Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life After Dr. Horrible: A Rough Guide to Original Web Programming

The story goes like this: it was late December 2007 in Hollywood, and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) was walking the picket line during the 100-day WGA writers’ strike when he began to think about how he could bypass the studios and networks altogether and self-produce a TV show which could be delivered directly to his fans. Walking the line with him was Felicia Day, an actor/writer who Joss knew from the 7th season of Buffy. At the time she was halfway through the first season of her own web series, The Guild, which had become particularly successful. Inspired by her experience, Joss’ little idea grew more and more ambitious. And thus the world’s first Internet musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, was born.

Together with his younger brothers, screenwriters Zack (now writing Rubicon) and Jed, and Jed’s then-fiancée (and now wife) Maurissa Tancharoen, the musical and the acting talents of Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle), Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory), and Felicia Day herself, Whedon filmed Dr. Horrible in just four days, with its cast and many of its crew working for free. With no marketing budget to speak of, originally posted online (in three, 14-minute acts) for free download and subsequently going on sale on iTunes and as a DVD, Dr. Horrible was a critical and commercial success by any standard. For media gurus, the summer of 2008 was indeed the season of Dr. Horrible. That fall, despite never having been broadcast on any network, it would go on to win an Emmy, and the “Direct-to-Web Supervillain Musical” was even named #15 in Time Magazine’s ‘Top 50 Inventions of 2008’. Television, it seemed, would never be the same. Here’s how the story was being told: before Dr. Horrible, the major studios and networks could only see the Internet either as a vast delivery mechanism for their large and growing back catalogue of previously produced content or for web tie-ins for established series. The idea of studios producing new, original content for the web simply wasn’t on the table—more than enough money could be made by offering older and recent shows on sites like Hulu, Youtube, and on network websites. (In fact, this lucrative money stream—the majority of which never made its way back to these shows’ writers and creators—was one of the main sticking points leading to WGA strike in 2007.) But now, with Dr. Horrible leading the way, the Internet was suddenly revealed to be a wide-open landscape rich in creative and commercial potential.

Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tanharoen, Joss Whedon, Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day, Zack Whedon

Of course, that’s not what happened. There was no great exodus from conventional media to new media forms, and we have yet to see another web project have even a fraction of Dr. Horrible’s phenomenal success. Conventional television has proceeded much on course, and even Whedon himself returned to Fox the next year with his underappreciated and ill-fated series, Dollhouse. And what happened online was what was already happening. When Whedon came on the scene, the Internet was already thriving with hundreds of small projects of lesser and greater ambition, with new shows popping up literally by the day. They may have lacked the flash and star-power of Dr. Horrible, but the Web had already become a testing ground for new and emerging talent by 2008, and since then this has only become more true.

And in fact, just three weeks ago, Warner Bros. announced two promising new digital projects, both of which will go into production later this year. The first, H+, is produced by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns) and directed by Stewart Hendler (Sorority Row), fittingly set in a dystopic future where a large percentage of the human population is literally plugged into the Internet 24/7. The second, Aim High, produced by McG (Chuck, Supernatural) and helmed by Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), tells an international spy story set in a high school. The shows will be distributed on multiple platforms— broadband, mobile networks, and video-on-demand—in small doses over the course of their 2 ½ hour seasons. Both sound quite inventive, structurally and narratively, and I am eager to see how this experiment plays itself out.

What I would like to do here today is offer a small sampling of what’s out there. Even for those who pride themselves on keeping up to date with network and cable television, the sheer variety and number of series on the Web will humble you. Original web programming falls into three rough categories: established Hollywood stars slumming it; talented second-tier writers and actors who are genuinely interested in the Internet as a new medium; and gifted everyday folks with no real money but who own a video camera and a computer. Since a comprehensive review of all of these innumerable options is well beyond the scope of any one post, I’ll pick out a few representative shows which are worth checking out. (To get a fuller sense of the broad scope of original web content available, just take a look at this year’s list of Streamy Award nominees.)

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)
Nathan Fillion and Neil Patrick Harris
Whatever its ultimate place in the still-to-be-written history of new media, Dr. Horrible is a perfect location to begin your journey. Simply speaking, Dr. Horrible is a delight from start to finish and is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The story is simultaneously poignant and hilarious and all the songs are clever and catchy. Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion each reach new heights of charisma (which, in their respective cases, is saying quite a lot). And if you are watching it on DVD, be sure to check out the brilliant musical commentary track that accompanies the video. The entire casts and all the Whedons contribute to Commentary! The Musical, which ironically boasts more songs than the musical itself, and actually took three days longer to produce! Both soundtracks have a permanent place on my iPod, and I confess that of late I am more likely to listen to the Commentary tracks than the main album.

Click here to hear Joss Whedon sing “Heart (Broken)”, from Commentary! The Music.

The Guild (2007-Present)
Felicia Day (centre) and the cast of The Guild
Currently in its fourth season, this comedy remains my all-time favourite episodic web series. The brainchild of Felicia Day, who created the series and writes and stars in every episode, The Guild revolves around the lives of a small group of online gamers, each of whom has their own reasons for needing to regularly escape into the virtual world of the game. Joining Day is a terrific ensemble cast (Sandeep Parikh, Jeff Lewis, Vincent Caso, Robin Thorsen, Amy Okuda) who invest their roles with a pathos that consistently belies the brevity of each episode. After the first season, which was financed solely by Paypal donations from fans, the show made Comic-Con stars of the cast and recently produced a limited issue comic series by Dark Horse Comics. Don’t miss the third season, when Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) joins the show as a regular guest star, the kilt-wearing narcissistic leader of a rival guild. With episodes running between 4-7 minutes, a 12-episode season can and will be consumed in one sitting!

Click here to watch the first episode of The Guild. 

Childrens Hospital (2008-Present)
Rob Corddry in Childrens Hospital
Childrens Hospital is an original web series created by and starring Rob Corddry (The Daily Show, Hot Tub Time Machine). Set in the titular hospital (named for its founder, Dr. Childrens), Childrens Hospital is a broad satire which takes aim at almost every medical drama and comedy on television: ER, Grey's Anatomy, House, and even Scrubs. After its first season of 10 5-minute episodes aired at in 2008-2009, it was picked up by The Cartoon Network, the American cable channel, and its second season airs as part of the Adult Swim programming block. The show also has a extensive ensemble cast, which includes Lake Bell (How to Make It in America), Ken Marino (Party Down), Megan Mullally (Will & Grace), and the voice of Michael Cera (Arrested Development). In its second season, Henry Winkler (Arrested Development, Happy Days) joins the cast. Dizzyingly fun and wildly irreverent, it successfully exposes every medical drama cliché to hilarious and darkly comic effect.

Click here to watch the first episode of Childrens Hospital.

You Suck at Photoshop (2007-2008)
A scene from You Suck at Photoshop
Minimalist to the extreme , You Suck at Photoshop is a perfect example of the populist potential of original web videos. Part how-to video and part web confessional, the show is structured as a mock online tutorial, narrated by the fictional Donnie Hoyle (Troy Hitch). With every 3-6 minute episode, Donnie bitterly walks us through the in-and-outs of using Photoshop and the ruins of his life, his voiceover revealing the details of his broken marriage and his torturous day job. Darkly funny and often subtly brilliant, this series proves that creativity and talent can trump a large budget (or really any budget at all) any day. With more than 20 millions views, You Suck at Photoshop remains the most watched show at

Click here to watch the classic early episode from the first season of You Suck at Photoshop, where Donnie demonstrates to the viewers how to most efficiently remove the wedding band from a photo of his cheating wife's finger. (Warning: Mature Language!)

-- Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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