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Browncoats Unite TV Special: Why Firefly Was Cancelled

With the tenth anniversary reunion of the short-lived Firefly, dubbed “Browncoats Unite,” set to debut on the Science Channel this Sunday, now is the time when fans incessantly talk about how fantastic Nathan Fillion’s morally ambiguous take on the role was, how much Joss Whedon deserves unlimited creative control, and how evil Rupert Murdoch is for letting Fox cancel the show. But if you really look beyond the cool space setting, you will see that the actors are not at their best here and Firefly really made no brave attempt at distinguishing itself.

Browncoats Unite is a relatively tame collection of interviews about a relatively tame show. That doesn’t mean the writing is bad, mind you; it simply means that Firefly was never particularly intense in its performances and someone who is a fan of the actors in their later works will see they are not exactly shining here.

Take, for example, the show’s biggest star and protagonist, Nathan Fillion. As Mal Reynolds, “Castle” earned much acclaim for the fact that his character is not entirely a good guy. However, his subsequent takes on such shades of grey were much better, later demonstrated flawlessly in Whedon’s own Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Be it Castle or Justice League Doom, Fillion is a master of playing extroverted, inappropriate roles and Firefly did not allow him to exude the natural charm he normally does.

Other examples include Adam Baldwin playing a weaker version of the hard-faced mercenary we saw again in Chuck or Summer Glau playing the emotionally detached but less relatable person she impeccably portrayed in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It’s like seeing Bruce Lee first in Enter the Dragon: the performance is so similar to but so vastly improved from anything he’s done before that the previous roles become obsolete.

And Whedon’s relative closeness to safety, his aversion to really turning the tension and intensity up, can be seen not just in the performances he demands but the writing he does. Granted, Firefly barely got a full season and therefore spent far too much time building a world instead of a personal tale so it’s tough for a writer to really flex his creative muscles there, but it still can’t change the fact that Joss Whedon is no avant-garde.

Be it The Avengers or Astonishing X-Men, Whedon is notable for shying away from the tough moments. Whenever a confrontation between two characters is reaching a stage where things might boil over and we would really get to see inner turmoil, Whedon is known for always putting in a quick joke and ending the tension. It is as if Whedon is afraid that his characters will explode any second and needs to keep them on a leash when, as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers have repeatedly shown in Kill Bill or Burn After Reading, the best moments in the story are when characters go too far.

Even Browncoats Unite serves as little more than a reminder of just how limited the show’s appeal was. The entire reunion was first shown at Comic Con, long before most fans would ever be able to see it, as if Whedon and company were intentionally targeting a very small audience. I’m not saying that we should all be jealous for being left out because, as I mentioned, shows like Firefly come and go. The series brought the world Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin, something I will always be thankful for, but there’s just no defending a show that fails to take risks.

Browncoats Unite airs this Sunday on Science Channel at 10pm EST, after a 14-hour marathon of Firefly.

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