Firefly 1.12 – The Message

I told our son that if he ever watches any grown-up TV from about 1993 to the present, he’ll bump into Richard Burgi, who makes a memorable appearance here as a bent Alliance cop. He’s always playing heavies, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that he seems equally at home in soap operas as in direct-to-video beat-em-ups. 112 episodes of General Hospital! What an amazing career he’s had.

We also told our son that if he ever decides to go to cons, he’s probably going to see people wearing Jayne’s hat. Well, maybe and maybe not, times and fandoms and fashions change, but for at least a decade after Firefly was cancelled, the delightful, silly, and just a bit ridiculous hat was the fashion statement of everybody who knew how to order from an Etsy seller. Though I think that people with limited patience for Browncoats might agree with Richard Burgi’s character’s final word on the matter: “That hat makes you look like an idiot.”

Anyway, “The Message” was directed and co-written by Tim Minear, and it’s a great, great story that begins with Zoe and Mal receiving the body of one of their war buddies in the mail, and ends with Nathan Fillion acting the absolute hell out of the climax. Even without Burgi or the hat, this one would be one of my favorites.

Firefly 1.8 – Out of Gas

“Everybody dies alone.”

Sadly, the kid absolutely hated this one. We weren’t surprised; it’s a very heavy episode for such an otherwise light series. We see the ship floating dead in space, we see its corridors and rooms abandoned, and we see Mal crash to the floor of the cargo bay, bleeding from a wound in his stomach.

Tim Minear’s script is possibly my favorite of the show’s run. Going back and putting this nightmare puzzle together is unbearably tense in places. I think it’s an absolute jewel, and everybody involved should be proud of it.

The kid got the treat of our first trip to a movie theater in more than a year earlier today. We watched Godzilla vs. Kong and he pronounced it “probably the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.” It probably was a bit of whiplash going from a lighthearted crowdpleaser like that to a downbeat event like this, and that didn’t occur to me. Probably should have swapped the blog running order and followed the monster movie with something more fun; as it is, he went to bed very, very grouchily.

Firefly 1.3 – Bushwacked

I occasionally have problems choosing a picture to illustrate these silly posts, particularly when the bit that our son enjoyed the most doesn’t lend itself to still pictures. “Bushwhacked,” which was written and directed by Tim Minear, deals with a derelict ship on which something is still living, even while most of its passengers were brutally killed. So there’s lots of skulking around in low-lit sets, and it succeeded magnificently in getting under our son’s skin. “That was really creepy,” he announced.

Conceptually, about the only thing I don’t care for in Firefly are the Reavers, who take the place of evil space aliens since this program doesn’t have any aliens in it. These are roving gangs of once-humans, who’d gone so far out in space that they’d gone mad from isolation and whatever else. It seems like the sort of thing that might could happen occasionally, but the show presents it as something that happens a lot, and to large groups of people. The show presents it extremely well for something so unlikely. There’s a moment here that I like quite a lot on that front, actually.

See, there’s a clumsy bit in the first pilot where Simon has never heard of Reavers, which is convenient, since it lets everybody else explain them to the audience. But here, we see that Simon’s ignorance is not an isolated moment for the viewers’ benefit. It turns out that the cops have heard of Reavers, but they don’t believe in them. There are very, very few cops – they have giant floating space precincts, but space is really, really big – and they occasionally hear these outlandish stories of lunatic cannibals on junk starships from little criminals trying to talk themselves out of trouble. It cements the idea that people in “civilization” in the 26th century simply do not care what goes on in the outer fringes of this solar system, and makes Simon a more believable character in the process.

Firefly 1.2 – The Train Job

“The Train Job” was the show’s second pilot, and the first episode that Fox aired, and was co-written by the hugely talented Tim Minear, who was the showrunner for the series and is credited as either writing or co-writing four of its fourteen episodes. It’s actually what sold me on the program when I saw it about three years after its network run. The first pilot is good, and so is this one, with an added “wow” at the climax that I’ll come back to in a moment, but I think lots of programs are good, and only sit up and pay attention to a few of them.

