Sunday, July 27, 2008

Once More, with Freezing

Warning: Indirect hints of possible spoilers (that's vague, but trust me on this).

In the first -- and best -- musical number of the slight yet significant online webseries Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (cue Ryan Seacrest: "Available on iTunes!"), Neil Patrick Harris's title character, a wannabe evildoer so low on the food chain that he takes his clothes to the local laundromat, reveals his diabolical plan in a melancholy soprano that undermines his aspiring villainy. Nearby is Penny (Felicia Day), an unconventionally attractive redhead whom Billy (the young doc's real name) has a secret crush on. "With my freeze ray/I will stop the world," he sings, and as he points his finger at Penny while she dumps her "underthings" into a washing machine, he imagines time standing still, her basket of clothes suspended in the air. This image, a tossed-off fillip, is a prime example of what the director, Joss Whedon, has always done best: conveying depth of emotion through striking visual clarity.

In our era of comic-book blockbusters budgeted in the $150-$200 million range, Dr. Horrible looks like it cost about fifty bucks, and that's a large part of its appeal. By now most everyone knows that Whedon conceived the idea for this story during last year's writers' strike and decided to release the finished product online (incidentally, to phenomenal success). While its making may have been unconventional, Dr. Horrible will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has followed Whedon's television and movie work. Seth Green once said during a DVD commentary track of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode that what he loved about the show was that you always were given to understand where every character was coming from -- even the bad guys' motives had underpinnings rooted in human nature. Whedon takes that sense of empathy even further here, turning our sympathies toward Billy and away from his archnemesis, the crime-fighting crusader Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), who swoops in to save the day adorned in nothing more than a brown t-shirt and jeans, a tool whose name is all too fitting. Hammer has a history of foiling Horrible's convoluted plans, and unlike most superheroes he doesn't even try to maintain a secret identity. He wants all the glory; and after saving her life, he wants Penny too.

After the evident creative burnout in the final season of Buffy and the strain of the Firefly-spawned movie Serenity, it's heartening to see Whedon's jaunty confidence return. He and Harris are clearly on the same wavelength here, fashioning Billy/Dr. Horrible into an Internet nerd with delusions of grandeur -- comical, touching and dangerous by turns. Day, one of the supporting slayers-in-training on Buffy season 7, whose open face was eye-catching despite minimal dialogue, uses her sweetly sad countenance and lovely singing voice to heartbreaking effect as Penny, an advocate for the homeless who, unlike Billy, refuses to let the weight of the world get her down. Fillion plays Hammer as a fatuous gasbag who wants to do the right thing in order to get laid, who flirts with depth only to reject it. This is the best work of his career.

At less than forty minutes, Dr. Horrible is an entertaining doodle that should pave the way for more ambitious undertakings of its type. While brisk and enjoyable, it's tempting to imagine how the series could have developed its themes to their full potential over the arc of a complete season. As it stands, emotions are occasionally murky (such as Penny's mixed feelings for Captain Hammer), events happen abruptly, and key plot devices -- like Billy's videoblog, which should be the crux of the story -- are never completely developed. Moreover, the songs, while sufficient for advancing the plot as they were on the Buffy musical episode "Once More, with Feeling," are not nearly as resonant.

The climax does stick with you, if not for all the right reasons. It is there that Joss Whedon goes for the gut, as he is wont to do, and in so doing rather shamelessly exploits one of his leads. Come to think of it, I'm relieved that Dr. Horrible didn't last more than three swift acts; I don't think I could have handled a deeper emotional investment. This may be strictly my problem, or a matter of personal taste. Many continue to marvel at Whedon's ability to pull the rug out from under our expectations, but for others familiar with his work it may feel more like living along a faultline: you come to expect the tremors.

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