a horrible analysis

Dr. Horrible ReadsI’ve been thinking a lot about Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog since it debuted this week. The first thing I did yesterday morning after I sat down in front of my computer was watch the third episode. So, that’s a good sign of the show’s success.

Yet, I have reservations. The following is a rather in-depth critique. If you haven’t watched the show yet, or if you don’t go in for this kind of analysis, then you might want to ignore this entry.

First off I should note that the three-act show has a lot of strengths considering it was shot in a tight timeframe (seven days I believe), and the cast and crew did it for nothing in the hopes they would be paid eventually if it proved successful. Whedon is an activist in the Writers Guild of America and knows that the Internet offers an opportunity for screenwriters to gain more control of their work. His model is smart: use the fan base loyal to his projects to generate a buzz about Dr. Horrible, offer them the entire show free for a limited time, and then recoup the costs by selling the show in various formats, and from merchandising: t-shirts, comics, etc. It’s fair and smart.

Also, wearing my own Writers Advocacy Hat (it’s a tricorne) I must point out that the show and lyrics were written by four people: Joss Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, and Zack Whedon, and Joss Whedon directed it. It’s a particular peeve of writers that they are continually ignored when any show is successful, and the director is given all the credit. Writers are the first to be blamed when the film is difficult or outright bad, however.

On a structural and comedic level the show works very well. The humour is multi-layered and diverse: there are puns, slapstick, innuendo, farce, and surreal elements. The writers switch it up so it doesn’t get boring. The three main actors, Neil Patrick Harris (Dr. Horrible), Nathan Fillon (Captain Hammer), and Felicia Day (Penny), act and sing with skill and charm.

One of my problems with Dr. Horrible, however, is its vanilla casting – all the main characters, and all the supporting characters (bar one groupie) are white. Since the show is set in L.A. I found this rather weird.

Second, the character of Penny is problematic. On first viewing she seems weak, passive, and a little too nice. Yet, after watching the third episode I’ve developed a theory about this. I re-watched the episodes again with a critical focus on Penny. Now, I think there’s a lot more going on in relation to her character.

Even though there are four writers in the team, anyone with the smallest bit of familiarity with Joss Whedon’s work knows that he writes strong female characters. It would be strange to imagine that in a show in which he had complete artistic control that he’d somehow develop a blind spot.

The first clue is in the name: Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. The show is explicitly Dr. Horrible’s point of view. All events are filtered through his opinion, and the audience is expected to be on side with him. Whedon as director does a fantastic job of moulding the audience to feel for Dr. Horrible’s situation even as he becomes increasingly obsessive. His goals are established in the first few minutes: he wants entry into the Evil League of Evil, and “The world is a mess and I just need… to rule it.” His rivalry with Hammer is highlighted. Penny is third on the list.

The other pivotal scene is when Horrible meets Penny on the street. She’s collecting signatures to petition the city to set up a homeless shelter. She is actually doing something to help people. Horrible’s initial reaction is outright contempt for her goal, which he modifies only because he fancies her. He talks to her about grandiose plans for changing the world, while she’s grounded in the hard work of dealing with the underprivileged.

Horrible Trio Horrible is in the middle of a heist: he’s stealing Wonderflonium (Do Not Bounce) for his Freeze Ray, and Penny distracts him from it. Yet, when he has a choice to go after her he chooses to continue with his plan and launches into “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” song, which is taken up and sung by Captain Hammer when he interferes with the heist. There couldn’t be a more telling song sung by both men, because throughout the series Horrible and Hammer are mirrored and contrasted: note the matching gloves (different colour, but the same), the same first initial, and the self-absorbed attitude. Hammer’s goals are to beat up bad guys, look good in the press, and sleep with lots of girls. Neither Horrible nor Hammer are the kind of person you’d want in charge.

In the first act Horrible’s heist puts Penny in jeopardy. It is a truism of screenwriting that the first and third acts often mirror certain crucial scenes. Horrible didn’t intend to put Penny in danger, but he did. He learns nothing from the encounter or the concept of collateral damage. Hammer intends to save Penny at whatever cost, and as a happy bonus she falls for him. His interest in Penny is purely about self-indulgence: sex, and she provides more good PR. None of his actions indicate that he’s truly interested in her as a person, or her goals – and the same goes for Horrible too. Neither man ever see her as a real person, and neither of them are ever honest with her.

She becomes a trophy that is contested between them. The fact that Hammer is with her makes Horrible want her even more. The fact that Horrible wants her makes Hammer want to keep her even longer. To them Penny is a way to keep score in their private vendetta.