The hour starts by introducing Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, and Adam Baldwin as the three fightin’ members of the crew, the ones who get their hands dirty, looking for a quiet drink in an Alliance-friendly bar on the anniversary of the end of the civil war that saw Fillion’s and Torres’s characters, Mal and Zoe, on the losing side. From there, “The Train Job” had a weird balancing act, because it had to give us an exciting but simple story to launch the show, while reintroducing the other six regular characters that the original film, consigned at the time to the vault, had already established.

I think that, had I been willing in 2002 to give Fox another try for its umpteenth Friday sci-fi show, I’d have been hooked. There is one very clumsy bit where it comes back from the title sequence to start a scene with Sean Maher and Summer Glau without giving viewers a reason to think that these two are on board the same spaceship we had seen previously, but I like how each character and their backstory gets defined – and, sadly, Mal gets another opportunity to be rude to Inara – and I’m always in the mood for a good heist story.

The criminals’ consciences get the better of them, leading to a delicious little climax. “Serenity” had already established, when Mal ended the hostage standoff very abruptly, that these characters were not going to act like conventional teevee heroes. “The Train Job” repeats the situation in its famous “Now this is all the money Niska gave us in advance” scene. Our kid’s eyes got about the size of dinner plates, because he’s never seen a teevee hero kick a villain into an engine intake before. Sold. Hooked. I’ve never been a fan of telling people “there’s a scene you’ll love that I can’t tell you about,” but when two different people asked me, in 2005, whether they should look into this program that people had gone nutty over, I had to say that twice.

The show’s almost twenty years old at this point; I don’t mind spoiling it now. Sorry if I did, but the DVDs are old enough to vote.

Lois & Clark 4.11 – Twas the Night Before Mxymas

We’ve come full circle. Last year, I felt like sharing the silly story about how some fans suggested the actor Wallace Shawn for the role of Mr. Mxyzptlk on Lois & Clark, and for our final selection from the series, that’s the episode we’re watching: the one that didn’t feature Shawn.

I did caution our son ahead of time that this program’s Mr. Mxyzptlk was not, perhaps sadly, a little guy with a purple fedora wandering around Metropolis bellowing “McGurk!” He’s a malevolent fellow with the dress sense of a dandy and the ethics of Q, the nigh-omnipotent recurring baddie in Star Trek. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend with an even weirder name! (Ms. Gzptlsnz.)

So this really shouldn’t have worked. Lois & Clark had a reputation of stunt-casting comedy stars as comic book villains and, I guess responding to a folk memory of the ’60s Batman, the directors had them yuk it up. This didn’t work because the first season of Lois & Clark established a world where the drama often had a light touch, but the stakes were high and the actors playing villains took things seriously. And so here we have a character called Mr. Mxyzptlk who doesn’t look or act like his comic book antecedent, and he was played by comedian Howie Mandel. And yet it’s great!

In Tim Minear’s “Twas the Night Before Mxymas,” Mxyzptlk’s big stunt is to trap the planet in a time loop that only Clark can detect, and when the loop resets after four hours, everything gets a hair worse as everyone’s despair grows. Some of the logic jumps necessary to make this work can be best chalked up to the baddie’s fifth-dimensional magic, but it’s a neat idea and our heroes’ clever solutions to the problem are really innovative.

There’s a justly celebrated scene in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s amazing comic All-Star Superman where the Man of Steel saves a young girl named Regan from killing herself, because he knows what has happened and is able to offer her a few words of compassion. That scene’s antecedent is here in this episode. Since the time loop has showed Superman how one fellow becomes desperate enough to rob a bank, he’s able to get ahead of him and find him another path and some badly needed hope. I love this scene.

