There is a long, sad history of quality shows that struggled to survive the rigors of broadcast TV (Sports Night, Freaks & Geeks, Arrested Development). But one of the most frustrating examples has to be Joss Whedon‘s Firefly, a space western that most fans (known as Browncoats) would agree was cancelled far before its time.
What’s the premise? The show is about the crew of a small, run-down cargo ship (the Serenity) that’s just trying to get by on the fringes of a society that spans multiple worlds. The ship’s captain is Malcolm Reynolds (Castle‘s Nathan Fillion), a man who fought on the losing side of a civil war that mostly affected planets on the frontier. After that defeat, Mal bought the Serenity so that he could live on his own terms and not under the yoke of an Alliance he doesn’t believe in.
What’s it like? As creator Joss Whedon points out, the sequence in the opening credits where the Serenity flies low over galloping horses should give you a pretty good idea of what’s in store. It’s first and foremost a sci-fi action-adventure series with a lot of old west elements; think spaceships mixed with six-shooters, trains, covered wagons and horses. Many episodes find the Serenity crew taking on heists or smuggling jobs, so there are plenty of brawls, gunfights and chase scenes. The universe of Firefly is also surprisingly well-realized (arguably more so then some of the Star Trek series). As a reflection of the original world powers that colonized these new planets, we see a fair amount of East Asian-influenced costumes and set decor, and the dialogue — consistently sharp and helpful in defining the class system at play — is peppered with Mandarin phrases. And the show is smart about the way it shows future technology; for the most part, the day-to-day use of sci-fi gadgets is only common on the more cosmopolitan worlds in Firefly, whereas we don’t see them as much on the frontier.
How long will it take? Sadly, there are only 14 episodes. The pilot was a two-hour special, so it’s only about a 15-hour commitment (or 17 hours, since you’ll undoubtedly want to see the feature film).
What do the critics think? When it aired, the critics were split, and many didn’t know what to make of it. After Buffy and Angel, this mixture of sci-fi and western elements wasn’t exactly comfortable for a lot of critics. At least one critic called the show a “vast disappointment,” but many at the time (and since) saw the show as something special. In one report of the show’s cancellation, Jason Snell at TeeVee.org called the show “absolutely brilliant.” With the benefit of hindsight, a lot of the critical reaction has been more balanced and similar to what Tasha Robinson wrote for The AV Club: “At its best, Firefly plants its feet where Whedon’s shows have always found solid ground, in creative plotting, experimental storytelling, sharp writing, and a cast that seems to love its work.” After years’ worth of reviews, the season is now Certified Fresh at 80 percent.
Why should I watch this? Firefly features well-defined but complicated characters, and that’s what will stick with you the most about this show. For instance, Mal’s past means he doesn’t have all that much respect for the finer points of law, but make no mistake, he does have a very definite sense of right and wrong. There’s a lot of Han Solo in Malcolm Reynolds, but there’s more than a little bit of Josey Wales, too. As you’d expect with an unrepentant outlaw, Mal’s crew is made up of mostly misfit types who that you’ll quickly feel a lot of affection for: Mal’s First Officer is a no-nonsense, former comrade-in-arms, and she’s married to their talented (and much-nonsense) pilot. Mal also employs a mercenary thug whose loyalty is defined by who will pay him the most, and his ship’s mechanic, who’s “kind of a floozy who wears her heart on her sleeve.” Their long-term passengers are a classy courtesan, a preacher with a mysterious past, and a high-society doctor on the run with his mentally unhinged sister. In the end, this is a show about how a diverse group of people comes together to function as a family.
What’s my next step? The obvious next step is to watch the feature film, Serenity, which answers some of the lingering questions about what happened to River Tam. And there are a handful of comics from Dark Horse, all of which are considered canon by fans (and Whedon himself). If you need more Joss Whedon TV goodness, you can get your fill with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If you’re feeling really masochistic, you can try some other well-reviewed sci-fi shows that didn’t make it past their first seasons, such as Space: Above and Beyond, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Almost Human and The X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen.
Isn’t it time you checked out Firefly? Tell us why!