I was never much of a horror fan or a vampire groupie. But from the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was hooked on this show about a California girl who’s destined to save the world from demonic apocalypse. I guess you could say I’m a Buffyholic. And I’ve got the soundtrack CDs, the episode guides, the refrigerator magnets, and the trading cards to prove it.
As a TV critic and suburban mom, I should be immune from such geeky over-involvement with a TV show, but Buffy (8 p.m. Tuesdays on UPN) got to me. Its creator, Joss Whedon, has spun out one of TV’s richest serial dramas, a smart, funny, romantic, allegorical saga about the pain and joy of being alive. On Buffy (and the Buffy spinoff series Angel), Whedon keeps putting his characters, even the undead ones, through the crucibles of life: love, loss, learning to rebound and forgive. In Buffy’s pseudo-family of friends and allies, identities are malleable and personalities are complicated; all of the show’s characters are struggling to balance the light and dark within them.
But what’s really cool about Buffy is how Whedon plays with storytelling form. He’s done a chilling silent-movie episode ( " Hush " ), a farcical and poignant amnesia episode ( " Tabula Rasa " ), and, most famously, a dazzling musical episode ( " Once More with Feeling " ). And all of his experiments advanced the story without overwhelming it. Buffy is the most compelling kind of TV — it aims high but still delivers gut-level giddy pleasures. Like daytime soaps (especially the old Dark Shadows), gothic thrillers, and graphic novels, Buffy is an enthralling little world of its own, filled with intense romance, ever-present dread, and characters you may alternately love and hate but still want to follow to the ends of the earth.
As it happens, Whedon really has gone to the ends of the earth for his eagerly awaited new Firefly (8 p.m. Fridays on Fox). But after a handful of episodes of this forced and pointless sci-fi-Western, I’m still waiting to be carried away. Whedon’s first non-Buffy series, Firefly is set 500 years in the future, after earthlings have set up colonies deep into space. There has been an intergalactic civil war, with the fascistic Alliance (its forces would be a lot scarier if they weren’t dressed in gray chauffeur uniforms) defeating the freedom-fighting Independents, who have scattered to distant planets to scrounge out a hard life on the frontier. And that’s not a metaphoric use of the word " frontier " — it’s " frontier " as in dusty trails, covered wagons, and hoedowns. On Firefly, the fringes of space are not engulfed in icy darkness — they’re the lost episode of Little House on the Prairie.
As the show’s glib but secretly principled anti-hero, Captain Han Solo — I mean, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) — fought with the Independents and now flies a salvage and cargo ship called the Serenity. It seems that the economy will still suck 500 years from now, so Reynolds and his ragtag crew have to take work where they can get it, even on the wrong side of the law. The Serenity posse consists of Zoe (Gina Torres), who totes a big ol’ shotgun and wears a holster around the curviest hips this side of J. Lo, the pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), who’s married to Zoe and is, frankly, a bit of a wuss, tomboyish engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and beefy mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Also on board the overcrowded craft are preacher Book (Ron Glass), doctor Simon (Sean Maher), Simon’s insane, babbling sister River (Summer Glau), who’s on the run from the Alliance for reasons unclear, and, finally, Inara (Morena Baccarin), the wise prostitute with a heart of gold who’s in love with Reynolds but won’t service him.
So, what we have here is Gunsmoke in outer space, and if you’re thinking, " Hey, that’s just crazy enough to work! " , hold that thought. Firefly is plenty crazy, but it isn’t working. Its first problem is the self-conscious, overly stylized premise. The show practically jumps up and down screaming, " We’re a Western — in space! " Whereas the original Star Wars played with the conventions of a traditional Western without getting all literal on us, the characters on Firefly talk all Westerny (they keep saying " ain’t, " and " notion, " and " such like " ), and spaceships roam the sky while space cowboys ride horses below. Why don’t the horses have a problem with zero gravity? Why don’t the people have a problem with lack of oxygen? And why does the Serenity’s interior look like a combination of a Japanese tea room, Nicole Kidman’s pad in Moulin Rouge, and the bunkhouse on the Ponderosa?
Maybe the lack of coherence isn’t entirely Whedon’s fault — his original, exposition-heavy two-hour pilot was scrapped because Fox deemed it confusing and slow. So what we’ve been seeing instead are stand-alone episodes that seem to come out of nowhere. On Buffy, the characters are united by the sense of creeping doom around them. But Firefly lacks a clear sense of mission. We’ve seen shots of creepy guys with blue hands who seem to have some dire connection to the insane babbling girl. And in one episode, we saw the grisly handiwork of the cannibalistic Reavers. But the bad guys haven’t yet asserted themselves enough to make us understand what holds the Serenity crew together.
Some of the missing back story will be restored in the one-hour version of the pilot that’s scheduled to air this Friday, October 25. But I suspect it won’t be enough to make viewers fall in love with the show. The trouble with Firefly isn’t simply a weak mythology and a meandering pace. It’s the failure of any of the characters (with the possible exception of the ass-kicking Zoe) to generate any heat, to suggest the kind of depth that’s needed to haunt a viewer’s imagination — or a storyteller’s. I think it’s safe to say that this bunch won’t be inspiring a musical episode anytime soon. (By the time you read this, poor ratings may have already done Firefly in.)
To understand how unrepresentative of Whedon’s talent Firefly is, you need only look at the continued vitality and inventiveness of Buffy in its seventh season. (There’s too much Buffy history to get into here, so if you’ve never watched it, just trust me — and, for Heaven’s sake, go rent the first two seasons on DVD.) The end might be near for Buffy as we know it; star Sarah Michelle Gellar is expected to leave after this season to make the sort of films that win the gilded popcorn bucket on the MTV Movie Awards. With that in mind, it does feel as if Whedon and his co-producer/writer Marti Noxon were weaving all of their plot strands into a daring, mature final design. This one involves Buffy, an as-yet-nameless über-evil, and the possible redemption of Spike, the vampire with whom the resurrected and depressed Slayer engaged in feverish, self-negating sex throughout the pivotal and underrated sixth season.
One of the delights of Buffy is the way the show remains fresh by rotating characters in and out of the main focus. And it’s Spike’s turn now. The black-leather-clad peroxide blond (James Marsters) is more than just fangs and a saucy quip. Beneath his cockney swagger remain traces of the human he used to be: a vulnerable, romantic and spectacularly untalented Victorian-era poet consumed by shame over his rejection at the hands of the woman he adored. Last season, hopelessly in love with Buffy and rejected by her as well (hey, déjà vu!), Spike pursued the Slayer to the point of attempted rape. He then took off on a (literally) mind-blowing quest to win back his soul, which is the one thing he believes will make Buffy love an undead man.
The brilliant, charismatic Marsters has always been the show’s secret weapon, the go-to guy when Whedon and Noxon needed a dark thrill. But this season, he’s been called upon to play a self-loathing shell of a creature, neither man nor monster, and he’s giving one of the most riveting performances in prime time. In the October 1 episode, " Beneath You, " he played a mad scene of awesome dignity and emotion. Baring his new soul and begging for Buffy’s forgiveness (which she continues to withhold), Spike finally wilted against a crucifix, too shattered even to care that his vampire flesh was starting to sizzle. Such uninhibited passion — in the acting, the writing, the atmosphere — is what sparks Buffy and gets into viewers’ systems. Passion is what Whedon does better than anybody on TV. And Firefly is so lacking in the stuff, it hurts.