I suppose that sweeps months are still a thing, but since nobody watches network TV anymore – certainly not at the time that it’s broadcast – I don’t imagine that they matter all that much these days. But it used to be that every November, February, and May, the networks would bring out their biggest guns, biggest guest stars, two-part stories, returns of classic characters, and crossover events during sweeps months, because the networks’ local affiliates would set their ad rates for the next quarter based on the ratings that they’d earn during sweeps. Often, the networks would rearrange the running order of ongoing series if they thought a particular episode was sexy or strong enough to be a sweeps player. As I mentioned previously, Firefly was absolutely not unique in this regard; it happened to all kinds of series on all the networks, which is why many producers would plan ahead and prep their big crossover or whatever, with guest stars Raquel Welch, George Clooney, and Charo, across the episodes that they expected would air in November.
With that in mind, Fox made the utterly bizarre decision to hold back episodes four and five for sweeps month, and moved episodes six through eight forward. Why’d they do this? Nobody can guess. “Shindig” is a pretty good episode, even if its high point is Kaylee, in a delightfully frilly dress at a really chic party, holding court with a gaggle of admirers talking about spaceship engines, and not the main plot of Mal and Inara dealing with a big problem at the bash, but it’s hardly a “this changes everything” story like you’d occasionally get with sweeps episodes. You can’t even say there was a really famous guest star in it who’d move the ratings needle during sweeps. It’s got Larry Drake, a fine character actor who we saw as a villain in a Stargate SG-1 made two years previously, and in a splendid Nero Wolfe Mystery around the same time, but I don’t think Fox was waiting on him to work Nielsen magic.
The kid was very pleased. It’s got a sword fight – though it’s not honestly a really great one since Mal is not an expert with the weapon – and fun character moments, and a silly last-shot revelation of what the crew is carrying to an outer planet for Drake’s character: about a dozen cows. Our son was delighted by the apparent absurdity of it, but of course it makes perfect sense: farms are always going to need new livestock from different breeding lines, even in the 26th Century.