We are only given a couple of insights into Penny’s background and history, and from them it appears she’s had a lot of problems in the past that have led her to help others who are more disadvantaged. Her way is not to destroy, or wallop, but to heal. Now, this in itself is rather clichéd, because women are traditionally identified with caring roles. I would have liked to see more of an edge to her character – but, would Horrible (or Hammer) have been attracted to her if that was the case? As it happens I know women like Penny, who are just downright nice and caring. The fact that this trait is often portrayed as weak and negative tells us a lot about our society’s attitudes. Certainly, Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer think that’s not the path to success, and this show portrays Horrible’s view of the world.

Penny works best in the story as a symbol, not as a real person. I can see the point that the writing team were trying to make with her, and it’s a good one. As likeable as Horrible is, he’s as blind to Penny as Hammer is, and equally as disdainful of her ambitions. To the mad scientist and the superhero real people are pawns to be moved around in their endless game of outwitting each other. Underneath the songs and the jokes the writers are attempting to make a point about the villain and the hero in many dramas are merely extreme mirrors of each other. They are out to achieve their ambitions at whatever cost.

The ending of the show is a surprise, yet it is completely inevitable. That is a classic screenwriting definition of the climax of a show. It is all set up in the first act, and it is alluded to in subtle ways throughout the show (pay attention to the song “There’s no happy ending”). Of course Penny is going to die: the men are battling each other with no consideration of bystanders. As often happens the woman is sacrificed to advance the (anti-)hero to his goal.

Too late Horrible realises he’s lost something essential. There is genuine poignancy in this final section, because Horrible’s character has been established in conflict: he
can’t kill, even when he has Hammer in his sights. Ultimately, Horrible wants people to witness his ability, to be seen and heard, which is an aspiration of many people – who blog, I may add. The final scenes where Horrible gains prestige and entry to the Evil League of Evil is undercut by his last sad words, sang on his own, in his lab out of costume.

I think the writers could have made their point, and given Penny a little more believability. She could operate on a metaphorical and a realistic level at the same time. I suspect the coolness factor gets in the way. Both Horrible and Hammer are exaggerated and over the top, and have cracking lines, which makes Penny seem pale and uninteresting in contrast. The message I perceive under the jokes is lost because of the larger than life machinations by the men. I would have liked a little more subversion, and a more obvious exegesis of the tropes of mad scientist and superhero.

Penny’s last words to Horrible, “Don’t worry, Hammer will save the day” might have meant to indicate her disorientated state, but they function to add an extra level of pathos to the scene. They do not seem in character with Penny. This means that for some people you hear the grinding of the plot device gears rather than the words of a fully realised character.

Other things I liked: the iconic use of props and colour in the show, especially since this was created on a micro-budget. The bad guy is in white, the hero is in brown, and by the end Horrible wears blood red with black gloves (the same colour as Hammer’s). There are lovely moments, like when Horrible digs the spork into his leg, which has to be an allusion to a similar scene in Young Frankenstein. Bad Horse’s missives are always a joy. I love the final images of the Evil League of Evil: Bad Horse (thoroughbred of sin), Professor Normal, Fake Thomas Jefferson, Tie-Die, Dead Bowie, Fury Leika, and Snake Bite. It suggests a whole other world, which is the sign of good writing.

As much as I like Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, and admire many of its fine jokes and catchy numbers, I can’t ignore the flaws. The premise is not particularly original for anyone who has ever watched The Venture Brothers, for instance. Overall, I think the show functions well, but if the team plan for more shows then I’d like to see a little more diversity, and roles for women that involve them functioning more than as a symbolic device.

One Comment

  • Kurt

    I enjoyed your analysis, and think that most of it spot on. I don’t agree, however, that the fact that Penny’s character is realistic and nuanced means that she is “pale and uninteresting” in comparison to the two male leads.The essential pathos of the show is that Penny interacts with Captain Hammer, Dr. Horrible, and Billy Buddy, and slowly, but unequivocally, she chooses Billy Buddy. However, Billy Buddy chooses Dr. Horrible over Penny,through his blindness. This is why Penny says that “Captain Hammer will save us”, to reinforce the fact that Dr. Horrible has driven Penny’s heart back to Captain Hammer, from Billy Buddy.The dual to your blog post would be someone writing about how Penny’s character makes the male leads seem one-dimensional and fake, and that they would like to see “roles for men that involve them functioning as more than a static plot device”. Both that post and yours miss the essential fact that this is a supervillain blog musical, which needs both realistic characters for perspective and consequence, and supervillains and superheroes, by definition. Aligning them along gender lines could be seen as sexist, but with only 3 leads, that’s a tough sell. Also, as to your objection that the movie is too vanilla… if I was making a movie and paying people zero to do it, I’d have the same result, which is unfortunate but perhaps understandable.

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