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  • "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. In offering this account of my own I do not seek to privilege it or to situate it in an explanatory relation to the fan readings, as some scholarly accounts of reader and viewer response have tended to do (Merrick 55). Rather, I have tried in my own retelling to foreground some of the elements which emerged most persistently in the responses of readers and to generate a retelling that they would recognize, without necessarily agreeing with unreservedly. The narrative centers on the eponymous Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), an aspiring supervillain with two main aims in life: to be accepted into the Evil League of Evil, and to win the heart of Penny (Felicia Day), a girl at the laundromat his awkward alter-ego Billy is too shy to talk to. These two aspirations come into conflict when his nemesis, the superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) not only foils Dr. Horrible's various plots but also takes Penny as his own girlfriend. As the story progresses, the subversion of the superhero and villain roles becomes progressively clearer: Dr. Horrible/Billy is a sympathetic character who is reluctant to kill anybody, while Captain Hammer is a supercilious "corporate tool" who cares more about his own ego than about doing good. In the final act ("Denouement!"), Dr. Horrible finally [End Page 368] succeeds in creating the "death ray" he needs to pull off the crime that will guarantee him entry to the League, but in Captain Hammer's hands the weapon malfunctions, and the ensuing explosion kills Penny.

The metafictive nature of the text, its parodic treatment of the conventions of the superhero narrative, and its ludic genre commentary are evident from the opening monologue, in which Dr. Horrible sets out on his video blog the difficulties he is having with the bureaucracy of supervillainy. His evil laugh is not quite up to par, despite his efforts to work with a vocal coach on "strengthening the haaa." His transmatter ray is still in beta testing and turns gold bars into a soupy substance that "smells like cumin." We see him dealing with red tape as he applies to become a member of the Evil League of Evil. "He rides across the nation, the Thoroughbred of Sin," sing a posse of epistolary cowboys who pop into frame as Dr. Horrible opens a letter of acknowledgement from Bad Horse, the League's feared leader: "He got the application that you just sent in" (Figure 1).

Fig. 1. Still from Act I of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
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Fig. 1.

Still from Act I of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

The metatextual commentary on the genre of the superhero story was something viewers picked up on and discussed at length, at times using the term "genre" in their posts. This focus was due at least in part to the fact that because its distribution networks had bypassed the studio system, the text was able to break narrative conventions that habitually constrain television shows whose commercial success is a factor in their continued existence. In considering how these viewers made sense of Dr. Horrible, I have chosen to focus on the generic qualities of the narrative because they were such an engaging topic of discussion. Alongside genre, I consider the role played by interpretive community in providing a context which shaped viewers' understanding of the text and its generic positioning, in the service of the wider question of how these viewers made sense of this narrative at a broader level.3 [End Page 369]

In the Whedonesque.com discussion threads following the release of Acts I and II, readers could be observed carrying out the kinds of interpretive activities that might be expected: performing close readings, identifying with the characters, and on occasion speculating about how the story might end. In Act III, however, the light-hearted comedic tone of the text gives way to something darker. While Penny's death means that Dr. Horrible inadvertently gets his wish to accede to the Evil League of Evil, the closing shot of his devastated face suggests that, in the proleptic lyrics of one of his earlier songs, "there's no happy ending." So large was the number of people who flocked to the Whedonesque site following this unexpected plot development that it too crashed; once restored, the site was deluged with users, and the thread set up for discussion of Act III ended up with 1,066 posts and 90,574 words, including author tags and posting dates. Members of the community themselves noted with some pride that this was the longest discussion thread on their site to date.4

Readers initially reacted to the plot twist, and the loss of a beloved character, with shock, sadness, and other negative responses:

I should not have been surprised by the ending… and yet—*shock* :( *tears* (minuet)

Oh. My. God.That wasn't funny at all. It was sad. Really sad. And shocking. And moving.And sad.Sorry. Coherent sentences are still beyond me. (lookitsjulia)

OMG. I guess I didn't want to think it wouldn't have a happy ending. I'm still in shock like the rest of us. (Lioness)

Others expressed disappointment and anger because they perceived this ending to be a tired cliché which was overused in Whedon's other works:

… can't he write ONE THING with a gorram happy ending?! JUST ONE. This had it written all over it! Cute, spoofy, funny, sweet… it would have been lovely! But no, "One Trick" Whedon has to kill off the sweet, innocent, flawless homeless shelter girl to teach us the same lesson we learned in every other piece of work he's done.

