Why you should watch Firefly

Firefly Title Screen

When I made the decision to rewatch Joss Whedon’s short-lived scifi/western series Firefly and its improbable film continuation, Serenity (both on Blu-ray this time) I originally set out to be objective and critical. I didn’t want to  write yet another piece of fan advocacy, so I avoided using maudlin lines from the evocative theme song as a post title (the most popular one being “you can’t take the sky from me.”) Indeed, the first thoughts that I recorded as I watched the first Blu-ray disc were mostly critical (more in the sense of analysis than that of finding fault).

By the time I got to the last scene of the film, where, yes, I teared up a little bit thinking not just about the fate of the characters, but also about how their journeys continue regardless of whether or not the “suits” will facilitate us seeing any more of it. And then I felt a burning resentment against Battlestar Gallactica which is coming out with another damn direct-to-DVD sequel!!

Well, that aside, the truth about Firefly is that when people hear about it, they tend to scoff, but when someone sits them down and force them to watch it, they often become believers, or at least appreciative viewers, themselves. I can’t think of any other DVD that my parents have given as a gift to multiple relatives; not just that, but each relative has actually enjoyed it.

So, convincing you, the skeptical reader, is probably not something that can be done with words. I’m going to try anyway, of course.

1. It’s short. Of course this sucks, as we could have gotten a lot more, and we also could have gotten to some more “important” plot points in a more structured fashion if Whedon had known ahead of time that it was going to be short (of course, this isn’t how the TV business works here). But it also means that you can get through the whole thing quickly. It’s a lot more difficult to recommend a show with 144 episodes than one with 13. And luckily, Whedon hit the ground running here, unlike his previous, longer-running programs. In my opinion, there is only one completely bad episode, and that would be “Heart of Gold,” on the last disc. I didn’t actually watch it this time, though, so perhaps it’s not as bad as I remember.

2. You don’t have to like Buffy. I know more than a few people who really like Firefly, but whose feelings about Buffy the Vampire Slayer range from disinterest to hostility. Of course, others will find it blasphemy when I say that Firefly is simply better, but there are probably other factors. Buffy tends to whine more even though her problems are nothing compared to that of Mal Reynolds and his crew. Her problems are often more relationship-based, but romance trouble is not a major theme in Firefly. And maybe some have an unease with a female lead, but that’s another matter. I do think it would be hard to argue that Nathan Fillion is not a vastly superior lead actor to Sarah Michelle Gellar.

3. It’s well-balanced. Something that struck me when listening to the commentary is that as much as the Fox network ultimately screwed Whedon by not giving him a chance, they also probably improved the show with their constant meddling. Whedon intended to make Mal (Fillion) unlikeable from the beginning, but Fox wouldn’t really allow it. While Whedon had his pure vision, Fox executives recognized that, with television, you’ve got to give people a reason to keep tuning in (or keep requesting the discs from Netflix, in my case). I’ve enjoyed my share of grim films, but I believe that television needs to earn our interest with good, sympathetic characters, before it takes them down dark paths and puts us through the ringer. I can’t help but wonder if Whedon’s experience here (the DVDs sold a lot, making Fox look like idiots) allowed him too much leeway with the network,  plod on with a thoroughly unlikable premise on his next show, Dollhouse, which I flatly refuse to watch.

malzoejayne

4. Good characters. At least in the beginning, I can’t say that the acting is unanimously strong, but I can definitely say that there are no pointless, or boring, or annoying, or extraneous characters in the bunch. This in itself is a triumph in television, but especially so with a cast of this size. When the crew of the ship didn’t have money to actually visit a planet (which is to say, the show’s crew didn’t have money to go on location), the diverse, engaging personalities of the show’s cast can easily carry an entire episode. Most importantly, you care about what happens to them.

