So, after creating various list, primarily for my own enjoyment and others’ suffering, I realized something. Reading isn’t just fun, it’s FUNdamental. HA!
No, really, I learned my own reliance on rules. Rules are good. Rules are what keeps society going in an orderly fashion, allowing the transfer of wealth from the have-nots to the haves. Most importantly, rules allow for the creation of functional lists to argue about. And one of the most important rules for any list of the greatest X, is that the X in question must be complete.
This is one of those “canon” or “Hall of Fame” questions that has already been debated ad nauseum in other areas. It is very hard to judge the body of work of an athlete, an artist, or anyone when the work is unfinished- when there is more to add (or, perhaps, to subtract). If you look at the rules (yes, rules) for the greatest in various types of sports, the “Halls of Fame” you will see one rule in particular that always stands out- that the career must be complete. Basketball player? Retired for four years. Baseball player? Retired five years. NFL? Five year retirement requirement. NASCAR? Used to have a retirement for three years requirement, now must be 55 years or older and competed for ten years or more (or 30 years regardless of age ... um....).
It’s the same even in squishier areas. You want to get in the Rock and Roll hall of Fame? Gotta wait 25 years after you release your first album. So it is pretty well established is most areas that you either need to be COMPLETE (retired) or at least BEEN AROUND SO LONG YOU CAN BE PROPERLY JUDGED (at least 25+ years) in order to be eligible for consideration as the best of something.
And I think it’s important to apply the same standard when discussing the greatest television series. Perhaps even moreso, because of the particular issues of television. We can call this the Firefly/Dexter paradox.
A show can be great for a short period of time. For example, the first season of Dexter was some groundbreaking television for its time. If you had asked me, in 2006-07, when all we had was the very first season of Dexter, I would have guessed that this was a show that (like the Sopranos which was wrapping up, and the Wire which had just completed Season 4, arguably its greatest season) was heading to the “all-time greats” list. But while there were some occasional good points later in the series, for example, the Trinity Killer, on the whole the series became an exercise in trolling its fans, eventually ending on a season so bad that it is an infamous marker of terrible television.
Firefly, while overrated for reasons I will explain later, had a string of very good episodes, with amazing acting. But it only had 14 episodes. It never had the chance to get bad, or improve. It is forever frozen in amber as what it was, but, and this is important, the show could never disappoint its fans. It will always live on as the show that would have fulfilled all of its fans wildest expectations, if only it hadn’t been cancelled.
That’s why Firefly doesn’t work, for me, on any “best of” lists. Sustained excellence counts for something. Even if the sample size is relatively small, like shows that are self-contained and complete (The Prisoner, The Leftovers), they still have finished telling the story. And as anyone who is a fan of Lost or the X-Files will be more than happy to explain to you, it is quite easy for a show to provide mysteries and questions; it is much more difficult for a show to provide answers that satisfy.
But that’s why we always those things that end prematurely, and accord them added weight, because what they did in our imaginations is so much better than what actually was likely to be produced. But the sad reality is that, in all likelihood, the longer something goes on, the more likely it is to disappoint.
Think of Star Trek, the original series. Sure, it is sad that it was cancelled. But then again, season three was ... uneven at best. Think of all the best Star Trek episodes .... yep, none of them (with the exception, maybe, of the Tholian Web) occur in Season 3.
And now, time for my unpopular opinion. Firefly? It’s fine. A bit overrated. It gets way too much credit because 1) it’s sci-fi, and there aren’t a lot of good sci-fi shows (especially back then); 2) it’s Whedon; and 3) it was cancelled. But if you really, really look at it .... meh.
Let’s start with the obvious. It’s not “real” sci-fi. It wasn’t hard science fiction, like the Expanse, or even Babylon 5 (for its time, they tried to get some parts pretty accurate). It wasn’t “ideas” sci-fi, like the best Star Trek or Twilight Zone. It was, you know, “fun.” A good story. That mix of individual and lightly serialized storytelling that was becoming popular in the 90s and early 2000s (Buffy, Babylon 5, X-Files, etc.).
More importantly, it was a lightly fictionalized and futureized re-telling of the “Lost Cause” myth. Which, um, yeah. I know, Western in space! But there are those of us that are still a little uncomfortable with that.
And then, of course, we don’t know what would have happened if the story had continued. As many people know, there was the whole idea of Inara and the Reavers (I will spare anyone coming in on this conversation the details, but it wasn’t pleasant). Now, we only have second-hand descriptions of how this story would have played out ... but it wasn’t a good look for the show.
I personally understand why people enjoy the show; I loved Buffy, and Angel, and Dollhouse. It would have been great to see the show develop, and more likely than not, it could have/would have/should have been a classic. And, of course, there is also the lingering knowledge of Fox killing off shows ... this was a long trend for them ... Action, Profit, Almost Human, Undeclared, Wonderfalls, The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr., The Tick, etc. etc. etc. etc.
But in the end, it was a promising show, not an all-time great.