Everyone who was surprised that she died: HOW? It's the same trick he pulled in Serenity. And three times in the last season of Angel. And how many times in Buffy! I would have been surprised if everyone LIVED… pleasantly surprised!

So, review: I loved this entire little online flick. Brilliant. Until the end. Then it got predictable. And then SUCKED.

Happily Ever After. TRY IT. Seriously.

(Batman1016) [End Page 370]

As more and more people joined the discussion after viewing the final act, a number of strategies emerged through which they could be observed to "cope" with this unwelcome plot development and re-establish textual coherence. Frank Kermode has described readers seeking in narrative problems that can be rationally solved ("Secrets" 88), and these viewers quickly set about doing exactly that. Some invented alternative endings, fan-fic style: "oh well I just have to hope… the core of the death ray was composed of wonderflonium which combined with the metal of the death ray and thereby conferring superpowers (and a resurrection) onto Penny" (alittledark-corner). These fantasy endings were, however, generally offered lightheartedly: they were not presented as tenable solutions to the problematic ending. More serious strategies coalesced around the question of the text's genre, which emerged as the focus for some viewers' dissatisfaction: "I'm not ticked off at Joss personally, but at Dr. Horrible and its writers generally, kinda. I did not like the comedy/tragedy bait and switch one bit. And you're right on, I was completely in love with Acts I and II, bought a t-shirt and everything, and Act III pretty much ruined my enjoyment of the whole thing. Again, I can appreciate it, but I don't like it anymore" (library hooligan). For other viewers, however, the role reversal between the unpleasant "hero" and the putative villain—whom they found much more sympathetic—led, after the airing of the first two acts, to readerly pleasure at the identifiable rupture of genre conventions:

Is it so wrong that I'm cheering for Dr. Horrible to defeat his nemesis? (Numfar PTB)

I love that we're cheering for Evil (EX)

The inversion of the images shown in Figures 2 and 3 demonstrates this role reversal: in Act II it is Captain Hammer who taunts Dr. Horrible, but in Act III it is Dr. Horrible who menaces Captain Hammer. The fortunes of the characters have been reversed, but it is not so clear who the hero is, and who the villain. By framing the two characters in profile in the same way, the shot composition suggests their equivalence.

Fig. 2. Still from Act II of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
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Fig. 2.

Still from Act II of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

[End Page 371]

Fig. 3. Still from Act III of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
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Fig. 3.

Still from Act III of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

After Act III aired, pleasure at the genre play continued: "I do like that the subversion of the hero/villain roles went far beyond the initial comedy. In the end, the hero kills the girl and the villain has to put the loss aside and soldier on behind the mask of his public persona" (Lady Brick). This contributor identifies a way in which, far from being an overturning of expectations, the ending extends the subgenre of superhero parody tale and thus conforms to another systematic set of meanings. Comments from other members of the community suggested that having their genre expectations confounded was a pleasurable experience, both because it was borne out of intertextual familiarity with Whedon's other works, and because it was a way of differentiating these from other more conventional texts. One respondent mocked those who "like to know what Viewing Chip to insert into their heads prior to watching something. The one with all the pre-programmed responses to appropriate stimuli for the genre at hand. Unfortunately for that behavior, Joss occasionally likes to blow the circuits in those chips by not playing by those proper patterns" (The One True b!X). The comment illustrates Jerome Bruner's point that genre is not simply a property of a text but also a way of understanding its narrative: an invitation to employ "a particular style of epistemology" that predisposes readers to use their cognitive facilities in certain ways (14–15). It is somewhat ironic that the genre-bending properties of Whedon texts themselves constitute a kind of genre which is recognized and appreciated by this and other members of the fan community.

