You can call Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog an underdog story — the chronicling of an inadequate villain's secret yearning to be a formidable hero in the eyes of his beloved laundry buddy — but you wouldn't really say the same about the web series' production, at least not ostensibly. The 2008 three-part web series, which earned its television debut on Tuesday night on The CW, has a pretty remarkable team of creative forces behind it.
Dr. Horrible was written and directed by Joss Whedon, who at the time had already solidified a cult celebrity thanks to television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, and with a handful of successful animated ventures as well (Toy Story being the most impressive of these endeavors). At the center of the action in Whedon's web series is Neil Patrick Harris, himself already an adored American star by 2008 thanks to various roles on television, in film, and in the theater (not to mention his penchant for hosting one hell of an awards ceremony). And as Harris' arch nemesis is Nathan Fillion, no stranger to adoring TV audiences (and a Whedon friend and collaborator from the days of Firefly). In short, these guys didn't really need to go web series — a medium connoted with the idea of comedians and artists trying to jump start their careers. This was a passion project.
The idea was borne from the Writers Strike that overtook show business between '07 and '08. Whedon was one of the many forces who found outlets beyond the confines of Hollywood's reach to give fans creative entertainment. You could go so far as to say that Dr. Horrible was developed almost in spite of the mainstream; The CW's broadcast of the special asserts that this offbeat piece of musical comedy and Whedonian nerddom has actually won its spot in the mainstream.
However, this time it was the audiences that lacked, not the support of the industry: an incredibly low 566,000 viewers are reported to have tuned into The CW to watch the 9 PM airing of Dr. Horrible on Tuesday night. Facing off against new episodes of popular network series like Dancing with the Stars, New Girl, NCIS: Los Angeles, and new NBC sitcoms like Go On and The New Normal, it's not particularly surprising that Dr. Horrible fans — who have had the opportunity to watch Whedon's creation time and time again on the Internet — would pass off on this viewing.
And it's a shame, really, that not enough of us were interested in rallying for the symbolic experience of seeing Dr. Horrible earn its place on a major television station's weeknight lineup, or that a new mass of fans wasn't garnered by this television debut. It does lend to pessimism for future translations of web series, and other outlying creations, to mainstream attention. And it's difficult not to worry about how this will affect production on the announced Dr. Horrible sequel, which Whedon has suggested could manifest as a feature film.
The low ratings don't rob the event of its achievement entirely. Dr. Horrible, a particularly weird and specifically nerdy property, still found its place on television in the first place — the industry is coming to recognize, as indicated by this move, the types of audiences that flocked to Whedon's web series when it first hit the Internet, that swarmed the message boards with discussions about the fantastic project, whose celebrations have motivated the filmmaker and his cast to start work on a followup story. Still, the movement to make showbiz more conducive to the likes of Dr. Horrible and its fellow spiritual underdogs is a work in progress; the encouragement and support of fans is invaluable in this endeavor.
Sure, if you're reading this article, you've probably seen Dr. Horrible so many times that you've actually begun to imagine the Bad Horse Chorus singing the refrain behind your day-to-day activities. But Dr. Horrible's foray into television isn't just about the onscreen story onscreen, but the offscreen one as well: the story of an unlikely project, an experiment to entertain to victims of a tumultuous blow to the creative forces of Hollywood, making its way into the spotlight. The story of a property uninhibited by the powers that be — by the worries that it might be "too deviant," "too off-kilter," "too inaccessible," or what have you — finding its delivery to universal audiences. Dr. Horrible's CW broadcast was a victory for everyone rooting for the upsurge of a type of artistic expression that is still seeking its place in the world — and I know there are more than 566,000 of you out there.
This is not to condemn, but to encourage the lot of us to jump on the bandwagon and support these projects whenever they do find victories of any kind. They need us just as much as we need them. The more we support our own favorite Dr. Horribles, if and when they earn their places in the sun, the more others will sprout, and the more this realm of artistic expression will expand. And we need that world to grow. Without it, we'll just got Small Wonder reruns. (Could be worse, but still.)
[Photo Credit: Amy Opoka/Courtesy of Timescience Bloodclub]