The science-fiction/Western TV series Firefly was admittedly crowded, pretentious, and too innovative to be a guaranteed success, but Fox bears much of the blame for its failure. By airing the episodes out of order, withholding the pilot until months after the series launched, sticking the show with a difficult time slot, limiting network advertising support, and canceling the show partway through its initial run, Fox publicly declared that Firefly was a risk not worth taking. That seemed bizarre at the time, given that it was the highly anticipated new project of two-time winner Joss Whedon, creator-writer-director-producer of the highly marketable hits Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. The release of a DVD set featuring all 14 episodes of Firefly, including the double-length pilot and three never-aired installments, makes it easy to second-guess Fox's decisions. Above all, it shows the craven commercial logic–and the artistic indefensibility–of shelving the series pilot Whedon wrote and directed. Firefly's two-episode opener takes an admirably relaxed (but TV-lethal) pace in establishing its initially unwieldy cast, beginning with Nathan Fillon, captain and owner of the rickety "Firefly-class" spaceship Serenity. His ragtag crew of criminal independents includes old military buddy Gina Torres and her husband (ship's pilot Alan Tudyk), as well as chipper mechanic Jewel Staite and comically thuggish hired muscle Adam Baldwin. Fillon also rents one of Serenity's shuttles to high-class prostitute Morena Baccarin, and he eventually offers sanctuary to a traveling preacher and two fugitives, an addled torture victim and her protective doctor brother. With such a large core cast, Firefly spends as much time tracking all the personal relationships as it does on its futuristic takes on train-robbing, cattle-rustling, and gunfighting. But that's one of the show's several strengths. Like Buffy and Angel, Firefly derives much of its tension and most of its joy from shifting emotional alliances, hilarious dialogue, and a well-characterized, entirely human cast. Most of the episode plots contain Whedon's characteristic hairpin turns and rug-yanking surprises, but they still often seem like filler between the revelations about the involved and surprising world Whedon created as a backdrop, and the occasional peeks into a sadly unresolved larger story arc. (A planned feature film may fill in the blanks.) Some of Firefly's creative touches don't work; the fact that prostitutes of Baccarin's type are accorded near-godlike social status seems like a too-obvious reversal of social mores, while the characters' universal habit of lapsing into Chinese in order to spout lengthy, colorful, untranslated curses becomes irritating. Whedon's alchemic efforts at creating a wholly fresh genre by fusing Western action-movie clichés and science-fiction TV-series clichés is similarly hit-or-miss: Sometimes, the results are simply twice as clichéd. But at its best, Firefly plants its feet where Whedon's shows have always found solid ground, in creative plotting, experimental storytelling, sharp writing, and a cast that seems to love its work.
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