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Canned TV Show #6: Firefly

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Well fans, the hour is upon us.  Possibly the most beloved cancelled show of all time is here, and after five long entries, it is surely the moment you’ve all been waiting for.  For today, I will be reviewing the show most often mentioned when it comes to the idea of shows cancelled before their time: Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Joss Whedon could have one of the most substantial pedigrees of anybody working in the TV medium.  He’s created numerous shows which have developed massive cult followings, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel.  His most recent show, Dollhouse, was recently cancelled by FOX before airing the rest of its second season, but will surely develop its own cult, most likely made up of the people who comprise the cults for his other shows.  Instead of it being his shows that have fan bases, Whedon himself commands a very large group of followers who will love and support pretty much anything he does, which is something very few TV show creators can say.  In fact, the work done by said fan base even lead to a comeback of sorts for this series, but more on that later.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of hype circulating Firefly, and so I had high expectations of the show.  I mean, an intensely loyal fan base, which included several of my close friends, must see something, right?  I entered my viewing experience expecting nothing less than literal TV gold, something that would change my life and the way I thought about it for eons to come.  Ok, so maybe that was a little high, but I certainly didn’t leave the show feeling disappointed.  I admit, it isn’t a perfect show, but it isn’t hard to see why so many people rallied so hard to keep it afloat, to see it return in some way.

The plot is really nothing too radical; but the characters, like any good series, are where the real reward of the show lies.  It’s centuries in the future, after the human population has grown to large for earth to sustain it, humanity leaves to terraform new planets and spread out over the galaxy.  There’s a central governing body called The Alliance, which is similar to your totalitarian governments of most future-set sci-fi, who represent a shadowy antagonist to our heroes, a ragtag group of outlaws who fly through the galaxy in a “firefly-class” spaceship looking for jobs of varying legality to sustain them.  They live outside of alliance rule, and frequently come into opposition with them.  Onboard the ship, the motley crew consists of captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the stubborn but intensely loyal leader; his first mate Zoe Alleyne Washburne (Gina Torres), who in turn is extremely loyal to him; her husband Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot; Kaywinnit Lee “Kaylee” Frye (Jewel Staite), the ship’s bubbly mechanic; and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), the hired muscle of the crew.  Also on board is Inara Serra (the gorgeous Morena Baccarin), a registered “companion,” basically a high class prostitute who is afforded almost royalty status, who rents out one of the smaller shuttles attached to the ship.  In the pilot episode, they also pick up holy man Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), who ends up serving as Mal’s conscience many a time, and Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who is carrying cargo which contains his sister River (Summer Glau), whom he rescued from The Alliance, which was performing experiments on her.

So if you managed to make it through that lengthy description of the crew, it’s not hard to see that the ensemble is really the heart of the show, and the characters’ conflicts with one another and with themselves is what keeps the show interesting from week to week.  Really, it’s one of the most interesting and entertaining ensembles ever assembled; everyone gets something interesting to do, and were all on their way to being very fleshed out, well-rounded characters before the show was cancelled.  The fact that even our heroes’ heroism is continually called into question offers a thought-provoking moral paradox to the series.  Each episode pretty much serves as its own adventure, and you don’t necessarily have to watch it from the beginning to get what’s going on at any given moment.  There is a larger storyline and some unanswered questions that carry over, but unfortunately the show didn’t get around to answering them before the ax fell.  What exactly were they doing to River?  Why does Shepherd Book seem to have such intimate knowledge of guns and combat?  Will Simon ever kiss Kaylee (there was a romance developing between them)?  Some things we’ll never know, and some things were cleared up a couple years later, in the form of a feature film called Serenity which gives some closure to the series.  I won’t really go into it, other than the fact that it has the awesome Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villain is reason enough to see it, but fans of the show can’t have a complete experience unless they watch it, and I’m sure pretty much all of them have by now.

