I’m not a huge fan of Whedon. I enjoyed the Buffy series, and his Angel series. But his Firefly? Ugh! The whole thing was done WAY better in the old John Wayne movie, Stagecoach, and the old James Stewart movie, Destry Rides Again.1 Putting those same characters and those same situations in a scifi setting did not improve them one bit. I was simply unable to watch it, and was one of the many millions of viewers that melted away during its original broadcast. Since some of my aquaintances vigorously urged me to try the series again, this time in the right order, I tried to watch when SciFi rebroadcast the series. That was when, for the first time ever, I was nearly physically ill from all the overacting and the unspeakable dialog in the first episode. I had to switch channels. Seeing the episodes in their production order was definitely not an improvement, and for once I sided with the Network Suits who changed the broadcast order. (Serenity, the Firefly related movie, I found to be at least watchable, but I thought the ending was a horrible cheat. It’s certainly not on my list of movies to recommend to anyone.)
Despite my mixed opinions of Whedon’s work, I kept my mind open as I watched his Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. My verdict? Well, it’s not quite snappy, yet not totally sappy, either.
The story’s conceit, that even bad guys think they’re doing the right thing, is interesting. But, as with all comic-book style stories, there’s no there there. The acting and the dialog is good enough to convince you that maybe there’s a little more underneath the surface of these characters than you would think. Unfortunately the cast’s efforts are hampered by the basic stereotypical characters — D. Horrible’s maniacal laugh (which can’t be forgiven even IF a lampost is hung on it), or the sweet young maiden who wants only to help the homeless (probably the most thankless role in this production; why DO women get such awful roles in these shows??). Did Whedon really think that he could disguise all this by giving everyone dialog laden with knowing irony?
I’m not going to knock the pointless sidekick character, because to be fair, most sidekicks are pointless. Really, would Batman be any different or less interesting without Robin? Would Xena be worse off without Gabrielle? Hey, I got an idea. Why not make one that wasn’t pointless for a change? The most interesting character is the villain, the preening, self-absorbed Dr. Hammer, who gets the best lines. Nathan Fillion deftly delivers this character with just the right amount of over-the-top broadness.
In this story, the villain is supposed to be our hero, and the hero is supposed to be the villain. That is, we’re supposed to sympathize with Dr. Horrible because of his human frailties, and find Dr. Hammer to be a swaggering, repulsive pig. And yes, these traits are clearly there. But I found myself liking the villain more than the hero, despite his obvious defects. That’s a basic flaw that maybe some rewrites, or some tweaks in the script probably would’ve helped. Or perhaps a bit of recasting. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was confusing for me to know who to root for and who to sympathize with, and that ambiguity did not add any enjoyment to this story.
This little webisode is also a musical, with songs that are mildly pleasant, and lyrics that are mildly witty. I don’t care for musicals, except under extraordinary circumstances. I find that it takes enormously broad characterizations to carry the songs off convincingly. That’s why musicals starring Robert Preston, or Ethel Merman, or Gene Kelly, or Liza Minelli hold my attention. They’re all very broad actors. Otherwise, my attention starts wandering, and sure enough, during the songs in this webisode I started playing freecell. In this story, the songs explain the inner thinking of the characters, and without them, and the time they ate up, this story would’ve been even thinner than it was.
Yet, given that the ultimate nadir of bad professionally-produced webisodes are the Battlestar Galactica ones on SciFi’s website, Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog is considerably better than that. It’s not great, but it ain’t horrible, either.
Even the simplest viewer living in a fly-over state knows about the stereotypical meddling Suit, who ruins a producer or a writer’s vision. Yet I can’t help but wish that someone would’ve smacked Whedon on the head and told him to get over himself already, and to FIX some of these flaws.
Note 1: Until I looked these up on IMDB, I hadn’t realized that they both were released in 1939. What’s the significance of that? So what, you say? 1939 was a banner year for Hollywood movie releases, including such classics as Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Gunga Din, and The Women — not to mention the two excellent westerns that are cited above. I would hate to have been voting for the Best Picture of that year. All of these are still eminently watchable, and more importantly, still enjoyable, even today, some seventy years later.