Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What You Should Have Been Watching: Firefly

Men are busy creatures. There's the hunting and scavenging for food. The protection of the women and children. The bowling and softball leagues. And because of their limited time, men must be picky and choosy about what they will watch on the television (that is in no way sports related). Since it's still the boring summer months, when awesome television like Lost and The Office and 30 Rock and CSI: New York (just testing to see if you're paying attention) is on vacation, The Common Man has decided to let you in on the shows you probably missed because you were too busy. These shows are gone now. Gone like dinosaurs, Rubik's Cubes, and Ted Danson's hair. But through the magic of the Digital Video Disk, you have the opportunity to check these shows out in what little spare time you have. Here's the first installment of: What You Should Have Been Watching.

Any list of the best television programs of the last five years (just getting this in under the gun here) must include the very short-lived Joss Whedon series, Firefly. Whedon, of course, is best known for his awesome cult classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the slightly less awesome, but probably more philosophically interesting, Angel. His follow-up to those shows, Firefly marked a drastic departure from anything seen on television before. It fused the Western and Sci-Fi genres seemlessly, creating an outer space that felt like Dodge City.

The show takes place in the distant future, after humanity has left the earth and found a new solar system to inhabit, but the outer planets have yet to achieve real technological sophistication. As such, there's a certain lawlessness that pervades these brave new worlds. The central focus of the show, a nine-member crew of a cargo vessel (Serenity), operates within this lawlessness. Thieving, smuggling, and (very occasionally) doing good works while trying to stay off of the central government's radar. Picture the Jesse James Gang meets Treasure Island meets (the good) Star Wars, with a little bit of Das Boot thrown in.

The casting is excellent, though almost all the actors began the series as unknowns. Nathan Fillion shines as the morally complicated captain of the ship, but the series allows shipmates Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Jewel Staite, Summer Glau, and especially Adam Baldwin equal opportunities to be in the spotlight. It truly is an ensemble show, and each character plays a seemingly central role in each episode. There are no wasted moments, no throwaway lines, and no small parts.

And Firefly looks different from any show that came before it because of technological advances Whedon was smart enough to take advantage of before anyone else. Whedon's crew shoots with handicams throughout the episode. This gives the each scene greater energy and intimacy, as the viewer seems to be spying on the characters most private and harrowing moments. And Whedon was also able to benefit from incredible advances in CGI technology that would allow his exterior shots of the ship, space stations, planets, and space to appear more real. They go in and out of focus, and the "camera" capturing them shakes. Lens flares pop realistically. Since then, of course, Whedon's technique has been immitated by the creators of the wildly popular Battlestar Galactica and by George Lucas in the new Star Wars films, and by JJ Abrams in Cloverfield.

The story of the show's problems with Fox television have become part of its legend. The network wouldn't let Whedon show the pilot episode, instead demanding he write a new first episode in three days. And it kept pre-empting Firefly and changing its timeslot without warning. Sadly, after showing just 11 episodes (though 14 were shot), the series was canceled. Since then, it has gained second life on the DVD market, and you can pick it up for $20. The episodes have been rearranged into the proper sequence and augmented with excellent commentaries. And the film Serenity, released in 2005, continues (and perhaps completes) the story.

So why is The Common Man recommending this to you, other than the fact that it's an excellent show? Because Nathan Fillion, as Malcolm Reynolds, epitomizes manliness.

He is stalwart and true to his word. He protects his crew and disciplines them like a father. He guards his emotions closely, hiding his anger, pain, and sadness behind pithy jokes and stubborness. He may not always do what's legal, but he ultimately does what's right and accepts the consequences of his actions. He's complicated, but moral, in a time when morality is in short supply. Also, explosions. And shooting. And efficient use of space. And all nature of other awesome manly things.

Because it died so young, it shouldn't take you long to fly through the show, thereby getting you ready for The Common Man's next recommendation, which should come down to you shortly.


Chris said...

Firefly is great. I feel like such a boob for not watching it when it aired. The whole season is online at hulu.com.

Rickey Henderson said...

Amen for the praise for Firefly. Just a terrific show that gained a cult following (second only to Freaks & Geeks in Rickey's book).

The Common Man said...

@ Chris

Don't feel bad, Chris. Even The Common Man didn't watch it when it aired, and The Common Man loved him some Joss Whedon. It's not your fault, really, Fox did an incredible disservice to the show and to Whedon in their handling of the publicity. And thanks for the reminder about hulu.

@ Rickey

The Common Man also didn't see F&G when it came out, and has it high on the Netflix queue, just after Season 3 of Weeds. The Common Man knows of your love for Judd Apatow (sans Pineapple Express and concurs. It raises an interesting question though. If so many men like Judd Apatow movies, does that mean that perpetual adolescence is manly? The Common Man's head might explode from the contradiction.

Night Writer said...

Loved Firefly. The "Sci-fi/Western" combo platter was inspired and each of the characters was interesting by himself/herself. You had a sense there was a lot of backstory to be developed there; backstory which we'll, sadly, never see. Add in that it was also funny and sexy and you have to conclude that the way the show was handled by the Fox execs was stupefying. They couldn't wrap whatever functioning parts of their brains they had around a concept and story that didn't fit neatly into some T&A or "Guys Acting Stupid" format. More's the pity.