Friday, June 4, 2010


“Is that a footnote, or are you just happy to see me?”: Examining Meta-narrative in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

“All that matters: taking matters into your own hands,” sings Dr. Horrible in the 2008 web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The show, a social satire in three acts, seems to rely on certain established narratives to constitute itself, working through the audience's participation within an established framework, a media-savvy community that is able to understand throwaway comments and asides and the layering they are intended to provide. Yet the series and its associated musical commentary subverts and destabilizes these dominant ideologies, re-appropriating them to a new purpose, and thus this paper aims to discuss the presence and subversion of these meta-narratives. However the events of the actual “making-of” commentary itself, included only in the DVD edition, will be ignored in favour of focusing on the framework established by the scripted performance and its potential effects upon a media-fandom community.

The social satire contained within the series is simultaneously both, remarkably multi-faceted and yet almost simplistic in its depiction. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is based upon the premise of a world filled with heroes and villains, focusing on Dr. Horrible and his nemesis Captain Hammer and their mutual love interest, Penny. In doing so, the show borrows from a number of stereotypes within the established universe of superhero comics; for example Dr. Horrible comments at the start of the series that he has hired a vocal coach because:

Dr. Horrible: A lot of guys ignore the laugh, and that's about standards. I mean, if you're going to get into the Evil League of Evil you have to have a memorable laugh. What, do you think Bad Horse didn't work on his whinny? His terrible death whinny.

Further examples include the self-proclaimed hero, Captain Hammer's invulnerability, his ability to continually best his nemesis, Dr. Horrible in battle, and as per established guidelines, that the hero ends up with the girl - in this case, do-gooder Penny. The audience's understanding of the series's underlying satire is predicated upon their knowledge of these stereotypes and the manipulation they undergo within the confines of the series. The viewer is compelled to place the events within a narrative that presumes the triumph of good over evil, i.e. within a dominant meta-narrative that is informed not only by the genre of the superhero universe, but also by a moral narrative propounded within society. Arguably, the series destabilizes these by revealing Captain Hammer to be the “corporate tool” of Dr. Horrible's early claims, whereas Dr. Horrible himself, while claiming to have “a PhD in horribleness,” is shown far more sympathetically. The audience realizes, as we are meant to, that Dr. Horrible (or Billy, his alter-ego) is in fact the (anti)hero of the piece. As in previous works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity and Dollhouse, co-writer and director Joss Whedon challenges these tropes and demonstrates that they are not as rigid as one might think; good and evil are simply matters of interpretation.

The term “meta-narrative” is used here with specific reference to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s assumption that there is in fact a representation of universal truth, one commonly but not exclusively associated with a positive ethico-political end, which, once communicated between a sender and an addressee would then be intellectually binding for all rational minds. This notion of meta-narratives was commonly associated with modernism, and it is possible to argue that in part by adopting the superhero genre, the golden age of which was considered to be in the 1930s and 40s, and placing it within a field that is almost aggressively post-modern, the show implies a continuing presence of meta-narratives, the old order challenged by Dr. Horrible. As he states, he is “destroying the status quo, because the status is not quo. The world is a mess and I just need to rule it.”

It is interesting to note that Lyotard believed that meta-narratives no longer had a legitimate place in the post-modern world, laying credence instead with micro-narratives, an argument he formulated based on Wittgenstein's theory of “language games.” This theory then argues that while there are no broad over-arching narratives, there are a number of smaller narratives or micro-narratives that society uses to regulate itself through linguistic conduct. Thus, in order to establish what one might term a certain ruling system, a unified narrative which consolidates people into a community, there is the requirement that there be a sense of shared understanding, that certain words be taken for certain things. Identity in this community is grounded around the “throwaways” in language, the agreed-upon clich├ęs and commonplaces that are taken for granted. And it is that which is taken for commonplace, for unsaid, that allows for the formation of links between individuals and the formation of a community. What one encounters in this manner is the unsaid, a truth represented in pure form that will inevitably provoke a response. There remains no doubt about them; rationality and a shared sense of understanding ensure a reaction.[1]

