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Oh Joss! My Joss!

By Annalee Newitz

IT'S BEEN almost over a year since the last drop of Joss got wrung out of television, and still I can barely stand to turn on the damn thing. Oh sure, there's the fleeting joy of The Daily Show, but that's just ephemeral—it leaves you feeling cold and alone. And there are the dubious charms of Lost, but its cookie-cutter plotlines and beefy male stereotypes are barely worth enduring to reach the show's few moments of brilliant creepiness. I don't do C.S.I., so let's not even go there, OK?

I'm left with nothing to do but replay the great moments of television glory that came to me from the brain of Joss Whedon, the world's greatest mainstream pop culture nerd. First, Joss gave me some of my favorite episodes of Roseanne, back in the years when Darlene dyed her hair black and became a comic-book nerd. Then—O glory!—he got his own show: a dark coming-of-age-with-fangs drama called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy begat the spinoff Angel, which really came into its own during its final season when it centered on what happens when a bad vampire becomes a good vampire who runs an evil law firm.

Things in Jossland got even more interesting in 2002 when he launched the experimental series Firefly, a cross between science fiction and the Western. It sounds insane, but the show actually worked—our heroes with their jalopy spaceship Serenity were cowboys on the galactic frontier. But they were more than that—Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Mal) and his crew are all political rebels of a sort, a much-needed cultural perspective during an era of political conformity and pseudo-imperialist war-making. Some of the characters are fleeing after an unsuccessful uprising against the Alliance, the government that holds "the inner planets" in a chokehold of economic and military domination. Others are running from backwater planets or mysterious circumstances we never got to learn about because the show was canceled before the end of the first season.

So why was Firefly canceled? And why was Angel canceled after what was arguably its most complicated and mind-bending season? Some say it's because Joss' characters are too big and complex for television—and indeed, he has just completed a movie version of Firefly, due out next fall (yay!). Others say Joss is no longer part of our regular weekly programming because fantasy and science fiction are just too retro-20th-century.

In the 21st century, audiences want to see "real" people dealing with "real" issues—you know, like being stranded in a multimillion-dollar mansion with a bunch of craven anorexics trying to win the hand of a mousse-headed twit. Or being forced to live under surveillance while rooming with Vanilla Ice. Or trying to win the respect of Donald Trump, Richard Branson or Tyra Banks. Yup, these are the kinds of real issues that I struggle with every day—and watching other people deal with them has really helped me understand that life is not only meaningful, but that there are countless diverse ways that we create hope for ourselves. Not.

If reality banished Joss from TV, then I'm convinced reality is going to ruin pop culture. There was more truth in a single episode of Buffy or Firefly than there is in the entire two-year run of The Swan. I don't want to sound like Theodor Adorno bashing on Georg Lukacs, because I was always partial to the Lukacs side of that debate. But if the point of pop culture is to feed our imaginations—and I'm sure even the most cravenly commercial masters of the mainstream media like Steven Spielberg would agree with me here—then losing Joss is a harbinger of terrible things to come. People need overtly fictional stories in order to escape from the grind of reality. At its best, fiction reminds us not to trap ourselves in the narrow kinds of thinking that make us believe we must look like beauty contestants to be happy, or that people will always betray each other to survive.

Joss, for his part, is going to be OK: he's working on the Firefly movie, and he wrote the single most popular comic-book series of the past year: Astonishing X-Men (which, incidentally, dealt with why it's better to live in fantasy mutant world than in normal-person reality). But the fact that Joss is working in pay-per-installment media like movies and comic books makes me worry that the world's most popular medium, TV, is going to be more impoverished than ever.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd whose favorite reality TV show, 'Rendez-View,' was also canceled.

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From the December 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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