[ed. note: As a complete break from the cognitive science type philosophy that has filled this space recently, we bring you a rant about television]
I finally got the DVD set of Firefly last week, and have now watched the whole series. For those of you who don’t know, Firefly was a show created by Joss Whedon and Tim Minear. Joss, of course, was the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is probably my favorite TV show ever. Joss also created Angel, a spinoff from Buffy, where he hired Tim Minear, who wrote several excellent Angel episodes and eventually became an executive producer. When Angel and Buffy were drawing to a close, Joss and Tim went off to create Firefly, a show that was a cross between a western like Bonanza and a sci-fi epic like Babylon 5. Yes, it was odd. Fox stuck it on Friday nights in their ratings death slot, and it got cancelled within ten episodes.
I thought the show was okay when it was first on. It didn’t really grab me. I watched all of the episodes out of loyalty to Joss, figuring that it would eventually pull together, but it never quite did. It never achieved the sparkling dialogue or the heartbreaking character development that are Joss specialties. So I didn’t get around to buying the DVDs for a while. However, when I was buying the DVDs of Wonderfalls, a show which also had its time on the air tragically cut short, I figured I should pick up Firefly as well, as a gesture of solidarity for Tim Minear. And I’m glad I did.
Part of the problem with Firefly was that the network showed the episodes out of order. In particular, Joss created this fantastic two hour movie pilot, where he introduces us to the myriad of characters aboard Serenity. The Fox network decided the pilot didn’t have enough action, so they didn’t show it. Instead, Joss and Tim had to scramble to put together an action-oriented mini-pilot episode where we are dropped into the middle of things and never really understand what’s going on. Watching the real pilot first as intended makes a huge difference in connecting to the characters and giving the audience a chance to find its bearings. If we don’t care about the characters, then we don’t care about what happens to them, and all drama evaporates. It’s all about the characters.
So rewatching the episodes in the proper order makes a big difference. It also makes a big difference to listen to the episodes where Joss does a commentary track, because he presents the big ideas that were driving the show. He had a grand vision of what he was trying to do with Firefly, and with that context in place, the show makes a lot more sense. But he did a poor job of transferring that vision to the screen in the admittedly limited number of episodes that he had. In particular, I think he got sloppy and failed to make the individual episodes as compelling as was needed to establish the franchise.
That’s been a Joss failing for a while, though. The brilliance of the first few seasons of Buffy was that individual episodes were satisfying in and of themselves, while also serving to advance the arc. He was always on the edge of cancellation, especially that first season, as one of the first shows on a yet-to-be established WB network. So I think he strived to make each episode individually satisfying and compelling, and then layered an overall season arc on top of those episodes. In the first three seasons of Buffy, he basically had a very specific vision of the season arc, and of the waypoints to making that arc happen. And he’d write the relevant episodes. So when you saw a “Written and directed by Joss Whedon” at the beginning of an episode, you knew stuff was going to happen. He’d shake up the entire Buffyverse, and then leave it to the staff writers to fill out the new implications/consequences of the shakeup with a bunch of standalone episodes, and then when those were played out, he shook it up again. But he never failed to make individual episodes satisfying in and of themselves – they were added an extra dimension of pathos and drama with the knowledge of the series arc, but could stand alone.
Because he’d worked so hard on developing both the individual character arcs and the overall season arc, the season finales were events, where he managed to bring all of his arcs together and tie them all up in one episode. When I go back to some of those episodes now, I’m always amazed at how much stuff he packs into those episodes. The groundwork has been laid all season, and then all of this crazy stuff happens as the floodgates are opened. And because each character was so well-established, it’s clear that they have to react to the situation in a given way. The inevitable conflict and drama that ensued as a result of each character being true to themselves is part of what I loved about Buffy.
By season four, though, that was no longer true. Season four has a bunch of individually excellent episodes, but the overall season arc is leaden at best. And, even worse, there are several episodes which have no point other than advancing the season arc. So basically about half of the episodes are a waste of time. In contrast, in the first three seasons of Buffy, even the worst episode would have some brilliant character interplay or some witty dialogue that would redeem it.
Even worse, by the time season four rolled around, Joss was beginning to believe his own hype, as a master show creator/writer/director. He started using his episodes as a chance to be an auteur, using experimental techniques. Hush in season four was basically an experiment in writing a Buffy episode as a silent movie. The Body in season five was a meditation on grief, with no background music and rough handheld camera work. Once More with Feeling in season six was Buffy re-imagined as musical.