However, it seems possible to argue that with the onset of a global culture and the amalgamation of a global community, there is once more the possibility of narratives that can no longer fall merely within the space of a micro-narrative. Rather, these narratives are assumed to be fact, enforced by a shared knowledge or shared history; a fact that when coupled with the globalizing influence of the media allows for the possibility of unified narratives or meta-narratives. Thus, within the global phenomenon that is television and the internet there is the propagation of an over-arching set of narratives, what one might term a media culture that compels certain common narratives among its viewers who use the same to validate themselves as part of an ongoing society, a community alive and responsive to these selves.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog then functions not merely within the space of a well-established narrative - the superhero genre - but also within a space where the viewer's own global culture is incorporated. The series is framed such that the audience is provided a certain amount of information through the recordings Dr. Horrible creates for his video blog, drawing the viewer into the events occurring and placing him or her among Dr. Horrible’s online followers, a list that includes not only other viewers within the audience of this film, but also fictional members such as Captain Hammer and the story-bound LAPD. In this manner, the lines between reality and fiction appear to blur. Moreover, this effect is propounded by the associated musical commentary which, while meant to provide what one might term “real” information such as the history of the show, the artistic process involved, anecdotes involving the cast and crew, or a deeper insight into the characters portrayed, instead displays a continued fictional confine, a scripted performance. This applies largely to the characterization of the actors involved, with this performance often blurring the lines between their character in the series and the supposed reality of themselves that they perform:

Nathan Fillion: Look there Felicia goes/ Another deal you couldn't close, yeah. ... I'm better/ Better than Neil/ At - where do I start?/ Romantic appeal./ We both went for Penny/ And who copped a feel?/ The true man of steel./ I'm better than Neil.[2]

It could be argued that the viewer is not only drawn into the patently fictional confine of the show, but that the commentary – elucidating real-time events such as the strike held by the Writer’s Guild of America (2007-08), Maurissa Tancharoen’s writing of Penny’s lines, and the cast and crews’ supposed fascination with the game of Ninja Ropes – also places the film within a reality external to itself. The viewer is led into a space within which the ideological discourse by which they navigate cannot be said to be informed merely by the narrative presented to them; the cultural discourse and basic social patterns that surround them will also play a role in the means of interpretation.

The show's attempts to establish itself within certain fields of narrative then seems to prioritize an analysis of the various communities depicted within its frame, as well as the series's own effects upon a media-fandom community both within and outside of this narrative. Arguably, by placing the series within the confines of the superhero genre, the viewer's attention is drawn not merely to the established social mores and the conventions of law and order, but also to the transgressions of, and ambivalence towards, these mores and conventions, the latter usually depicted by the villain in question. However, the show raises certain pivotal questions with regard to these transgressions, inquiring into the communities depicted and the transgressed social norms in question. It seems clear that both heroes and villains (represented by Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible respectively) can be seen to be members of differing communities, each with its own social norms, hierarchy, and strictures. And while Captain Hammer adheres to the basic social patterns applied by “normal people” or society at large, Dr. Horrible in turn is merely adhering to the behavioral blueprint for his own community of evil-doers. This theory seems borne out by Dr. Horrible's attempts to advance to a higher status of villainy by entering the Evil League of Evil, and being unable to do so until passing an evaluation by Bad Horse, “the thoroughbred of sin,” in which he is ordered to perform “A heinous crime, a show of force/ (A murder would be nice, of course.)” Thus, while convention within this genre would dictate that the villain in question represent a force of anarchy, Dr. Horrible's efforts are still merely an attempt to conform.

