The Perfection of the Lost Cause of Firefly

I’ve been watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit with my wife and I find it kind of fascinating. For the first half of the show, it was a festival of a-list guest stars and up and comers. The show was anchored by a dynamite cast. Putting aside what revolting propaganda it is, the first half of SVU is truly pretty potent procedural television.

But the longer the show goes on, the more you start to see it fade. And it’s an ugly fade. The prestige guest stars vanish. You’re down to 1-2 names you might know a season. But even before that, the cast leaves one by one. The show tried to hold momentum but without Christopher Meloni’s lightning, the show lost so much energy.

SVU now is a direct to video version of itself. And it’s not unique. Very few shows stay at their peak at the end. Breaking Bad had the advantage of a clear arc it had to follow but it was the exception. Even BoJack Horseman ran a few episodes too long with a ridiculous arc riffing on 40s screwball comedies. And the less said about Friends’ clip shows the better.

It’s for this reason that I think Firefly got lucky only going one season. Because it got to do what very few shows did. It burns exactly as bright as it could burn for 14 episodes and gets off the stage with no duds. Nothing about the show is ever less than peak quality. It’s just perfect as is.

And that’s hardly a popular thing to say. This is the great mythic lost cause show. It feels like it should have 100+ episodes. The characters were so strong after all. The world was so well etched. How could it only deserve a blip? But I can’t stress enough how sad it would be to have those late seasons. So let’s examine why the show is perfect as is and why other shows give up the game.

The best place to start is the simple perfection of the premise. It’s a western in space. There was a civil war. The show’s version of the confederates lost. The heroes are ex confederates. They take on odd jobs for hire. There’s a lot of shady stuff. Almost every episode is stand alone.

Also it’s problematic. Can I get that discussion out of the way. Yes, it’s a super white show with only two POC in the main cast, barely doubling the number of cast members who coined the term Gamergate. (Look it up, it’s on wikipedia.) The show uses lots of Chinese language without a single noteworthy Asian actor in the entire run. And yes it’s awkward to watch something from the perspective of the confederacy. Oh and Joss Whedon is an utter bastard. I’m moving along because I’m hoping we all have enough media literacy to recognize these things.

Anyway, that premise? It’s such a classic idea. A western in space. That was what Star Trek was in theory. But it was only the anthologized traveling ensemble. This tears in. There’s gunfights, smuggling, lots of western aesthetic, brothels, and the heroes being ex rebels. Man it’s such a perfect timeless concept.

And it benefits from the best characters Whedon ever created. I’ve made it clear I have a thorny nostalgia with Buffy. This set of characters I don’t. I might if it had run longer. But in this perfect, precise form? I love em.

OK, so I don’t love Jayne as much now as I did on first watch. Not just because Adam Baldwin is a bastard but because Jayne is the show’s asshole. Everyone else has moral issues but they’re fundamentally good people. I think Jayne isn’t. I think he is explicitly a bad person and I think he’ll sell the crew out again eventually. He does at least once and I can’t accept he wouldn’t again. He’s also a sleazy creep. Yes he’s funny but I don’t quite like him.

Also fine, I have issues with River. A lot of the show is Whedon actually trying to dislodge some of the crap in his soul and I think with time he might’ve made progress. River though? She’s his fetish character. She’s very well acted mind you. Watch Arrow to see Summer Glau destroy as the exact opposite or River. But she’s his waif badass barefoot fetish doll. Just saying. Also Tam is a Chinese name. She and her brother should have been Chinese.

But that brother? Simon is such a fascinating character. Sean Maher has the unenviable task of playing the stick in the mud, a guy living a badass criminal life who wasn’t made for it. And he makes you like him. He makes you see how screwed Simon is. He wants to be a doctor and the universe denied him that. That’s good internal conflict.

His relationship with the ship’s mechanic does reflect the reminders of who created the show. Kaylee, as well played by Jewel Staite, is a good character who reflects yet again Whedon’s fetishes. She’s a theoretical tough girl but she’s a stereotypically pretty girl who pines after Simon and gets the crew out of trouble. She’s not bad but she is a bit frustrating.

But then there’s Shepherd Book. A man who’s had the opposite fate. He was someone else and he was able to change destiny to become the man he wanted to be. Ron Glass was such a great in the role, conveying a man at peace with the darkness of his past as he faced his future. Book was in theory the show’s moral center.

I like to argue though that refreshingly, especially given the creator, it was the prostitute on the show who was the true center. I should have much negative things to say about Inara but perhaps it was Morena Baccarin’s performance that added life the scripts didn’t always have or the rare moments that Whedon dabbled in sex positivity instead of the kind of fear only a hypocrite knows but Inara was a rare character. Styled after the courtesans and geishas, she felt less like a space hooker and more like a traveling therapist, releasing her clients from their pain.

