Firefly: A ten year retrospective

serenity, firefly, fox, tv shows, mal reynoldsI popped in the first disc of my Firefly DVD set, purchased happily the day it arrived in stores. I heard the Ballad of Serenity for the first time in about ten years — the last time I could bring myself to join Captain Mal Reynolds and the crew on their adventures through the Verse.

I didn’t wait so long because I didn’t like Firefly; it’s actually the opposite. No television show has ever broken my heart the way Firefly did.

I wondered as the DVD menu popped up, would it be as good as I remembered? Was my nostalgia coloring my memories of a show I held so beloved that I couldn’t bare to watch it because I knew it would end too soon?

Firefly certainly never had a chance. I remember the commercials that ran for Firefly – of course its sci-fi setting intrigued me but the commercials were so corny. I remember commenting with my roommate at the time, “that looks so stupid.”

It’s perhaps a sign of the poorest of marketing when someone watching a commercial for what will later become one of their most beloved shows says that the show being advertised looks stupid. It turns out that was a point of contention between show creator Joss Whedon and showrunner Tim Minear. FOX purposely marketed it as a goofball comedy (not to mention ran the show chronologically out of order), and constantly fought with Whedon over its dark content. The fact that it straddled this line between comedy and drama so brilliantly is what makes Firefly such a delightful and engrossing show. The characters are so well-developed, their banter so engaging and colorful, that you can’t help but fall in love with them. Their story resonates because you know they’re not the center of the universe of the show, just another group of folk that you happen to care about trying to get by. You get the sense that the universe of the show is so much bigger, that there are so many other stories out there, so much potential.

As the end credits rolled on the final episode of Firefly, that potential hit me like a ton of bricks. I think it’s why I still get so sad when I think about Firefly. It’s not because of how good it is, though it certainly is. It’s because there was so much more potential for great story. Thankfully we got some of that through the 2005 film Serenity, supposedly what the second season would have been. Whedon has said in interviews that he had planned Firefly to be seven seasons – I think that was somewhat apparent, considering how much set up there seemed to be for future stories.

Sadder yet is the timing. When Firefly aired, there was little if any streaming content, the big networks were still in charge, and the Golden Age of television had barely begun. (The Sopranos was only three years old and is the earliest one could say the age started.) The thought of companies such as Netflix and Amazon having not only their own streaming services but actually producing content to rival major networks was unthinkable. To survive the rating wars, a show had to instantly take off or it was cancelled.

Firefly didn’t do great, but its audience, despite how severely FOX botched the show, had been steadily growing. I myself became interested in the show after reading a review in USA Today, and quickly came to adore it. I told as many friends as I could, and many of them jumped on board. I made a point to watch every episode as it aired.

And then the news came. Firefly was cancelled. I grew hopeful when I’d heard Whedon was shopping it around with other networks. Surely a network like SciFy would pick it up – Firefly was certainly better than anything currently airing on it? Nope. I dared to hope after Serenity was announced that it might lead the show to be revived. Despite how many people I brought with me to showings, it wasn’t enough to boost ratings.

Oddly enough, it was much after Serenity that DVD sales of Firefly really started to pick up steam. It seems you can’t talk to a geek group without running into browncoats. A Firefly based online game is still in the works. T-shirts and other merchandise pop up on my Facebook feed all the time. I rarely, however, run into someone who watched the show when it was on.

It makes me wonder how Firefly would do in today’s TV environment. For one, there would have been more options to start with. It would be an expensive show, but probably cheaper than it was in 2002. Perhaps Whedon could have found a network that might have shared his vision. There not only seems to be room to let a series grow, but it almost seems to be expected. That’s exactly what happened with Firefly as a canceled show – it’s popularity continues to grow. What would have happened had it stayed on the air? Or if it had been released today?

For one thing, 12-episode seasons are much more common, reducing the costs of the show. With so many companies producing content, Whedon would have had many options to choose from. Fan support has shown it will back a show through websites such as GoFundMe or Kickstarter. Who wouldn’t throw some money toward keeping Firefly on the air in exchange for some autographed Firefly merchandise? (I would, at least.)

We’ll never know for sure how Firefly would have done today, but it’s hard to imagine a brilliant, well-written and well acted show in an immersive universe not getting more than one season. I’m always heartened when I see someone talking about watching Firefly for the first time, but always a little sad that first time wasn’t back when it could have saved the show. Firefly, unfortunately, came before the Golden Age of television, when only the mindlessly entertaining survived. In 10 years, when I watch Firefly again, I wonder, what then will be the state of television? And will watching it again in ten years hurt as much as it did this time?

Share your thoughts about Firefly in the comments below!



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