- "The Status is Not Quo!":Pursuing Resolution in Web-Disseminated Serial Narrative
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a three-act, 42-minute serialized musical which had its genesis in the Writers Guild of America strike in late 2007. Joss Whedon, writer and creator of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, funded the project himself and co-wrote the script and the songs with his brothers Zack and Jed, and Jed's partner Maurissa Tancharoen. The three acts were disseminated via the internet on July 15, 17, and 19, 2008, with demand for Act I so high that it crashed the server on which it was hosted. Each act was freely available to view without ads for a little over a week, available to download through iTunes at low cost and thereafter available on DVD with a plethora of extras, including another entire scripted musical as a commentary track. The show's creators were explicit that this distribution model was a way of subverting the studio system and making use of new media opportunities for distribution, and Joss Whedon's loyal fanbase proved themselves willing co-conspirators, readily purchasing the download and DVD version in addition to merchandise.1 As with previous Whedon shows, the lines of communication with fans were kept open through announcements and updates on Twitter, on the Dr. Horrible website, and also through postings on fan sites.2 An enormous amount of paratextual material on the show exists across multiple media platforms in addition to the sites above—for instance the show's Facebook page, interviews in the mainstream press (see for example Whedon and Bianculli), and comments from the actors and writers made at the fan convention Comic-Con. The immersion of the text within the web enabled an ongoing dialogue to occur between viewers and the production team, and also among the viewers themselves. [End Page 367]
Scholars of reception study are already well aware of internet-hosted fan discussions and of their potential as material for analysis (see for example Allington, Bury, and Davis). In this paper, I want to bring together reception study with insights from narratology and to use these discussions to show how so-called real readers engage with a narrative as it unfolds and search within it for coherence. As genres and modes of storytelling evolve alongside the development of new technologies, so fresh methodological opportunities arise for researchers to observe audience reactions to emergent textual forms. The unusual method of distribution for Dr. Horrible, coupled with the intense level of discussion on fan sites during and immediately after the week in which it was first aired, offers a unique reception context: the chance to "freeze-frame" audience reaction at particular points in the narrative and thereby gain insight into the ways readers engaged with different features of a story. Working together in a collective interpretive effort, readers drew on the kinds of interpretive practices taught in educational institutions and used their intertextual knowledge of other Whedon works to better understand aspects of Dr. Horrible which troubled them. The reception narratives that they articulated illustrate that textuality is not discrete and fixed at a single point in time: indeed, one of the most significant moves made by the readers considered here was shifting the text into a different generic category partway through their discussion in order to make it signify in a more satisfying way. Rather than fixed and stable texts, reception study takes as its object of study dynamic and open-ended textual processes, and as these pass from what John Frow terms "one regime of reading to another" (1), so too the meaning and value of a text remains in flux. As I will show, the viewers considered here demonstrated this fluidity in action: as they moved through the text and through the different interpretive frames which other readings offered them, they came to understand the text differently. Once the work to re-establish coherence had succeeded—for some readers at least—they were willing to allow the text to settle into something fixed.
A brief description of the plot will help to contextualize the responses that follow...