That said, all good scifi works have their central trio. No different here. Gina Torres probably gets a bit overlooked in discussions of the show as Zoe rarely had the fire moments that make an iconic character, but she’s the constant resolute soldier. We’re told she was a great in the war. We buy it. She carries herself as a burnt out former warrior trying desperately to survive. She’s not dead inside. We see flashes of energy and she deeply loves her husband. But she’s hurt.

And then there’s Wash. I’ll cover Serenity next but for now it doesn’t have to hurt. He’s a very different character from most of the rest. He lacks the scars. He’s just an excellent pilot who fell in love with Zoe and married her. What Alan Tudyk does here us so lovely as a rare nontoxic man. Sure he gets jealous at one point but it’s over a bond he can’t have and the show points out it’s absurd of him. He’s a decent, kind man. A leaf on the wind. :sigh:

However I have to inevitably go into depth on Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds who reflets my favorite archetype: the noble hypocrite. He tells everyone he’s selfish. He might act selfish even. But he’s not. Every time he’s put in a saving me vs saving them position, he will ALWAYS choose them. And Nathan Fillion sells that so well, giving off a nonstop air of irony but the second he gets the chance dropping it to reveal how profoundly moral he is.

Of course, you can have a great cast of characters but be lost with bad plots for the show. Firefly doesn’t lack a running plot–the chase for River–but it’s by and large a set of stand alones, similar to the X-Files. Any random episode works as a perfect 45 minute done in one story. You get everything you need without feeling like the exposition is repetitive.

What’s interesting is how classic the western plots are. There’s a train robbery. They defend a brothel. They run afoul of a con artist. They’re chased by crime lords. One of then becomes a misinterpreted hero when he’s an outlaw. These are not shocking fresh stories. They’re the old ones with a high to very low tech overlay.

Let’s call Firefly what it really was. It was dadcore tv. You know, the familiar shows your dad watched because he could tune in any time and get a fix. Shows like Blue Bloods or Castle, which actually starred Fillion. Honestly only Whedon’s then hip name made it seem otherwise. And I will note that like it or not, the audience that was teens during this show’s brief run loves dadcore tv.

The format should’ve run for years. I think it could have run for years. It would’ve even held up and probably not burnt out as fast as Buffy’s tightly tied to growing up plots did. A lot of the crew were Angel vets and that show had legs. I think the show would’ve avoided the tight season arcs too. It wasn’t built for those. Just one long running us vs them.

But Firefly is a lost cause. We have 119 minutes of film after the 14 episodes and that’s it. There’s a few comics but their canon status is weak at best and there’s never been momentum on that front. Same for the novels set against the show. There is no chance of a rebirth 18 years after the show and 15 years after the movie it’s dead.

Why? Well the easy post mortem is Fox scheduled it in a bad slot and ran it out of order. And both of those are true but maybe not as true as one thinks. Running on Friday nights wasn’t THAT out of line as Fox launched the phenomenon of The X-Files in that spot. This had the makings of that. And the running wildly out of order? Ok that was that bad, but still I think it could have been survived as stand alone as the show is.

But I don’t think those are the answer. They didn’t help but I think a larger context answer works here.

There are two vital bounding boxes worth studying here. The first is the fall 2001 start of Enterprise and the December 2002 release of Star Trek Nemesis. Firefly wasn’t Star Trek but it bore that influence and it debuted at the exact moment we as a culture had a permanent break up with Trek. Enterprise did OK at first but man did it lose steam fast and by the time we hit December 2002 it was limping. Nemesis, which debuted 3 days after the last US airing of Firefly, was the big permanent death knell. Sure we got the reboot and a couple of shows but Star Trek as mattering was over. And trying to be the next Trek wasn’t ideal in this moment.

Then there’s Battlestar Galactica’s reboot, which had the decently received pilot miniseries the next year followed by the thunderously popular series the next. It was a labyrinthine, political show, the next step for SF on TV and I think it suggests how Firefly could have thrived on another network in another moment because Fox in 2002 simply was NOT the place. It was an old fashioned show with an old fashioned airing model and neither worked.

So why then has it endured even as this thing cut short? I think that’s very strongly down to what we have. What we have is not an incomplete thing. There are 14 episodes and a movie. All great. None bad. It’s a tremendously effective show you can watch in a week and have a good binge with but not wear out the welcome. It uses classic formula plots with characters you love being with but never watch long enough to decay.

Firefly not only never lived long enough to become Buffy, it never had the unfortunate curse of becoming Arrested Development, another show hobbled that regrettably had its perfection marred by two disastrous reboot seasons. It was exactly what it had to be. And we can ponder what could have been. I suspect it would have fallen off but only after reaching a second/third season peak. But I’ll never know.

Firefly is just one great blast. But it’s a great blast with a coda. And tomorrow I’m giving my thoughts on that coda, a fascinatingly complicated coda with flaws to examine but far more virtues to praise.

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