Singing Along with Dr. Horrible

Duration, when it comes to media, is a funny thing. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the web-distributed musical (official site here; Wiki here), runs a tad over 42 minutes in all, or about the length of an average hour-long block of TV entertainment with commercials properly interspersed. But my actual experience of it was trisected into chunks of approximately 15 minutes, for like your standard block of TV programming (at least in the advertising-supported format favored in the U.S.), Dr. Horrible is subdivided into acts, an exigence which shapes the ebb and flow of its dramatic humours while doing double service as a natural place to pause and reflect on what you’ve seen — or to cut yourself another slice of ice-cream cake left over from your Dairy-Queen-loving relatives’ visit.

That last would be a blatantly frivolous digression, except in this key sense: working my way through the three acts of Dr. Horrible was much like consuming thick slices of icy sweetness: each individual slab almost sickeningly creamy and indulgent, yet laced throughout with a tantalizingly bitter layer of crisp chocolate waferage. Like the cake, each segment of the show left me a little swoony, even nauseated, aesthetic sugar cascading through my affective relays. After each gap, however, I found myself hungry for more. Now, in the wake of the total experience, I find myself contemplating (alongside the concentrated coolness of the show itself) the changing nature of TV in a digital moment in which the forces of media evolution — and more properly convergence — have begun to produce fascinating cryptids: crossbred entities in which the parent influences, harmoniously combined though they might be, remain distinct. Sweet cream, bitter fudge: before everything melts together to become the soupy unremarkable norm, a few observations.

Ultimately, it took me more than two weeks to finish Dr. Horrible. I watched the first two acts over two nights with my wife, then finished up on my own late last week. (For her part, Katie was content to have the ending spoiled by an online forum she frequents: a modern Cliffs Notes for media-surfers in a hurry to catch the next wave.) So another durative axis enters the picture — the runtime of idiosyncratic viewing schedules interlacing the runtime of actual content, further macerated by multiple pausings and rewindings of the iPod Touch that was the primary platform, the postage-stamp proscenium, for my download’s unspooling. Superstring theorists think they have things hard with their 10, 11, or 26 dimensions!

As such, Horrible‘s cup of video sherbet was the perfect palate-cleanser between rounds of my other summer viewing mission — all five seasons of The Wire. I’m racing to get that series watched before the school year (another arbitrary temporal framework) resumes in three weeks; enough of my students are Wireheads that I want to be able to join in their conversations, or at least not have to fake my knowing nods or shush the conversation before endings can be ruined. On that note, two advisories about the suspense of watching The Wire. First, be careful on IMDb. Hunting down members of the exceptionally large and splendid cast risks exposing you to their characters’ lifespans: finding out that such-and-such exits the series after 10, 11, or 26 episodes is a pretty sure clue as to when they’ll take a bullet in the head or OD on a needle. Second, and relatedly, it’s not lost on this lily-white softy of an academic that I would not last two frickin’ seconds on the streets of Baltimore — fighting on either side of the drug wars.

Back to Dr. Horrible. Though other creators hold a somewhat higher place in my Pantheon of Showrunners (Ronald D. Moore with Battlestar Galactica, Matt Weiner with Mad Men, and above them all, of course, Trek‘s Great Bird of the Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry), Joss Whedon gets mad props for everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly/Serenity and for fighting his way Dante Alighieri-like through the development hell of Alien Resurrection. I was only so-so about the turn toward musical comedy Whedon demonstrated in “Once More with Feeling,” the BtVS episode in which a spell forced everyone to sing their parts; I always preferred Buffy when the beating of its heart of darkness drowned out its antic, cuddly lullabies.

But Dr. Horrible, in a parallel but separate universe of its own, is free to mix its ugliness and frills in a fresh ratio, and the (re)combination of pathos and hummable tunes works just fine for me. Something of an inversion of High School Musical, Dr. Horrible is one for all the kids who didn’t grow up pretty and popular. Moreover, its rather lonesome confidence in superweaponry and cave lairs suggests a masculine sensibility: Goth Guy rather than Gossip Girl. Its characters are presented as grownups, but they’re teenagers at the core, and the genius is in the indeterminacy of their true identities; think of Superman wearing both his blue tights and Clark Kent’s blue business suit and still not winning Lois Lane’s heart. My own preteen crush on Sabrina Duncan (Kate Jackson) of Charlie’s Angels notwithstanding, I first fell truly in love in high school, and it’s gratifying to see Dr. Horrible follow the arc of unrequited love, with laser-guided precision, to its accurate, apocalyptically heartbreaking conclusion.

What of the show as a media object, which is to say, a packet-switched quantum of graphic data in which culture and technology mingle undecidably like wave and particle? NPR hailed it as the first genuine flowering of TV in a digital milieu, and perhaps they’re right; the show looks and acts like an episode of something larger, yet it’s sui generis, a serial devoid of seriality. It may remain a kind of mule, giving rise to nothing beyond the incident of itself, or it may reproduce wildly within the corporate cradle of Whedon’s Mutant Enemy and in the slower, rhizomatic breeding beds of fanfic and fanvids. It’s exciting to envision a coming world in which garage- and basement-based production studios generate in plenty their own Dr. Horribles for grassroots dissemination; among the villains who make up the Evil League of Evil, foot-to-hoof with Bad Horse, there must surely stand an Auteur of Doom or two.

In the mise-en-abyme of digital networks, long tails, and the endlessly generative matrix of comic books and musical comedy, perhaps we will all one day turn out to be mad scientists, conquering the world only to find we have sacrificed the happy dreams that started it all.