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"Firefly" Tv Series - Stylusmagazine.com Review

Monday 14 May 2007, by Webmaster

Sci-fi has never been an especial strong suit of mine, especially not in the context of TV-aside from recent cult shows with sci-fi-y elements like LOST and Heroes, or quasi-sci-fi early 90s shows Twin Peaks and Quantum Leap, I never really watched any with any seriousness. Still, spend enough time with enough people who do, so in my new spirit of TV exploration, I figured it couldn’t hurt to know the canonical shows (I might work on X-Files over the summer, or I might just pay more attention to the reruns they show constantly on late night TNT).

In any event, few shows of modern times have been lionized by sci-fi audiences to quite the degree that Firefly has. Despite only airing 14 episodes in its initial run before FOX pulled its plug, Firefly caught the imagination of just about everyone who saw it, leading to several failed campaigns to save the show and an eventual successful spin-off in a different format (more on that later). And in general, just about everything about the show’s reception makes sense-why its fans loved it so much, why most audiences were so cold to it, why it only lasted one season and why it actually might’ve been better that way. Here’s the breakdown:

The Good:

* Nathan Fillion. First and foremost, it’s Fillion’s performance as ship captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds that makes this show. Mal proves to be that rarest of TV phenomena-the main character in an ensemble cast who is actually the show’s best character, and not just a sounding board for all the more interesting minor characters to have to bounce off of. Mal is one of the strongest TV characters of recent years, easy, a mix of Han Solo, Rick Blaine and Dirty Harry Callahan, and just as solid an entry in that proud anti-hero genealogy, played by Fillion with believeable integrity and commanding intensity. The show should’ve gotten Fillion household name status, instead it just got him the lead in Slither and four episodes of Drive. Tragic.

* Most of the rest of the cast as well. Though none of them quite match Fillion or Mal in strength, it’s still an exceptional bunch, with honors especially going to Alan Tudyk as wisecracking nice-guy pilot Wash, Adam Baldwin as action-craving, slow-on-the-uptake tough guy Jayne (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Baldwin’s other best-known character, Animal Mother in Full Metal Jacket) and my second-favorite, Jewel Staite as Kaylee, the show’s sweet and wide-eyed mechanic. Between her and Morena Baccarin as sultry “companion” (i.e. respectable call girl) Inara, I imagine more than a few of the show’s more, um, impressionable fans had their hearts stolen.

* Surprisingly successful melding of disparate genre types and mythologies. I imagine most of the show’s fans would probably insist that at its heart, Firefly is more Western than Sci-Fi, and it’s a fair claim-despite all the spaceships and geek talk and planet-hopping, the show’s outlaw persepctive and themes of love and honor place it more in the tradition of Stagecoach and High Noon than Star Trek and Blade Runner. Add to that a healthy dose of Indiana Jones-style adventure, and you’ve got a successful show fusion that luckily manages to avoid wasting time being self-conscious about the mixing process.

* Great dialogue and better chemistry. Joss Whedon’s shows aren’t quite at Aaron Sorkin or Gilmore Girls levels of snap, but they manage dialogue that’s fast-moving and involving without being wildly unrealistic. A lot of it even reminded me in tone of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-sarcastic, self-effacing and decidedly unheroic, especially as the situation gets more and more perilous. That’s a pretty good standard to be living up to.

The Bad:

* Simon and River. The brother and sister who the crew take on as passengers in the first episode (the latter unknowingly), and who end up causing them much trouble over the course of the season, as both are wanted by shadowy Firefly central government The Alliance, as River has paranormal abilities they’d like to learn about a little. They propel much of the season’s drama, but as characters both are one-note flops, as neatly summed up by Jayne when summarizing what he imagines to be the contents of Simon’s diary: “Dear Diary, today I was pompous and my sister was crazy.” Simon might’ve grown into his character with a little more time, and River’s near-autistic freakouts and inexplicable abilities might’ve been more interesting as the series did some explaining eventually, but in the show’s 14 episodes, they’re perpetual weak links.

* The outer space visual effects. Most of the show’s visual scehmes are compelling-the actual ship Serenity is a great set, and the diverse backdrops of planets the characters land on are usually fairly arresting-but the space effects are cheesy, fake-looking and usually fairly unnecessary. A lot of this was probably intentional on the part of Whedon and company, but I think it cheapens the show a bit, especially when so much detail is put into all its other components.

* The theme song. Yeah, OK, we get it-the show’s mostly a Western, and it’s not gonna have a Dr. Who theme or anything. But oh lordy is that theme song over the top-”Take my love, take my land / Take me where I cannot stand / I don’t care, ‘coz I’m free / You can’t take the skies from me.” Come on guys, a little subtlety. And a better singer, while you’re at it.

The Questionable:

* Repetitive Formatting. It worked for 14 episodes, but how many near-death scrapes and “Oh Mal, why are you so afraid of human emotion?” speeches could the show have withstood before it started to feel stale? The good thing about working in the future is that you can constantly invent brand new worlds, situations and dilemmas to have your characters struggle with, and Firefly definitely has that advantage, but if the show’s general skeleton remained unchanged for too much longer, cancellation might’ve been a merciful fate after all.

* The foreign languages and “alternate” curses. Yeah, it’s kind of a nifty way to avoid the problem of why these supposedly hard-boiled criminal types never seem to actually curse (this is still FOX, after all), but there are only times you can hear the phrases “now just wait one gorraned minute” or “I don’t care about your rotting sister” before you can’t help from groaning.

The show’s extremely premature cancellation meant that Firefly never got to wrap things up the way Whedon probably would’ve liked-there’s no goodbye episode, no closure for the characters, dozens of mysteries left unexplained. But as is exceedingly unusual in the world of TV and movies, Whedon got a second chance with his characters in the show’s movie spin-off, Serenity. It picks up two months after the show leaves off, and though I saw it once or twice last summer without having seen a second of the show and still enjoyed it a fair amount, it sure makes a whole lot more sense after watching the show all the way through.

It does a fairly good job of capping the TV show. Fighting the Alliance had always been a running concept in the show (Mal and his first mate Zooey had fought in war against them as Independents years before the show began and lost) and the movie wisely brings that fight to the forefront, upping the show’s ante and accentuating the show’s similarly underlying themes of nobility and honor. They don’t always handle it right-the death of one of the show’s principal characters upset me greatly in the non-chalant way it was presented-but ultimately it maintains the excitement of the show with the scope of a full-length picture, and basically does Firefly proud.

Fans hoped that were Serenity successful, it could end up getting the series rejuvenated, or start a movie franchise of its own. Neither hope was terribly realistic in the first place, and given Serenity’s unspectacular box-office performance (like Snakes on a Plane, enthusiastic cult attendance failed to make up for general ignorance and disinterest among the masses) neither is likely to happen in the immediate future. But as more reliable sci-fi authority than myself once put it,”The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” And Firefly did shine pretty brightly.