And our kid was very pleased with the story, pronouncing it by far his favorite of the five we watched. There are some cute comedy moments and good one-liners and people talking at once and Perry White dressing as Santa Claus, and the poor schlub that the time loop has turned into the office drunk gets a face full of eggnog. But he loved Mr. Mxyzptlk’s tricks and stunts, and the inevitable scene where our heroes trick the imp into saying his name backward had him roaring. This version of the fifth-dimensional pest may not wear purple, but he’s all right with our kid.

Speaking of folk memory, as I did above, I think that Lois & Clark is remembered as a show that went downhill and crashed because they got married. I think that’s wrong. I think it went downhill and crashed and then they got married and the show improved. Most of season four was very watchable. There were some duds, and some episodes were better than others, and occasionally two writer cats who were nominally in charge of the production, executively, would script Lois as weak, sobbing, and unable to cope with anything. (I remember the beginning moments of episode 15 as probably the character’s lowest point.)

(Bizarrely, there were six or seven women in fandom who actually seemed to approve of Weak Lois. They were watching for the goo-goo eyes, believed Lois was incomplete without Clark, and they got so insufferable that I used a blank card in our game of Illuminati to mock them. That showed ’em.)

But overall, the show got a lot better, with more original villains, much better casting, and far more interesting stories. Even the episode which reeked the most of network promotional nonsense, featuring guest stars Drew Carey and Kathy Kinney taking a break from their popular sitcom, was full of surprises, and Kinney was excellent as the ghost of a murdered woman.

The improvements didn’t matter. The damage by the end of season three and all that amnesia nonsense done, the show’s ratings dropped like a rock. Murder, She Wrote had finally concluded after twelve years, but CBS had a new ratings powerhouse for the slot: Touched by an Angel. Lois & Clark was preempted for weeks at a time, kept off the air during sweeps months, moved an hour earlier, and finally dumped on Saturdays for the end of its run, where the last episodes were seen by fewer than five million viewers.

ABC had actually ordered a fifth season many months earlier, but reconsidered and paid Warners a hefty kill fee. For those of us who were ratings nerds in 1996-97, this was a wild surprise. All those Wednesdays looking over the Nielsens chart in USA Today and shrugging that the sinking viewers didn’t matter because the show had already been renewed… ah, well.

Lois & Clark was certainly a very, very flawed show, and more of it was bad than was good. But its first season was wonderful and its fourth was frequently very entertaining. I liked these samples better than our favorite eight year-old critic did, but I’m glad that the show’s on the DC Universe service for new fans to discover. Maybe you out there in TV Land will like it even more than I did.

Superman’s Pal,
Colonel X.

Lois & Clark 4.5 – Brutal Youth

Last time, I mentioned that the first fourteen episodes of Lois & Clark‘s third season were mostly terrible. They were I, Claudius compared to the unbelievable crap that followed. In February of 1996, the show indulged in a series of interlocking arcs that had Clark marry a clone of Lois, while the real heroine got amnesia and fell in love with her psychiatrist, and then General Zod showed up, only they called him Lord Nor instead and he took over that strategic epicenter of world trade, Smallville.

This went on for months. Fandom had long been split by some loudmouths who were tuning in to see Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher make goo-goo eyes at each other and some other loudmouths who were tuning in to see the Man of Steel do something super. The show wasn’t satisfying anybody. The romance fans were getting plots that wouldn’t pass on a bad parody of daytime soaps, and the superhero fans were getting… well, they were getting Lord Nor. By the time Lois and Clark finally got married in season four’s third episode – featuring sodding Delta Burke as the villain – the show had hemorrhaged a full third of its audience.

Why I stuck out – why anybody stuck out – was simple: Lois & Clark had started out wonderful and we badly wanted it to get good again. And then, when all hope was just about lost, we tuned in to see an unfamiliar name get the writing credit for “Brutal Youth” and marveled, because Tim Minear gave us the best installment – the only even remotely good installment – since the Baron Sunday adventure.

