Firefly: What Worked, What Didn’t… and WHY Was It Cancelled?
When all is said and done, Firefly is one of those classic series that any sci-fi fan should watch.
When everything is said and done, Firefly is an excellent series. So the question remains; why was it cancelled? Many opinions have been aired in the entertainment media. In my view, three major reasons stand out.
Number 1: The Friday night death slot. That’s what they call it when a show targeted at a younger audience runs in that slot because that audience was usually not at home on Friday nights. So, when the show aired, there was nobody to watch it.
Number 2: Bad marketing. It’s said that the promos advertised the series as more or less a zany comedy. While Firefly does have moments of levity, it is more of an action-adventure series. There are plenty of serious moments in the show and it also goes out it’s way to insert social commentary from time to time. Anybody watching it, expecting a straightforward comedy, was bound to be disappointed.
Number 3: The show’s episodes were aired out of order. If you’ve been following these reviews, then you’ll realize that, while the first half of the series is purely episodic, the second half of the series begins to tie in events from the previous episodes. So, anybody watching the show when it first aired would have a hard time following the series. The scheduling of the series was so bad, that the show’s pilot was actually the last episode to air during it’s initial run. Therefore, the introduction of the characters didn’t take place until the very end.
Not only did the studio run the episodes out of order, but it interrupted the series for ball games and even an Adam Sandler movie. To put it simply, the studio did not make Firefly a priority, so there was no real chance for any fan to figure out what the show was actually about, except those who were already followers of Joss Whedon, the show’s creator.
I would also like to add another thought to the mix. Running the episodes out of order was a mistake, but the error was compounded by the uneven quality of the writing. I would rank the episodes as follows:
Episodes One, Six, Seven, Nine, Ten, Eleven, and Fourteen are good to excellent episodes with engaging stories and very few plot holes.
Episodes Two, Three, Four, and Eight are mediocre, not bad, but they do have a number of problems when it comes to consistency and story.
And Episodes Five, Twelve, and Thirteen are nothing short of awful, bordering on incoherent.
Now, it’s not uncommon for a series to have an uneven quality when it comes to writing. This is the result of using a rotating group of studio writers. But what’s interesting about Firefly is the order in which the episodes aired. They aired as follows: Two, Three, Six, preempted (which means to be interrupted for a ball game, movie, or special event put on by the studio) Seven, Eight, Four, Five, Nine, Preempted, Preempted, Ten, Fourteen, and One.
In short, the mediocre and bad episodes aired during the first half of the season while the strongest episodes aired during the last half of the season when those few people who were watching the show would’ve already dropped off because they couldn’t follow the story.
You’ll notice that I’ve categorized episodes Six and Seven as good episodes, but while Six would have been enjoyable and easy to follow, Episode Seven is “Jaynestown,” the episode where the gruff hitman Jayne Cobb is given an interesting character arc in which he has been miscast as the local hero to a group of laborers in a mudding colony. This episode only works if the viewer has already been given a chance to get to know Jayne as a character; otherwise it would be impossible to understand why anyone should care what this hit man thinks of his miscast role within the community.
Basically, Firefly put its best foot forward at the very end of the season when — given the already numerous audience reach problems thanks to scheduling — it should’ve done so at the beginning.
To be fair, episodes Twelve and Thirteen didn’t even air during the show’s initial run but in spite of this, the show’s other weakest episodes were still aired during the first half of the season. So it’s likely that the already dwindling number of viewers lost interest before Firefly had the chance to hit its stride. It should also be noted that Fox Studios had low ratings in 2002, so Firefly aired in a poor time slot during an overall bad year for the studio. It also aired just when reality TV shows became all the rage.
This is a tragedy because the show really is very good, and I would highly recommend it — although I would advise you skip Episode Thirteen altogether. Five and Twelve are bad from a technical standpoint, but they have strong individual scenes where the acting is superb.
In the end, Firefly is one of those classic series that any sci-fi fan should watch. Had circumstances been different, I have no doubt it would be as well-known as Star Wars and Star Trek. Its devoted fan base accomplished the nearly impossible when it petitioned the studio to bring the show back. With their help, Joss Whedon was able to convince Universal Studios to produce the movie Serenity (2005) which will be covered in my next review.