Ah, Ethridge showing up reminded me of a post I wanted to write about Firefly, a TV series he recommended to me. I just finished watching the final episode last night.
The narrative from the show's hardcore fans is that this was one of those shows that was canceled essentially for being too good, something the network didn't quite know how to deal with. I see where these folks are coming from, but I don't think that's quite right.
It's true that the show was daring and effective in a way that most television is not. I would say that for me personally, Firefly is better than almost everything on television right now. I don't much non-sports TV but I have seen most network stuff at least in passing and the only show I would say is definitely better than Firefly right now is Lost.
However, when you push the envelope and really go for something original, you have to really stick it. The West Wing is a good example of this - the show was phenomenal in the early years, but if it had been just a little bit worse it would have failed mightily. When you go big you have to be better than you do when you are trying to do something that everyone already knows works.
Firefly, for those who aren't familiar with it, is science fiction without any real element of "superscience," that is, high-tech gadgets or alien races playing an important role. The action takes place in space or on alien planets, but there is no life that didn't originate on Earth, and most of the people on the show use regular guns that fire regular bullets, etc.
To put it in a way that makes it sound cheesier than it is, Firefly is a space western. There are horses and shotguns and cowboys, but the main characters fly from planet to planet in a spaceship.
What makes it work (when it works, which it mostly does) is the ensemble cast, consisting of a captain, his old friend the first mate, her husband the pilot, a mechanic, a priest, a brute, a doctor, the doctor's weird psychic sister, and high-class space hooker (seriously.)
In watching the interviews with the people in charge of the project, it was interesting to me that one of their complaints was that the network really wanted to force them to drop the audience down in media res whereas they wanted to develop things more slowly. In my experience the weakest shows were the ones where there was no high-tension situation driving the story. Things worked best when the characters were on the clock, or when there was a deadly killer in their midst.
Most of the interactions that took place outside of this context wound up feeling forced. Part of this is the fact that I watched the entire series over the course of a couple of weeks, but I got really tired of the Captain and the space hooker having the same boring argument on every show, and of the doctor's dully predictable bollocksing of the country-girl mechanic's painfully obvious wooing.
In the end, there are three types of TV show : the amazing, cutting-edge series like the early Simpsons, Seinfeld, West Wing, even Survivor, solid gold crap like Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends (which I liked, BTW, but it was solid gold crap), and stuff that gets buried and then canceled. Firefly was better than solid gold crap because it had a vision and a flavor that you don't find on other shows, but the reason it was canceled was because it just wasn't quite good enough.