“Brutal Youth” didn’t just get the balance between Lois & Clark‘s three key plot strands (relationship drama, newspaper investigation, superhero stuff) in perfect sync for the first time in ages, it gave us a genuinely original and interesting roadblock in their happier-ever-after story: while investigating the strange case of a friend of Jimmy Olsen’s who has aged seventy years in just a few days, our heroes’ contact at STAR Labs mentions to Lois that Superman’s metabolism is so unlike that of Earthlings that he will still be in his prime long after everybody on Earth today is dead. Lois understandably is in a daze after that.

Their investigation brings them to this week’s villain, a discredited researcher played by Caroline McWilliams, but unfortunately, Jimmy got to her first and has been given the aging whammy himself. The older Jimmy is played by Jack Larson, who had been television’s original Jimmy on the syndicated Adventures of Superman in the 1950s. About the only complaint I can muster against “Brutal Youth” is that we don’t get a scene where we get to watch the aged Jimmy putting all the pieces of the puzzle together for his friends to find, but that’s just me wishing for a bigger part for Larson. As written, the construction of the sequence is actually superb, and I love the way that the audience follows Lois and Clark as they see the evidence that Jimmy left them, and then get shocked as they discover their friend, exhausted and older and collapsed under the conference room table.

But that’s my lone complaint. Our favorite eight year-old critic had all kinds of complaints about this story, mainly that it was far too kissy and too smoochy. I had forgotten that the episode opens the morning after our heroes’ long-delayed wedding night – not wishing to offend anybody in the audience, Lois and Clark had waited until their wedding to spend the night together – and they wake up on the ceiling in post-coital bliss and ready for more.

I introduced a distraction as soon as the camera started panning up from their vacant bed. “They’re SMOOCHING ON THE CEILING! Can you BELIEVE this?!” The kid promptly hid his face in his security blanket with an “ugggggh” and didn’t peek again until the story picked up two weeks later, and, back from their honeymoon, Lois and Clark are in the elevator up to the Planet’s newsroom and THEN THEY STARTED SMOOCHING AGAIN. Grownups! They’re so icky!

What We’re Not Watching: Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk

We’re not watching the fine actor Wallace Shawn as that interdimensional pest Mr. Mxyzptlk, who makes life miserable for the Man of Steel every ninety days, because he never actually played the role. But in some parallel universe, I’m sure that he must have. For April Fool’s Day, I’m sharing a little oddball story about preconceived notions. Bear with me, if you will.

The time was 1996, and up to that point, a look at IMDB tells me that I had seen Wallace Shawn in a couple of parts that didn’t leave any impact on me. I’d seen All That Jazz a couple of times in college – it was a favorite of my film and screenwriting professor, Charles Eidsvik – but I didn’t remember Shawn. Where I did remember him was playing the recurring role of Stuart Best in the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown. The character’s name, if you know your Beatles history, is a clue. In the backstory of Murphy, Stuart Best had been one of the original anchors of the newsmagazine FYI along with Murphy, Jim, and Frank. He was dropped very early on for reasons that became obvious when we later met the character in an “anniversary” episode: Best was insecure, needy, whiny, and hopelessly wishy-washy: one more horrible irritant in Murphy Brown’s existence. He was an annoying pest, yes, but just so pathetic.

So in 1996, I was very, very active in the old Usenet, for those of you with long memories. I used the pseudonym Colonel X and got into lots of fun and/or dumb arguments about television, particularly Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which had recently begun its fourth and final season around the time of this story. Over the course of three seasons, the show was getting exponentially worse and more irritating as time went on, with its very good cast struggling with terrible scripts, unbelievable “threats,” and new producers/showrunners who didn’t know Superman’s mythology and honestly didn’t care. There’s a reason why everybody knows who General Zod is, and nobody, except the unfortunate audience of this show, ever heard of his TV counterpart, Lord Nor.

