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Firefly vs. the Firing Squad

Having worn out its welcome on Friday nights, Firefly -- Joss Whedon's sci-fi follow-up to Buffy and Angel -- is being cancelled. Although it will disappear from the airwaves in a couple of weeks, Fox executives promise that it will return later for one final set of airings. However, let's keep in mind that these are the same Fox executives who proudly promised new fall series The Grubbs and Septuplets last May. Seen any episodes of those shows lately?

So Firefly's a terminal case, and it's easy to understand why. Its ratings are in the tank, at least as far as Fox is concerned, even though more people are apparently watching Firefly than either Buffy or Angel. And numerous critics (and presumably viewers) gave up on the show after a lackluster first episode mandated by Fox after the network nixed the show's original pilot.

But here's the nasty little secret: Firefly is an absolutely brilliant show, perhaps the best sci-fi show on television today -- and certainly the one with the most potential for future brilliance. In the weeks since its weak opening episodes, the series has run off a string of seven strong shows that would be the envy of any other TV show on the air today.

This summer, it appeared that Whedon's Mutant Enemy production company had bitten off more than it could chew. Buffy was in disarray after a creatively disastrous season; Angel was reeling from the loss of showrunner David Greenwalt and lukewarm support from the Buffy-less WB network; and Firefly's pilot had been sent back to the kitchen. It looked like Whedon and his gang had overplayed their hand; the results weren't going to be pretty, and in the end it looked like the TV wunderkind was going to have plenty of spare time in which to write that stage musical or screenplay that he'd always been meaning to get to during Buffy downtime.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the charnel house. Whedon and his creative team proved that, far from being one-hit wonders, they're some of the best talents working in television today. Buffy has rebounded with what might be its best season in four years, and Angel has so thrived on its own that The WB is moving it to Wednesday nights in hopes that it can clean up the pile of leather and mascara left behind by Birds of Prey.

And then there's Firefly. Perhaps the show's toughest sell, judging from its first few episodes, is that it's sort of a western. Set on other planets and in outer space, sure, but with jangly country-western music and dusty frontiers populated by cows, horses, and dirty men in overalls who actually say "dadgummit."

Only after a dozen episodes does Firefly's depth and versatility really show through. In past weeks, the show has managed to slide between taut locked-in-a-spaceship drama, wacky old-west-cotillion shenanigans, and a terrifyingly violent confrontation in a sterile high-tech medical facility. This show that seemed to have painted itself into a corner with its images of horses and dust bowls turns out to actually have a remarkably broad canvas, with highly industrialized "core planets" straight out of standard sci-fi, as well as poor, low-tech backwoods worlds that rely on incoming starships the way an old west town would wait for the stagecoach to arrive. And given the series' striking use of Mandarin as well as English, one can only assume that there are some Chinese cultures out there to explore as well.

Filling out the canvas is Firefly's ensemble, a stage-choking nine members strong. Are you like me? Do you see a show with a half-dozen characters and start having trouble telling them apart? Like those three interchangeable guys on Enterprise, who are exactly the same character except that one of them is black and one is English.

Enterprise only has seven characters. But Firefly, loaded up with two more characters than your standard Trek ensemble, accomplishes something that I never thought possible: each character is well-defined, can't be mistaken for a different character, and has traits that contribute to making the show fun to watch. Holding it all together is Nathan Fillion as Captain Malcolm Reynolds, no longer one of those guys with the girl at the pizza place. Instead, he's playing the lovable rogue who's, to his chagrin, actually a Hero with a capital H. Reynolds is far from perfect, and is certainly not above thievery -- in fact, he and his crew seem to make most of their living by stealing -- yet when there's a moral decision to be made, he's always on the side of good.

The other characters include a rare married couple (whose marriage is, in many ways, portrayed more realistically than most non-sci-fi shows), a fugitive pretty-boy doctor and his mentally ill savant sister, a high-class call girl, a cute-as-a-button grease-monkey engineer, and a preacher with a mysterious past (played by the fantastic Ron Glass of Barney Miller fame).

And then there's the topper: Adam Baldwin's portrayal of Jayne. Jayne is everything that Reynolds is not: dishonorable, rude, and cowardly. If Whedon's learned anything from his previous shows, it's that a series regular who stands in opposition to his other characters works wonders. An anti-character can make your other characters look more heroic in comparison, and is pretty damned good with the comic relief as well. And although this bearded lummox with a tendency to steal from his crewmates seems pretty far removed from Charisma Carpenter's cheerleader queen in the early years of Buffy, they serve identical purposes.

Even if Firefly is being snuffed out, it's still a milestone for Joss Whedon and his team. Stripped of his sly pop-culture references by the show's far-future setting, Whedon has proven that he can write hilarious comedy mixed with equal parts character drama and bang-up suspense. Buffy was no fluke. The people at Mutant Enemy can make great TV, and with appalling consistency.


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