Notably, unlike traditional formulations within the superhero comic genre, the villain in this case is not constituted within a Freudian parable as the id, nor is the hero representative of either the ego [as per the character of Batman] or the superego [as per the portrayal of Superman]. Rather, if one attempts to place the main characters within this formulation, it would appear that Captain Hammer, the supposed hero of the piece would represent the id, Dr. Horrible, the self-proclaimed villain would depict the ego, and finally, Penny, the moralistic do-gooder would take the place of the superego. Thus, we see Dr. Horrible agonize over his entry into the Evil League of Evil, an entry predicated upon the immoral act of murder:

Moist: Kill someone?

Dr. Horrible: Would you do it? To get into the Evil League of Evil?

Moist: Look at me, man. I’m Moist. At my most bad-ass I make people feel like they want to take a shower. I’m not E.L.E material.

Dr. Horrible: Killing’s not elegant or creative. It’s not my style.

Moist: You’ve got more than enough evil hours to get into the Henchman’s Union.

Dr. Horrible: Pshaw. I’m not a henchman. I’m Dr. Horrible. I have a P.H.D. in horribleness.

Moist: Is that the new catch phrase?

Dr. Horrible: I deserve to get in. You know I do. But killing? Really?

Moist: Hourglass says she knows a kid in Iowa that grows up to become president. That’d be big.

Dr. Horrible: I’m not gonna kill a little kid.

Moist: Smother an old lady.

Dr. Horrible: Do I even know you?

Meanwhile, Captain Hammer baits Dr. Horrible at the laundromat, informing him of his intent to sleep with the woman of his dreams purely because Dr. Horrible cares for her:

Captain Hammer: You got a little crush, don’t you Doc? Well that’s gonna make this hard to hear. See, later I’m gonna take little Penny back to my place, show her the Command Center, Hammer Cycle, maybe even the Ham-Jet. You think she likes me now? I’m gonna give Penny the night of her life. Just because you want her, and I get what you want. See, Penny’s giving it up. She’s givin’ it up hard, ‘cause she’s with Captain Hammer. And these (indicating his fists) are not the hammer. [Pause] The hammer is my penis.

Moreover, the characters of Dr. Horrible, a.k.a. Billy and Captain Hammer, seem to be closely associated with each other, so much so that the characterization of each appears curiously dependent upon the other. The viewer is first presented with this connection in the first act during “A Man's Gotta Do,” a song begun by Billy and yet, immediately after the first verse appropriated by Captain Hammer with the same refrain. This original co-dependency is then underlined by the fact that Captain Hammer decides to woo Penny beyond his usual seduction routines due to Dr. Horrible's crush on her, keeping her far longer than his other conquests simply because, as he says, he gets what Dr. Horrible wants. And most notably, at the climax of the series, at the very moment that Captain Hammer cannot help but feel, cannot help but be placed in a situation where he experiences real feeling for the first time, Billy claims that he no longer can.

It seems clear that the terms “hero” and “villain” within the series are not without a certain irony, and that in this particular case, the terms have then ceased their association with the traditional meanings. Rather, the destabilization of these signifiers within the field of the show appears to create what one might term a “pure signifier,” one that is freed from its previous associations at this point to be bound through the field of shared understanding to a new meaning within the media-fandom community that observes these fictional events. Thus, within this community of viewers, these terms and associations have taken on new meanings in the context of the series, i.e. a micro-narrative that is applicable within the context of a shared understanding.

Whedon's use of the superhero genre employs a further irony. Traditionally, superhero comics, especially those in the 1930s and 40s, were largely associated with the propaganda inherent in a war-torn and immediately post-war world. To accommodate their propagandistic function, communication was made as simple as possible with comics relying on rudimentary phrasing and formulaic plots. Whedon's representation of this genre, however, lacks this simplicity, with communication within and between various communities in the show being problematized, albeit for satiric or comic effect. For example in the case of Dr. Horrible (a.k.a. Billy) and Penny, the problem seems to arise either from his romantic interest in her:

Dr. Horrible: Love your hair.

Penny: What?

