That Cheese Aspect

Well, dang. I finished watching the rest of “Firefly.” I can see how the early adopters, and the cast and crew, were upset at its cancellation. But if I were looking to be quoted in trade papers, I would call it “a flawed gem.” A lot of it is just brilliant, and a good bit of it has potential but was badly handled. And there’s this layer of smarm underneath that bugs me.

When the series first aired, I just wasn’t able to get into it until an episode called “Out of Gas,” where the captain flashes back to first buying the ship and meeting the rest of his crew. It’s still a strong one, but it’s several episodes in (either 7th or 5th, depending on whether you’re talking about what was aired or what was intended). And as much as I respect the Grand Artistic Vision of an auteur, I don’t think it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator to explain why you should care about the people you’re watching earlier than five hours into your story.

Last night was the first time I saw episodes I hadn’t seen before, and it was only in those that the show really started to gel. The characters started becoming more real and I finally started to give a damn about what happened to them. The episode “War Stories” was almost-but-not-quite perfect and was the first time the whole thing came together, and that’s 11 hours into the series. Plus, it had one of the two best lines of the whole series: when Zoe comes back with the captain’s severed ear and vows, “We’re going to get him back,” Jayne replies, “How? We going to clone him?” I actually laughed out loud and missed the next minute of dialog, and that never happens with TV.

By the way, the other best line is in the final episode, when the Pilot says “Psychic? That sounds like science fiction,” and Zoe responds, “Honey, you live on a spaceship.”

I’ll admit that a lot of my problems with the series are my growing anti-Joss Whedon bias and are probably unfair. I still think that the guy’s a genius, and I’m a big fan of “Buffy” and big chunks of “Angel” and the majority of “Firefly.” But I think he would’ve benefitted from being reined in a little more, and more subtly than forcing the kind of changes on the series that Fox did. Airing episodes out of order, forcing a second pilot, not airing certain episodes — those were all extremely bone-headed moves. But I can’t help but see undercurrents of ego and artistic squabbles that could’ve been avoided from the start.

It seems as if Whedon and Minear were too proud of the world they created to give it a strong opening; they were convinced they could be enigmatic and dole it out in intriguing pieces. I say that it just failed to grab anyone from the start. They wanted to make the world feel more real, so they added gimmicks like shaky cams and lens flares and zooms on CGI effects that just draw attention to themselves as too-clever gimmicks. (The section of the making-of documentary where they talk about these effects as part of Whedon’s grand vision is called “That Cheese Aspect.”) Another annoying gimmick is in “Objects in Space”, when the director (Whedon again) shows the bounty hunter is going crazy by doing quick flashes of him making faces.

They upped the violence of torture scenes and just general nastiness, but there’s only so far you can go with that before it becomes gratuitous and loses its impact — you spend years having people getting injured but resetting to normal at the beginning of the next episode, and eventually the only way you can have your climax have even more impact is to do something like having the villain gouge out one of your character’s eyes. It strikes me as over-reactionary and clumsy; the idea that TV is always safe and nothing changes, so you add extra violence or shock-value twists (like pushing a guy into a jet engine) to get a rise out of the audience. But especially with a series, it’s a lot more impact to have characters get into emotional crises — like Kaylee becoming more afraid of River, or Jayne betraying Simon and River — and you have to wonder how they’re going to write their way out of that.

And I’ll admit it; some of it was just plain too subtle. I don’t think I’m a particularly stupid person (dense, maybe, but not outright stupid), but I never really got why a companion was on board the ship except as some kind of sci-fi gimmick along the lines of Star Trek’s heavy-handed commentary about racism. “In the future, women are equals, and prostitutes are respectable! Isn’t that amazing!” It wasn’t until I actually saw an episode called “Heart of Gold”, virtually beating me over the head with it, that I got the “Gunsmoke”/generic western connection and picked up on the idea that Inarra was Miss Kitty.

So in the end, I would definitely have liked to have seen a full season. Maybe two. But I don’t think this would’ve made a good ongoing series, and it should’ve always been planned with a clear end. Partly because it spent so much time looking back, playing with conventions of westerns and sci-fi and TV in general, instead of creating new stuff. And I don’t get the impression that the back-story is all that intriguing — apart from Shepherd Book’s past, there aren’t any loose ends that I’m eager to see tied up.

I’m still going to watch the hell out of the movie, and I’d be a lot less sanguine about the show’s being cancelled if I didn’t know that there were a movie coming out. I guess I’m on the flip side of the fans who bemoaned the show’s cancellation; they praise the show and fault Fox for its early demise, while I realize the only reason I’m so critical of it is because I see so much potential in what it could’ve been.