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'Dr. Horrible' brings TV closer to computer convergence
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Neil Patrick Harris goes from "How I Met Your Mother" to the Web in "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog."

 

Harold Cho and Kal Penn get the munchies in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle."

 

Dick Van Dyke tries to untangle a mystery - and himself - in "Murder 101."

 

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Published: 7/30/2008 12:05 AM | Updated: 7/31/2008 10:45 AM

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Not long ago, it seemed as if Neil Patrick Harris would never escape the title role of "Doogie Howser, M.D." Now, however, it suddenly seems as if that childhood hit show will be but a footnote to his career.

Harris, of course, has earned Emmy nominations as best supporting actor in a comedy as the obnoxious playboy Barney in CBS' fine ensemble series "How I Met Your Mother." Yet now comes an even more daring advance.

Neil Patrick Harris sings - that's right, sings - and remains funny at the same time in the new Internet lark "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog."

"Dr. Horrible," for those who haven't seen it or heard of it, is the latest little project from Joss Whedon, guiding force behind "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." In the grand tradition of "Once More, With Feeling," the musical episode of "Buffy," it casts Harris as the singing title character, a mad scientist with "a Ph.D. in horribleness," bent on world domination and, not coincidentally, using his Freeze Ray to also earn induction into the prestigious Evil League of Evil.

The potential for playful, singalong superhero shenanigans is obvious, especially with Whedon stock-company actor Nathan Fillion of "Firefly" playing Dr. Horrible's good-guy nemesis and "corporate tool," Capt. Hammer. Yet the trick is that "Dr. Horrible" is not a TV show - not yet, anyway - but a true three-part video podcast.

You say there's nothing good on TV this summer? Well, you're wrong about that, but "Mad Men," "Swingtown" and "Saving Grace" entirely aside, you can always find something on the Web.

Holy convergence, Batman! To the laptop!

"Dr. Horrible" has its own Web site, aptly named drhorrible.com, but that will only inform a viewer that the series is available exclusively through Apple's iTunes. (When it was available for free the first week in mid-July, the site tended to crash.) There, for $1.99 an episode or a reasonable $3.99 for the whole shebang (promising any future episodes too, although I remain skeptical) a user can download all three 13-minute-plus segments (with the last padded out to 15 with credits).

Is this the future of TV? Maybe not. It took my late-model iBook about an hour to download all three simultaneously, and when I watched them on full-screen mode the video had that staggering, stuttering quality that makes your eyeballs feel as if they're vibrating in their sockets.

Viewed in the smaller-screen "normal" mode, however, "Dr. Horrible" comes off much smoother, and the "content," as they call the stuff delivered through the delivery platform, is a hoot, all the more so for the offhand, DIY charm of the production.

"Buffy the Musical" was impressive for the way it played off the conventions of old-school movie musicals without getting hung up on the fine points. For the characters to sing as best they could was enough. While being more lo-fi, "Dr. Horrible" is even more impressive, thanks largely to Harris' versatile talents. His Dr. Horrible is, in reality, a nebbish named Billy who pines for Felicia Day's Penny at the local laundromat.

"I love laundry," she says, but Billy sees it only as "a stunningly boring chore." On that note, they have a lovely duet to open the second episode, with Dr. Horrible singing of how awful the world is while Penny gushes about how great it is.

Between them, Fillion's Capt. Hammer is a perfectly clueless self-absorbed hero who only gradually reveals himself to be a total jerk.

I won't reveal anything more, except to say I fully expect this to be only the beginning of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." After all, they're going to have to bring back Bad Horse, the Evil League of Evil leader known as "the thoroughbred of sin."

Fresh from "Dr. Horrible," that put me in the mind of "Buffy," so I went to the Hulu site at hulu.com to see what was available on the jointly owned NBC-Fox classic TV Web site. While it didn't have the musical "Buffy" episode, it did have all 34 episodes from the first two seasons, and I watched "Halloween," one of the show's early classics, about the characters being cursed to take on the attitudes of the costumes they're dressed in on Halloween night.

What a great series "Buffy" was - and is - and "Dr. Horrible" displays the same sort of playful skill at making meaning out of self-referential comedy. Sure, it would be nice to see Whedon return to a set series format (and he will this winter in Fox's "Dollhouse"), just as it's nice to see "Buffy" in pristine video form on DVD. Yet I have to insist these are landmarks as we get ever closer to true convergence between the TV and the computer.

It's hard to knock the ready accessibility of Hulu, especially at the cost of just a handful of 15-second ads an episode, and "Dr. Horrible" opens new opportunities to Whedon - opportunities to skirt network meddling and communicate straight with the audience. I think "Dr. Horrible" is only the beginning of a Whedon master plan for, in the words of Dr. Horrible, "destroying the status quo, because the status is not quo." You go, Joss Whedon, and "Dr. Horrible" too.

TCM's summer stars

Turner Classic Movies revives its annual August "Summer Under the Stars" festival starting Friday. Things get off to a slow start with Michael Caine ("Zulu" at 7 p.m.), but they soon get up to speed with Charlie Chaplin Saturday, including "Modern Times" at 7 p.m., followed by "The Great Dictator" at 8:30.

Art rock at the track

WDRV 97.1-FM holds a Rock Art Show featuring works by the likes of Jerry Garcia, Ron Wood, Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix at Arlington Park, 2200 W. Euclid, Arlington Heights, from 11:15 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday. It's free with admission to the track.

Lessons in 'Murder'

Dick Van Dyke returns in his latter-day crime-solver mode as criminology professor Jonathan Maxwell in the "Murder 101" installment "Locked Room Mystery" at 8 p.m. Sunday on the Hallmark Channel.

Slider madness

The stoner movie is a Waste Watcher genre all its own, and one of the better ones of recent vintage is "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." Harold Cho and Kal Penn star as a couple of burnouts who get the munchies. The ever-agreeable Neil Patrick Harris puts in a cameo. It's at 8 p.m. Saturday on Comedy Central.