I vastly prefer television shows to movies. Great television follows its characters through the thick of their lives, allowing us to watch them evolve. Compared to the seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movie of the same name is a mere snapshot. However, not every TV show has needed several seasons to make an impact on me.
Having never been the type of person to make Friday night one for the ages, I usually find myself parked steadfastly in front of the television. Apparently, this is unusual for my demographic because whenever a relatable character-driven drama set in an interesting environment comes on during this broadcast dead zone, it is almost instantly replaced by either a procedural drama or a news show.
The first time I lost a favorite Friday night TV show, I got over it pretty quickly. I enjoyed Dark Angel, a cyberpunk drama about a sexy, genetically enhanced soldier on the lam. It was all good fun, but the series turned out to be only the first of many Jessica Alba vehicles, and I didn’t really miss it terribly when it disappeared after two seasons.
The second loss was a little rougher. Firefly was a futuristic, Joss Whedon created drama set on a crusty rebel ship scratching at the government’s bad side. It collected a motley crew of thieves, fugitives, dorks, a high-class hooker, and a priest to assist them all in a smuggling enterprise. The whole premise sounds like a sci-fi cliché, riding the good versus evil theme so over-tread by speculative fiction. However, rather than derive space culture solely from bright, brave, and bold Americanisms, elements were culled from cultures all around the world and molded it into a believable hodgepodge.
For Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel Whedon created a parallel universe of demons, vampires, and witches, and for Firefly he took pieces of Chinese culture, spaghetti westerns, old school sci-fi, and the American Civil War and forged something special. The scrappy corps of Firefly curse in Mandarin, swagger like cowboys, and deeply resent the fancy-pantsing rules of the Alliance.
We all know Trekkies, but the Browncoats are a little less self-evident. There are actually people who recreate the costumes from the series and get together to re-enact episodes and the show only ran a dozen episodes. It may sound crazy, but Whedon was successful in creating a world complete enough to take viewers away from their very own. For 12 Friday nights, Firefly’s universe swallowed me into its flashy parameters and I was profoundly relieved when plots were resolved by Serenity, the feature film based on the TV show.
But at the end of the day, though I have a virulent inner fan girl, I have my limits and they cut way short of sewing a space hooker costume. With that in mind I eventually moved on to Wonderfalls, which hooked me deeply with it’s pilot and left me eagerly awaiting the next five years that the show and I would spend growing up together. But in a turn of events that I see as no less tragic that of Romeo and Juliet, our inchoate relationship was felled by cancellation after a mere four weeks.
Tim Minear, a writer/director for Firefly and Angel, was the executive producer of Wonderfalls, which was clearly influenced by Whedon’s trademark mixture of sardonic wit, heart, and humor. Only a quartet of episodes ever aired, but 12 were produced and, much to my delight, they were all subsequently released on DVD. While I enjoyed Firefly for mulling the world I know in fantasy, I’m tempted to dry hump my television when my precious Wonderfalls DVD comes on.
Wonderfalls follows Jaye, a recent Ivy League graduate who has returned to her hometown of Niagara Falls. She lives in a mobile home that she aptly describes as ‘Genie’s Bottle’, and lurks on the periphery of her tight-knit family. She begrudges her job at a cheesy souvenir shop (“A pressure-free stress-free expectation-less zone”) and, most unusual, the merchandise actually ‘talks’ to her. During the dozen episodes (sense a pattern here?) we see Jaye grow closer to her family, foster new relationships, and crack her ardent apathy. The whole affair manages to be moving, funny, odd, thought provoking, and deep all at once.
The talking tchochkies encourage her to do things that ignite a chain of events that eventually lead to happy endings, but the mechanics of the dramatic domino effect are often misleading. It’s difficult to see how running over her father with a car at the request of a plastic pink lawn flamingo will conclude peacefully, but it does. The souvenirs become increasingly godlike as their dictums somehow find miracles in the minutiae of cause and affect. Jaye is forced to have faith and accept that “we’re all fate’s bitch.” What emerges is a universe in which everyone gets what they deserve and everything makes sense in some magical way. Like Jaye, I’m not really the glass half-full type, but her world and her trinket friends definitely make me want to snuggle up with optimism.
Whedon has said, “I’d rather have a show that a hundred people need to see than a thousand people like to see.” This pretty much describes why these shows were critical successes and popular failures. It also explains why the network bothered to gamble on them in the first place, only to stick them in a murderous timeslot. Occasionally, a bizarre and complicated show that operates on fantasy rules succeeds. I never would have believed that roughly 15 million viewers and my mother would invest themselves in untangling Lost. However, in most cases something speculative is not what people need to watch.
Many people lead ordinary peaceful lives and need a good spanking of a C.S.I. or a Law & Order to remind them that they are fortunate. Me? I live smack dab in the middle of Hollywood, which I assure you, is a lot more squalid than it appears in MGM musicals. If I want to see a crime scene I can simply leave my house. I cannot, however, see a space cowboy fighting the good fight or talking lawn decor initiating goodness. The rules of my universe, which often feel stuck on defeatism and misery, seem a lot less binding when I can cuddle up on the couch and visit my own favorite alternative worlds.