I spent a very irate half-hour one recent Thursday night arguing with a geeky friend about Firefly. Goading geeks is not a new hobby – as a half-breed geek myself, I have one foot in the door so it’s a largely self-aware hobby – and it being a Thursday night is significant too. i don’t know about you, but I consider Thursday night, after Tuesday morning, the worst timeslots of the week, when the void opens up before you and you see the utter futility of everything. Luckily it only lasts a couple of hours, and vodka usually takes the edge off.
So I had to do something to take my mind off the impending end of all my hopes, and came up with the “It’s a good thing Firefly got cancelled” argument. For those of the bookish persuasion, this amounts to heresy. Firefly, the short-lived Joss-Whedon-penned TV show about cowboys in space, is accorded legendary status among the pantheon of sci-fi TV series. And for good reason. It’s smart, funny, and well-written, and it has Summer Glau in it, a woman I’ve always found sexually confusing because she looks like a cross between Heidi Klum and one of the Grey aliens from Stargate. The compound of all of these factors is a show that is nigh-impregnable to criticism. It is an article of faith that FOX committed a grave injustice by cancelling Firefly,and questioning this invites all sorts of comparisons between ones immediate ancestors and cattle, which is what happened.
“Hold on,” quoth I. “Hear me out. It’s a good thing Firefly got cancelled before it turned into Buffy.”
That shut him up for a bit. And it’s a sad fact that good shows don’t exist in perpetuity. Writing a solid character and a story in weekly increments, or putting together a whole series, must be one of the most strenuous creative tasks possible. Characters evolve and change over the course of several seasons. People get killed off. Co-stars angle for more money and have to be written out. Evolution of this type is an inevitable fact of TV. Things change.
My point about Buffy was that, over progressive seasons, the characters devolved into simpler versions of themselves, the story-lines got more convoluted as they avoided picking over old ground, or became simple open-and-shut cases, and the well of ideas started running dry. When Buffy ended in 2003, it was to an almost palpable sigh of relief. This isn’t anybody’s fault in particular, it’s just the nature of the beast.
The trick of being a great artist, they say, is knowing when to stop. They have a point. At the start, an idea is pure and simple, and everything lies in the execution. But after a while it becomes a matter of embroidering over old designs, covering the same ground and exploring the same themes. And, unfortunately, everything has to end. Sometimes a story line wraps itself up. Sometimes an actor gets a better-paid job. Sometimes the writers get picked up by Hollywood. Sometimes shows get cancelled, as with Firefly. Tragic as this may seem at the time, in the long run it can often be a good thing. Instead of an endless box-set of ever-decreasing quality, we’re left with something pure and unsullied by spin-offs, cast changes and self-parody.
“The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long” is a clichéd expression, but one with some truth in it. I can list numerous shows that had a very limited run, yet made up for their short duration with iconic scenes that slip effortlessly into the popular consciousness. Most of these, interestingly, are comedy shows. Fawlty Towers, the comedy against which all comedies are negatively compared, ran for just two seasons of six episodes each, and became instantly immortal. Black Books, another British cult classic, ran for a total of eighteen episodes, and is so frequently quoted in my house as to have permanently entered the language. Spaced had fourteen episodes. Brasseye and The Day Today ran for six episodes respectively. These are names that have a greatness that far outweighs their brief airing.
Compare these to Family Guy, South Park, and The Simpsons, now entering their twelfth, seventeenth and twenty-fifth years respectively. These shows are the gold standard of American comedy, having existed for what feels like forever (the last one in particular: I find it disconcerting to think that eight-year-old Bart Simpson is a decade older than me and now in his early thirties). What’s even more disconcerting is the decrease in quality over successive seasons. Of these three, South Park has suffered the least, perhaps because it was always hit-and-miss – the nature of peurile comedy is that every second joke will be too immature to laugh at. The lack of wit in recent (post-2004) episodes of The Simpsons is almost a meme by itself. I recently read an online conversation between two teenagers talking about their younger girlfriends: If she can’t remember when The Simpsons was funny, she’s too young for you, bro.
True that. Yet people continue to watch, something that mystifies me. The Simpsons has the largest audience share of all animated comedies, beating out Family Guy, South Park, King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers, Adventure Bros, American Dad (ugh), The Cleveland Show (oh, please, make it stop!) and Beavis and Butthead. Why? Inertia, at a guess. The same reason people buy the exact same breakfast cereal every week, and hurl abuse at the cashier when it’s out of stock. The same reason people use the same brand of Toothpaste they’ve always used. It’s there, it’s familiar, let’s get on with it. After twenty-five years and some of the most iconic characters, catchphrases, and scenes of any show in history, it’s inevitable for a show to run out of steam, to rely on the stock “The Simpsons are going to Moscow/Riyadh/Pago-Pago!” set-up. I just wish they’d let it die. Matt Groening can’t be looking for more money, surely?
Less forgivable, and more painful to me personally, is the downhill slide of Family Guy, a show I’ve always esteemed way above others for its sly,self-deprecating humour, pop-culture references and no-holds-barred attitude to comedy. Seth McFarlane is a more-than-capable writer, turning his hand to jokes, serious monologues and songs with an ease that is infuriating. Of his side-projects, those that borrow from the Family Guy mold (American Dad, the Cleveland Show) are uniformly terrible and derivative, while his independent work (Ted, etc.) are inspired. As a long-time fan of Family Guy, it pained me to realise that that I haven’t laughed much at the last two seasons. Coincidentally, it was in these seasons that the opening credits changed and the animation evolved in complexity, two signs that nearly always indicate that a show is on the rails. Like a failing restaurant which desperately introduces an Italian Night or hires a consultant to boost profits, changing with the established pattern creates doubt and worry in the consumer’s mind. We sense something’s up. We can smell it.
Family Guy has its faults, of course, but its earlier seasons were so well-written that a lot could be forgiven. It was funny, it was deft, and it offended everybody rather than picking on any one minority group. More recently, the stories have become formulaic (again, in the manner of “The Simpsons are going to Moscow/Riyadh/Pago-Pago!”, but more like “The Griffins are going to live on a farm for some reason!”), the jokes Jew-heavy, and the pop-culture references creaky and tired.
What’s sad about this, to return to my opening point, is that if Family Guy had ended with the conclusion of the Star Wars-themed mini-movies, it would be assured a place in heaven. We would have had something pure and clever, invulnerable to spoil. Something would have come along in its place. As it is, it continues to limp on, never quite attaining the heights it once had. As everything has to end, it’s surely better to end on a high note than a low one. And that’s why it’s good Firefly was cancelled.