One of the most striking examples of this epistemological invitation in action was provided by one member's assertion that "it's an origin story after all" (jcs). This suggestion proved to be a compelling one that increasing numbers of discussion participants picked up and expanded on ("someone here mentioned that it's an origin story. Absolutely" [AmazonGirl]). Some used it to legitimize the plot turn and to characterize Penny's death as an event that in fact strengthened the story as [End Page 372] a whole: "So yes, here we have an origin story, the genesis of D[r ]H[orrible], not an offbeat love story—I guess if it were something throwaway and sappy, it would have somewhat diminished the genesis of this storytelling form, wouldn't it?" (starbreez). As Kermode observes, the sequence found in stories is always shadowed by causality ("Secrets" 83–84), and indeed, as members began to elaborate on how the narrative functioned as an origin story, the readings they built on each others' interpretations frequently offered causal explanations:

For those who think the events in act 3 came out of nowhere: The person above who called it an origin story is right on. If you think of it like that, that this is the story of how Dr. Horrible becomes so evil, it all makes sense. It's sad to lose Penny, because I really liked her. But I loved seeing Dr. Horrible's reaction to it, how something died inside him and his heart turned all black inside. I could read that all in his eyes, and it was amazing.

(electricspacegirl)

Oh, Joss, you're breaking my heart! I can understand why some people may be really upset and pissed off and now hate the whole thing, but… I get it, I really do. There is no way it could have a "happy" ending and still be so powerful. It's the ache that makes it great, the "if you just gave up this evil stuff and did your laundry you could sit and have fro yo and get the girl!!!", and it makes me feel really good to think of it as an origin story…. So, yes, it was incredibly sad, and shocking, and Act III was not so lighthearted, but now that I can watch it all as one, I really do love it.

(nicetomeatyou)

For the second viewer, the generic recasting brings serious pleasure ("it makes me feel really good"), even though this act will not bring the character of Penny back into the story. The tactic of casting the text as an origin story not only allowed readers to find a broader scheme of meaning into which the text could fit, but also to satisfy the desire for "more story" (Madhatter) which many voiced:

I ~love~ that Penny's "demise" drives the story hard and fast towards a precipice—it surely signals that there is much, much more to come. Can't wait.

(crystalsinger)

It's the best possible outcome to warrant a sequel. If he got the girl, what would the sequel be? A cozy domestic scene? Now Dr. Horrible is full of pain but he's got what he's supposedly wanted and is part of an evil organization. There's tons of narrative potential there.

(swanjun)

The death of Penny, then, was transformed by these readers into something positive, as within the genre of the origin story it functioned as a signifier of further things to come. These readings illustrate Bruner's claim that narrative genre works as an "enabling language" which acts as a cognitive guide to an acceptable reading of the narrative (15). The different perceptions of genre held by audience members resulted in different epistemological trajectories. Readings which located the [End Page 373] narrative in a genre of Whedon texts which habitually disposed of beloved characters evinced a persistent reaction of "I should have known this was coming" (or, in some cases, "I knew this was coming"), whereas readings which retrospectively understood the narrative as an origin story looked forward to the next installment.

These communal analyses of how the text subverted genre conventions—by blurring the line between hero and villain and by baiting the audience to expect a comedic denouement and then switching to a tragic one—also show how central a role interpretive community played in shaping readers' understanding of the text. The discussion abounds with examples of individuals building on each others' interpretations to arrive at new insights. In the example below, viewers engaged in close reading across the different codes of the film, both visual and textual. A visual signal—the disappearance of Dr. Horrible's nervous twitch when he finally succeeds at an evil deed—was interpreted by several posters as evidence of a significant shift for his character. This shift was then cited by another poster as evidence of the narrative's "bait and switch" from one genre to another, an interpretation which was clinched by reference to the words of another poster, who had earlier encapsulated this swerve in a reference to a line from the text itself:

"With my Freeze Ray I will stop." Billy stops. Dr Horrible continues.

