Another one of my brilliant professors at NYU, Perry Meisel, once said to me, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You can ride the bus. And the good thing about the bus is you can get off whenever you want.” That made a huge impression on me as well. I see that statement as a metaphor for individual contributions to our communal culture. Every creative person stands on the shoulders of a whole lot of people who came before.
I love it when people get this. When John Lennon met Chuck Berry, he dropped to the ground, kissed the man’s feet, and said, “Thanks for lettin’ me and the lads be rock stars!” When they don’t get it, I am so annoyed. You love Jazz? You like Soul? Then don’t dismiss Hip Hop. You were riding the same bus. They just took it to a further stop. Maybe you should get back on.
The desire to experiment and the freedom to make mistakes, these are the elements that drive the bus. Because things that are great aren’t always perfect, at least not from the get go. Frankly, the first season of Buffy was only pretty good. The second season rocked my world. It’s my dessert island pick. That’s the kind of leap one can make with a little patience and perseverance on the other end of the line. And that’s where it gets complicated, on the other end of the line.
The ability to recognize brilliance before it’s fully formed, and to foster it, that’s kind of what working in the entertainment industry used to be about. These days, not so much. These days, the odds of getting something potentially brilliant to float down the mainstream, they’re infinitesimal. Particularly with television, where there is no per screen average or paperback market to fall back on. With television, the fit—because they are few—are not a ratings market.
This is how it happened that Firefly, Joss Whedon’s third gift to television viewers, got cancelled in its first season. As with Buffy and Angel, I never watched the show while it was airing—no reception, remember—but I rented it as soon as it came out on DVD. I had just finished season five of Angel, far and away the best of the bunch, and I was a little let down by the new show. There was a lot more lore to digest and there were nine main characters to get to know, which made the development of the larger drama lag a little. It was good stuff, but by Joss standards you could argue it wasn’t up to full speed.
Still and all, canceling the show was a supremely stupid move. Only very rarely are you blessed with a phenomenon like The X-Files or Twin Peaks. It’s a magical event when a one in a million show goes from flash in the pan to cult sensation. And the fans never say die. It’s been years since the show was on and I still have my Scully and Mulder Barbie & Ken dolls, in the original packaging, prominently displayed in my living room. You will have to pry those toys from my cold, dead hands. And I consider seasons seven through nine on par with The Godfather: Part Three—they simply don’t exist. Think, for a minute, about that level of devotion.
That’s what being a cult sensation means—your creation isn’t popular, it’s important to people. What working in the entertainment industry has largely become is getting people to show up, solidifying your brand, and separating your audience from their money (or in this instance, viewing time) on a regular basis. So, in my opinion, somebody didn’t do the math on this one.
Yeah, the Firefly DVD sold like Kool-Aid in Jonestown. Joss refused to take no for an answer and, so it goes, neither did his fans. Oh, and, newsflash: everyone with a phone line, a keyboard, and an opinion now has a forum. It’s called the internet. This time, the fit though few got loud…and something changed. A major motion picture was made to fill the gap left by a space-western television show that didn’t even get to finish its first season. If this is something you see everyday, leave the key under the mat—I’m moving in.
Yes, I said space-western. A huge governmental bureaucracy, the Alliance, is taking over space and our guys, the brown coats, were fighting the battle of independence…until they lost. Now they’re skirting the fringe of civilization, keeping it together by smuggling and sundry other slightly immoral activities. Sound a little familiar? Sure, there are parallels. If you want to go all Millennium Falcon, you’ll see that Mal, the captain, resembles a certain character portrayed by Harrison Ford. And Zoe, played by Gina Torres, could be described handily as the hottest Wookie ever! But he’s in love with a prostitute and she’s married to the pilot, so that’s pretty much where it ends.
The beauty of this story, if part of its sluggishness out of the gate, was always the ensemble. Joss put together the necessary members of any frontier society. There is the aforementioned rebel yeller and his sidekick gunman, plus the pilot and the prostitute. Add to that a preacher, a mercenary, a mechanical engineer to patch up the ship, a doctor to patch up the people, and a loose cannon. Because it’s Joss, the last is a seventeen year old girl who everyone thinks is crazy. And get this: she has unknown powers of force and psychic awareness.
