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"Here at Command Central, not so much with the hilarious. More with the 'What the Hell am I Doing'"
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January 29 2009

Critical Studies in Television: Essays on Dr. Horrible. Also this one: 'Breaking the Ninth Wall' with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: Internet Creation.

These are fabulous, and a nice intellectual change of pace from "lookit da sexy naked chics" of an earlier topic.

It gives me warm tinglies when academics discuss a show I love in terms I wouldn't have thought of. Though I have to admit, my brain slipped a cog or two at the line: Part of the aesthetic richness of Dr. Horrible is its thoroughly laden intertextuality. Since it's a web-series, shouldn't that be hypertextuality?
The Freeze Ray—now a Death Ray—has exploded after a struggle between Billy/Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer.
Except for the fact that it's a Stun Ray that gets turned into a Death Ray that then explodes. Pay attention, you hifalutin intellectuals. ;)
Since it's a web-series, shouldn't that be hypertextuality?


It's been few years since I last hung out at the Media studies circles, so my academese may be a bit rusty, but I'm not sure I would call Doctor Horrible an example of hypertextuality. Sure, it's a web series, but (IIRC) it didn't really take advantage of the new medium beyond using it as a distribution channel (as compared to, say, the The Dark Knight and its viral marketing campaign).
Great link!
I'll be pondering in my bunk.
I just love knowing that other people - real people - actually think about this stuff as much as I do.
Yeah, it definitely takes the "weird" edge off.
We're doing Nietzsche and Dr. Horrible next week in my literary theory class, I'm looking forward to it.
Are there any reviews specifically of Joss's music -- in either Dr.Horrible or OMWF?

[ edited by SteveP on 2009-01-30 15:31 ]
SteveP: I don't know a lot about music, but being a big Sondheim fan, I see a lot of similarities between his music and Joss's. I think Sondheim doesn't always follow traditional structure in his music, and since a lot of the songs Joss has written have been inspired by Sondheim, I think it translates in that way, too. But that's just to my untrained ear.

[ edited by fortunateizzi on 2009-01-29 17:40 ]
We're doing Nietzsche and Dr. Horrible next week in my literary theory class, I'm looking forward to it.

I'm sure that you can do fine on your own, Biff Turkle, but if you care for a spare argument or two, email me.
We're doing Nietzsche and Dr. Horrible next week in my literary theory class, I'm looking forward to it.

It's funny you should mention that. They just released the list of summer classes for film studies at my school, and one of them was this:

Examines urban fantasy genre in film and television over last four decades. Works by Mike Hitlov, Joss Whedon, Jim Butcher, and J.K. Rowling will be among the examples.


A happy camper am I. :)

Also found the linked articles interesting; I wonder if they'll eventually do a book for Dr. Horrible like they have for the other series.
Sure, it's a web series, but (IIRC) it didn't really take advantage of the new medium beyond using it as a distribution channel (as compared to, say, the The Dark Knight and its viral marketing campaign).


I saw a ton of web-based viral marketing for Dr H. Felicia alone was doing interviews for fan sites on almost a daily basis. And given that I talked it up the show in the forums and linked to it from my website, and made an ELE video, I contributed to the viral marketing as well, as many of use here did.

How did you find out about Dr H, if not from the web?
It's hard to sum up why I feel this, but I feel like Dr Horrible is part of the internet... it grew from it and embodies it and found success through it. Which is odd, because in the run-up to it when I read interviews which said things like "we wanted to make something for the internet" I thought 'that's stupid, the internet is just people after all.' And then it came out and I watched it and I thought 'it's the internet!' In the guise of a mushortio!' Or something. I think my point was... while Dark Knight and others may have used the internet, Dr Horrible is of it.

