It was considered a major coup when the Fox television network signed up Joss Whedon to create a new ongoing science fiction series. Whedon sat in an exalted place among genre fandom, thanks to his efforts with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (still ongoing, but moving toward its end) and, to a lesser degree, the spinoff Angel. Neither was an enormous hit, but they launched a thousand magazine covers and generally stirred confident theories that if Whedon were operating on a more prominent platform (his Buffyverse offerings aired on upstart broadcast networks with sporadic national presence) he could create a true smash. Fox was still something of an upstart itself, but it had managed to push The X-Files into the Nielsen Top 20. Surely, the same feat could happen with a Whedon creation.
In reality, Whedon’s new show didn’t have a chance.
It’s hard to fathom what Fox executives were expecting from Whedon, but it certainly wasn’t Firefly. Inspired by the novel The Killer Angels, set during the U.S. Civil War, Whedon cooked up a bizarre hybrid of a cinematic Western and a space saga. The heroes careened across the galaxy in a hulking starship, but they also wielded six shooters and — nearly two decades before Solo used the same trick — made like Butch and Sundance with a charging locomotive.
By most accounts, the network hated what Whedon delivered to them. In the most generous consideration of events, they didn’t really understand it. They refused to air the pilot as the debut episode and ran subsequent installments in a jumbled order, a further reflection of the hostility that led the network to program Firefly on Friday night, which was increasingly perceived as an audience dead zone. A showrunner with an old school sensibility, Whedon still believed in the idea of fairly self-contained episodes, but he also spread themes and mysteries across full seasons, making the shift of episodes from the planned chronological sequencing a particular problem. A series that was already unorthodox further alienated viewers because the connective tissue was Frankensteined into malfunction.
Watching Firefly unfold in its original airings, it was extremely difficult to parse how much of the mild but consistent sense of discombobulation was due to the Fox’s blundering deployment or the normal evolutionary development that most series — especially Whedon’s — endure on their way to being solidly satisfying. Whedon had assembled a talented cast (with Nathan Fillion, Gia Torres, Alan Tudyk, and Ron Glass as the standouts) and quickly determined how to merge his distinctive voice into the amalgamation of genres, honoring the justly familiar rhythms of both while giving the dialogue an extra snap. If some of the more worn and raggedy narrative threads were less satisfying (the will-they-or-won’t-they between perpetually feuding characters was already painfully overdone by then), Whedon and his collaborators facilitated an endearing sense of ease of camaraderie among everyone onscreen. Firefly was a fine place to hang out.
Somewhere around the midpoint of its fourteen-episode run, Firefly started to cohere into a remarkably strong series. “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” “Jaynestown,” and “Out of Gas” took markedly different tacks, but all were successful, with the latter episode drawing notable power from presenting a flashback history of the crew’s assembly cut against Captain Malcolm Reynolds’s (Fillion) harrowing experience as the ship’s systems shut down. The foundational premise of the episode underscored one of Whedon’s key points, that space is a dangerous place. When spacecraft experience technical failures, it’s not merely a hurdle for heroes to clear on their way to completing the main quest. It’s an enormous, deadly problem all its own. Space might be the final frontier, but on the American range — which Firefly evokes — travelers can still breathe if the canvas top of the Conestoga wagon rips.
Firefly was canceled midseason, and its handful of unaired episodes were dumped carelessly onto Fox’s summer schedule, over six months after the last preceded installment had aired. But Firefly was also an early beneficiary of the obstinance of a fan base that feels like their favorites must persist forever and ever. Implausibly, a little more than two years after its final episode was first shown, the series officially wrapped up as a feature film, officially Whedon’s movie directing debut and his only outing in that capacity before getting the call to assemble the Avengers.
The film was a fine capper, but the more distance I get from it, the more I’d prefer it wasn’t part of the canon. Flawed and frustrating as its rollout was, Firefly represented the giddy possibilities of freewheeling creativity, and the shortcomings are part of the charm. No matter how much of his sucker punch character mortality Whedon stuffed into the film, its very existence represents a happy ending that rings false against his tale of rebels whose cause went down to defeat. It might have been more appropriate had it petered out in the original inglorious fashion, our big damn heroes adrift in the cosmos with no end in sight.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One
—Braindead, Season One
—Community, Season Two
—Agent Carter, Season Two
—The Leftovers, Season Three
—Treme, Season One
—How I Met Your Mother, Season Two