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Monday, June 29, 2009

Summer DVD Club: "Firefly"

For some reason or other, I've always found myself surrounded by Joss Whedon fans, so it's surprising I've never caught the Joss bug. It's not that I dislike him -- or his shows -- but I was never really into them the way these friends and family members were. I was the lone member of my four-person college apartment who wouldn't languish for hours in our bowl chairs watching endless episodes of "Buffy." In fact, I didn't actually pick "Firefly" as my Summer DVD Club choice -- let's just say my hand was, ahem, forced -- but I simply had to write about it because it's been a while since I've just liked a show this much.

Quick recap: "Firefly" is a short-lived space western that ran on Fox in 2002. The show follows nine characters on board a renegade transport spaceship called Serenity that traverses sparsely populated outskirts of space. Though the show is set in the future, it's unclear for most of the show how or when humans came to populate a solar system that's clearly not ours. In fact, I didn't really get it until I saw "Serenity," the movie sequel that came three years after Fox killed the show.

Back story: Overpopulation apparently causes the remnants of humanity to scatter, sending them to another solar system where hundreds of planets and moons are "terraformed" to resemble Earth. The process isn't evenly spread out, so the outer planets in the system resemble a sort of Wild West frontier of scattered outposts, far from the reaches of the more civilized core planets. A civil war between the central governing power -- aptly named the "Alliance" and dressed forbiddingly in "Star Wars" Imperial Army gray -- and the Independent factions (Browncoats) in these outlying planets only further this divide between frontier and civilization. The show takes place several years after the end of the war.

Characters: If the back story seems daunting, forget it. It took me the entire show -- and the movie -- to weave the history together and I'm still unclear on many of the finer points. The meat of the show are the characters, a plucky group of misfits who could easily have become stereotyped under a less watchful writer/director/producer. Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is your laconic anti-hero in the mold of Harrison Ford's Han Solo, plainspoken to the point of being rude and a bit of an wise-ass. The other regular crew include Mal's loyal first mate and former Army buddy Zoe (Gina Torres), pilot and resident comic Wash (Alan Tudyk), the unwittingly dumb hired muscle Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and the sweet but spacey mechanic Kaylee. The ship also plays host to Inara, who rents out a shuttle as a Companion, a 26th century equivalent of a Geisha or courtesan. Rounding out the crew are newcomers: Shepherd Book (a preacher played by Ron Glass), Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his sister River Tam (Summer Glau). The Tams, it turns out, are fugitives from the Alliance after Simon frees his child prodigy sister from being part of an Alliance medical/psychological experiment. Their struggle to stay on the ship and their past (check out Zac Efron as a younger Simon in an episode flashback) is the larger plot arc of the show.

What I like: What first struck me is how much the show plays out like a movie. (Whedon apparently wanted Fox to broadcast them in widescreen, but Fox naturally refused, aiming to keep their pristine reputation as the network that broadcast two seasons of "Temptation Island"). Usually each episode centers around a smuggling job that the crew is hired to do -- often illegal and usually dangerous -- with a larger plot of the Tams to keep the episodes flowing into the next. The show is fast-paced when it needs to be with plenty of chases and near-misses, but funny and mysterious at the same time. In less than two weeks, I finished watching the entire season's worth of episodes and the movie, wishing I had savored each episode a little more and wanting a sequel to come out immediately!

As with many other cancelled TV shows, "Firefly"'s premature end is unfortunate. Developing storylines, like the will-they-won't-they tension between Mal and Inara, are cut short and, consequently, feel somewhat forced because there's no imminent resolution. Although the movie does a good job in trying to tie a few of these loose ends up, this is clearly a show that needed several seasons to answer questions that simply remain unanswered. It's hard to avoid thinking "that's it?" at the end of it all. We really never get a feel for why the Alliance operates the way it does, who Shepherd Book really is and if there any other renegade ex-Independents cruising the sky. Primary characters get plenty of screen time, but many interesting secondary characters are mere blips on the show as a result of the short season. Despite its premature departure from the television word, "Firefly" has a legion of fans -- one I can include myself in now -- that will continue to hope for a movie sequel.

You don't have to be a sci-fan to appreciate "Firefly" -- there's no super techie lingo, no aliens, no complicated universe to understand. A good appreciation of character-driven storytelling is enough.

Interested? Here's the episode that really solidified my liking of this show -- watch just the first three or four minutes for a good example:

You can find all "Firefly" episodes on Anyone else like the show? Wanted to see the show but never got around to it? Drop me a line in the comments below.

--Malavika Jagannathan,

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