MERMin’ high

Phil Ford

Thanks to Musicology/Matters, I have been enjoying — and meaning to write about — Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I know that there's a huge contingent of Whedon fans out there for whom Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest work of the human spirit since, like, ever, but for whatever reason I've never really cared about it. Dr. Horrible, on the other hand, I love. It's an internet-only mini-musical with Neil Patrick Harris and some other people associated with the Joss Whedon Experience (doubtless very familiar to Whedon fans but new to me) about a likable supervillain, a dislikable superhero, and the girl they're both after.

The post at Musicology/Matters points out a number of things about this musical, mainly that it seems to be a bellwether of the good overall health of the medium, inasmuch as Dr. Horrible (and several other revisionist musicals for the stage) owes its effectiveness to its knowing manipulation of generic conventions that are clearly not dead yet, inasmuch as people can still make jokes about them. But one thing that strikes me about Dr. Horrible is its medium. It bears comparison with film musicals like, say, Babes in Arms, because it is filmed rather than staged. But then again, Dr. Horrible was released for a different medium (i.e., your computer, not a movie screen). Now, there are some obvious effects of this, like the fact that you're watching a small image on your own at close range in domestic (or, if you're being naughty and unproductive, work) space, with maybe crappy little speakers or possibly headphones. The comparison that works is probably TV rather than film; a TV director has to plan effects that will work on a wide variety of playback systems, and so (one would imagine) would someone shooting an internet episode.*

Whedon makes an obvious nod to the medium through his clever framing conceit — most of the plot exposition is done by way of Dr. Horrible's video blog.** But the camera doesn't stay there: in the first act, Dr. Horrible answers his email and then, inspired to reflect on the cute girl at the laundromat, begins to sing and we start moving through space and time and across real and imaginary states in the fluid way we are familiar with from the classic Hollywood musicals. And this is the thing about musicals that, more than anything else, makes people hate them. There isn't a band playing to explain where the musical accompaniment is coming from, and yet a character is singing along to it; and anyway, who just bursts into song like that? And sings a whole song? And does a mass-choreographed dance number? And where did all those swing sets and teeter-totters come from?

Are Judy, Mickey, and the gang just imagining they're singing? No, not really; but then the reality of scenes like this is not the same as the plain vanilla reality immediately before and after. (There's always an audible and visible jerk as we transition from the one state to another.) Raymond Knapp calls this MERM — Musically Enhanced Reality Mode.*** It's not reality and it's not unreality — this number from Babes in Arms isn't a dream sequences or anything. It's musically-enhanced reality.

Anyway, one thing that seems surprising and really cool to me about Dr. Horrible is that it is so casually unembarrassed about its MERM. At a certain point film directors realized they couldn't do straightforward MERM anymore, because most of their audience wasn't going to suspend disbelief for it. Recent movie musicals do MERM, but with conditions: either the musical is a cartoon (anything can happen in a cartoon), or presents songs from the audience's experience — either it's a filmed version of a stage show like Sweeney Todd or a collection of songs everybody's already familiar with (like Moulin Rouge). When's the last time someone made a proper theatrical-release movie with a straight MERM scene? It's been a while. But Dr. Horrible does MERM with the best of them. My thought here (sorry it took so long, and for such a small payoff) is that this is another effect of the medium. Our scruples about seeing MERM on the big screen don't apply to the intimate scale of an internet broadcast. Or a TV show, for that matter — think of High School Musical. I'm not sure why this should be, but the computer screen seems to be another place where anything can happen. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but whatever, it's good to see some unapologetic MERM again. As Whedon shows at the end (I won't spoil it), it can be used with surprising emotional force.

*David Lynch has apparently sworn off doing TV for good, partly because he keeps getting jerked around by the networks and partly because he hates this loss of control — he wants to plan sound and visual effects that only work with a big theater sound and projection system, and it maddens him to think that people might be watching his movies — or anyone else's — on substandard equipment (like their phones).

**Dr. Horrible suffers from the same problem that academic bloggers do —
he gives away his dastardly plans without realizing that, you know,
someone might be watching.

***In Raymond Knapp, The American Musical and the Performance of Identity (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 65-117.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to MERMin’ high

  1. When Whedon did a musical episode of Buffy (“Once More With Feeling” from season six*), they openly discussed the MERM – though that’s not what they called it. The characters remarked on people busting out in song for no reason, with one even wondering where the orchestra was.
    It was also mondo meta, with one lyric being “I think this line’s mostly filler.”
    *Yes, I know the title and the season. I didn’t think I’d like Buffy at first, but a friend turned me into a committed Joss-head (or, to use the term from another Whedon show, a Browncoat).

  2. Darkwave says:

    Why i can’t see your video?

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