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On the Tube: Joss Whedon's "Firefly' doesn't light up the screen

Friday, September 20, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

If "Firefly" weren't from Joss Whedon, the talented, respected creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," this review would probably be a lot more dismissive.

Because of his track record -- six seasons of "Buffy," five of them good; the successful and ultimately distinctive spinoff series "Angel" -- "Firefly" (8 tonight, Fox) gets the benefit of the doubt despite an inauspicious debut. It's not good, it's not bad, it's just so-so.

Set 500 years from now in a future that's more "Stagecoach" than "Star Trek," Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the crew of the unarmed Firefly-class spaceship Serenity travel the outer reaches of the newly formed Alliance, taking any job they're offered. They ride horses, shoot pistols and visit dusty planets, accompanied by mournful fiddle music that sounds like it's straight out of Ken Burns' "The Civil War."

Last winter Whedon wrote and directed a two-hour pilot that told the story of how the crew came together. Fox wanted a premiere episode with more action and humor, so Whedon and executive producer Tim Minear wrote another script, which is what airs tonight.

The two-hour episode will supposedly air later in the season; perhaps it will give viewers more reason to care about the characters than tonight's episode does. There's action in the hour, but little of it informs the characters; a barroom brawl is just a barroom brawl.

Tonight's premiere ably introduces the Serenity crew as they plan and execute the robbery of a bullet train. As thieves go, they have a conscience, although a few moments make them look like futuristic terrorists plotting against the Alliance, the governing body over a universe of planets following a civil war that Reynolds fought in on the losing side.

In addition to Reynolds and his first officer, Zoe (Gina Torres), other crew members include Zoe's husband, the pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk); young, cute engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite); mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin); space hooker Inara (Morena Baccarin) and a minister (Ron Glass).

A doctor (Sean Maher) and his recently rescued but tormented sister River (Summer Glau) are the ship's newest arrivals.

The show's humor is standard Whedon fare, but little of it makes a lasting impression. The dialogue is clever, but fleeting. Same with the plot turns, which are mostly predictable, save for one surprising gag near the hour's end.

The cast is solid, particularly tough Torres, sweet Staite and a surprisingly restrained, almost wimpy turn by Maher, who usually plays popular tough guys (in "Ryan Caulfield, Year One" and "The Street").

There's potential here that Whedon may be able to realize in the coming weeks, but in its first hour, "Firefly" is fairly unremarkable.

'John Doe'

(9 tonight, Fox)

John Doe (Dominic Purcell) wakes on an island, naked. He begins to swim, gets picked up by fishermen and taken ashore where he realizes he knows nothing about himself -- not his name, not how he ended up naked on an island, not why he's colorblind (except when he isn't).

"I need to report a missing person," he tells the police. "I'm the missing person. I don't remember who I am."

But he possesses knowledge about, well, almost everything: tallest mountain in the world, first line of "Macbeth," height of the Statue of Liberty, how to fly a helicopter, etc. Presumably future episodes will ever-so-slowly reveal details of Doe's background. In tonight's premiere he wonders aloud whether he's an escaped mental patient, alien or government experiment gone awry.

Doe gambles his way to wealth in the premiere and sets himself up as a do-gooder, who sets out to rescue an abducted girl (shades of the media frenzy from this past summer). When he sees her picture, she's in color, while everything else remains black and white. Maybe he knows her from his past?

There's no explanation for that visual oddity in the premiere and chances are it won't be clarified for quite some time. Viewers who don't mind being dragged along for a ride, who are gluttons for punishment ("X-Files" faithful, perhaps), may want to join in John Doe's search. For the rest of us, Doe will remain the personification of an unsolved mystery.

'What I Like About You'

(8 tonight, The WB)

When her father moves to Japan, 16-year-old Holly (Nickelodeon refugee Amanda Bynes) moves to Manhattan to live with her public relations executive older sister Val (Jennie Garth).

Holly's a spaz who can't even get her luggage out of the elevator without making a scene; Val is all loosey-goosey movement, a nervous smile and hair flipping.

Garth has surprisingly good comic timing; Bynes goes in for physical comedy, calling on skills she learned on Nickelodeon's sketch comedy show "All That."

In tonight's premiere, everyone gets a little physical, falling over sofas, causing a skateboarder to crash into a table covered with food, etc.

"What I Like About You" is harmless fluff that won't impress its intended pre-teen audience, but they'll watch anyway.

'Greetings from Tucson'

(9:30 tonight, The WB)

A genial, if run-of-the-mill sitcom told from the point of view of 15-year-old David (Pablo Santos), "Tucson" focuses on members of a blended family. David's father, Joaquin (Julio Oscar Mechoso), is Mexican. His mom, Elizabeth (Rebecca Creskoff), is Irish-American.

David is frequently at odds with his traditional father, who wants his son to "fear and respect" him, which sends the boy to his irresponsible Uncle Ernesto (James Vargas) for answers his father feels like he should give.

(Local alert: In next week's episode watch for Pittsburgh native James Widdoes, who directed tonight's premiere, playing a neighbor.)

The composition of the cast and presence of a grandma (Lupe Ontiveros) makes the show structurally and thematically similar to ABC's "George Lopez Show," but "Tucson" is more entertaining and better written.

But it's not The WB's best Friday night sitcom. The returning "Reba" (9 tonight), with a greater focus on humor borne out of reality, continues to impress with snappy dialogue and a winning performance by star Reba McEntire. This is a family sitcom ABC wishes it had for its "Happy Hour" of 8 p.m. comedies.

Producers expressed frustration that "Reba" didn't deal realistically enough with the pregnancy of Reba's teen daughter last season. That's addressed in tonight's premiere when the daughter complains her crying baby is "like this tiny, angry guest that won't go away."

"Reba" is more grounded this season without sacrificing comedy. That's not a bad retooling.

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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