As to the music, speaking as another non-musician (well, I'm in a choir, but I don't understand theory) I would concur with the view that Joss' music tends to ramble and lack... well, some feel of musicality... but that is not a bad thing. I would definitely agree with the comparison to Sondheim, where songs are also a little bitty and strange and apt to change direction halfway through. That said, I remember when trying to guess who had written which songs that I guessed Jed for My Eyes because the harmony seemed clever and the song as a whole just seemed to flow better than anything in OMWF (which I love, don't get me wrong). So... yeah. *shrugs* There's probably something to the observation, but I'm not convinced it's a bad thing.
Yeah--untrained musicians like, oh, Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser have proven utterly incapable of leaving a lasting mark on the Broadway musical, or of crafting a satisfying show tune.
It is welcome (to me at least) to see someone else say "sure, Joss can do this and make it a success, but that doesn't demonstrate that just anybody can do this (yet)"
I'm with you on that one.
Yeah--untrained musicians like, oh, Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser have proven utterly incapable of leaving a lasting mark on the Broadway musical, or of crafting a satisfying show tune.

And Frank Zappa, who went straight from his High School 'Do-Wop' out fit, to getting paid to write jingles. Oh yeah, going on to become one of the 'great' guitarists of our time, and also a well respected modern symphonic composer. Self taught, all the way. How many great composers (every genre, all inclusive) are we fans of who've had no formal training?




Most of them.
I'm always hopeful about the Whedon-related writing of Wilcox, Lavery, et al., but I'm almost always disappointed. Never mind the lame factual errors and horrific prose of Wilcox's intertextuality/metatextuality essay, it's just a shockingly banal piece of published writing. 'Joss Whedon's work is richly metatextual and intertextual and this is part of its pleasure' is not an interesting insight anymore. It was arguably interesting when Wilcox first made a name saying it, back in the late 90's if memory serves, but so what? Lavery edited a collection on The Sopranos after about three seasons of that show, and while half of it is of value, half of it boils down to 'The Sopranos is richly metatextual and intertextual and this is part of its pleasure.'

That's academic boilerplate - everything worth watching is said to be inter- and/or metatextually complex, because if it's not, modern critics run out of things to say really goddamn quickly.

Wilcox and Lavery and the rest of the Whedon-studies crew aren't necessarily bad critics, near as I can tell, and Wilcox's Sweeney Todd connection is intriguing (even if it's poorly-developed), but there's a major diminishing-returns problem in Whedonesque academia - just as in fandom, for that matter. Past a certain point you lapse into nostalgia; in literary/media criticism, nostalgia seems to take the form of emptily reiterating basic theoretical claims.

In any case, these aren't really 'critical essays,' they're blog posts by people with PhD's. Not super-duper-notable, though of course any port in a storm...
As to the 'Dr Horrible' music - it's stronger than OMWF's stuff, more loose-limbed, and a good deal more sing-songy (in a good way). Jed and Maurissa helpfully counteract Joss's melodramatic streak (though they're responsible for by far the weakest song in 'Dr H,' Penny's one-note solo in Act Two). Lyrically it's miles beyond OMWF, but a lot of that comes (I think) from Joss being able to start from scratch characterwise, to paint in bold strokes. 'Going Through the Motions' is a very, very precise song (and also a spoof), and it has to do different work from something like 'Freeze Ray,' which is all about a single grand metaphor.

Commentary is arguably even better than Dr H, though its parodic character makes it less affecting and coherent.

The lyrics to Dr H and Commentary are hit-or-miss; for the most part Joss's lyrics hit hard and are less funny (the brutality of the 'pick it apart' tune is startling), Jed/Maurissa/Zack's are broader and less...important. As to whether the stuff is particularly complex, mostly it's not, no. It's intelligent pop but not four standard deviations out from the mean, the way Joss's best writing is. 'All About Me' (the ensemble song), for instance, combines a kind of insipid verse and decent front side to the refrain with a fantastic finale line of the chorus (check out Fury's final solo line into those girl-voice harmonies) and a fantastic bridge.

