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Lately I've had a lot of studying and writing to do, which is a surefire recipe for procrastination. Between Serenity and the new season of Spooks, I feel like I've been mainlining TV episodes for the better part of two weeks. While more legal than your standard narcotics, this is still not recommended as a method for improving productivity. However, it has gotten me to thinking about both shows. It's a little hard for me to figure out why I'm so taken with both right now (OK, avoidance of productivity, but let's pass over that) as I've always thought of myself as a serially monogamous fan (but let's pass over that as well). Both series have strongly devoted watchers but never achieved broad appeal in the US. I've been thinking about why this is.

With Firefly (and the Serenity movie), I think the main stumbling block was getting the non-casual watcher to appreciate the premise of the show. The basic framework -- episodic drama/action adventure/comedy -- was sound and allowed for a lot of flexibility. The long-term story arcs gave them seasonal structure. The sticking point seems to be the mishmash of genres, namely, the space-western aspects. Now, lots of sci-fi shows (good and bad) have basically been Westerns set in the future. The mismatched crew brought together by fate and having adventures far from help -- it's classic. But instead of just taking Western archetype characters and putting them in lycra and Western archetype situations, Firefly literally went and made the future look like the Old West. (Or, in Heart of Gold, the Old West covered in glued-on poptart wrappers.) It was kind of weird. Personally, I didn't mind. But when I loaned my DVD's to two separate friends and took them to see "Serenity," both took quiet a while getting over the whole Western/sci-fi fusion.

While they certainly added flavor, I don't know that the Western costumes, the horses, cows, and yokels with twangy accents were really necessary to make me love the show. Out of Gas and Ariel left out the more overt Western elements but used the same underlying ideas, and they are, in my opinion, two of the strongest episodes. Also, they seem to be pretty popular among fans.

Don't get me wrong. I love Firefly. The characters were absolutely amazing, and I can't believe how much was done with them in half a season and one feature film. The individual episodes, while somewhat uneven, are generally excellent, and three (Out of Gas, Ariel, and Serenity the original pilot) absolutely hit the ball out of the park. But after seeing both the TV series and film fail to catch the attention of the mainstream audience, I do have to wonder why.

And since I'd prefer not to think the answer has to do with the abysmal taste of the American mainstream audience, let's move on Spooks.

In case you're not familiar with it, Spooks is a BBC-made series about the lives of intelligence officers in the British national security service (MI-5). (If you're in the US like I am, it airs in the US on A&E as MI-5.) It is a spy drama with a character emphasis in which the protagonists divide their time between saving the U.K. with their undercover work and technical savvy, mulling over ethical dilemmas, and most unsuccessful efforts at having personal lives.

The plots tend to be grounded in recent events and concerns (a lot of home grown and Middle Eastern terrorist groups) and, unlike Alias, there are no fantasy or sci-fi elements. While probably not a totally realistic portrayal of life inside MI-5 (unless the same group of 8 incredibly attractive officers can somehow save an entire country several times a season), there is an authentic feel to it, in that we see what they do, how they do it, and how they work together. I find the show consistently pretty well-written, with a nice blend of suspense, action, character moments, moral pondering, and dry wit. My biggest complaint is that the American characters are usually played by British actors with resulting accents that can most politely be described as having room for improvement. Now I know how British viewers must feel, watching Americans attempt British accents.

I was surprised that this series didn't become more popular in the US because it seems to me like a superior version of shows like 24 and Alias. Better dialogue, better characterization, good plots, fewer contrived situations and plot twists pulled out of the writers', erm, sleeves -- what's not to like? The seasons are much shorter (this year, 10 episodes per season) and, in keeping with British TV, actor/character turnover can be quite high. Also, I admit the third season was a little uneven, hampered by the departures of three main cast members. On the other hand, the acting (American accents aside) is uniformly wonderful. The main cast is great, and somehow the show continues to find absolutely amazing guest stars of many different ethnic backgrounds.

So, why don't more Americans watch this show? On a logistical level, I think the American version doesn't get much audience exposure on A&E, which I tend to think of as the channel with syndicated Angel and endless episodes Law & Order. Also, the versions aired in the US are about 45 minutes long compared to the 57 minute versions aired in Britain. Not surprisingly, you really can tell that stuff is missing!

When you get down to it, Spooks is very British (think John LeCarre with a touch of Oscar Wilde and cast from the pages of Vogue), and I do wonder if that might also make it less accessible to the American audience. In particular, the portrayal of the American intelligence services and actions of the American government can be very pointed. However, it's always grounded in truth, and I personally enjoy getting to see more of the world's perspective.

Spooks tends to spend less time on its characters than most of my favorite shows, so I never thought it would make it onto my must-see list. But this season (the 4th) has turned out to be absolutely addictive. I've seen 9 episodes in 48 hours and I feel like someone who has mainlined great drama and is still looking for a fix.

Overall, I think these two shows are pretty dissimilar in premise, but have great writing and performances. If I had to pick one I'd go with Firefly as I'm more attached to the characters, but fortunately I don't have to pick one! It's a shame that neither got the attention it deserved, but that won't stop me from enjoying both shows.
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July 2012

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