Dr. Horrible: No – I... love the... air.

or from his need to protect his identity as an evil villain; the need for subterfuge arising from his need to keep this side of himself hidden away from the moralistic do-gooder of his dreams:

Dr. Horrible: I wanna do great things, you know? I wanna be an achiever. Like Bad Horse…

Penny: The thoroughbred of sin?

Dr. Horrible: I meant Gandhi.

Subsequently, the viewer is given to note that this lack of communication is not restricted purely to the disparate communities of supposed good (or “normal”) and evil, as Captain Hammer also finds himself unable to effectively communicate with Penny due to excessive use of his signature metaphor:

Captain Hammer: Who wants to know what the Mayor is doing behind closed doors? He's signing over a certain building to a Caring Hands Group as a new homeless shelter.

Penny: Oh my God!

Captain Hammer: Yep. Apparently the only signature he needed was my fist. But with a pen in it. That I was signing with.

He also appears to fumble during his speech to the assembled crowd gathered to witness the opening of the shelter, pausing inappropriately during the opening to his speech:

Captain Hammer: I hate the homeless... ness problem that plagues our city.

The viewer is not exempt from this attempt at failed communication either. As previously stated, the viewer is drawn into the confines of the fictional space itself, made to assume the place of the audience. Thus, the viewer is included in the failure to communicate demonstrated both, by Dr. Horrible in his stuttering video blog entries, as well as the newscasters who announce:

Newscaster (female): It's a good day to be homeless.

Newscaster (male): [laughs] That it is.

This problematization of communication, while intended for satiric effect, then also simultaneously performs the function of interrupting any attempts to posit the series and its associations with the superhero genre as mere propaganda. The narrative undermines itself, its interruptions or effects revealing the ludicrous nature of modern communication, both within the series and in the viewer's own reality that relies so heavily on standardized phrasing and pithy metaphors.

Furthermore, it is possible to view Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog itself, along with Commentary! The Musical, as informing a meta-narrative of media by contrasting the relatively controlled media environment of television with the readily accessible broadcast media of the internet and its potential as a site for independent cinema.[3] The viewer's own knowledge of Joss Whedon's work with television, and his well-documented concerns regarding the creative constraints and lack of artistic control afforded to him lend credence to this theory.[4] There can be no doubt that the internet is currently one of the largest up and coming arenas for media with various web-series gaining rapid popularity such as The Guild (2007), We Need Girlfriends (2006), The Legend of Neil (2008), Dorm Life (2008) and many more. And as Carolyn Marvin presciently notes in her book When Old Technologies were New (1988):

For if it is the case, as it is fashionable to assert, that media give shape to the imaginative boundaries of modern communities, then the introduction of new media is a special historical occasion when patterns anchored in older media that have provided stable currency of social exchange are re-examined, challenged and defended.[5]

Thus, while television’s current meta-discourse is specific to modes of production, associated commercialism and viewership, it is possible that the growing popularity of the internet as a viable site for independent cinema would then place it in a position to challenge some of these discourses. For example, Dr. Horrible’s video blog can be seen to depict not only a means by which to propound individual cinema at costs far below those conventionally associated with works for television, but also a production that is free to view and available to a global audience. This would also mirror the production of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog which was marketed via Hulu.com, and was originally available free to viewers in its online format.[6] In this manner, it seems that while the web-series might have been written and produced in an effort to respond to the issues being raised by the strike held by the Writer’s Guild of America (2007-08), which affected television production, it also worked to disrupt the dominant meta-discourse of television. This entry into web-based production and distribution is an incursion that destabilizes television’s current monopoly.

All: As the fall turns into winter/ There appears a bunch of splinter / Groups who wonder what this inter -/ net is like.

While the tide is turning tepid/ And while the town is feeling trepi -/ datious time for us to step up/ to the mic.

We’ve got all these dynamite plots to use/ It’s time to light the fuse or lose/ The Strike.

