Dr. Horrible Demonstrates How to Crush Your Audience

I was re-watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog last night with some friends and I was reminded of it’s masterful construction. If you haven’t seen it, it is a three episode web musical written by Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly) and stars Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillian, and Felicia Day. It is totally brilliant. Totally. The premise is ridiculous, the music is delightful and well written, and for all it’s frivolous-ness, it is actually quite poignant and stirring. I know you can watch it on streaming Netflix and you can find it piece-meal on YouTube (see the above link) and you can buy it from iTunes. I really, really recommend it.

Warning: Spoilers…

The main character, Dr. Horrible, is a bumbling, slightly incompetent, and inappropriately lovable villain who has a video blog to document his evil plans. He is trying to get into the “Evil League of Evil” (let by the arch villain Bad Horse, the Thoroughbred of Sin) but is constantly foiled by his nemesis, Captain Hammer. He is also secretly in love with a woman from the laundromat, Penny, who works with the homeless. This doesn’t sound serious to you, does it? Nope. Dr. Horible even has a sidekick named Moist  whose henchman skill is making things soggy (“At my most bad ass I make people want to take a shower”). I suspect you can guess the tone of the piece.

So the first thing that I find so engaging about this show is that the villain is the protagonist. I mean, he keeps saying he’s evil and he wants to join the evil gang, but Dr. Horrible is really not that effective as a bad guy. His alter ego, Billy, is just neurotic and anti-social and his fumbling attempts to talk to Penny while doing laundry is endearing. And he doesn’t want to have a showdown in a park because there might be children around. But he wants so badly to be evil… It just isn’t working out for him and you kind of feel bad for him. And the “good guy” is a total prick. Captain Hammer is rude, chauvanistic, shallow, and egomaniacal. And he steals Penny just to mess with poor, lovable Billy. So as an audience, you are set up to like the villain and hate the hero. And because of that inconsistency, I think you spend the whole story waiting, expecting Billy to turn it around and embrace the good that Penny brings out in him. You just know that she’s going to trigger his epiphany and he’ll turn to the light side. Penny is like his conscience – Billy can’t ever really commit to being Dr. Horrible because he knows that Penny (good, sweet, pure Penny) would never love someone who was truly evil.

And then she dies. And it’s Billy’s fault.

You see, Billy is trying to kill Captain Hammer. He has to do it to get into the Evil League of Evil and if he doesn’t then Bad Horse will have Billy whacked. But Billy just can’t do it. He can’t pull the trigger because in the final moment, he really is a good guy – and that good guy urge is triggered by Penny. He doesn’t want Penny to see him commit a real act of evil and so his love for her makes him hesitate. You can feel the change coming as he lowers the gun… and then there’s some havoc and the gun explodes, and Captain Hammer runs away. Billy realizes that he’s won without any bloodshed and he’s stunned by his unexpected victory. As he looks around unbelieveing at his triumph he sees Penny, who has been fatally injured by the explosion.

And this is the moment that makes the whole piece sing for me (no pun intended). You see, up to this point the show has been so comical – they sing about laundry and there’s frozen yogurt and sporks and it’s just so random and silly. But then suddenly, in that climactic moment, the whole piece becomes this beautiful morality tale and it’s so unexpected. Penny’s death and Billy’s lyrical response is disarming and as an audience, you are so unprepared for it – and that makes it a million times more effective.

And I think that is the lesson here. Dramatic moments in a story are more effective when they blindside you. They can’t be totally disconnected form the story – they have to be believable. But if a moment of loss can be hidden from the reader then it will hurt them more. And that emotional surge will connect them more viscerally to the story. I’ve seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog dozens of times and I still cry everytime I hear the song he sings after Penny dies. Part of it is that the song, itself, is beautifully crafted to elict that response, but part of it is that I can see Billy die in that moment, too. I was so looking forward to seeing him choose Penny over evil and all my hopes for that happye ending are crushed. So I mourn that symbolic death of good.

Damn, Joss Whedon is good. Seriously, so brilliant. And it’s hidden in such frivolous camouflage. Masterful.


Filed under Reflection, Writing Craft

14 responses to “Dr. Horrible Demonstrates How to Crush Your Audience

  1. Never heard of it, and now I’m desperate to watch it…thanks for the tip!

  2. Amazing article.
    I think that Dr. Horrible is a great example of how terrible most of our media is. In a measly forty (agh, I almost pulled a Gloria Tesch and spelled that fourty) minutes Dr. Horrible manages to make one feel more for the characters than most movies do in a couple hours or TV shows do in hours upon hours. It’s truly brilliant.

  3. I love musicals, loved Buffy and Angel, and I’ll sure look for this. I cried at the cinema yesterday watching One Day, and for exactly the reason you said. *howtolearntowritelikethat*

    Oh yeah, I came over to say hi from the campaign. 🙂

  4. I love Joss Whedon… what a genius!

  5. Jill

    I never thought of “crushing my audience” as one of my writerly goals. But when you put it that way, heck YEAH I want to crush my audience! 🙂

  6. Love your post! And I, too, love Mr. Whedon and the Whedonverse.

    I’m much like Penny in my writing as I really would like everyone to triumph over evil and live happily ever after. But, wow, that is so boring. So crushing my audience is a writing mantra that I keep returning to…

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. Enjoyed yours very much and look forward to reading more, fellow Campaigner! 🙂

    • Whedon is a master jerk to his poor characters – it’s why I love him. He gives them a chance to really be heros. Or not. But they always choose spectacularly, don’t they?

  7. Hi Megan, just dropping by to introduce myself as a fellow Campaigner, and get to know your blog. We’re in the same adult fiction group.

    Ten years as a science teacher. You have some stuff to write about! Nice to meet you.

  8. I LOVE THIS REVIEW. (I found you via the campaign.) I finally saw Dr. Horrible earlier this year after much poking and proding from friends. I am so glad I saw it. And I’ve watched it many times since. Reading your review was like reliving my first watching of it. It comes out of nowhere, doesn’t it, that what seems like a campy predictable little story is anything but. I still cry everytime, just like you, during Billy’s song after Penny dies. For a short 45 minutes, the story, music, acting…everything is incredible!

  9. Hey Megan, I’m in your suspense/thriller group. I was dropping by to say “hi” and saw your post on Dr. Horrible. I love Dr. Horrible, and what a great analysis this is. Now I have the songs in my head and will have to go dig out my DVD for a rewatch (always a good thing!).

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