Dr. Horrible: Yes, It Took Me This Long to See It

So, I finally saw Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. My reaction:

(1) Neil Patrick Harris is a fantastic singer! I really had no idea he was so good. After watching the movie, I went on to imdb to make sure he has been on Broadway. (Don't want that talent to go to waste!) He has.

Nathan Fillion can sing? The things one learns by having a library card!

(2) It's a pity we don't live in an age of musicals. Sure, we are coming out of the age of Webber, and huge productions like The Lion King and Wicked are NYC tourist traps, but I'm thinking of the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein when musicals were common not only to the stage but to film. I think Yentl was the last musical I actually saw on film. I'm not counting Disney (and Menken and Ashman ended with Ashman's death). Joss has a real gift; it's a pity there isn't a wider arena for him to practice it in.

(3) The movie has a weak script.

Ouch, stop throwing things!!!

I know, I know, Joss is The King, etc. etc. etc. But that doesn't change the fact that the movie has a weak script. It's funny. It's engaging and moves rapidly. It's well-filmed. It's good. But it could have been better, and it isn't.

I don't say this because (SPOILER ALERT) Joss kills off a main character; as Nathan Fillion says, "You're surprised? This guy LOVES killing people off." It's that he kills off a main character in such a non-pay-off kind of way. You can do that sort of thing once or twice because you want to point out the randomness of life or whatever; after awhile, it's just lazy writing.

And I wonder if this onset of weak writing (Dollhouse is apparently no great shakes) is a casualty of fame. When Whedon was still struggling to sell Buffy and even Firefly, he had to write, well, the kind of stuff that sells. Like it or not, being forced to satisfy an audience is not a bad way to discipline a writer. That's one reason I feel no guilt at making my students learn and practice certain forms. Writing well isn't about expressing yourself; writing well is about communicating. If you want to express yourself, start a blog! If you want to communicate, be disciplined and try to get published.

But Joss is an icon now, and, honestly, how does a person cope with that? Do you pretend you aren't an icon and make like everything you do is still authentic like Michael Moore? Do you create a musical and put it on the Internet for free to prove you are authentic? (Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I borrowed the DVD from my local library.) Do you start trying to shock your followers?

How does an icon keep going creatively rather than trying to live down or up to an image? How does that icon reinvent him/herself, so he/she is still producing strong art while maintaining his/her personality or touch?

Even Madonna, who did a fantastic job at reinvention through the 80's and 90's, has kind of given up. Michael Jackson reinvented himself completely, poor man, and look what happened to him. Shakespeare managed, but then Shakespeare was a businessman until the day he died; he never stopped trying to bring in the moola, mostly because he never stopped worrying about being poor (same with Dickens). Picasso reveled in being an icon, but he was also completely egotistical (maybe that's the solution!). Beatrix Potter reinvented herself out of being a writer and didn't much care (her fans did). There just doesn't seem to be a perfect solution.

In any case, Dr. Horrible is worth seeing, but I recommend seeing it for the fun of the thing and because it's a little bit of Joss, not in the expectation of being introduced to a long-term classic (although I do think the music will last).


Cari Hislop said...

"How does an icon keep going creatively rather than trying to live down or up to an image? How does that icon reinvent him/herself, so he/she is still producing strong art while maintaining his/her personality or touch?"

Obviously I'm not an icon, but I am an artist and every artist has to deal with the ebb and flow of creativity. I think the danger of "icon status" comes when the so-called icon believes the hype!
If you've never read The Artist Way by Julia Cameron I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to increase their creativity. She explains the problem and offers concrete solutions. She was totally inspired! These icons not only believe the hype, but they forget that they have to fill the creative well. They've sucked their souls dry and then stand there sucking...literally!

Filling the well requires that we remain in the present (icons live off their past glories). We need to see the beauty of today and follow what delights our senses now. The, "Oooh that's lovely!"

