Last night, I watched Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog for the first time. I admit it. I came late to the work of Joss Whedon, who wrote, directed, and financed the webisodes. I’m not ashamed. Science fiction and fantasy were not genres my family watched when I was a child; we had one TV in the house and no Tivo. I wasn’t exposed to sci-fi as a youth or drawn to it later (although I did watch X-Files). I attribute it to the masks and other prosthetics worn by the actors. I still have a hard time with them; they make it hard to read facial expressions and, good God, yes, vampires need fangs, but it’s hard to take a lisping bastion of evil seriously.
But I digress.
Firefly was the first fantasy I ever watched and truly loved. No masks or fangs. It totally worked for me. I understood for the first time why people were drawn to such shows. So I began watching the rest of Whedon’s stuff. Currently, I’m on Buffy.
But here’s the thing: I should hate these shows. They are everything I hate to watch: darkness, tragedy, desperation, death of beloved characters, unrelenting ambiguity. I should leave every show feeling beat down and depressed, just like I did after reading Shakespearean tragedies or The Good Earth. Oy vey. I hated that book.
So why do I like these Whedon shows?
Let me explain. Dr. Horrible is a musical tragedy that tells the story of a likeable young man and his rise (or fall) to super villainy. His goal is to join the Evil League of Evil, which is run by Bad Horse.
The super villain league is run by a real horse.
It’s ridiculous. And that’s the key. There is a balance of comedy and tragedy, and that’s why it works for me. While reading some heavy literary work or tragedy, I am looking for something I can relate to, someone to cheer for, but if the entire work is a catalog of bad choices and mounting sadness and that is all there is, then by the end of the thing, I want to shoot the hero myself. If a story is only an unrelenting suck downward to death–even if told in beautiful language–then what’s the point? I’m supposed to learn from the hero’s tragic flaw and negative example. Don’t be like this or your life will suck. Well, duh. That’s easy. It’s easy to succumb to your flaws; it’s harder to recognize them and fix them or at least try to. Let’s see an example of that. Tragedy is the easy way out.
But at the same time, tragedy is a part of life and should be addressed. Bad stuff happens, but so do good things. Balance. No story should be wrapped up with a fairytale ending (unless it’s a fairytale). But that doesn’t mean that only one character can be left standing in order to go tell the rest of the world how not to live.
A quote attributed to Joss Whedon sums up the point: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”