(malcolm)

He [Billy] had a nervous eye blink/twitch that was integral to the character; Michael Chekhov calls it the psychological gesture. I was so immersed in Act III last night in the first viewing, I didn't notice. But I'm 99.9% sure that twitch was completely gone. Brilliant touch.

(Tonya)

I mentioned it [the eye twitch] after Act II—though I noticed it in Act I. And I didn't see it in Act III. It was the perfect touch, as malcolm put so succinctly, because, "Billy stops. Dr Horrible continues."

(QuoterGal)

This analysis was a collective interpretive effort, in which the ending was made meaningful through a discovery of how visual cues and textual clues could be read and linked, so as to support the text's generic positioning as an origin story. Indeed, as Daniel Allington has observed, fan analysis can be extremely sophisticated (47). Helen Merrick is among those who point to the similarities between fan behavior and that of literary scholars: both embark upon the "engaged, critical and interpretive consumption of texts" which goes beyond "simply" reading texts to discussing and deconstructing them with others (54–55). A similar point is made by Rhiannon Bury in her work on fan discourse about the television show Six Feet Under (303), in which she demonstrates how the interpretive strategies employed by viewers are firmly rooted in the kinds of reading practices taught in conjunction with print culture texts in educational institutions, and that the majority of viewers respected the distinction between institutionally sanctioned kinds of analysis (based on close textual analysis), and unsanctioned varieties (wild conjecture not grounded in textual evidence).5 Indeed, the two-day gap between episodes gave the viewers in this community ample opportunity to demonstrate [End Page 374] their familiarity with—and indeed their mastery of—approved interpretive strategies and established hermeneutic codes. Other topics, such as discussion of gender roles and the politics of representation, emerge in the discussion in ways redolent of university seminars. The Dr. Horrible responses add weight to Bury's findings, then, while simultaneously illustrating how effective the process of communal hermeneutic negotiation was as a way for these fans to carry out cognitive work together (Bruner 20). There was still ample room for robust disagreement, however, as other discussion threads, such as those addressing feminist interpretations of the text, made clear.

Another central technique for making sense of the ending was by reference to other Whedon texts, which were commonly invoked by discussion participants: "I was thrilled to see the themes of status quo vs. changing-the-world=apocalypsis again, the themes which were also played out in NFA [the final episode of Angel] and Chosen [the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer] and now in [the comic book] Buffy Season 8" (Nata). Here, again, genre was frequently a point of discussion as viewers argued that the ending of this text, and others of Whedon's, were different from—and superior to—those of other pop-culture texts:

In Serenity, Wash's death leads us to think that no member of the crew is safe from death in the final battle… Penny's death was necessary to make a point. It's not that Joss is "always" killing off his characters, it's that most writers take the "safe" or "easy" way. Joss definitely does give us what we need—even if it means ripping our hearts out to do it. I, for one, have to thank Joss for teaching me to feel again, which means I have to take the good and the bad.

(samatwitch)

For this viewer, the story "teaches" him or her "to feel again," a capacity which, it seems, the "false" happy endings of other texts have dulled. Kermode makes the point that endings in which the peripeteia is the most daring are the ones that feel the most "real,"6 and certainly the Dr. Horrible discussions bore ample evidence of this. Casting this and other Whedon textual endings as more "real"—in their refusal to observe the narrative fiction that the good ended happily and the bad un-happily—was a move that permitted these viewers to characterize themselves as having learnt something: "I hated this at first, from my own fair share of pain and tragedy delivered in such a way I've discussed before. However, I'm able to go back and understand more with Dr. H[orrible], where I don't have that luxury in life" (korkster). Presenting the text as a ground through which to better understand one's own experience provides another basis on which to characterize this text as superior to others in the media marketplace (and, implicitly, to elevate oneself as a reader): yet another tactic by which the ending could be recast as something positive.