Cameron recommends several key activites that can help any artist and I know they work. 1) Morning Pages...get up write a stream of consious nonsense over three pages and start the day with the emotional gunge out of the head. After you write down all the noise creative thoughts start to appear on the paper like magic. It's bizarre, but true.
2) Artists Dates...once a week she urges artists to take their artist (who is always a child) on a date...just you and your inner artist doing something fun, something that delights you. It could be walking down to the river and staring at the light on the water or buying a toy...something fun...the more fun your artist has the faster the well fills up and creativity pours out. There are lots Icon artists still creating great work, but we don't notice them because they're not creating rubbish.

Sadly, icons usually end up in an artistic desert and they rarely have the humility to accept they're just like everyone else, so instead of filling the well they stand there and wither away desperate to create something great again (especially while everyone is watching)but unwilling to give up believing they're somehow different and above the rest they end up in a slow motion crash that makes their admirers cringe and then shuffle away. It's very sad.

Kate Woodbury said...

To be fair to Joss, I think he's still one of the best writers out there. Dr. Horrible is a fairly solid piece of work up until the lazy ending. But I do agree that believing the hype (or being defended by the hype) can damage a writer's ability to produce.

In college, I took tons of creative writing classes, all within the English Department. Upon reflection, this wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I was producing at least. But I was producing stories that rambled about--no narrative arcs, no endings. I was getting A's because, well, I could write. I excused my no-ending stories on philosophical grounds because "life is random! life doesn't end!" The irony was I WANTED to write stories with clear narrative arcs. But I wasn't, and I didn't need to--grade-wise.

Then Eugene encouraged me to take a How-To-Get-Published class that he was attending. I did and started getting B's, partly because of grammar (ironically enough, considering my current job) and partly due to all those no-endings: plus, the teacher wanted to know who was going to buy what I wrote.

I was the kind of student who freaked out over getting B's, so I went back and re-examined everything I'd written at the time and realized that nothing I'd written had a narrative arc. I then started the long and painful process of correcting that flaw.

I believe now (and probably did then) that great writing, even good writing, has impact--that is, the reader's creative reaction comes first. Tragedy or comedy, when I read something good or great, my reaction is WOW! I am satisfied, whether I'm sad or happy. It's that "ooooh, that's lovely" response: totally visceral.

And I know I've failed in my own writing when, instead of that response, I start explaining why the work is actually good: "Well, you see, what I've done here is tackled the difficulty of forgiving people and how a person can self-destruct when they don't forgive, blah, blah, blah." (I just rehauled a story because I was reacting this way; I am much happier with the ending now although it took several days of pondering, and I'm still not sure I couldn't effect a better pay-off. It does help to recharge/sit on the idea for awhile: mull.)

To return to Dr. Horrible, while watching one of the "how this movie was made" shorts, one of the producers--not Joss--said something like, "People didn't like Act 3 until they understood it."

Ouch! That's a death knell right there. If people have to dredge up a philosophical response in order to be convinced of a piece's artistic merit . . . bring in the coffin, say I.

Unfortunately, although lots of people didn't like Act 3, there are still many willing to rush to the rescue and explain away, as I did in college, the weak ending. That doesn't help Joss.

To be fair, I wouldn't want either the accolades or the accompanying criticisms that an icon, like Joss, receives. In other words, I would honestly rather have C.J. Cherryh's career than Stephanie Meyers (I'd rather have Meyers' money, just not her career.) I'd rather produce good work (and, if I'm lucky, the occasional great work that reaches Cherryh's standard) on a continual basis and become well known within my genre than become a public image and, as Cari says, end up with everyone watching, saying, "More! More! More!"

Mike C said...

This post made me cry. Meanie!

Kate Woodbury said...


Well, keep in mind that I am comparing this to Whedon's other work--Firefly which is nearly a perfect series and episodes like "Hush" and "I Only Have Eyes For You," which are both solid 45 minutes of plot with excellent, satisfying pay-offs.

Granted, the music for Dr. Horrible does place it in its own category of unique achievements!

Mike C said...

LOL. Very well. Your flattery of Lord Whedon has been noted, and will be considered when the time comes. We whedonites try to remember that other opinions exist. However, I am told that the day is soon at hand when that too will be crushed under the heel of JOSS. BWA HA HA!

