November 21, 2011

Weekend In Reviews

The start of the holiday season means there are fewer first-run shows on TV and more time to watch whole seasons (or series) of shows you haven't seen before. I decided to get a jump on the holiday hiatus with a couple of marathon's over the weekend (which I justified by a) getting up early and walking half a dozen miles and b) being a little under the weather).

Firefly - I have long been a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. The work Joss Whedon did on those shows, particularly Buffy, made for some of my favorite TV moments ever and was in many ways groundbreaking and criminally under appreciated by the masses. Still, my affection for Whedon's work never led me to watch his later shows. With Firefly, I heard "space western" and my first thought was "way to combine two things I don't really care about into one thing I really don't care about!" I should have known better.

In the late nineties, there was nothing that should lead me to believe I'd like a show about a teenage girl who fights vampires and the forces of darkness so, while a space western doesn't sound like something I'd find interesting, I should've realized that Firefly isn't a show that can be so easily put in a box and dismissed.  Like the Whedon shows that came before, at its heart this is a show about an unconventional family in unlikely circumstances.

The circumstances here are a world 500 years in the future. Earth has become uninhabitable and man has taken to space to colonize and terraform other planets in other galaxies. While the more industrialized planets near the center pushed for unification, the outer planets wanted independence. War is waged, rebels lose, Alliance is born, rebels become outlaws, yadda yadda yadda. Our particular band of outlaws resides on a Firefly spaceship called Serenity. 

Our family here has the Whedon-y staples: father figure Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), kick-ass chick Zoe (Gina Torres), reluctant hero Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), wise-ass side-kick Wash (Alan Tudyk), quirky side-kick Kaylee (Jewel Staite), stuffy tight-ass Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), cukoo mystery girl River Tam (Summer Glau), morally ambiguous tough guy Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and beautiful love interest Inara (Morena Baccarin). As the story begins many of these people have never met and have no loyalty to each other but when you're in the shit together, you form bonds pretty quickly.

The stories were predominantly adventures of the week as the crew of Serenity worked jobs to either help friends or make money but the central "mystery" or "adventure" revolved around the cryptic things that the Alliance had done to River to render her kind of nuts and the various ways our little family kept River and themselves from being captured by the Alliance. Because the show was cancelled rather abruptly, there was no resolution to that story. We also never got to find out about Shepherd's inscrutable past or see the further development of the romantic relationships between Mal and Inara or Kaylee and Simon.

The show had a lot of potential and I enjoyed the hell out of it but it wasn't perfect and even aside from the phrase "space western" I can understand why the audience may have been slight. For starters, that theme song was abysmal. It played up the "western" aspect of the story so hard it was off-putting. Like the sort of "tear in my beer" cheeseball country ditty that my grandpa would have sang along to in his most mocking tone, but with nary a hint of irony. The introductory exposition at the start of most episodes was fine, though the version narrated by Shepherd was preferable to the version narrated by Mal. Mal's version had him speaking in a far more slang-riddled, countryfied, dumbed-down manor than he ever used in the show proper which was a cloying choice at best considering Mal was never sold as an unintelligent sort.

Whether certain members of the cast were possessed of limited range or just strange acting choices, the result was that not all performances were of the same caliber and a scene or two suffered for it. The best actors in the bunch really sold the Whedony dialogue though and it was great fun (as it always is) to be along for the ride. I was particularly fond of Tudyk's, Baldwin's, and Fillion's ease with the snappy one-liners, Staite's Willow-y dorkish sweetness, and Glass's quiet, fatherly wisdom.

Despite any limitations in range or talent, I did care about all of these characters and enjoyed watching them very much. While the show ended abruptly with no finality, there is often a sort of perfectness to finishing something without ending it. As I've learned to love the way that My So-Called Life closed, I've come to see that open-endedness is sometimes more satisfying in the long run.

Serenity - Unfortunately, the open-end of Firefly beget a motion picture to satisfy the curiosity of the show's rabid fans. For me, the end that Serenity brought was far less satisfying than the openness of the series. I liked the show a great deal and hoped that the movie would stay true to the things about the show that made it fun and interesting but found instead that the movie set out to answer the River question at the expense of everything else that made the show worth careing about.

It was very clearly stated in Firefly that Simon did not know what the Alliance had done to River or why and as Serenity begins, we see him getting an entire presentation from one of the government quacks about what sort of weapon they're turning River into along with the how and why. That history re-write started the whole endeavor out on the wrong foot for me and it never really found its way back into my good graces.

We knew that Inara was going to be taking her leave of Serenity at the end of Firefly because she no longer wanted to deal with the fact that she was totally in love with Mal, but when the movie started and Shepherd was nowhere to be seen, I was pissed. He's living on some planet called Haven now? Why? Over the course of the series, Shepherd Book had become terribly fond and protective of his flock aboard Serenity and his unexplained departure from the ship really pissed me off.

I won't lie, the worst part of the movie for me was that not everyone made it out alive. Some of my favorites didn't survive the final fights of Buffy or Angel either (RIP, Anya!), but dying at the end of 5 or 7 seasons is a bit different than dying after 14 episodes and a movie. While one death was filled with melodrama and sadness after the character had been given short shrift through the entirety of the movie, the other came almost as the twisted punchline of a joke and neither was, in my opinion, a befitting end to the characters I'd come to adore from the television series.

While it was nice, I guess, to answer the burning questions of what happened to River and why, I think I would have found the movie more satisfying if those answers had come as a secondary plot to something more fun and more inclusive of the rest of the cast. I appreciate the way everyone banded together to help the Tam siblings, but the story marginalized the importance that other members of the family had played in the larger story by giving them little to do in this particular adventure.

In conclusion, I'm really glad I watched Firefly but I wish I'd skipped Serenity.

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