Monday, January 20, 2014

You Can't Take the Sky From Me

I know how difficult it must be to get a television show on the air.  It seems most shows start with a low number of people--say anywhere from 1-5--who are the voice of the show.  They love it as a child, and their vision is one of perfection.  Then in come the others; sometimes its the moneypeople, sometimes the network brass, sometimes other, more vaunted producers.  But to actually get a show on the air, particularly one that has a unique vision, is increasingly rare.  That goes double for network TV.  So to triumph over those odds must be a special achievement indeed.

Then the network mishandles your show and kills it.

That's the story of Firely, Joss Whedon's scifi/western love letter to the very best of TV.  It was a nearly perfect show for network TV in so many ways.  A nice, big cast, sufficiently multiracial.  An incredible main setpiece: the namesake-class ship Serenity featured the bridge, living area, cargo bay, and more all on a larger film soundstage, allowing for the entire set to be connected as one home for the show.  Despite its scifi set-up, it was also equally dedicated to its western--which is to say American folklore--background.  Our hero, Mal Reynolds, was more solo space cowboy than Han, but somehow sadder and more alone. The list goes on, because it's a great cast of a characters: a priest, a prostitute, a dim-witted gunman (of sorts), a doctor, a girly-girl engineer, and the mysterious young lady.

Yes, on the one hand, it sounds like Ford's StagecoachBut that's the point! Firefly was America--it was meant to be us!  It was meant to capture our world and transport it to another time and another place, and in that time and place we could find ourselves.

The entire series consists of 14 episode.  There are a few in the beginning that are a tad wobbly, as the show finds its feet ("The Train Job" comes to mind.")  There are a few in the middle which are good, silly fun ("Jaynestown" comes to mind.)

Yet after that middle, the show finds its brilliance.  "Out of Gas" is an incredible episode--essentially a flashback pilot episode, except it takes us before the series started and shows us how everyone got to where they are.  "Objects in Space" is the series finale.  It's surreal and strange and wonderful.  It's heartbreaking, because its the last of the show.

Now yes, yes, I can hear the naysayers: but it got its second chance.  It got its movie--a movie which did alright, but not enough to justify more TV or more movies.  To that, I have no answer.  I'm no Hollywood beancounter.  I watch smart TV.  It's usually entertaining (Survivor), it's often depressing (The Walking Dead), but its always smart.  Looking at the renewal plight of Alcatraz, I know that part of the problem is that too few of us watch smart television; that's why The Voice is a smash hit, and Mad Men is a boutique show enjoyed by 2 million people.

All I know is that Firefly represented a dream--not just a dream of Joss Whedon to transplant the Western motif into space, but a dream about the kind of television that should be on.  And there's the great irony: that TV is ultimately in the hands of those beancounters, people more loyal to corporate bosses then creating great dramatic presentations.  There is, I suppose, a certain irony in Firefly's lyrics, since all we're left with us the great sky-dream of the show:

Lost my love, lost my land
Lost the last place I could stand
There's no place I can be
Since I've found Serenity

And you can't take the sky from me.

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