It is clear from the above examples that for many of these audience members, familiarity with Whedon's oeuvre provided a crucial context in which they related to this new instance of his work. This intertextual mastery was assisted by the highly dialogic nature of the relation between the audience and the show's creators, [End Page 375] who sent messages to fans in various ways including the Whedonesque discussion board itself. This dialogic relation provides an illuminating example of how influential perceived authorial intentions can be in shaping interpretations of a narrative, and how powerful a current they can be in the fluidity arising from the ongoing negotiation of interpretation. In Bruner's view, when as readers we process narrative, we do so on our own terms, "inevitably tak[ing] the teller's intentions into account and do[ing] so in terms of our background knowledge (and, indeed, in the light of our presuppositions about the teller's background knowledge)" (17). The viewers contributing to this discussion were familiar with Joss Whedon's statements from communications he had made in the past, and interpreting in light of previous authorial statements gave them a crucial and solid context for the interpretation.7 This tendency can be seen in this post: "One of the most brilliant things Joss ever said was that he doesn't give people what they want, he gives them what they need. That's what real story does, and it ain't always pretty. The goofy setup is what gave us all hope that it could end happily, but what we got here is a truly satisfying ending, even if it is heartwrenching" (Lani). This authori-ally endorsed concept that a "real story" delivers what its readers need rather than what they want was picked up and discussed at length by others in the discussion. Indeed, this kind of close attention to authorial statements by fans was playfully acknowledged by the text itself. As Dr. Horrible talks to his unseen audience on his video blog, we are given an example of "good" close reading, as modelled by one of his email correspondents (whose handle, deadnotsleeping, is not dissimilar to those of the posters on the Whedonesque discussion boards). This textually attentive fan has paid careful attention to linguistic detail while reading Dr. Horrible's previous posts and identified a pattern in the pronouns ("You always say in your blog that you will show 'her' the way, show 'her' you're a true villain. Who is 'her'?"). Identifying this linguistic patterning turns out to be the plot device8 that moves the narrative on from exposition of its first important tension—the protagonist's lack of success so far in his quest to commit a suitably evil act in order to be admitted to the Evil League of Evil—to its second important tension—the protagonist's inability to connect with his love interest.

What is intriguing about these discussions is that, far from showing these fans' activities as an exercise in ever more obsessive textual trivia-hunting, they give a remarkably clear sense of how the narrative and its ending functioned for its readers. These readers were able to take the ending, comprehend it via a variety of interpretative strategies and thereby make it into something bearable, an act of sense making that, as Bruner observes, is of a different order from narrative resolution (16). For some readers, as we have seen, fixing the narrative as an origin story transformed the ending from something meaningless into something meaningful: it was no longer the end of a story but rather the sign of the beginning. For other viewers, it was an ending that fitted both textually—as foreshadowed by textual clues such as the line "there's no happy ending"—and intertextually—as an example of Joss Whedon's trademark trope of killing off beloved characters. For some, it was a political allegory referring to the writer's strike, where Dr. Horrible's line "The status is not quo! The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it" resonated [End Page 376] with struggles over the means of cultural production occurring at the time of writing. Still others identified it as an allegory of masculinity gone bad—two megalomaniacal men going head to head and Penny getting caught in the cross-fire—a reading which was in line with Joss Whedon's well-known, although not uncontested, feminist convictions. Whatever tactics were employed, the recurrent gesture remains the same: trying to make meaning out of that which threatens meaninglessness, or in Kermode's phrase, providing a fiction of concord (Sense of An Ending 59). What this looked like, in practice, was slotting the ending into some pre-existing larger scheme of meaning: the existence of origin stories as a science-fiction genre, the mastery of modes of close analysis that are attentive to textual clues, intertextual knowledge of Whedon's oeuvre, familiarity with the political context in which the story was written, and others. These strategies put empirical flesh on the bones of Bruner's assertion that narrative is "transmitted culturally and constrained by each individual's level of mastery and by his conglomerate of prosthetic devices, colleagues and mentors… a version of reality whose acceptability is governed by convention and 'narrative necessity' rather than by empirical verification and logical requiredness" (4). The "narrative necessity" in this case was the imperative to render meaningful an event which, on an initial reading, threatened to render the whole text meaningless. In the various strategies employed, we can also distinguish between different causes for the dynamic textual processes that Frow identifies: the fluidity that results from the serial nature of the text and that which results from the ongoing negotiation of interpretation.

