Friday, January 22, 2016

Reflections on "Reflections on Firefly"

My friend Aaron posted a critique of Firefly today. It was an intriguing read, and I decided to respond to his assertions. After getting to the third paragraph of my response, though, it occurred to me that if I'm going to write that much I should probably just make it my blog for the day.

The gist of his post, if you don't want to read it (though you probably should): Firefly had some good things going on, but perhaps Fox was right to cancel the show. Joss Whedon's snappy dialogue, though fun, distracted from a general lack of depth in the characters, and the show could have perhaps benefited from a smaller cast of deeper characters.

I respectfully disagree.

It's entirely valid to criticize Joss Whedon's tendency to substitute snark for character growth, but I'm not convinced a leaner Firefly cast would have actually improved the show, and I definitely don't think it had anything to do with the show's cancellation.

The cancellation was about ratings, pure and simple. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had them, so it ran for seven seasons. Firefly didn't, so it got cut in its first season. The career of Chuck Lorre is evidence that shallow characters don't impact the commercial success of a show--if anything, it suggests that Mal should have probably shaved off some of that depth a bit. As proof: have you seen Castle? It stars Nathan Fillion playing all the shallowest parts of Malcolm Reynolds, and the show is on its 8th season.

As a greater point, though, I don't really agree with the notion of cutting out "useless" characters. Not all characters in a show require depth, and not every character needs to have depth to be relatable.

I'll grant that the characters of Wash and Kaylee don't have a lot going on in terms of character growth. They have their small struggles, sure, but it doesn't have a lot of impact on the story as a whole. I wouldn't say they didn't serve a purpose, though. I mean, they're fan favorite characters; they've got to be doing something right. Although Mal may be the more interesting character in the long run, Wash and Kaylee captured people's attention very quickly. They didn't need to develop into interesting characters, they already were interesting. More than that, they were aspirational: how can I be as sweet and cheerful as Kaylee? How can I be as witty and good-natured as Wash? I don't think these characters could serve this purpose better if they were rolled into a more complex character.

I'm sure Firefly could get leaner, more complex, and more intense to appeal to people who want to see complex characters face their demons and either win or lose depending on the episode, but those people can just watch Breaking Bad instead. Alternately, the characters could ditch the depth entirely to appeal to people who just want to have a good time, but those people can watch, I dunno, Big Bang Theory instead.

Instead of going to either extreme, Firefly (and Whedon shows in general) go for something in the middle: something with a thousand one-liners to keep the show engaging, but with a few deeper characters to get invested in. It's not perfect, but I think most people who watched it were pretty hooked from the moment a grown man started playing with dinosaur figures on his space ship's control panel. It's the show's diverse cast of characters that allowed for the countless little character traits like that, and which ensured most anybody could find someone in the cast to relate to.

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