Anyway, for season four, the show had a new writer on staff, a fresh face named Tim Minear, who TV fandom may know from his later, acclaimed work on Angel, Firefly, Wonderfalls, and American Horror Story. Minear was willing to risk the pit of whining that was and assure us that season four wasn’t going to stink like season three did. Once they got past the Lord Nor story, at least. He engaged with fans and was a great public voice for the ailing show. And season four was indeed a big improvement. Everybody was happy with Minear.

The writer told us they were working on a Mr. Mxyzptlk story for the first time, and even solicited casting suggestions. I’m sure he didn’t intend to get permission from that oh-so-critical “whining fanbaby” audience, but just sounding like somebody on the show cared what the audience thought, and knew what the heck they were doing, was amazing. People had lots of suggestions, but as soon as somebody offered up Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk, discussion ended. That was, in the eyes of that mob, the single greatest idea ever.

And I didn’t see it.

I only knew Shawn as a desperate and insecure pest. Mr. Mxyzptlk needed to be an incredibly confident, breathtakingly arrogant pest. It didn’t occur to me, because I was even more of an idiot then than now, that Shawn might have been perfectly capable of playing that prankster from the fifth dimension that way. I just couldn’t look past Stuart Best on Murphy Brown.

At any rate, we’d never know, because they cast Howie Mandel as Mr. Mxyzptlk instead. Mandel did a fine job despite a revamp of the character to fit in the lines of Lois & Clark‘s world. He was more like Q from Star Trek than the nails-on-chalkboard imp, but it was a good episode, as I recall, with Mandel reining in his trademark excesses and finding some unusual menace in the part. He was good, but a few people bemoaned what could have been.

Of course, what everybody on that newsgroup was thinking about was Shawn’s iconic character of Vizzini in The Princess Bride, which I hadn’t seen. Naturally, this is on the agenda for us to watch together, when our son’s a little older, but he actually caught a chunk of it on TV last month while visiting family in Memphis. In 1987, I was as far from being interested in the kind of fairytale airy-fairy fantasy that Bride appeared to be as you could possibly get. I didn’t even like Labyrinth very much around that age. I’ve still never seen Willow, but we’ll look at that together as well one day. Basically, that line of bright, glowy eighties fantasy movie just did not appeal to me in the slightest and I ignored it.

Over the years, people told me I needed to see The Princess Bride, and I successfully rolled my eyes for almost two decades. In 2005, though, in the immortal words of the Buzzcocks, I fell in love with someone I shouldn’t’a fallen in love with, and she made me watch the wretched thing, and it turned out to be the most expectation-defying movie I think I’ve ever watched. That film is darn near completely terrific.

And within about six seconds of Vizzini driving everybody nuts with his supreme overconfidence, a little fifth-dimensional magic happened and I saw a little purple hat materialize over Wallace Shawn’s head. Holy anna. I got it. What a missed opportunity! Wallace Shawn would have been completely amazing as Mr. Mxyzptlk. I don’t know whether the actor said no, or whether his agent laughed ABC and Warner Brothers out of the room, or whether Mandel was always in the producers’ minds and Tim Minear was just humoring us, but of all the what-ifs in Hollywood history, this just simply has to be up there.

Honesty compels me to add that shortly after the Mandel take on Mr. Mxyzptlk, the team behind the cartoon that’s laboriously called Superman: The Animated Series went all the way back to that oddball character’s original comic book look from the 1940s, and cast Gilbert Gottfried for the part. That whole cartoon series is completely great, and those two episodes with Gottfried as Mxyzptlk are high points. The villain has since shown up on Smallville and Supergirl. I haven’t seen those, and don’t care to, because, in another preconceived notion, I believe that Gilbert Gottfried owns the role and the voice of Mxyzptlk.

But boy, if Wallace Shawn had played that part, I might not be saying that.

Photo credit: the image of Mandel was taken from the Lois & Clark Wiki.