I have attempted in this analysis to show that this text and its reception context are not just another pop culture phenomenon generating large amounts of obsessive yet essentially trivial chatter among fans. Rather, they offer a rich body of data which is significant for the study of narrative, as it offers examples of individuals making sense of stories and allows us to see how certain sense-making tools are deployed: how readers use genres to orient themselves to what a text can be expected to deliver; how character identification works to influence the experience of a text; the kinds of hermeneutic moves that occur within an interpretive community; and the difference in how readers understand a text part-way through its telling compared to its end, to name just a few. Among the most striking insights in the data was the centrality of genre as a tool in the sense-making arsenal of many of the Dr. Horrible viewers. Even as Whedon's text broke new ground in circumventing the studio system, it relied on recognizable conventions of established genres.

Evidently, what readers report about their experience of a text cannot be conflated with their actual experience of the narrative in any simple way. However, work in discursive psychology suggests that articulating one's reading of a text is not something that can be separated from the reading itself: as a reader expounds on her understanding of a narrative and participates in analytical activity with others, so she continues to process the text. As David Herman has observed, narrative theorists need to take account of these developments in discursive psychology in order to better grasp "how cognitive processes inhere in the context for the telling [End Page 377] as well as in the nature of what is told" (321). The implications of this work are that the re-narrating and generic re-situating of stories—as exemplified in the discussions considered here—are not simply reports on the narrative as perceived by a reader, but are themselves part of the cognitive processes of understanding the text as a narrative. If concepts and methods from narratology can, as Herman suggests, illuminate traditions of enquiry that locate these cognitive processes in so-ciocommunicative activities rather than in the minds of individuals (308), then discussions such as the Whedonesque threads furnish a productive corpus of data through which to explore the intersection of these fields.

This analysis has of necessity left out a great deal of the context in which these readers approached both the text and their interpretive activities on the Whedonesque site. In considering their responses largely in isolation from the social contexts in which they were produced I do not seek to present them as what Ien Ang terms transparent objects of empirical enquiry, but rather as elements tightly knitted to many others in the constellation of reception activities, including the experiences of anticipating the text, watching the text, reading paratextual material, responding to others, and being part of a community of other fans (255–56). Ang also urges media ethnographers to make explicit their own role as storytellers, putting forward descriptions which are themselves constructive and provisional, and I have sought to do so here.

A central challenge in understanding the dynamic of interaction between text and reader lies in the difficulty of accounting for both textual and social factors, among them narrative closure, generic conventions, dominant ideologies, and subject positioning on the one hand, and readers' sociodemographic position, so-ciocognitive resources, and cultural capital, contextual and paratextual discourses, and psychodynamic forces on the other (Livingstone 190–91). My analysis is of methodological necessity limited in what it can say about the social positioning of the readers it considers. Some information can be gleaned from the kind of language used. A comparatively high level of adherence to the conventions of written English such as grammar and spelling, in addition to displays of linguistic capital—such as the ability to produce witty, arch, or linguistically deft comments (see Bury 292) suggest that many of the contributors had at least some level of tertiary education. Many made reference to white-collar jobs which gave them access to a computer; a number of others referred to university courses. In the course of discussions about accessing the text online, many identified their location, with the majority of participants located in the US and others in other industrialized nations such as Canada, the UK, the nations of Europe, and Australia. This description, however, still leaves a great many gaps.