Television’s ideological discourse is inextricably interwoven with commercial and promotional rationale, and it is clear that in order to succeed, where success is measured in terms of viewing figures and sales, one is forced to play to particular assumptions. As the chorus so clearly notes in the opening track “Commentary!”:

All: Everyone loves these “making-ofs”/ The story behind the scenes./ The way that we got that one cool shot./ And what it all means.

We’ll talk about the writing./ We’ll probably say “It’s great!”/ And the acting – so exciting./ Except for Nate.

Cast: Bring back the cast, we’ll have a blast/ Discussing the days of yore./ Moments like these sell DVDs.

Writers: We need to sell more./ We’ve only sold four.

It seems that the musical commentary’s clear mocking of these assumptions appears to adhere to the promotional logic so associated with current media culture, while simultaneously avoiding placing itself completely within this field. The performance both inhabits this commercial space, its intention clearly to appeal to the audience, while its satiric element seeks to disrupt. It mocks from this privileged yet dissenting position, playing both to and against the dominant meta-narrative of promotional culture so entrenched in film and television, forcing the audience to constantly re-assess.

As a result, the commentary acts as a footnote to the show itself, but not as convention would dictate. Instead, it inhabits the edge, the margins, and speaks with impunity from this position, its mockery all the more powerful for the fact that it speaks in response to an unasked question. The commentary presumes that “everyone loves these ‘making ofs’” and that “moments like these sell DVDs,” but what the audience is in fact confronted with is not the true making of, or even a proper discussion of the writing process. Instead, one encounters what one might almost term “throw away” tracks such as “10 Dollar Solo,” “Zack’s Rap,” “Ninja Ropes,” and “Steve’s Song.” Moreover, songs such as “All About Me,” “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies” and “Heart, Broken” all seem to undermine meta-narratives propounded by or within the media, dealing with issues as diverse as the urge for fame, potential racial discrimination, and the constant need for clarification of the artistic process.

Having discussed the commercial and promotional rationale so entrenched in current media culture, it then seems prudent to call particular attention to “Heart, Broken,” the eleventh track on Commentary! The Musical. Written primarily as a solo for Joss Whedon, it explores his despair at constantly being called upon to explain the narrative in question, the commentary expressing a castigation of the commodification of art and the artistic process. The song is arguably a classic example of a satiric attack on present day meta-narratives of fame and mass-production:

Joss Whedon: …[My heart’s] broken by the endless loads/ Of making-ofs and mobisodes/ The tie-ins, prequels, games and codes/ The audience buys/ The narrative dies/ Stretched and torn./ Hey, spoiler warning:

We’re gonna pick, pick/ Pick, pick, pick it apart./ Open it up to find the/ Tick, tick, tick of a heart./ A heart, broken.

Jed: Joss, why do you rail against the biz?/ You know that’s just the way it is/ You’re making everybody mis-

Zack: These out-of-date philosophies/ are for the dinner table, please./ We have to sell some DVDs.

Jed, Maurissa, Zack: Without these things you spit upon/ You’d find your fame and fanbase gone.

Maurissa: You’d be ignored at Comic-Con.

Joss: I sang some things I didn’t mean./ Okay, let’s talk about this scene./ I think it’s great how Ryan Green – / Oh no, this is no good./ I thought J-Mo would back my play/ Now Zack and they all say –

All: We’re gonna pick, pick/ Pick, pick, pick you apart./ Open you up and stop the/ tick, tick, tick of a heart./ A heart…

It seems that at this point, Whedon is not merely addressing the production houses and television syndicates that would place emphasis on the need for mass production, although these are no doubt represented within the song by the voices of Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed, and Zack Whedon. Potentially, Whedon is addressing the viewer, the audience at large. “Heart, Broken” is all but a call to arms against this commodification, albeit one firmly entrenched in irony.