Seriously though, I to was caught off guard and disappointed by Penny's death. As I thought about it, though (without the aid of any extra features... I saw it on the internet before there was any commentary, so this is my own conjecture) that, really, what other way could it end? Billy chose to be a villain, and that's not a road known to lead to hugs and puppies.

However, the movie did end quite quickly, and I had thought that they would have made that last chapter a few minutes longer to allow for a stronger and more thorough resolution.

I tshould also be noted that Joss wrote this with friends and brothers, so there my be a taint that is not true joss (I can't hear you, I'm covering my ears! Yahyyahyahyahyahyahyah) and it's not his fault!

Anyway, even joss makes mistakes. (happy now? I'm gonna get my house stoned for that). His X-men run is Amazing, but does take a detour or two that are a bit odd. Some of his input on the Buffy comic series was also a little weird, and his Runaways run was just pretty inaccessible.

As for Dollhouse, I have only seen the first few episodes, which I understand (and there are articles where fox reluctantly admits this, so this isn't just fanboy defensive talk) that the first few episodes of Dollhouse were heavily monitored and tweaked by executives, and once Joss through out their mandates the Show escalated into greater popularity.

Anyhow, Joss is Still Boss, but having a mind of your own is good too (Lies! Lies!)

Kate Woodbury said...


I pretty much expected Penny to die. I think someone told me--maybe it was you, Mike!--but I think I would have guessed in any case. I agree that thematically it makes sense; Whedon is pretty impressive when it comes to explaining how badness works re: ordinary people--he's sort of the C.S. Lewis of contemporary culture (hence, the insightful storyline of Faith).

The problem was the death was accomplished in such a random way, and even if that was the point, it didn't really make it. The weapon exploding was set-up (sort of) early on with the very funny Freeze gun problem. Still, it didn't come off as a pay-off. It came off as "we're running out of time; we've got to end this!" (I agree that another twenty minutes could have helped. I'm puzzled why that didn't happen since Whedon released the thing directly to the web. Nobody would have minded!)

Plus Penny's death was oddly passive. I suppose that was also the point, but I couldn't help but wonder how Whedon The Feminist was going to explain this plot choice to feminists. Oh, wait, I know! "This is what happens when good women are caught between domineering patriarchal forces."

Sorry, that was really snide. But for the guy who created Buffy and even someone as complexly passive as Tara, Penny was a huge disappointment (but she had a great voice!). I would have liked to see her make some kind of choice, any kind of choice--for Billy, against Billy, in favor of the homeless, in disgust, even a passive sort of choice (I can't decide who to help!), not just, well, being there when the denouement needs to take place.

However, I will keep in mind that Whedon is still more unique than just about any other television writer out there!

(I still haven't seen Serenity; I probably shouldn't at this point, hmmm?)

It has just occurred to me that Dr. Horrible might have originally been a proposal for a new series, rather than its own little movie. One of the Whedons suggested this at one point. That is, the Whedons created it to try to sell to networks: a singing show about Dr. Horrible, whose past is explained by the death of the one woman he loved. In other words, this is all back-story that the Whedons turned into a Internet movie when the networks balked (I do agree that, for various reasons, Whedon seems to scare networks; he brings a heavily involved fan base with him, but he's also a tad expensive). Dr. Horrible as a back-story makes total sense to me!

mike said...

I think you should see serenity. I love it for it's creativity and voice. It does have a couple week points, because, technically, it's cramming about 5 seasons worth of season finales into one little movie. Characters die, other live, and secrets are revealed. and while there is at least one death I don't agree with, the others made sense. not only that, but it is a little hard to see 10 characters all get out of a huge mess that exist in the movie without a single casualty. They had to create peril for the characters, and so a character had to go. I just think they chose the wrong one.
anyway, hang in there! I meant to mention it before, but I think that Dr. Horrible is just what you said- an origin story. and origin stories are often incomplete cause they're only the beginning.
As for whedon the feminist, I agree, Penny was the victim character... we know little about her, she seems to make few decisions... but she is the stereotypical damsel in distress... the villain and hero fight over her as a prize... but she is little else. I think Felicia day (see my post from last year when I met her) brought an amazing amount to the table for what was obviously meant to be a very shallow character.

mike C said...

