Friday, January 11, 2013

Why did Firefly get cancelled?

Hopefully I will be able to restrain myself and not simply enumerate all the myriad scenes which made Firefly so great. Even among 'cult classics' Firefly's fan-base has apparently acquired a reputation for being more fanatical than most, if still short of Star Trek fervor and of far less impressive scale. I myself have been known to pester my few acquaintances with quotes from the show. The chain o' command comes in especially handy in computer games.

The basic factoid even casual listeners can associate with Firefly is "cancellation." Fox didn't even bother airing all episodes of the first season, which had already been shot and edited. While it's normally satisfying enough to simply call Fox executives idiots (their list of sins stretches to biblical proportions) (and that's no News) the truth is that Firefly was not a wildly popular show during its time. Many of its later fans (myself included) only discovered it at some later date. Why?

Partly, it was the admittedly difficult task of advertising. Joss Whedon's prior claim to fame was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I've never felt compelled to watch given that its selling point was a leggy blonde bimbo kicking vampires to death. The Firefly pilot itself was hardly encouraging in breaking that pattern, given the can-o'-naked-chick they promoted as an iconic show-stopper and the few minutes they dedicated to a prostitute giving herself a sponge bath, but I digress. Firefly was not an easy sell. The show was written to eschew the very concept of grandeur, both in its general pattern and many, many individual lines of dialogue, so it lacked conveniently flashy imagery to use in commercials. There's nothing about it that would match the gigantic form of the Enterprise accelerating to warp speed to bombastic instrumentation. It would have required advertisers to work with the show's crew to put ads out there which would actually capture the show's main selling points of dialogue and situational humor ... and morality - and that's where you hit another glitch, but I'll get to it later. Firefly's only "hook" was it's space-western appeal but let's face it, that's ridiculous in itself. The viewers you attract with that idea are precisely the ones you drive away with witty dialogue.

As I remember Firefly's ads while it aired... well, I don't. I barely heard about it. If there's anything Fox can do, it's advertise itself. They're still advertising The Simpsons for Lucifer's sake, because a two-decade-old show obviously needs to get its name out there. The fact that Fox just dropped the show on the air while only mumbling about it as the new Buffy leads me to think it had quite a few higher-ups set against it before it ever aired. This is no surprise.

Many of Firefly's overtones work to alienate the average viewer. For one thing it refuses to sell any characters as paragons of virtue. They are all capricious or hotheaded or underhanded and the results of these behaviors are shown in various episodes. They are all thieves. One's a hooker. They kill people with no disneyed bad-guy-falls-off-the-cliff routines, and those people are not always entirely bad by definition. In one episode the writers even purposely built up a sympathetic character for half an hour, the type you'd expect to become a recurring cast member on any conventional show, and then had the main character himself, the captain of the ship, shoot the new character. In another episode, a sympathetic character turns on the crew in a cold-blooded attempt to kill them all, just for kicks. In more general terms, the show flies in the face of machismo and hero-worship. The hired muscle on the ship, also one of the three gunslingers, Lt. Worf's counterpart to make a Star Trek reference, is also the token imbecile repeatedly and hilariously making an idiot of himself. The captain is openly anti-religious and the rest of the crew just don't give a damn. Brains are shown as more useful to brawn in every single episode. The crew members are shown as utterly powerless in various situations, unable to save the day. Their big accomplishment throughout the first season was just managing to keep from going flat broke. Despite this, they pass up profit (communists!) for reasons located along various points on the sliding scale of frontier morality.
Is there anything in the above which screams mass-appeal?

Many of the above strong points are weak points not only to the general audience but to the corporate overlords at the Fox conglomerate which, let it be noted, is despite its sleazy "anything for a buck" attention-grabbing also the current cliche of right-wing propaganda. I'm sure they would've been willing to throw their principles out the window if Firefly had managed to blow up into a moneymaking success like The Simpsons after being thrown to the mass-market wolves, but they weren't going to give the show any real support if they could help it and at the first sign of a lack of blockbuster success, they pounced. They were not willing to put in the effort to market the show to its appropriate audience.

Futurama fans, does that sound familiar?

 Edit  2015/06/30 - Going back through some old posts, capitalized my I's. Yes, it really was too much work to press my shift key every time when I started this blog. I rebel against the most random things sometimes. Bite me.

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