5. Come on, what’s so bad about westerns? Few genres are hated by as wide a variety of people as the western (most other hated genres have their constituencies; perhaps the elderly still like Westerns?), and so this seems to have been a stumbling block for many potential Firefly viewers (it’s something the network continually fought against). If you don’t like the thematic aspects of Westerns, I would say that this show mostly just retains the stylistic elements of the genre. If it’s the style that you don’t like, well… I would say that the nice thing about it is that it helps avoid a lot of the cliched depictions of starship life that we see on so many other shows, some of them my favorites, some of them, well, less so. In Firefly, the militaristic, clean spaceships belong to the bad guys (definitely a statement of purpose), which allows our heroes and their environments to be looser and freer. This is a show that actually strives not to repeat what came before (and its intiail commercial failiure ensured that it would not be imitated). Invention, when done properly, should be rewarded.

Hey, just give it a chance already! At least watch the pilot. You do have Netflix, right?

Okay, if you’ve made it thus far, my next post on the subject (yes, there’s more) will be a bit more critical. Of course the show is not perfect, and Whedon definitely missteps when it comes to some elements that don’t really affect the show’s quality, but do indicate some

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13 thoughts on “Why you should watch Firefly

  1. One criticism against the show:
    1. If the Chinese have indeed taken over the galaxy, how come none of the main characters, indeed, ANY characters in the show are actually Chinese? They curse in Chinese, the signs are in Chinese, but nary a Chinese face. What up with that?

    1. Hey, stealing my thunder here! For now I’ll say that I strongly agree with your objection, and I suggest you wait until the next post for me to address it more fully. Whedon has never been great (or, well, even good) with race, and he’s also not as good with gender as he thinks it is. This is my way of saying “to be continued…”

      1. That would have been awesome! It also would’ve led to the show getting canceled before episode 4, if they were lucky! Damn Hollywood.

  2. Here’s something else: HBO has made it’s bread and butter by introducing us to unlikeable characters that are dark and unsympathetic from the beginning: Tony Soprano, the guys from “The Wire,” even Vic Mackey from “The Shield.” Maybe what’s going on with Mal is that a dark, unlikeable character wouldn’t necessarily fit with the almost pulpy “spirit of adventure” that drives the show.

    1. Well, even when an HBO series is good (Deadwood, The Wire) I find it sometimes hard to make myself request that next disc because I know there’s just gonna be more grimness. I mean, how far have you gotten through any of these series that you’ve mentioned? I guess I have specific preferences when it comes to serial fiction. Also out of curiosity, how much Firefly have you watched?

      1. I watched the whole series, but haven’t gotten around to the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I like the series, and I think Nathan Fillion is kind of hunky. But I’m just quibbling with some your characterizations about what TV should be. I think you can build a good show around grim situations and have it be thoroughly enthralling. I’ve seen the first season of Deadwood, four of the Sopranos, two seasons of Rome and one season of The Wire and nearly all of The Shield. Part of why I haven’t seen more is the time commitment, and the fact that the serial nature of the show just begs you to keep watching.

  3. Its an interesting series and dont get me wrong, I love watching it solely for the pitiful reasoning that I’m a nerd and like to just lose myself in random nonsensical plots, but did you guys notice that protecting River forms the backbone of no less than five out of thirteen episodes, plus the theatrical movie. That’s an awful lot of rescuing for a feminist hero. Whedon did alright with Buffy, but even she was messed up over some vampire with a soul, so much so that she ran away in one season. I get it that he attempted to at least, but the attempt could have followed through a big better.

  4. OK, I love this show, but every time I listen to the “Chinese” I cringe. They should have hired me as voice coach. Also, I just convinced my roommate to watch Serenity yesterday and she loved it. That is all.

    1. I need to rewatch some of the DVD special features before making my next post which will address the problem of how Chinese language and people are portrayed (or not) in the show, because I seem to remember that they interviewed the woman responsible for the Chinese and it was clear that she didn’t really know what she was doing (it wasn’t her main job on the show at all). Glad you mentioned this! Honestly, even I can tell that their accents are bad.

      1. And it’s not just for this show, pretty much anytime a role calls for a native Chinese speaker on TV, I can tell that it’s either an ABC or someone who isn’t even Chinese trying to fake it. It bugs me to no end but since this happens with every show I watch I pretty much just have to accept it and move on, otherwise I’d never watch TV.

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