Oh, I almost forgot! I still maintain that you absolutely MUST read his Angel: After the Fall series. It kind of fizzles once the first arc (17-20 issues, somewhere around there)finishes, but that first arc is some of the best comics I've ever read.

Joe said...

It's called self-indulgence and it affects nearly everyone who becomes successful and finally has the means to do the things they've dreamed of but knew weren't up to par enough to gamble on earlier in their career. There is also the screw-this-I'm-going-to-have-fun-now attitude that some people obtain once you don't have to worry about money and fame any more.

I'm actually rather jealous of this. I long for the day where I can be self-indulgent and work on silly stuff with no regard for income, profit or even quality.

That said, I find Dollhouse to be awful. If it wasn't Whedon it would have been canceled (actually it would never have gone on the air.)

Conversely, Serenity is brilliant. It also highlights one problem Whedon has and, I believe, is aware of having--to overload his casts. In some ways Serenity is a "see, I'll be able to keep the costs down next time" demonstration. I'm both surprised and no surprised Scy-Fy didn't pick it up. Whedon did kill off characters, but the execs would still have to put up with Whedon.

Cari Hislop said...

"I believe now (and probably did then) that great writing, even good writing, has impact--that is, the reader's creative reaction comes first. Tragedy or comedy, when I read something good or great, my reaction is WOW! I am satisfied, whether I'm sad or happy."

I totally agree. Good writing wraps around the reader and causes a trance like state. Bad writing leaves the reader on the outside looking into a story, their attention easily lost.

The last few years my recreational reading material has been mainly non-fiction, but recently I found a copy of Philip Sidney's major works which included all his poems. Ok, most of his poems are autobiographical, so maybe they'd fall under non-fiction, but they're magical. He was such a good writer. I love his Astrophil and Stella poems. Within a few words he pulls in the reader until a few lines later you find yourself back in the world. To weave that sort of magic with words; I consider that the pinnacle of writing. The other night I watched Agatha Christie's The Carribean Mystery with Miss Marple. I must have seen it a dozen times, but I was still drawn in and had to watch the whole thing even though it was late and I should have gone to bed. Christie was a good writer. Her characters aren't terribly deep, but she could entrance the reader!

I think human beings need stories like they need air or water. How we ingest our story-food might differ; watching movies, tv, plays, books, but I can't imagine a single person existing without a constant stream of stories whether they be non-fiction or fiction.

Kate Woodbury said...

"I think human beings need stories like they need air or water." I love this! I think this understanding is what is missing from a lot of current humanities programs. Literature has been divided up into politics and social thises and thats; the pure human craving for story has been ignored. And the fact is, the history of literature really makes no sense unless that craving is understood and allowed for. It's why, no matter how hard it tries, Hollywood really can't predict a classic/cultural phenomenon. It simply isn't divisible--in a geosociopolitical sense.

Mike C said...

Just a side note, that oddly has little to do with joss, but rather Neil Patrick Harris. NPH recently did an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold (which, incidentally, is a brilliant cartoon... capturing everthing that was great about gold and silver age batman, and being entertaining for kids and adults; I watch it with my son alot), in which he was the "Music Miester," a villain that can control people with the power of song (which, admittedly, is the plot of nearly every musical TV show episode ever done). The music is great, the episode is really fun, and NPH does a fantastic job. You should give it a watch! find the link to part one below. give it a couple minutes to get to the music.

Kate Woodbury said...

I'll look it up!

On another side note, I have to mention a nice thing about Joss. I recently started watching Castle with Nathan Fillion, so I refreshed my knowledge of Fillion. He mentions the same thing that Boreanaz, and others mention: Joss really helped them as actors because he was willing to give them unlikely, fresh material. (Fillion's comment about being Caleb is "Nobody ever thought I could play a villain!" or something like that). I wonder if this is another reason Joss makes studios nervous--actors like him; it must get tedious doing the same stuff episode after episode (hence the huge Law & Order turnover), but Joss's willingness to experiment worries the studio bosses (who are, after all, paying the bills).