Another necessary caveat is that the circumstances making the Whedonesque discussions such a productive context in which to examine the reception of narrative also made it an artificial context. As several members of the community noted, the way they experienced the unfolding of the text was entirely different from the way viewers who watched the text later—and hence saw all three acts one after the other without the days of discussion and speculation in between—would experience it: "As others have said I think it was the repeated viewings of the previous [End Page 378] acts (and pretty much falling in love with it) that made the ending feel so brutal. First time I watched all three acts together (which was my third viewing of Act III) I just felt numb—even the jokes weren't funny. However, on the couple of further viewings I had before it vanished, I did rediscover the joy of the previous acts and realised how appropriate the bleak ending was" (NotaViking). As this viewer explains, the two-day gap between episodes gave viewers much more time to identify with, and form attachments to, the characters, than if the text was viewed straight through from start to finish. The three-act structure might have been conceived as an experiment in narrative gratification. However, as methodologically productive a context for audience study as the Dr. Horrible discussions were, they embodied a kind of narrative uncertainty principle: audience reaction can be "freeze-framed," but only by altering other elements of the interpretive experience.

In its bypassing of the studio system, the distribution model of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has been hailed by media commentators and fans alike as something which heralded the beginnings of an irreversible shift in the way cultural texts reach their audiences. My contention is that this break with traditional gate-keeping institutions—who have an interest in providing stories that everyone, not just devoted fans willing to spend time and cognitive effort in making them meaningful, can make sense of—also has ramifications for the reading practices which audiences employ in their engagement with such texts. It may be that Web 2.0 proves in retrospect to be a threshhold of sorts: from now on it will be at least theoretically, and in many cases actually, possible to find other readers and viewers of a text (at least in industrialized countries) and to do the kind of communal interpretive work I have given a very limited taste of here. Moreover, online discussions such as these offer the opportunity to observe individuals practising analytical and dialogic strategies taught in educational contexts: they give us an opportunity to see what happens when these strategies are used outside the classroom and how individuals use them to help make sense of their lives and their world. Scholars of narrative need to consider how to keep in view, and to theorize, the new modes of communal sense making among interpretive communities of global reach that these technologies are beginning to make visible.

Anouk Lang

Anouk Lang is an honorary research fellow in the School of English, Drama, and American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham, U.K. Her articles have appeared in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Language and Literature, Topia, and Australian Literary Studies.

Endnotes

1. More detail about production and distribution is given in (Walters 2009). At the time of writing, Dr. Horrible could be viewed within the United States for no cost at http://drhorrible.com/mushortio.html (accessed June 1, 2009).

3. The corpus of responses I draw on in this analysis is a selection from the largest fan site for Whedon works, www.whedonesque.com. As the body of fan responses to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on this site alone are extensive, it was necessary to be selective. I read through all discussion threads dating from June 25, 2008 (when the trailer was released) to July 24, 2008 when discussion about the text had died down somewhat and from these, I compiled a corpus of approximately 235,000 [End Page 379] words consisting of only those threads which bore on the reception, or anticipation, of the text. As all the ensuing quotes come from http://whedonesque.com (and could, at the time of writing, be found by entering the requisite text into the search facility accessible via the site's front page), I have given only the screenname of each entry's author, rather than providing a link for each individual quote. An archive of all the postings to the site in July 2008 can be found at http://whedonesque.com/2008/07/.

4. In my reading of these discussions, I have singled out certain elements and ordered these in particular ways so as to find coherence, sequence, and causality within an ongoing flux, as narratives themselves do. The idea that a researcher might be able to grasp all the processes involved in interpretation and adequately represent them within the totality of their context is, as Ien Ang observes, an untenable one. Rather, as she suggests, we need to acknowledge this state of affairs as an inevitable one "that circumscribes the implicatedness and responsibility of the researcher/writer as a producer of descriptions that, as soon as they enter the uneven, power-laden field of social discourse, play their political roles as particular ways of seeing and organizing an ever elusive reality" (256). In the analysis that follows, I too give an interpretive shape to what I have found, and the responses I have selected as significant are those which chime in some way with my own reading of, and my own pleasure in unravelling, this text.

