Ken Jennings


April 21, 2008

felicity.jpgA few years behind the times here, but a friend lent us the DVDs of the short-lived Joss Whedon space western Firefly, which we just galloped through, like some kind of space-marshal on his…trusty space-horse. For some reason, I kept mentally conflating the title Firefly with that of the follow-up theatrical release Serenity, and accidentally called the show Felicity about half the time we were watching it.

A couple (again, belated) thoughts on Felicity. I mean Serenity. (Suggested rule for Joss Whedon: sci-fi film titles shouldn’t sound like tampons or adult diapers.) I mean Firefly.

  1. Firefly takes place in a far-flung future where everyone speaks perfect English, except (to confound Fox censors, no doubt) when they swear. Then they abruptly switch to Chinese. This is a clever world-building idea (and Standards & Practices workaround), but it raises a couple questions. First of all, has any linguistic switch like this ever happened in the history of the world? That is, one language incorporates another, but only in its profanity, leaving the rest of its vocabulary untouched? Also, if Chinese culture is so important in Firefly-world (and it is: Chinese silk and calligraphy hang everywhere, folks eat with chopsticks, etc.) then where are all the Chinese people? The regulars and the guest cast on Firefly are scrupulously multi-racial, and yet I can’t think of a single Asian character with a speaking part. Was this a set-up for a later episode, where we find that the Chinese all fled Earth for another part of the galaxy, one with widespread space-bicycle-riding and lactose intolerance and violin lessons for all the kids? And they speak Chinese and swear in English?
  2. Firefly, like all unsuccessful genre shows, has legions of rabid fans–called “Browncoats,” Wikipedia tells me! They blame its failure on Fox’s refusal to get behind the show. Now it’s true that Fox screwed Firefly (even perversely skipping the pilot episode and airing it last!) but let’s face it: this show wasn’t going anywhere anyway. To repeat: it’s a space western. On network television. The last network western to have a successful season ratings-wise was Gunsmoke–in 1975. The last network space show to have ratings success was…well, I don’t think there have ever been any. Lost in Space nearly made the top 30 a few times in the 1960s. So Whedon was trying to revive not one, but two genres that haven’t been viable on TV in over thirty years. No big surprise that it couldn’t find a viewership.

And wait-for-the-DVD folks like me are surely a big problem for anyone trying to make Quality TV nowadays. Right now I’m working on Season 4 of The Wire, another show that never found the popular embrace it deserved during its first run.

And there’s plenty more where that came from. If you’re surprised that I’d never seen “Felicity” before last week, dig this list of great genre TV shows I’ve never seen a single episode of: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Babylon 5, Smallville, and Buffy. Yikes. What kind of nerd am I? Commence throwing your 20-side dice at me…now.

Posted by Ken at 3:29 pm