the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Some weeks ago, I insisted that a friend of mine give the new Battlestar Galactica a try. He agreed, if I was willing to check out Firefly in return. It was a good trade.

Why is it that so many of the best shows on TV die quick, dirty deaths at the hands of network executives who just don't get it, despite clamoring fans and critically glowing reviews? Original Star Trek anyone? The fact that both series' were canceled prematurely may be the only thing that Firefly shares with Star Trek. Like Battlestar Galactica and the lion's share of post-modern Sci Fi, the days of space ships that resemble floating hotels, peopled by saints levitating two feet above the carpet are over. Though I am an avowed Star Trek fan, I still find myself saying, thank God and good riddance.

Firefly, created by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel—both of which I have no desire to check out) is a blending of two primarily American genres—the Western and Science Fiction. While spaceships fly in the sky overhead, cowboys armed with laser blasters herd cattle and stumble out of saloons below. The dialog is laced with the vernacular of one too many John Wayne movies. Trust me, while it may sound dissonant, it works like a charm. You will come away wondering why no one fell upon this concept years ago.

Firefly follows the exploits of a band of interstellar smugglers. After a galactic civil war in which the United States and China have fused to become the world's last great superpower, Captain Malcolm 'Mal' Reynolds, a renegade veteran (on the losing side) now turned smuggler and rogue (basically Han Solo with a six-shooter), finds himself the commander of a small spacecraft named Serenity. Serenity bounces from planet to planet, smuggling cargo, pulling off small crimes and desperately trying to outrun and evade the authorities.

Serenity is inhabited by an eclectic crew--squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal--first mate Zoe, who fought beside Mal in the war; her husband and Serenity's comical pilot, 'Wash'; brawn-over-brains grunt, Jayne—yes, Jayne is a guy; a young and cherubic engineer, Kaylee; Shepard Book, the ship's resident priest; the stunning courtesan, Inara who is really in love with Mal; and two fugitives—Doctor Simon Tam and his deranged, yet psychical powerful sister, River whom he rescued from a government facility where, for reasons unknown to any of them, most of all River, she was undergoing horrifically invasive mental tests. The characters work, not only because of the strength of the actors, but because they inhabit established genre archetypes. The cast is an amazing synergistic ensemble—whose love and fun with one another is obviously a product of a genuinely enjoyable working environment.

Firefly is a delight of a show. Never taking itself too seriously and not afraid to layer on a bit of cheese now and then, the 15-episode series sparkles with wit and humor. While the stories themselves are not deep or profound, the writing certainly is. The massive sets are impressive. The special effects, chock full of pre-Galactica crash zooms and rack focus', are terrific. The music, a fusion of Asian and country/western, is spot-on.

Though the show was canceled by Fox despite a massive fan protest, it remains a cult hit. So much so, that it spawned one of the best-reviewed films of last year, Serenity (trailer). And thank goodness for it—without the questions the film managed to answer, Firefly's fans would be doomed to perpetual bewilderment.

I heartily recommend Firefly. If you're in the mood for fun stories, superb writing, creative execution and something you've probably never seen before, give this aborted series a try.


Anonymous Nate said...

Yay Brandon!

I have more outright, unguarded affection for this show than almost any other series I've seen. If I could, I probably would wish the characters into existence just so I can hang out with them at a bar and buy them drinks, maybe get into a fight with (alongside) them. Yay!

Note: The One who passed it on to me can normally be found somewhere along that stretch between New York and D.C., though exact locations are difficult to pin down.

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nate would be Wash.
Any debating?

Reluctant Zoe

7:13 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Oh, Zoe, you and your prophetic soul. No debate is possible or necessary.

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Zoe. Right.

5:39 AM  
Blogger Grinth said...

Well better late than never I say =).

Firefly was an exemplary piece of writing and sci-fi.

Ranks up there with Babylon 5 in my books.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Oh sure, ruin a perfectly good post by invoking B5!

5:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firefly - seen all 15 - saw the movie the theater and now I own it - when I find a good price on the series I will own it also - it was very sad to watch the last of the 15 and very sad to see the way they felt they needed to take the move - guess they knew this was the end and they had to end it - I love and still do love it.

5:48 AM  
Blogger Grinth said...

=) I will defend B5 to the day I die, and I've got a list of the converted to back me up.....

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Since you posted this the first time, at the Ready Room, I have become an intensely rabid fan of Buffy. Sorry: It started with a little innocent Firefly.

At first I thought it was cute. Then I thought it was good. Then, really good. I could see what everyone had been talking about.

Then it became f***ing great. No - Wait. It just got f***ing brilliant.

Each episode, each season, only makes me more assured in my praise, the praise that I started out qualifying ("well, it's cheesy...but if you stick with it, the characters are interesting.") This all happened within a matter of weeks.

Sadly, Firefly was Buffy's little cousin that never had a chance to grow up.
Buffy is the realization of what it could have been. It grew up, graduated, got a job, and saved the freaking world, and took seven seasons to go in all sorts of directions.

You have no trouble tolerating Star Trek's forehead-makeup-alien of-the-week, as it allows the show to plumb deeper ideas, so you shouldn't have any issues with demon fighting if it opens the door to some of the best ensemble writing - no, the best ensemble writing - I've ever seen in television or movies.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the greatest shows ever made. Not up for debate. How's that for contrition?