Firefly continued to demonstrate this tendency. Listening to Joss’s commentary on the pilot and second episode, Joss spent as much time commenting on the different camera angles he was using as on the show itself. He did mention these grand ideas about where the show was going to go. But he lost the importance of crafting each individual episode on the way to his grand ideas. Without the commentary, and as the episodes were originally seen on the air, the show appears kind of meaningless and pointless. Nothing interesting happens, because I didn’t really care about the characters as they were presented on the screen. Now Joss might say that he wasn’t given a chance to develop the story the way he wanted to, but that’s lazy storytelling. Good storytelling doesn’t require commentary. It’s all out there on the screen. He demonstrated he could do that with the early seasons of Buffy. Unfortunately, he got lazy in the later seasons of Buffy where he had to explicitly lay out the themes he was exploring because he had never shown them on screen; I stole this point from David Hines’s review of the season four finale where he says:
the “Slayerettes being driven apart” angle has been done so ineffectively over the season that the writers have had to hammer it on in the past couple of episodes to let us know that yes, they were *trying* to do something, and they hadn’t just forgotten quality screen time for the supporting characters *really.* Accordingly, Fury
doesn’t have much choice but to make his resolution of the mess clumsy,
hammering the plotline home even as he resolves it. The characters saying
there have been problems substitutes for the problems’ adequate
development onscreen; this is essentially the writers saying to the
audience, “Look, guys, we were *trying* to do something here, dammit.”
Another issue with Firefly is that Joss was a total prima donna by this point. A great example is the episode “Objects in Space”, written and directed by Joss. In the commentary, he describes the episode as an illustration of existentialist philosophy, dropping in references to Sartre’s Nausea. Okay, it’s kind of neat that he’s figured out a way to project his college philosophy into a sci-fi show, but this was one of the first thirteen episodes of a new struggling series! The show was not nearly established enough to be able to waste one of his first episodes creating a philosophical meditation. He needed to be creating characters that we cared about and story arcs that actually had more than a couple seconds of airtime per episodes. His commentary points out some things that were maybe revealed in passing by the episode, but it’s so subtle as to be on the verge of created in a postmodern sort of way.
Anyway. Not that any of this is relevant. I don’t need much of an excuse to demonstrate my insanely detailed knowledge of the Buffyverse. So, yeah. I think it would have been interesting to see where Joss was heading with Firefly, especially with the X-Files-esque arc involving River. Apparently Joss was able to acquire the movie rights, so we’ll at least get the first set of answers this summer, as the movie picks up six months after the last episode filmed for television. It’s a pity, though. I find I prefer well-done television shows to movies. The depth of character and plot development that is possible over the many hours of a television season is much more satisfying than trying to wrap everything up in the two hours of a movie. I wish Joss had been able to rein in his excesses on Firefly, because I think it could have been a jewel of a series. Alas.
P.S. One addendum, a couple days after I originally wrote the above, but before I post it. I think one of the differences between Buffy and Firefly is that Buffy was more episodic. I think Firefly actually works better in a DVD format, because several episodes can be watched in close succession, which allows the viewer to get a better handle on the universe and on the numerous characters. When it was on weekly, it was very confusing, and never developed momentum. I think Joss severely underestimated the difficulty of starting a new show franchise, especially moving to a new network.
If I were him, I would have spent the entire first season introducing us to the characters and to the universe, in effect doing what he tried to do in a single two hour pilot. I think it would have worked much better if he’d started out with a few episodes with just the Serenity crew of Mal, Zoe, Wash, Jayne and Kaylee. Establish them first, establish their identities as the outlaws on the fringe of the universe. Episodes like Jaynestown and the Train Job would have been appropriate for this phase, because the other ship residents didn’t contribute a whole lot in those. Then introduce Inara. A few episodes to let that settle in, including Our Mrs. Reynolds for the compare/contrast between Inara and Saffron. Then Book could hop aboard, and another few episodes establishing his character, and exploring some of his background that was only hinted at in the series. Then at about episode 13, right around February sweeps, introduce Simon and River, and, since you’ve already established the other characters and the universe, you can spend four episodes in a row setting the River arc in motion. Something like that would have been a more measured introduction to the series universe and made it easier for the casual viewer to get on board.
Instead the viewer was tossed into the middle of the universe, with lots of little snippets referring ahead to plots that had yet to be introduced (like the Blue Sun plotline that Joss refers to in the commentary). It was disorienting and offputting, and that’s exactly what you can’t afford when starting a new series.
Contrast the Firefly approach of starting with too many characters with what happened with Buffy. Buffy started with four main characters, Buffy, Giles, Willow and Xander. By the end of season one, Cordelia and Angel were added. Oz was added to the mix in season two, as was Spike. By season five, there were way too many characters for a newbie to the show to keep track of, but that was okay because the show was already well established at that point. In contrast, Firefly tried to start with as many main characters as it took Buffy three seasons to introduce. No wonder it was confusing.
Okay, I’m going to post this now because I’ve officially spent way too long thinking about this.