My So-Called Life and more...
Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin
(Fox; US: 20 Sep 2002)
Few shows are more difficult to quickly summarize than Firefly. It was a science-fiction western action comedy with a cast of nine unique characters, an undercurrent of existential despair, and a futuristic culture that blended Wild West and Chinese aesthetics. A show this idiosyncratic would have been a tough sell on any network, much less FOX. Their executives were baffled by the series that creator Joss Whedon had given them and cancelled it halfway through the first season.
While the show thankfully found its audience on DVD (it even sold well enough to inspire the cinematic continuation Serenity), it’s still frustrating to think of the episodes that we’ll never get a chance to see. Whedon’s gift as a storyteller has always been his ability to slowly draw us into the lives of his characters, earning our sympathy with their humor and routine adventures, before turning our empathy against us and making us feel the emotional gut punch of sudden tragedy. Firefly never got to pay off its various plot threads or the tension between its characters, and so while many of the episodes are excellent on their own, there’s a lingering sense of loss that they never get to build to anything greater.
Still, maybe that’s an appropriate fate given the show’s themes of loneliness and continuing on in the wake of defeat. Even though Firefly and its crew went up against a monolithic authority (the Alliance, the FOX network) and lost, they’re both still flying for anyone who wants to catch a ride.
The DVD collection combines the 12 episodes that FOX actually aired, along with three episodes that were never broadcast, and puts them all back into their correct order. FOX has the unfortunate habit of randomly reshuffling the episodes of their shows, usually at the expense of continuity. Perhaps the best of the special features are the seven audio commentaries, which benefit from the fact that the cast of Firefly -– unusually for actors -– are articulate and interesting. Nathan Fillion in particular is hilarious, which makes his commentary with Whedon on the pilot the most entertaining of the bunch). Also, included are the standard behind-the-scenes documentary, a truncated gag reel (look online for the full version if you can, which is much funnier), and a tour by Whedon of the ship’s set, which was build as a continuous space rather than a series of disconnected rooms.
Freaks and Geeks
Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, Becky Ann Baker, Joe Flaherty, James Franco, Samm Levine, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel
(NBC; US: 25 Sep 1999)
It was clear during the run of Freaks and Geeks that its creators loved the show like no show had ever been loved before. For 18 episodes (only 12 ran during the show’s actual run), Paul Feig and Judd Apatow assembled an amazing creative team and faithfully recreated the way it was to go to a suburban high school in 1980, except that they made it funnier and more poignant than real life ever could be. (I know, because I would have been in the same freshman class as Sam and Neal and Bill.) For years, I have blamed NBC’s schedule-makers for jumping Freaks and Geeks around too much and making it impossible for viewers to find it, and I find no need to alter my view now. But I also want to parcel out a whole bunch of blame to all the people who tried to watch it and got confused because it was both a comedy AND a drama, and to anyone who wanted the two main characters—siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir—to be stereotypical in any way, and to anyone who just decided that they’d rather watch Touched by an Angel instead.
The DVD set is a whole lot of overkill, and I mean that in the best way possible. Every single episode is given at least one commentary track, and usually two—commenters range from the usual (actors, writers, directors) to the unusual (superfans, the parents of three of the actors) to the extremely unusual (three actors commenting in character as high school teachers, actual network executives). We get to see the original screen tests for many of the young actors (Seth Rogen nails his character of Ken right out of the box), great behind-the-scenes stuff like Judd Apatow stuffing Samm Levine in a locker, and more easter eggs than there are on Easter itself. There are so many extras here that, frankly, it gets a little creepy. But the shows themselves are so funny and sad and shocking (Lindsay’s final scene STILL provokes huge arguments in my household) that it doesn’t matter. There was genius here, and the DVD set will help preserve that forever.
Lance Henriksen, Terry O’Quinn, Megan Gallagher, Klea Scott, Brittany Tiplady
(Fox; US: 25 Oct 1996)
It seemed like a sure fire idea. X-Files creator Chris Carter, riding an enormous wave of critical and popular success for said scary science fiction show, was asked to add another doom and gloom drama to his career canon. Looking at the recent success of Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, he struck upon the idea of an ex-government agency profiler who is forced into early retirement when the job becomes too much for him. Recruited by the foreboding Millennium Group as a “consultant” on cases, this reluctant detective soon learns that all the horrible crimes, the terrorist acts and mass murders, are the result of a Biblical battle between good and evil, with the Group’s loyalties teetering somewhere in the middle. Mixing the mythology-heavy storylines that made Mulder and Scully’s searches for the truth all the more terrifying with the real life horrors of abhorrent misdeeds, the show could not possibly fail. And for a while, it looked like this new series would defy the odds and turn its Friday night death slot on Fox into a ratings winner. But as with most TV experiments that are too morose, morbid or just manufactured before their time, Millennium died a slow and painful death over the course of three erratic seasons.
Careening wildly from straight ahead crime drama to bizarre religious Rapture fable, the series never really got serious scenario legs underneath it. Now finally, after milking The X-Files like the cash cow that it is, Fox favors us by issuing every episode of this sensational, scattershot show on DVD. While by no means perfect, there is a rare power and an uneasy sense of evil in every installment of Millennium. It transcends its limits and missteps to become something truly remarkable in the tenets of television. Granted, there are some fans who can’t stand Season Two, when the narrative took a turn for the twisted and fond hero Frank Black battling portents of Armageddon week in and out. And then there are those who will never forgive Carter and his cohorts for writing the series into a corner (mostly out of rumors of cancellation) only to forcibly reinvent the entire thing for Season Three. Still, with all its faults and failing, television was rarely as eerie, or engrossing, as this.
My So-Called Life
Bess Armstrong, Wilson Cruz, Claire Danes, Devon Gummersall, A.J. Langer, Jared Leto
(ABC; US: 25 Aug 1994)
Airing on ABC for 19 groundbreaking episodes in 1994, My So-Called Life charted the growing pains of 15-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and her group of friends in a Pittsburgh suburb. With its naturalistic dialogue, complex characterization, and deeply attuned portrayal of teenage angst, My So-Called Life caught on with critics, if not by a mass audience. Danes—whose pale, pretty face registered every flicker of adolescent emotion, no matter how slight—was absolutely luminous as Angela.
Devon Gummersall (as Brian Krakow, Angela’s overachieving neighbor) and Wilson Cruz (as her best friend, Rickie Vasquez) were also standouts. Fans developed an abiding affection for these characters, who were bright, witty, and observant, but not preternaturally articulate like the kids on Dawson Creek, not even Brian, the resident honors student. Most of the time, their intentions were well-meaning, but they were often undone by the urgency of their feelings, which made them agonizingly human. Most sympathetic of all was Rickie, who struggled with his sexuality throughout the series. In the “Life of Brian” he expressed his despair to Angela when his crush on another boy went unrequited. “I belong nowhere, with no one … I don’t fit.” Though the series aired 13 years ago, Rickie still stands as the most richly rendered gay character ever on television.
Sensitive and intuitive, his insights about his friends were always the most perceptive, sometimes uncomfortably so, but his advice was embraced because it was delivered with an outsider’s hard-earned compassion. His vision was clear, but he never judged, and for that, he was the moral heart of the series.
Every once in a while, I’ll settle in for a marathon viewing of this DVD set, and afterward I find myself wondering what became of the characters. Indeed, they almost feel like old friends with whom I’ve lost touch. And so, I wish them well, Rickie most of all. He’d be 28 years old about now. I hope he’s found the place where he belongs