The lyrics to the 'Strike' tune are a little labored at times ('What's to like?' - the seams are showing, Joss) but that final line is bone-chilling. 'It's All About the Art' is total onstage-ingenue stuff, a smart Chorus Line-type knockoff, and right in Joss's wheelhouse - the spacey sections are some of his best stuff. But the last chord of the mid-verse turnaround is an unforced fucking error - thank God it's redeemed by the 'mentioning pooing' chords, and that autotuner-sounding synth outro.

Well that's not 'analysis' but then this isn't a journal of musicology either. Not that anyone should read those. :)
waxbanks, you seem to be hitting a perfect storm in your head. It may not actually have much to do with Whedon stuff, nor is it necessarily the last even if you switch subjects. Try to breathe and be.
Final note, in a media-studies-type voice:

How you know Joss didn't write 'Nobody's Asian in the Movies' is that it doesn't make any mention of how nobody's Asian or black or Latino in Joss's goddamn set-in-Southern-California TV shows. There are obviously exceptions, and Joss's demographics have gotten more literally complex over time (his race/gender/sexuality metaphors have always been complex), but 'Sunnydale ain't exactly a haven for the brothers' doesn't quite cover the topic of the astonishing whiteness of the Buffyverse.

As such, funny as the song is, it left a sour taste in my wife's mouth, and if you see it not as another broad-brush Hollywood spoof but as a tune in a Joss Whedon film, it might leave a sour taste in yours.

But then pseudointellectual tokenism - whining about perceived racial injustice to tick off a box on one's liberal-cred checklist - is probably more damaging in the long run than Joss whedon telling his unimpeachably progressive stories using almost all white actors.

OK done!

ETA: @dreamlogic, not sure I follow.

[ edited by waxbanks on 2009-01-29 23:15 ]
Er...Daniel Dae Kim and J. August Richards might beg to differ when it comes to Angel. Not to say that Angel's LA isn't demographically unrealistic (and not to say that there aren't some horrible problems with the racial politics of Gunn's character, background, role etc.), but "nobody's Asian or black or Latino in Joss's goddamn set-in-Souther-California TV shows" overstates the case a tad.

I always thought the whiteness of Sunnydale was deliberately marked. It's meant to be a parody of the picture-perfect whitebread suburban setting. Of course, it all went a bit pear-shaped as Sunnydale kept getting less and less believably a "one-Starbucks town."
But the last chord of the mid-verse turnaround is an unforced fucking error

If you're listening late at night,
You may think the chords are not quite right,
But they are,
We just wrote them like that.
Hmmm. I thought at one point we did get a link to a music review from someone's blog, someone more officially musically inclined. I vaguely remember it was last summer or early fall. I tried a search, though, and nothing came back. :(
Being largely unmusical, I am trying to figure out which is the offending last chord of the mid-verse turnaround but don't hear anything that clunks to my ear. Maybe I'm just being distracted by Felicia.

I do know that in OMWF, I always thought the music sounded "off" where Buffy confesses to the gang that she was in heaven, and then again when Spike reprises the theme to save her from combusting.

But what do I know about music? I mostly listen to amateur Finnish techno.
AlanD - SMG isn't the most precise singer in the world (or the cast), and that's a tough line anyhow. The vocal melody outpaces the chords in terms of complication and it's one of the few moments in the show that Joss didn't seem to be able to bring together. (That said: check out the piano backing Buffy on that line, then the guitar/strings under the same melody when Spike comes in - simple, effective arranging.)

Meanwhile 'Sweet's Song' feels a little (unintentionally, I expect/hope?) like an amalgam of every soulful-darkies cliché ever to dim the lights of Broadway, and is probably the least interesting song in the show relative to its genre norms - while the Spike/Buffy finale pins swell lyrical echoes to a really clunky bit of counterpoint, oy.

Yet I wanna give 'OMWF' a pass, generally, because all the performers do such a good job of singing emotionally without resorting to the swooping peacockish rubbish that passes for Big Moments on Broadway. The songs are performed absolutely in character rather than for self-aggrandizement, which is damned impressive.

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