Finally, the series seems to suggest, the choice lies with the viewer. Whedon’s subversive argument echoes Dr. Horrible’s own words - all that matters is taking matters into your own hands. It is possible to view Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog as Whedon's challenge to the authoritarian narratives that popular culture has set in place, the global phenomenon presenting us not only with the presence of these potential meta-narratives, but also the ability to evaluate and perhaps reject them. As Mila Bongco notes:

The world is very different from that of thirty years ago: the bases of power have shifted, and so have ways of understanding them. Old certainties have gone, though new and perhaps equally repressive authoritarianisms have emerged. These, in their turn, must be challenged.[7]

Notes:

1. All song lyrics referenced from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008) have been obtained from the official website: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)http://www.drhorrible.com/linernotes.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].

2. All song lyrics referenced from Commentary! The Musical, an additional feature of Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog (2008), have been obtained from the official website: Commentary! The Musicalhttp://www.drhorrible.com/commentary.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Dir. Joss Whedon (Hulu.com, 2008).

Secondary Sources:

Books:

Bongco, Mila, Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books(New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 2000).

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984; reprinted and translated from Les Editions de Minuit, 1979).

Marvin, Carolyn, When Old Technologies Were New (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Essays:

Anna-Louse Milne, 'The Power of Dissimulation: “When You Are Only Three White Men...”, in Yale French Studies, No 106, The Power of Rhetoric, the Rhetoric of Power: Jean Paulhan's Fiction, Criticism and Editorial Activity (2004), pp. 109 – 124.

Online Content:

Commentary! The Musical http://www.drhorrible.com/commentary.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)http://www.drhorrible.com/linernotes.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].

Kushner, David, 'Joss Whedon Goes Where No TV Man Has Gone Before', in RollingStone.comhttp://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/25951789/joss_whedon_goes_where_no_tv_man_has_gone_before[accessed on 12 January, 2010].

PEOPLE Magazine, ‘Exclusive: Neil Patrick Harris tells PEOPLE he’s Gay’,http://www.people.com/people/article/0,26334,1554852,00.html [accessed on 30 December, 2009].

Whedon, Joss, in http://www.whedon.info/Joss-Whedon-s-Reaction-About-Angel.html [accessed 12 January, 2010].



[1] Anna-Louse Milne, 'The Power of Dissimulation: “When You Are Only Three White Men...”, in Yale French Studies, No 106, The Power of Rhetoric, the Rhetoric of Power: Jean Paulhan's Fiction, Criticism and Editorial Activity (2004), p. 120. Although Milne's argument is based on Jean Paulhan's fiction and criticism, the context of Milne's theory of the formulation of a community seems more than related to Wittgenstein's theory of “language games.”

[2] 'Better than Neil', Commentary! The Musical, in Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Dir. Joss Whedon (Hulu.com, 2008). Nathan Fillion's lyrics here refer in the same manner to both Felicia Day as well as her character Penny, overlapping the two into a single entity. Furthermore, the viewer would also be aware that Neil Patrick Harris, having openly declared his homosexuality in People Magazine (Nov 3, 2006) would be unlikely to be interested in any pursuit of Felicia Day, unlike his fictional counterpart Dr. Horrible.http://www.people.com/people/article/0,26334,1554852,00.html [accessed on 30 December, 2009].

[3] David Kushner, 'Joss Whedon Goes Where No TV Man Has Gone Before', in RollingStone.comhttp://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/25951789/joss_whedon_goes_where_no_tv_man_has_gone_before[accessed on 12 January, 2010].

[4] While Joss Whedon's blog is no longer available online, certain websites have copies of his entries. I've chosen to access these instead in order to provide evidence for the statement I've chosen to make.http://www.whedon.info/Joss-Whedon-s-Reaction-About-Angel.html [accessed 12 January, 2010].

[5] Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 4.

[6] Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog was initially ad-supported and available to viewers free of charge via Hulu.com. However, the series is no longer available for free view outside of the United States of America and must be purchased in individual acts via iTunes or as a DVD.

[7] Mila Bongco, Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books(New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 2000), p. 94.

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