Cyberspace Hero

Joss Whedon launches the perfect Web series with Dr. Horrible

Remember when Hollywood was going to take over the Internet?

It was announced in the late '90s, not too long after the Web was discovered to be popular among computer users. Naturally, the entertainment establishment couldn't allow a new format to exist for long without trying to master it. Everybody loves Hollywood movies and TV shows, right? So injecting its true professionals into this unruly arena would shape up the Internet in no time, creating new audiences and new income streams for their glossy products. Threat defused!

Only it didn't work out like that. The biggest concerted effort to put a Hollywood leash on the Web,, flopped like Howard the Duck II. It revealed just how hopelessly old-fashioned studio executives could be in the face of a strange, new medium. Backed by Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment and Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studio, and bankrolled by the horribly misguided investor Paul Allen, blew millions of dollars on a massive staff and (former) A-list talent like Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin. And it never even launched.

Since those dark days in 2000 (an era in which Melanie Griffith could be credibly described as a "netrepreneur" by BusinessWeek), the Internet has indeed been transformed into a highly successful video entertainment vehicle. Only it wasn't Hollywood that figured out the right business model; it was lunkheaded college students videotaping their buddies jumping off of roofs. Or kids exposing their Star Wars fixations. Or would-be comedians shooting unfunny skits. Or weird girls alone in their apartments supposedly confessing to the camera. Yep, it was a bunch of cheap, user-generated, amateur crap that finally took the Internet by storm.

And while the big networks and studios have valiantly fought back with webisodes for TV series in the off-season, Hollywood still doesn't quite know what to do with the Internet. Perhaps studio executives should ask Joss Whedon how it should be done.

Whedon, the talented nerd/writer/TV producer who somehow infiltrated network TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer a decade ago, has produced his own Web series, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, and it's a humdinger. He's managed to infuse just the right amount of production values into a humble, goofy project to create something that works best on the Internet. Previewed free for one week on, the three-part series is now exclusively on iTunes (and it's making money at $2 an episode).

Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.) stars as the titular Dr. Horrible, an inept, would-be super-villain who seeks to join the Evil League of Evil via the destruction of his nemesis, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion). He would also like to date the beautiful, sweet-natured homeless activist Penny (Felicia Day), who seems more smitten with Captain Hammer. Much silly singing ensues and plenty of superhero in-jokes. (Relating any more of the story would be unforgivable for a trilogy that totals about 40 minutes.) Dr. Horrible hits the sweet spot between kooky comedy and involving melodrama—it's a diverting Web series that's not stupid or hackneyed or lame, which makes it quite rare. (Yes, there are echoes of here, but that particular doctor seems more like an art project and is not nearly as entertaining.)

Written by Whedon (along with his brothers Zack and Jed and Maurissa Tancharoen) during the Writer's Guild strike last year, his stated goal was "[t]o turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the Internet. To show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way." And that other way mostly entails removing studio executives from the equation. Of course, achieving that goal is easier if you're Joss Whedon, and can wrangle access to studio backlots and get scores of technicians to pitch in.

But imagine, if you will, your favorite filmmakers creating their own short series—whatever they can imagine—without somebody in an expensive tie and bad hair gel telling them, "I don't get it." If any of the results are as fun as Dr. Horrible, then I say bring on the new paradigm. It's about time.