With all that inducement, can you believe I didn’t make it to the theatres for this one? You know I meant to, right? I am full on about voting with my dollar. But somewhere in between being evicted from my apartment right after I quit my job and stress-eating my way through millions of bags of peanut butter cups right out of my freezer while trying to figure out where I was going to live, and then moving and all, it passed me by. But it was on the tippy top of my Netflix list!
I should have known better. In retrospect, Firefly being canceled might have been the best thing that’s ever happened to Joss Whedon fans. It forced him to make a movie. I mean another movie. I mean a real movie. I mean the best movie I saw from 2005. When Serenity finally arrived, I watched it five times…in a row. Believe it or not, I’ve never done that before. I should have bought the damn thing straight away.
You know I’m not going to break it down for you all the way; I’m a pusher. I’m all about the tease. But the structure, the character development, the foreshadowing, the brilliant combination of genres—sci-fi allowing you to invent your own civilization and westerns providing the metaphor with which to define the ethics of the inhabitants of that world…it’s all beyond deft. The dialogue is so fast and tight, that was viewing number two right there, not to mention the unspoken interplay. The symbolism is itself a commentary on the ultimate result of our current conglomeration fixation. The villain is fucking amazing!
Ooh, ooh, and the fighting! I’ve always seen martial arts styled fighting sequences, when done well, as highly technical, quickly paced dance numbers. That’s exactly what I got here, except somehow more. In the commentary, which accompanied the final two viewings, we learn that former ballerina Summer Glau (playing River, the loose cannon) can kick someone standing behind her around a pole! So they built a pole! When we get to the hero shot, Joss says, “Some people say I have a bad problem not making shows with adolescent girls with super powers. I. Don’t. Care. This is the sweetest thing I’ve ever shot.” And I concur. Seriously, I want to watch it again right now.
I know, you’re thinking you’ve read a long way for an overlooked Oscar shoulda-never-coulda rant. But that’s not even what this is. This is my way of telling you how important stories are. It’s why I’ve always loved popular culture and why I chose to work in its development. Creative expression is how we share our version of the human experience. And without that, there are no shoulders to stand on. That’s what I want to communicate to people who tell me I get too caught up in make believe. I want to tell them to really think about those two words.
When you look at a story like this, and the larger chain of events that made its expression possible, hopefully you feel like you count. I’m always too overwhelmed by our socio-political environment and its constant changes to know where to begin in making an impact. But I’ve begun to understand the empowerment in being able to comment on it. I’ve started to think of Blanford Parker’s envy as what it obviously was: not so much disappointment as disgust. It’s simple to say, but I’ve realized that doing nothing and having nothing to say, not participating in the process, it sucks. Because, culturally or politically, it doesn’t have to go down like that.
For my part, I’m going to the Frick, probably by myself. I’m going to finish Catch 22, but first I’m reading Don Quixote. Because if I get wiped out tomorrow, that’s the book I would have most wanted to have read. I’m going to listen to people who have proven time and again that they are smarter than me. Like Kendra, who suffered much sass to ensure that I saw Freaks & Geeks, Gilmore Girls, The Office, and Cracker. In short, I’m getting back on the bus. If I can swing TiVo, I might even get television again. I so need to see Joss’ cameo on Veronica Mars, which is, by the way, as he says, the “Best. Show. Ever.” But only because long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a vampire slayer named Buffy.
Obviously, apart from my requisite over thinking rhetoric, this is a tribute. Give some people enough rope and they’re bound to hang themselves. This guy, he’s going to swing through the jungle tree to tree howling and beating his chest. And now that there are no holds barred on my cultural consumption, I’m going to need as much of that as I can get. Yes, Joss Whedon, this is a valentine. It’s a little piece of sugar shaped like a heart. It doesn’t read ‘Be Mine’ or ‘I’m Yours’. Like any kid seeing warp speed for the first time or, better yet, like Drusilla, after she sees the Judge in action, it says: Do it again! Do it again!