5. See also Staiger for another example of how fan interpretive behaviors model interpretive strategies taught in educational contexts.

6. "The more daring the peripeteia, the more we may feel that the work respects our sense of reality; and the more certainly we shall feel that the fiction under consideration is one of those which, by upsetting the ordinary balance of our naïve expectations, is finding something out for us, something real" (Kermode, The Sense of an Ending 18).

7. It is worth mentioning that by doing this, the fans were in fact contravening Joss Whedon's own strong resistance to having his works interpreted by reference to his (apparent) intentions. In one self-consciously ironic post on March 19, 2009 on Whedonesque, he urged them not to take his intentions into consideration in their interpretation in order to have a "purer" experience of the work: "[W]hat I say about myself and my intentions should have nothing to do with your experience of my work. As Hitchcock said, 'Trust the tale, not the teller.' Some 'feminist' works reinforce stereotypes, some 'exploitive' works provide textured kick-ass female roles. Mostly everyone does both. If you view a piece solely from the perspective of the writer's INTENTION—or one specific part of that intention—it's harder to have a true response to how the work makes you feel. In this age of total disclosure… that kind of pure watching is hard to come by" (joss).

8. It is interesting that the level of attention to plot in Joss Whedon's work is such that there is an invented term—"phlebotinum"—which he and other writers employ when talking about devices they use to move the plot on which are incidental to the action. The term is, correspondingly, used in fan discussions. More than one contributor to the discussion threads under consideration used a version of the word as their handle.

Works Cited

Allington, Daniel. "'How Come Most People Don't See It?': Slashing The Lord of the Rings." Social Semiotics 17.1 (2007): 43–62.
Ang, Ien. "Ethnography and Radical Contextualism in Audience Studies." In The Audience and its Landscape, edited by James Hay, Lawrence Grossberg, and Ellen Wartella, 247–62. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
Bianculli, David. "Joss Whedon: Slayers, Dolls and Singing Villains." National Public Radio. February 12, 2009. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100601869 (accessed June 1, 2009). [End Page 380]
Bruner, Jerome. "The Narrative Construction of Reality." Critical Inquiry 18.1 (1991): 1–21.
Bury, Rhiannon. "Textual Poaching or Gamekeeping? A Comparative Study of Two Six Feet Under Internet Fan Forums." In New Directions in American Reception Study, edited by Philip Goldstein and James L. Machor, 289–305. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008.
Davis, Kimberly Chabot. Postmodern Texts and Emotional Audiences. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue Univ. Press, 2007.
Frow, John. "Afterlife: Texts as Usage." Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History 1 (2008): 1–23.
Herman, David. "Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind: Cognitive Narratology, Discursive Psychology, and Narratives in Face-to-Face Interaction." Narrative 15.3 (2007): 306–34.
———. "Secrets and Narrative Sequence." Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980): 83–101.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967.
Livingstone, Sonia. Making Sense of Television. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1998.
Merrick, Helen. "The Readers Feminism Doesn't See: Feminist Fans, Critics and Science Fiction." In Trash Aesthetics: Popular Culture and its Audience, edited by Deborah Cartmell, Ian Hunter, Heidi Kaye, and Imelda Whelehan, 48–65. London: Pluto Press, 1997.
Staiger, Janet. "The Revenge of the Film Education Movement: Cult Movies and Fan Interpretive Behaviors." Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History 1 (Fall 2008): 43–69.
Walters, Ben. "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." Film Quarterly 62.3 (2009): 66–67.
Whedon, Joss. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. DVD. Mutant Enemy, 2008.
———. "Joss Whedon Talks 'Dr. Horrible,' 'Dollhouse' and More." Washington Post, July 21, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2008/07/18/DI2008071801208.html (accessed June 1, 2009). [End Page 381]

Additional Information

ISSN
1538-974X
Print ISSN
1063-3685
Pages
367-381
Launched on MUSE
2010-08-18
Open Access
No
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