Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Firefly Aside

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.


Anonymous said...

I will try to respond to this as objectively as I can - that is to say "Not very." But alas, I must do so at some point this evening, as I am way too busy mastering the art of the DOM using the Xerces parser to do so right now.


Anonymous said...

Wow, the art of using the DOM is really more like mystical voodoo than an art. Really, whitespace should not be a separate text node. It should be ignored.

What? Oh, right, Firefly, that's what this post is about.

Well, firstly, I would point out that at the end of the day, Firefly was cancelled because it did not bring in enough viewers (ratings/ad money) for Fox to justify the continuing cost (it was not the cheapest show to make). There are several reasons for this, including but not limited to, lack of support for the show from Fox, exceptionally crummy timeslot considering the intended audience (trying to grab males 18-25 on Friday at 9:00pm is pretty damn stupid), and my favorite stupid executive move: airing the shows out of order.

See, Firefly is a highly serialized show - things that happen in one episode affect the events in the next show. Sorkin (certainly another master of the form) never had to deal with that on The West Wing. The didn't even air the pilot that set up the characters and explained everything until 10 episodes into the season. People who watched were confused and gave up.

But that's not really the thesis of Adam's article, it's just the conclusion. What he's really saying is "It was good, but it wasn't The West Wing."

And that's of course, about taste. I love the West Wing, I love Lost, and I love Firefly. But Firefly is my favorite, for any number of reasons. I prefer the genre. I love the characterization, I think it's even better than the West Wing's characterization. I think that those moments that Adam doesn't like, with the arguments between the Captain & the Space Hooker, or the Doctor and the Mechanic, are really strong elements of the show, because they are developing towards something, the writers are just taking their time and building in some funny moments that also serve a purpose, to further define the spaces of the relationships. You know, I seem to recall that the West Wing has been building a similar relationship with Josh and Donna, including the same silly arguments over and over again - FOR SIX FREAKING YEARS.


Anyway, my point is that is simply taste, but Firefly is a good show that has some facets (like the western style dialogue and the Chinese speak) which make sense in the conceit of the universe, but which may be offputting to some people. Another reason, perhaps, that people didn't watch.

//Evangelism On
But it's a good show, and it was cancelled early. On Sept. 30, Universal pictures is releasing Serentity, a motion picture that based on the show, using all nine original cast members. Netflix the firefly episodes (or just the first disc - there are 14 total episodes on 4 discs) and if you like 'em, give the movie a shot. Whether or not it's better than the West Wing, it's definitely better, more thought provoking entertainment, then that episode of CSI you're about to watch.
//Evangelism Off


Adam P. Short said...

OK, I will concede one thing. One, I am not a genre guy in terms of Sci-Fi shows. I used to watch STTNG when it came on and I happened to be sitting in front of the TV and I thought it was pretty good. But I don't particularly have anything for sci-fi shows.

HOWEVER, genre shows (and films) have to be good, in my opinion, independent of whether they are enjoyable to people who like the genre. Star Trek would never have succeeded if it only appealed to Trekkies.

For instance (and getting back momentarily to the interim purpose of this blog) I like sports movies. I will watch a movie about sports multiple times, even if it is horrible. However, I will not try to convince people that, say, Blue Chips is a good movie. [Quick Rundown - Shaq, Penny Hardaway, and some white guy play college basketball stars coached by Nick Nolte. Unintentional hilarity and some kick-ass basketball scenes ensue.]

Actually, back that up. That's unfair. Blue Chips is a horrible movie, other than its genre appeal. So that's not the correct analogy. Better maybe is something like The Program, which was an OK movie unless you like sports movies, in which case it was monstrously great.

I love The Program. I can explain to you why The Program is awesome. But I'm not going to tell you that it's some kind of wonderful piece of filmmaking. It's OK, and it's in my wheelhouse, so I loved it. I have a feeling your Firefly fetish is in this same category.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I bow before the masterpiece that is The Program. Don't think otherwise. I was just watching part of it on cable again last week. I will say, that for my money, the best ending ever for a sports movie (and in sports movies, the ending is half the battle) was Tin Cup. That ending was f'ing genius.

Actually, you're absolutely right - it's going to appeal (as most of Whedon's work does - possible exception: Toy Story and/or Speed) to a certain audience. Heavily stylized dialogue, a specific kind of appeal. Yeah, it's definitely a wheelhouse thing, I'll buy that.

But it's also hard to say what would've happened if it had been handled better, maybe on a different network, or at a different point in time. When it came out, Star Trek Enterprise was the only other genre show on (a much, much worse show by any standard, but it lasted 4 seasons because of Trekkies). Now, there's an explosion of genre shows because of the success of Lost. All I'm saying, which you helpfully pointed out, is that it's much better than most things on television. Regardless of whether or not it's better than the West Wing. ;)

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