One of the show’s central conceits is that the future is basically the same as the present; we’ll be dealing with the same problems we do now, just maybe on a different scale.  The sort of “future meets old west” look the show has going reflects this idea of the past and the future colliding, and it gives the show a unique and creative style.  Occasionally it doesn’t work quite as well, and the deliberate “blue collar” sound to the dialog occasionally sounds clunky coming out of the actors’ mouths.  Some can pull it off, but some sound a little awkward with the phrasing.  Also, the fact that the characters will occasionally slip into Chinese when they want to curse, because evidently the only two superpowers left are the U.S. (woot woot) and China (well of course), can be a little distracting.  I love the colorful ways sci-fi shows and movies get around not being able to swear, like the Chinese phrases here or the use of the word “frak” on Battlestar Galactica, with the excuse that “in the future there’ll be new swear words!”  But these are by and large nitpicky details to an otherwise massively entertaining series.

It’s hard to pick out which episodes are the best, since they all have great moments of their own.  If I had to choose, I’d say one of the standouts is the pilot, which introduces us to our crew and sets up the conflicts that will continue throughout.  The episode “Out of Gas,” in which a wounded Mal stumbles towards the back of an empty Serenity to replace a part which has caused her to break down, which is intercut with flashbacks explaining the origin of the crew and how Mal came to possess the ship we know and love, is another one.  The finale is also great, in which Richard Brooks (who would later reteam with Fillion on FOX’s Drive, which I covered a few weeks ago) plays a philosophical bounty hunter who subdues the crew and then tries to find River, not realizing she’s better at mind games than he is.  These are only a few, but really any given episode warrants a recommendation for some reason or another.  I enjoyed when the show was able to balance a scrappy comic tone and a heavier, more dramatic one, with Wash and Jayne providing a large amount of the comedy.  The closest the show comes to straight comedy would probably be “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” in which sexpot Christina Hendricks plays a con artist who tries to subdue the crew and take their ship, and it’s pretty hilarious.  Shepard Book warns Mal, who believes he accidentally married the girl during a recent celebration on an outer planet, “if you take sexual advantage of her, you’ll go to a special place in hell usually reserved for child molesters, or people who talk at the theater,” and later reiterates, “you were kissing, eh?  That sounds…special.”

So what caused such a beloved show to die an early death?  Probably the most obvious answer would be that FOX seriously mishandled the show.  They ended up not airing the pilot first, and instead aired the second episode, apparently concerned the pilot didn’t bring viewers into the action fast enough, which ultimately made the overall plot more difficult to follow.  More episodes were aired out of order as well, and FOX apparently didn’t believe keeping Whedon’s vision alive was a risk worth taking.  They also stuck the series in a bad time slot, and didn’t advertise it the way they should have.  While the series had a devoted following while it was on, it wasn’t enough to keep it on the air, even though said following sent in postcards and tried to get other networks to pick it up.  While they weren’t successful in keeping it on the air, their vigilance inspired Whedon to bring it back in some way.  I was probably still a tad too young to get into it while it was on, I’m sure had I been older I would have done my part to bring it back.  However, it makes me wonder if it’s better to be a short lived much much beloved show that will live a second life on DVD, to be continually rediscovered and relived, or to be on for several seasons and go without much fanfare.  If I made a TV series, I think I’d prefer the former.

For those who haven’t seen it, you can watch it all on hulu, though I’d recommend giving the DVD a look as well, as there’s some interesting bonus material on there.

So, should it be back in the air? I’m afraid I’m not going to break the trend here: yes, it most certainly should.  I think the thing I would’ve most liked to have found out about is Shepherd Book’s past; he obviously has some experience with fighting and possibly even killing, and it would’ve been cool to see where that came from.  Perhaps a prequel series could be arranged?

To send us out, here’s the kick ass opening title sequence with a kick ass theme song written by Whedon himself, and performed by Sonny Rhodes:

Come back next time when I’ll be reviewing the Pamela Anderson bookstore comedy Stacked!  Is Anderson’s ample cleavage enough to salvage the show?  Based on her acting skills in the past, I’m certain it might have to be.

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