This week, in an unusual first, television writer and producer Joss Whedon unveiled Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a musical comedy written for — and released exclusively on — the Internet.
Dr. Horrible has the same kind of quirky cult-hit feel of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the television series Whedon created. The online production stars Neil Patrick Harris of Doogie Howser and How I Met Your Mother fame as the title character, an aspiring baddie who just can't seem to get accepted into the Evil League of Evil.
Dr. Horrible practices his evil laugh and wears a white lab coat and black goggles on his head. But, alas, his slightly frightened-looking blue eyes and pale sun-starved skin make him look more like a baby polar bear — kind of cuddly. Still, he hopes that this might be the year for him to make it into the League:
"My application is strong this year," he says. "A letter of condemnation from the deputy mayor. That's got to have some weight, so ... fingers crossed."
The Evil League isn't Dr. Horrible's only quest — he also pines after (and breaks into song over) the girl he meets regularly at the Laundromat.
Felicia Day from Buffy plays Horrible's love interest, and Nathan Fillion, a Whedon regular who's currently on Desperate Housewives, is Captain Hammer, his nemesis.
All this talent got together in the midst of last year's Hollywood writer's strike specifically to produce something for the Web. They had no idea whether the project would be a success.
"Doing [the online series] was an effort to send a message to the community that there was another way ... that we could create content and ultimately create jobs without the studios," says Whedon.
Working on the Web gave Whedon a new kind of creative freedom. He declines to disclose exactly how much the production cost, but says it's in the low six figures.
"We didn't really have any marketing. We couldn't afford it," he says. "Our publicity department was me and my assistant Natalie."
When the first episode appeared for free on Hulu.com on Tuesday, so many people tried to watch it that the server crashed. Whedon says they were getting about 1,000 hits a minute. The second episode, which came out yesterday, was just as popular. So far, hundreds of thousands of viewers have watched the first two episodes of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.
Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster based in Silicon Valley, says the Internet community has been eagerly waiting for TV to migrate to the Web.
"This is not just fun video. This is what we've all been waiting for," says Saffo. "It's completely new. It's not a copy of what we did on TV, and it's not a copy of the things we've been doing on the Web so far ... It's a new kind of video experience. And who would have thunk that Doogie Howser can sing?"
Typically, web productions don't make much money, and no one knows if Dr. Horrible will break that tradition.But come Sunday, it will no longer be possible to get the show for free; fans will have to pay $1.99 to download episodes from iTunes. Whedon is also releasing a DVD with lots of extras, including musical commentary.