Buddy, sans his Horrible disguise looking numb and having gotten what he wanted but at the cost of losing the woman he loved.

While the made for internet series ends on a down note, the song “So They Say” actually predicts it when Penny sings with Horrible “There's no happy ending, so they say,” to which Horrible adds “Not for me anyway.” So no one gets everything they want.

Otherwise, this is a fun musical story that caught the attention of an audience increasingly looking to the closing credits, which is a lot for something only 42 minutes long. While there is some talking and action, most of the story is told in song.

Dr. Horrible aka Billy Buddy is a complex guy. While he has horrible ambitions, he is so shy that he can’t even start up a conversation with the girl he adores. He wants to be a villain but doesn’t want to really kill anyone if he doesn’t have to on his way to worldwide domination. He’d rather use a Freeze Ray to get what he wants, rather than the Death Ray. And it takes Captain Hammer humiliating him to allow himself to go that far. In many ways, Dr. Horrible is a villain you sort of want to root for.

Captain Hammer seems like someone for whom everything comes easily: strength, fame, women, but it’s little wonder that he doesn’t have sex a second time with each girl he beds. He gets undeserved credit for stopping the van, when in fact his action is what caused it to go out of control in the first place. He is the flipside of what we’ve come to look to Superheroes as being and it is refreshing.

The three main cast members are all good in their roles. While I’m not surprised at Harris’ versatility as a singer, Fillion’s and Day’s were a bit unexpected. I am much more familiar with Fillion from his television work and from his romantic lead in Waitress (2007), but I never would have cast him as a singer. He’s adequate vocally, but he has the pose down great and that more than makes up for what he might otherwise lack.

Felicia Day is one of those actresses you know you’ve seen before, but you’re not quite sure. She’s no stranger to web-based entertainment, having written and starred in The Guild since 2007, as well as appeared on The Legend of Neil, another web-based series. For those who are internet challenged, Day has guested on such TV series as Monk, House, My Boys, Roommates and Fish Hooks.

Like any good musical, the songs are an integral part of the storytelling. This is especially true in short programming like this, where every minute of screen time is important. These songs seem to be simply arranged, but they succeed in developing characters and driving the narrative forward. I’ve read people comparing the songs to those of Stephen Sondheim. That may be; again this is another area where I’m not an expert. I do know that the theme songs, “Dr. Horrible Theme” and “End Credits”, sound to me to be reminiscent to Danny Elfman.

While any soundtrack works best with the visuals, this is one case where the songs are quite enjoyable on their own.

Dr. Horrible seems like lightning captured in a bottle. Everything comes together to make this a very enjoyable experience. I know there are on-going talks about making a sequel, a project that keeps getting pushed back to accommodate Joss’ schedule. There’s a part of me that hopes they never do make a sequel. Sometimes it’s nice to leave well enough alone. For what it is, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is nearly perfect.

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