Friday, March 4, 2011

Firefly: Jaynestown Review

Fame is a corrupting thing. It's allure so encompassing that those who have tasted it will go to any lengths to maintain it. It's lens so perverting that those in its thrall will abandon all wisdom. It is, in many ways, akin to an ego-boosting drug. Anything to maintain the high. But we, while momentarily entertained by the coke-addled friend's antics, soon shift our attention to more genuine bits of interest. If only fame worked like the soul-expanding narcotics, great artistry might be maintained. (The differentiating metric of ego-inflating versus soul-expanding narcotics is a useful one but one that is a bit too much of a tangent for an article ostensibly about a sci-fi television show.)

Of course, the above understanding of fame is usually understood only when applied to an individual. But similar effects can be seen on groups of people or whole organizations dedicated to a piece of entertainment. Like, say, a television show. The pressure of maintaining the fame trumps the soulful artistry which made the show famous in the first place and soon the show reduces itself to meta-self-reference and naval-gazing.

With an introduction like this, it should be clear that this reviewer's opinion of Jaynestown is anything but positive.

Jaynestown is the seventh episode of Firefly's first and only season and it bears all the hallmarks of a show undergoing exactly the sort of destructive attempts to cling to fame described above. The jokes feel flat, the plot devices ham-fisted, and the conclusion jarring. For the first time, Firefly feels forced. Thankfully the show has other strengths on which Jaynestown relies to somewhat successfully trip to the finish line. But these strengths are secondary to its best feature: effortlessly natural dialogue. Shorn of this, Firefly suddenly seems destined for the rubbish bin.

From the outset, it is clear that Jaynestown isn't running smoothly. The opening conversation between Kaylee and Simon is explicitly about Simon's prudish nature. There's no subtext or subtlety. Kaylee simply says "YOU DON'T SWEAR ENOUGH." And Simon says "I'M BEING PROPER." After having six episodes to get to know these characters, this conversation seems out of place. This is not how you develop a relationship, this is how you establish characters. Indication number 1 that the creators are not writing to develop their art but rather writing to replicate success.

This atmosphere is further cemented with the show's overarching plot which focuses on Jayne and his deification on an impoverished planet. While not a bad premise on its own, the execution is over-done to the point that we can see the creators winking at us. There are a few nice beats (Simon's first curse which leads straight into a commercial break is particularly effective) but the discovery of the statue goes on far too long. Furthermore, punch lines are duplicated throughout the show. The first time Simon says "this must be what going crazy feels like" rings true. The second time feels tired.

Contrast this episode's structure with Mal's discovery of his 'wife' from the previous episode. In Our Mrs. Reynolds, the comedy is effectively presented through the natural reactions of the crew to the situation. At first there is humor, then concern and it all feels true. Each character reacts in their own unique way. And that feeling of honesty makes the comedy all the more potent. However, in Jaynestown, the supporting cast is mostly one-note, at least as far as they react to Jayne's situation. It's like the show's writers think the set-up can sustain the episode and their only recourse is to point out again and again that Jayne is revered as a hero somewhere.

Truly a terrifying visage.
However, not all is lost in Jaynestown. Despite getting the episode off on the wrong foot, there is a bit of nice relationship development between Kaylee and Simon. Alcohol-infused tenderness releases some of their tension in the middle of the episode and their conversation about 'appropriateness' at the end rings true. There is also a laugh-out-loud moment when River discovers Shepard Book with his hair down. Though Shepard is not a cloying missionary by any stretch, he can get a little over-earnest. The scenes between him and River do a wonderful job of deflating him slightly.

Consider the timing of when Jaynestown would have been written: roughly three weeks before it was broadcast which would put it after the show's launch. While the initial ratings were were below target, the show's cancellation had not yet been decided. Furthermore, in the ensuing weeks of development and production, the cast and crew could see the impact the show was making. Stoked by the increasingly devout flames of the fans, it seems Firefly's creators felt pressure to give the people what they wanted. Succinctly put, Jaynestown was forged in the crucible of fame. While the ratings weren't high enough to affirm its continued existence, the passion of the rabid fan base was apparent. In this environment, is it any wonder that the show fell prey to fame's allure and resorted to exactly the sort of ham-fisted naval-gazing described in the opening of this review?

1 comment:

  1. Shepherd Book :-)

    You missed a couple of major points - we discover Jayne has a conscience and that Inara is capable of very subtle manipulation.