3:24 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

I dunno Nate. I mean, I trust ya, and you are rarely ever wrong with these things. Can't think of a single time, come to think of it. My little sister even called me this very afternoon to sing Buffy's (and BSG's) praises. But I dunno...

Oh, by the way, since I posted what at The Ready Room? Did you mean right here at The Film Snob? I can't recall ever talking about either show at The Ready Room.

5:51 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

There must be a glitch in the system. I was prompted to comment on this post yesterday only because my inbox received a FilmSnob update for this very post. Yesterday.
At first, I assumed you had more things to say about Firefly. When it turned out to be the same post, I assumed you had done the thing that you do, where you recycle old Ready Room posts to the Film Snob.
But then, later, when I went back to the Film Snob, it wasn't on the front page like I expected, it was still archived, where I guess it had been to begin with. Don't know why I got an update. Oh well. It prompted me to say things about BtVS that had changed in the last two months.

Anyway. You keep not knowing, and keep not watching. That's fine. We don't all have to appreciate every masterpiece. I haven't read a lot of Dickens either. Sometimes you like something enough, and it is idiosyncratic enough, that it inspires a quiet confidence.

I feel I should clarify my "best ensemble writing ever" comment. Ensemble writing has more to do with than just the dialogue, though much has been made of Buffy's dialogue, with its relentless wordplay. (The wordplay element I found affected and annoying at first, and over the seasons has grown into one of my more beloved aspects of the show.)
A show like, say, The West Wing, has arguably smarter dialogue - when you consider that Aaron Sorkin could make legislative bill riders seem like fascinating drama - but not necessarily smarter writing overall. Ensemble writing has as much to do with the ensemble itself as it does what is coming out of their mouths every minute. And as an aspiring screenwriter, Brandon, it is
BtVS that you should be watching! Because they can't teach this stuff out of books!

Whedon juggles his characters with a real grace and arcs out real changes for them over multiple seasons. As witty as C.J. Craig's press briefings are, she is essentially the same character at the end of the season as she is at the beginning, even from season to season. Toby too. Sure they have little victories and defeats from episode to episode, but that does not mean that Charlie is definably different from one end of the season to the other – whether they give him a dating-the-First-Daughter plotline or not. Joss Whedon would probably take Charlie and start him off as loyal and eager, and then slowly, gradually, over a period of a season and a half, have him start to be influenced by right wing ideals, and then have him leave the show. Not because the actor is leaving, but because Joss just thinks it will be more interesting. Then Charlie will work for someone else’s campaign, and then maybe try to assassinate Bartlett. ;-)

The writers never lose track of where every character is in the story, and what every character in the room is thinking for any given situation. They never. Lose. Track. How refreshing is it to see the writers write like they know every word that’s come before and every word that comes after? When a character leaves (sometimes, yes, because the actor left) they don’t forget about him as soon as possible, and say, bring in another love interest as soon as possible in order to obliterate the memory of the old (as other, lesser shows do, shows that are terrified of life-like change). No, they give it the weight it deserves. When a character leaves, the remaining characters grieve for a period of episodes, sometimes an entire season. Often that character will come up in conversation, as naturally as it does in real life. Events aren’t forgotten either. Xander will say things like, “Remember a couple years ago when we were possessed by our Halloween costumes? This year I’m going as James Bond.” And it’s funny because it capitalizes on accrued knowledge for the audience, and when the show is firing on all cylinders (as it does at its peak relentlessly, episode after episode) the show just hums.

Seeds for future, season spanning plotlines, are planted early, sometimes in a prior season, and usually as an uncelebrated throwaway line. It’s not always clear if the writers intended it to be the beginning of something or not, but even if they didn’t, it becomes clear that they are feeling their way organically. There is almost none of that frustration that one gets from watching Lost, the perfect antithesis to Buffy, in that it is a show with characters that serve the plot, instead of the other way around. We tune in to Lost to see what event happens next, whereas people tuned in to Buffy to see what their beloved people would do next…and the latter is much, much more addicting I can assure you.

Agh, I could go on and on. Some people can’t get past the B-movie horror stuff; the special effects start off as downright cheesy and only improve marginally (and never come close to BSG); Sara Michelle Gellar can turn some people off (though Alyson Hannigan, Seth Green, and Charisma Carpenter are joys to behold. Scene stealers amongst a gaggle of scene stealers.)
But in the end it’s a writer’s show – a writer with ideas and real love for his characters. On full display is that weird alchemy that I can’t define that makes me actually care for these characters.

If John Locke died in Lost’s season opener, possibly my favorite Lost character, I would be mostly disappointed because, well, he was really damn cool, and I wanted to see what they were going to do with him, and how he fit into the puzzle.

If Willow died, I would be utterly, inconsolably heartbroken, as would anyone who stuck with the show for a few seasons. Like shut my blinds and eat pudding for a couple days heartbroken. How they get us to see these characters as actual people and friends, I don’t know. I’d like to learn that trick. It might have something to do with watching them go through real changes. The actor probably imbues a lot of it into the show too. Nothing I’ve written here quite gets that idea across, because, like I’ve said, it’s a weird auteuristic alchemy that defies explanation, but it’s effect is to show up other shows that are missing something when it comes to making you have an actual emotional response to specific characters and their fates. Not curiosity at what happens next, but an emotional response.

Not so quiet, my confidence in it after all, eh? Well, I’m not alone, that’s for sure.
But you keep not watching.

9:12 AM  

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