Box Culture III: “Firefly”

In contrast to “Lost,” I’ve found “Firefly” to be quite enjoyable. In fact, also in contrast to “Lost,” I’m mid-way through disk four, approaching the end of the show. It’s fun.

Many people have argued about what the appeal of the show is (it has lots of fans and they are all nuts). Is it the setting, the characters, the writing? Well, the setting might appeal for the first couple of episodes, but it is, after all, just what our parents told us science fiction is all along: westerns set in space.

As for the characters, they’re fun, but they’re stock, every one of them. Heck, they’ve even got the Hooker with a Heart of Gold. No, for my money, the strength of the show lies in the writing of these characters. The writing here has been honed to a razor-sharp edge, and the characters all benefit enormously. Take the Captain. He is this close to being a pompous ass; the writing lets him get right up to that barrier without stepping over. As a species of character writing, the show is remarkable. (Character dynamics, too: they’re smart enough never to team the two comic relief characters, Wash and Jayne.)

In terms of plot-driven stories, it’s perhaps not as tight—it’s not long before (in “Out of Gas”) they resort to the we-won’t-tell-you-what’s-going-on trick which allows them to approach the plot obliquely. Some of the other shows also seem to be similar in plot; truth to tell, given the limitations of the concept, this isn’t too surprising. I’d argue, though, that the show isn’t plot driven anyway so it doesn’t matter.

Could the show have lasted longer? Maybe, but toward the end here, the cracks are starting to show in the structure. Kayley and Jayne were easily my favorite characters, but then it started to seem like Kayley could not cut Simon a break. Here’s a guy who obviously likes her (she likes him, too), and who’s just as clearly socially awkward. He doesn’t know how to talk to her, but if he doesn’t say everything just right, she gets all ticked off at him. The one time, in the country store, it was appropriate; after that, she starts to look high maintenance. I can see it now: No, of course it doesn’t make you fat. What do you mean–of course I liked the other dress too. Yes, I’m being honest with you. Now where are you going?

As for Jayne, he was the most fun character, as well as being a big unknown. Would he sell them out for money? Admittedly this was a point that needed to be addressed, and I think they did that well. Jayne’s first humiliation was good, his line “Don’t tell ‘em what I did. Make something up,” revealed an unexpected sense of decency in the big lug. It made us realize the depths of which the character was capable; before, he seemed to be all surface. His second humiliation, however, was unnecessary. We’d done that. Just rubbing his face in it more seemed tacked on, and it just served to emasculate him. (Admittedly, this was in an unaired episode.)

This seems to be a manifestation of what I think of as the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” curse. Take any character who has rough edges (Dr. Pulaski or the Holographic Doctor) and smooth them out so they’re just like everyone else. It’s always a mistake in my opinion. (McCoy remained a curmudgeonly wet blanket to the end.) Worf was always getting ragged on for his beliefs and customs.

Probably the biggest mistake “Firefly” made was bringing back Saffron (in the same unaired episode, but still). It’s very clever how the writers get out of the basic situation, but it doesn’t hide the fact that this is a woman who cheerfully sent them all to their deaths. The fact that they would even consider trusting her doesn’t make them seem forgiving—it makes them seem suicidally stupid. And it tends to evaporate my concern for their lives. This show was one where I pretty much scowled all the way through. It was mechanical in every sense of the word and it yanked me right out of the show. I was aware that the makers were being clever and technically adept. (Yes, yes, I know about the ending. The ending doesn’t matter when you’re watching the beginning. Watching it later, in full knowledge is an academic exercise.)

This is another Star Trek trait—giving the secondary guest characters a whole episode. Now this can be fun when it’s Q, but you have to know who deserves a show and who doesn’t. What’s next? How about a whole episode about how Cecil L’ively got to be where he is, and how come he wears a jacket and tie and no shirt. Also, where’d he get that hat? (I haven’t seen all the episodes yet—I hope there isn’t one like that.)

I hope I haven’t seemed overly critical of the show—I really like it, and when I like something that I think could have been made just a bit better, it’s hard for me to keep my yap shut with all my “ideas” for “improvements.” Still, I recommend the show. I’m not sure it’s worth the $50 or so I typically see for the set, but it’s worth seeing.

Lastly, I can’t let go of this: I still think “Firefly” is a stupid name for a show. No, scratch that. It’s perfect for a show where teenagers laugh, learn and love while at a summer campground. For a show about cowboys in space, it stinks. Adding the fact that the title is the class of spaceship owned by our heroes, and I think it’s even dumber. It’s like calling a cop show “Four-Door Sedan.” Obviously “Space Cowboys” was taken, but how about “Final Frontier” or something like that?

It’s nice to know that here in the technical vastness of the future, they can still make good character-based shows. Let’s hear it for Target.