Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog

Available online at drhorrible.com through July 20 and available for download at the iTunes store.

If I didn’t already love Joss Whedon, I would for this: When the writers’ strike prohibited him from working on screenplays for film or TV, he used the break as an opportunity to collaborate with friends, family, and colleagues on an Internet project, an oddball musical about a would-be supervillain, his smug superhero nemesis, and the object of his unrequited affection.

Given that “Once More, With Feeling,” the musical episode of Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was one of the few truly bright spots of season six (I might love Joss, but I’m no apologist for Buffy’s sharp downturn), I was looking forward to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, and it didn’t disappoint. It did surprise, though. I suppose I had expected something lighter and breezier, a trifle to match its let’s-put-on-a-show roots, but now I wonder why. After all, Whedon has all but perfected the art of exploring hard emotional truths in potentially campy premises. Why shouldn’t he do that online as well as on TV?

That said, I’m not sure Whedon and company could have pulled it off without a strong actor playing Dr. Horrible. Lucky for them, they got Neil Patrick Harris to play the part. Harris handles Whedon’s trademark geeky banter with expert comic timing, and he has quite a nice voice—warm and expressive—but most important, he’s terrifically charismatic, finding real pathos in Dr. Horrible’s disillusionment. The short barely lasts thirty minutes, but in that time he creates a compelling, multidimensional character with a powerful emotional arc.

Harris’s co-stars have less to work with—Dr. Horrible is basically a one-man drama—but Nathan Fillion is hilariously hammy as the insufferable Captain Hammer. I wasn’t particularly fond of Felicia Day’s tremulous Penny (Dr. Horrible’s beloved fellow laundromat-goer), but I suspect I was reacting mainly to the sheer weirdness of Whedon producing a flat, pawn-like female character—forgivable, I guess, in a short (both Hammer and Penny exist only to advance Horrible’s storyline) but weird and uncharacteristic all the same.

The songs are reminiscent of those in “Once More, With Feeling”: poppy theater tunes with clever lyrics and melodies that veer in unexpected, yet oddly effective, directions. Whedon has a real knack for dramatic juxtaposition, making the duets a particular treat. Some of the harmonic progressions are a bit … off, but the music works, for the most part, and it feels fresh.

The whole deconstruction-of-the-supervillain thing has been done before, of course, but Harris and Whedon still find ways to make that, too, feel fresh. As played by Harris, Dr. Horrible is misguided but not irredeemable, at least not at first, and as pitiful as his immature wannabe nihilism is, his humanity and potential always shine through. It’s an interesting performance at the center of an interesting short that doesn’t, perhaps, live up to the lofty expectations Whedon’s name can inspire (OK, so maybe I am a little bit pissed about Penny being such a passive nothing of a character) but that is worth seeing and considering and enjoying nonetheless.