As mentioned on my Twitter, I’ve recently watched popular Joss Whedon-helmed TV show Firefly and movie follow-up Serenity for the first time ever. I have no real excuse for this – I believe I have lived with copies of the DVD for at least six years now.
For the unacquainted, Firefly is often described as a “space western”. It revolves around the ramshackle spaceship Serenity, whose crew are living under the radar for various reasons, surviving on snatched jobs from various employers. Thanks to this off-the-grid ethos, their missions mostly end up unsavoury – theft, smuggling or worse.
Firefly is perhaps even more famous as a great One That Got Away of the modern TV age – despite massive critical and fan love, it lasted one 14-episode season. Whedon had the movie follow-up Serenity to wrap up at least some major plot threads, but for the most part, it died young, its potential unfulfilled, everyone is very sad.
Anyway, despite its massive popularity, I’ve only just sat down and watched it. I don’t think it’s that significant whether I think Firefly is good (BRIEF REVIEW: it is very good – unless you hate the sci-fi genre or Whedon’s quips-and-sadness writing style, you will probably like it), but I am kinda interested how it looks to a modern TV viewer. Has it informed the landscape? Would it do better nowadays? Other talking points, probably?
And yes, I may mention a few spoilers, but now I’ve finally watched the thing, there’s officially no-one else left to care.
Shiny Shiny Arc Reactors
I watch a lot of genre TV at the moment, and they all have very long storylines. It used to just be the prestigious cable shows like The Wire but right now, I’d say almost every US drama show I follow is mostly focused on a long game, pushing a larger arc forward a few units each week. The case-of-the-week procedural stuff seems fairly out of fashion. Even Once Upon A Time, which ain’t mega-pretentious, definitely focuses on the long game.
This has been the case since around the age of Heroes/24/Lost, I’d say – pace sped up since then, as almost all those shows ended up being somewhat hamstrung by the slowness of their own plot, especially when they have 20+ episode seasons. And when modern genre TV does the Case O’The Week stuff, it generally does it kinda badly. I’ve started watching Arrow, Agents of SHIELD and Person Of Interest lately and all three start off with somewhat stilted attempts to do Case Of The Week.
Firefly arrived before long arcs became quite so standard, especially among 22-episode network shows. Watching in 2015, I was surprised how old-school the plotting was. I kinda expected something aggressively arc driven and ahead of its time, but no, it did a different caper every week and fully committed to it, allowing the subplots to advance in fractional chunks around the side.
Of course, this means when the show got cancelled painfully early, most of the subplots were barely even warmed up, but the individual missions were all fully developed and tense. Even though many episodes didn’t advance the mega-plot much/at all, we felt fully invested in what was happening because the weekly stories revealed new things about the characters.
Individual episodes took place in a connected universe, with characters recurring and stories having ramifications down the line (well, the ones they got the chance to show), but never at the cost of each episode feeling like a complete unit.
Which, in turn, just reminds you the problem with modern shows attempting Case Of The Week: they’ve clearly decided the audience only really cares about the ongoing plots. As a result, the Cases Of The Week are half-arsed and uninteresting, as disposable to the characters as they are to me, the poor viewer.
Choke On The Gorram Comic Timing
It was never established as a plot point that gaseous Comic Timing was regularly pumped through the vents of the spaceship Serenity, but I think we all know the truth. Joss Whedon was a major practitioner of using heavy comedy in your dramatic show to get the people to like your cast (even the evil ones). After his success in both Firefly and Buffy/Angel, along with Aaron Sorkin’s on West Wing, it’s become fairly common.
Still, much like the Case Of The Week plots, there’s a way of doing this stuff well. Yes, everyone on Serenity was suspiciously good at delivering and selling a joke, but all in their own way. Mal’s world-weary captain jokes were never the same as Zoe’s dead-dryness as Jayne’s unaware buffoonery as Wash’s genuinely upbeat quips as… etc.
Thanks to the wide influence, I can’t deny some of the Firefly dialogue felt a little overfamiliar, possibly not through much fault of its own. Between characters like Felicity on Arrow, Whedon’s own work elsewhere and, yes, the way his syntax has influenced the offhand writing style of a whole geek generation, it feels obvious and standard when it probably shouldn’t.
Still, it’s genuinely funny for the most part, and (this is crucial when doing banter) conveys the character relationships, rather than making everyone look like the same brand of chattering arsehole.
The Fireflying Dead
With the modern TV trend of reviving shows from the 90s or early 2000s, part of me wonders how long before someone considers digging Firefly up and inflating its liquefying body. It clearly has some kind of audience, people still talk about it with wild love and passion.
That Con Man fundraiser starring two of the main actors has made more money than most people will earn in a decade. 24, X Files and Heroes are on their way back, clearly executive nostalgia for that era of TV exists. Could it happen?
I suspect the answer is probably no, mainly because all the shows I just mentioned were genuine cultural phenomena on a bigger scale. Making new Firefly would probably be expensive due to the large cast and fancy spaceship set/CGI and without anywhere near as a good a return guarantee. Doesn’t help that the one follow-up they already did (the Serenity movie) apparently didn’t perform that well.
Although if we’re talking Whedon exhumations, in the current climate, wouldn’t be surprised to discover someone is trying to arrange a Buffy revival. Like, an actual return with original cast/writers rather than the rumoured and baffling Buffy-without-Whedon project. I’m sure some kind of conversation may have happened, wouldn’t necessarily stake my family farm on it ever materalising though.
One last thing Firefly might have been ahead of its time at – the crew of Serenity weren’t necessarily the heroes of the wider story. It sugarcoated that pill for sure, by making them mega-likable (see previous re: humour) and Serenity kinda homely in a tumbledown way, but they were often doing ‘bad’ things and making morally dubious decisions. They may not have been villains, but they were often anti-heroes.
Nowadays, of course, cult TV has been a nest of dickbags for a while. We’ve been all about likeable, sympathetic criminals in Breaking Bad, Dexter and Weeds. Rick of The Walking Dead is only ever one inconvenient testicle itch from decapitating everyone. Even Arrow (of Arrow fame) spent his entire first season slaughtering people in huge numbers before settling into a more gentle Batman-esque position.
It’s reached the extent that the new Flash show seems like it’s doing something weirdly new and groundbreaking just by starring an untortured nice bloke who wants to help people out.
Still, Firefly’s cult status hasn’t brought back spaceship sci-fi or the Westerns onto TV in any meaningful way. One quickly-cancelled show can only do so much.
Anyway, this has gone from a few quick thoughts to something approximately the length of my Philosophy dissertation. If there’s anything to be gained from this, it’s that Firefly is still a fascinating, unique and thought-provoking experience and if you haven’t watched it, it’s worth a go.
Now, maybe time for me to finally give Veronica Mars a shot.
VirginiaApril 7, 2015 at 10:24 pm
About f@#$ing time. Welcome to the world that has been made incrementally better by having Firefly exist in it! We missed you. We're glad you're here now.
And interesting points… I wonder if it would have done better if it had been made ten years earlier or ten years later. Either way, this whole discussion has made me want to go back and watch the entire show again… There goes my productivity for the week.
nickApril 7, 2015 at 10:30 pm
I've almost considered going back and watching it again now. But there are plenty of other obvious classics I should probably get to first. Not even finished The Wire yet.