Writing Fear Free

Bad Horse: Observations from Dr. Horrible

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.

The Evil League of Evil led by Bad Horse.

So why do I like these Whedon shows?

Two words.

Bad Horse.

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.”

3 thoughts on “Bad Horse: Observations from Dr. Horrible

  1. You nailed it, Jennifer. It makes me said that Firefly was about 2 years before its time. I’d love to know if Mal kicked Jayne off the ship yet. Even the great Whedon cannot get it right all of the time; I could not watch Dollhouse for the exact reasons you listed above. There was no one to really root for. Dr. Horrible gives you that kick in the gut, but at the same time, you realize, ‘Holy s@#t! It’s a REAL horse!’ Talk about mixed emotions.

    Being that you and I are both running kind of parallel with these new universes, which way do you prefer to consume the content, via binging on it like you are with Buffy, or letting it build slowly? I’m asking because of my current experience with Doctor Who. I never thought I’d be as passionate about a tv show ever again as I was with Buffy, which had 10 years of slow fandom to build. Doctor Who, I’ve consumed everything in 6 weeks, including the emotional rollercoasters that smash you every season. I can’t decide which is better for me at this point.

    Whedon gave us Dr. Horrible and Felicia Day, who gave us a model for how to be successful on the web with ‘The Guild,’ which is now giving us ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.’ It’s a lot like what Amanda Hocking is did for indie writers and what you are doing now for the writers to come.

    I hope that eventually, Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ gets wide release, or at least end up on iTunes eventually.

  2. I cannot wait to see Much Ado! It’s my favorite Shakespeare play. (Surprising, I know. I like a comedy. I also really like Henry V.) If it comes out in theaters, I’m there.

    As far as which method of consuming TV shows I like, I think it depends on the type of show and the writing. If it’s obvious that I’m watching something that’s carefully plotted, then I want to watch them all RIGHT NOW.

    Like Buffy. Everything in that show has a purpose, and I want to see the big picture. I want to know how Whedon did it. How did he bring all those plots together? How is what just happened going to affect the outcome of the overall story? I must know! After the episode “Seeing Red,” I HAD to know how they could possibly redeem Spike. Even as fantastic as James Marsters is in the role, acting alone wasn’t going to cut it. How could the character come back from that? How would the writers handle it? I had to know! RIGHT NOW!

  3. Great post, Jennifer! I feel the same way you do about tragedy. Life sucks sometimes, and the only way we can get through it is to laugh. I love that about your books too, by the way! You’ve got suspense, danger, death, tragedy–but your quips and relationships make it all worthwhile. Humor is what made the terribly difficult experiences faced by Harry Potter and Gregor the Overlander bearable. That old, worn-out adage is still true: laughter is the best medicine.

    I’m glad to hear your recommendation of Buffy. I haven’t seen it yet and am looking forward to it (maybe after Chuck).

    Oh, by the way, if you loved Dr. Horrible, you should either buy the film or both soundtracks. Commentary: The Musical! is FANTASTIC.

    –Kelley

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