What Can Firefly Teach Us About Modern Streaming

You don’t choose to begin most things in life. You don’t choose to begin education, or a career, or even to form relationships. All of these things are required either by societal demands, or your emotional and physical needs. 

However, you choose to read a book series or watch a show. You decide to pick up the book, switch on the remote, and immerse yourself in it. There is nothing — no bodily need, nor societal one — to force you into this action. So why would you choose to watch a show that ends? Why would you choose to fall in love with something, knowing it will break your heart? 

An example of this for me is the one-season wonder Firefly (2002–2003). Firefly is a science-fiction television show about a rag-tag crew on a smuggler spaceship. It is available on Hulu. Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), is a charming hero who is almost as infuriated by his heroism as others are by his stubbornness and snark. Firefly is quippy. It’s comedic. It’s packed with as many punches as it is heartfelt speeches. The world-building is interesting and harkens back to Westerns. The cast is brimming with chemistry. 

This is not to say the characters always get along — in fact, they shift uncomfortably into their found family roles as the show unfurls. 

Characters Simon and River Tam (played by Sean Maher and Summer Glau respectively) in particular struggle aboard the spaceship, Serenity. River is a traumatized young girl with strange abilities, and Simon is her big-shot, big-city brother. They are both wanted by the dystopian government, The Alliance, and wreak havoc with their personalities and plot relations. However, this discomfort is where Firefly excels. The awkwardness and affection between the characters are tested and strengthened, especially because of their vulnerability. Simon and River, while both incredibly competent, are the most likely to be in peril. Throughout the series they are at odds with most other characters, and yet also the ones rescued and protected by those same people. This formula is not unique to Simon and River. No one is safe from being drawn into an argument with their shipmate in Firefly, and then begrudgingly saving the aforementioned shipmate. This pattern showcases how cared for and important each character is to each other. No matter which character you relate to, the show assures you over and over again that they (and by connection you) are valued.

Fourteen episodes later, the show is over. It was canceled after one season, leaving plot threads and character arcs dangling. Fox, the airing network, had high expectations for the show because of creator Joss Whedon’s earlier successes (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel). The show faced many problems, like inaccurate advertising and being aired out of order on Friday nights. Possibly because of this, the show had low ratings, leading to its cancellation. However, a vocal fanbase and surge of DVD sales allowed the show to be finished in the 2005 film Serenity. The show is not perfect. It has the same critiques of other Whedon creations, especially its inconsistent treatment of the female leads. Its objectification and infantilization of River is especially insufferable, and Mal’s treatment of his love interest, Inara (Morena Baccarin), can feel overly antagonistic. (It is possible these characters/dynamics were planned to have more development in later seasons explaining this, but we have no way to be sure.) Despite these notable flaws, the show is beloved, as shown in its sustained interest. Titan Books have released a series of novels with the characters and setting from the show. These books are still going, too — there’s one scheduled to be released in July 2024!

Finishing Firefly left that familiar ache of a beloved media ending in my chest. Based on the DVD and book sales, others felt this same way. I’ve watched the movie, started reading the books, and even watched actor interviews. There’s still content to engage with. However, the beloved show itself is over. There is no more breathlessly watching the action unfurl, or bubbling laughter at the jokes. You can’t sink into the cozy disheveled sets of the Serenity and admire the endearing chaos of the characters and world. 

Except… that isn’t exactly true. 

Over the winter holidays, my two close friends and I sat in front of a TV. Two of us had seen Firefly, the other hadn’t. We were in pajamas, our hands wrapped around mugs of steaming hot chocolate. The hot chocolate wore festive hats of whipped cream and marshmallows. Plush blankets laid over our laps until you couldn’t see where one of us ended and the other began. Christmas decorations graced every surface. Meanwhile, the night buzzed with the purr of an orange kitten. We watched Firefly. We didn’t finish it — we got halfway through — but that’s not important. 

What was important was watching our friend react to it. We got to find out her favorite characters (the awkward doctor, Simon, and the traumatized genius, River), her favorite jokes (Mal’s), the parts of the show that spoke to her (the ones that looked like Star Wars). Then we could compare those to our “favorites” of the show. When nightime was trickling into the gray-dawn of early morning, and she begged to watch “just one more episodewe knew we’d succeeded. Now, we have begun to convince other friends to join us for late-night Firefly marathons. The show, with all its messages of found family and acceptance, is creaking the door open to our cozy college comradery. Maybe we don’t have duels of honor, space chases, and zombie pirates hot on our tail — but we have each other. Watching a show focused on that idea is pleasant, but watching it with each other brings the most enchanting aspects of it into reality.

Beloved media ends. It would be alarming if it didn’t, considering everything ends. Anything that hurts you when it ends must have brought you joy first. Sharing that pleasure with those you love is a joy that not only outweighs the pain of endings, but justifies it. Why wouldn’t you watch a show that ends? Once it’s finished, you can share it. 

This is especially important in the current streaming climate. Recently, besides canceling shows, streaming services have also started to delete and make their programs unavailable. There are theories as to why this is being done (most center around financially compensating for the loss of subscribers), however, the main point is that access to shows can diminish. Not only do things end now — but they can also be lost.

There are alternatives, physical media like DVDs being my personal favorite. There is still the chance that shows canceled after one season might not have DVDs or be backed up on other platforms. For these reasons, sharing experiences is more important than ever. If one watches shows or movies with others, the loss of that media is less dramatic. You have memories, relationships, and experiences from that media that will live on regardless if the original content does or not. You can even have these experiences without the media. After my friends and I watched Firefly, not only did we watch shows together. We reminisce and discuss shows we haven’t seen, and may never get to. I’ve listened to plot summaries, jokes, or theories about shows I’ve never seen from my friends. Even if the media is inaccessible, the stories it tells are not. We always can tell the stories ourselves, and pass on what made those stories meaningful in our own ways. 

Now, we may not realize we’re choosing to begin a show or movie that will break our hearts. It might be as shocking as it is saddening when a show we have enjoyed vanishes or gets significantly harder to find. However, a show’s mortality is not a reason to be less invested. It is a reason to be more invested and to enjoy it as much (and with as many people) as you can.