Cult TV shows are a strange beast.
When they air, they usually seize on a fanbase, and usually a devoted one at that, but these fanbases are never all that large. And that devotion translates into, at best, low ratings. And low ratings are something TV executives don’t like. Not one bit. So, more often than not, the show is canceled rather quickly.
But then something remarkable happens: the show finds a wider audience. In modern times, 3 big factors, word of mouth from the devoted to their friends, the usually quick availability of the show on DVD and the leaking of episodes onto the Internet (legally or illegally) help the show reach the audience that ignored it on television.
More often than not, this rise in prominence of the show usually coincides with the rise of its cast onto bigger and better things, including fame and steady employment.
There’s examples of this all over TV history. In the last decade, we’ve had shows like Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, Clerks: The Animated Series, and the recently-departed Terra Nova.
But today, I’d like to talk about the poster child for these sorts of shows: Firefly!!!
Originally airing on FOX in 2002, there were high hopes for this show, a space western created by now-geek god Joss Whedon, best known at the time (and still) for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. But those hopes didn’t translate into high ratings. Additionally, FOX shuffled the episodes out of their intended order, confusing many who tuned in from week to week. Lastly, the show was in the “Friday night death slot,” and…well, they call it that for a reason, y’know.
FOX, disappointed that Whedon hadn’t delivered, and perhaps blind to their own bungling, canceled the show in December of 2002, a scant three months after its debut.
But, like the original Star Trek of old, this show had found a devoted base. And it was those fans (called browncoats after the coat worn by main character Mal Reynolds) and their devotion that, 3 years later, prompted Universal Pictures to give Whedon a chance to wrap up the show’s universe with the big-budget feature film Serenity.
Ever since the show’s cancellation, almost all of the public faces involved have had a rise in their careers. The most prominent is undoubtedly Whedon himself. SInce Firefly and Serenity, he’s had another show on FOX, Dollhouse (which only lasted 2 seasons), made history with the short film Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a superhero musical he financed himself and distributed over the Internet for free during the 2008 Writer’s Guild of America Strike, and is currently poised to have a box-office smash with Marvel Studios’ The Avengers, which he both wrote and directed and comes out in May.
But the cast isn’t that far behind him in prominence.
Nathan Fillion, who starred on the show as lovable space captain Malcolm Reynolds, is now enjoying huge success as the star of ABC’s hit crime drama Castle, which is currently in its 4th season and has racked up a slew of popularity and critical success, with Fillion earning a People’s Choice Award for his work as the funny, unorthodox mystery writer Richard Castle, who solves crimes for the NYPD as a consultant. He has also voiced the superhero Green Lantern in two direct-to-DVD movies, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights and Justice League: Doom.
Of his co-stars, the biggest of them now are undoubtedly Adam Baldwin (who played mercenary Jayne Cobb), Alan Tudyk (ship’s pilot Wash) and Summer Glau (the mysterious teenage refugee River Tam).
Baldwin gained fame as CIA agent John Casey on the recently wrapped NBC action-comedy Chuck. Alan Tudyk stars on the hit ABC sitcom Suburgatory and has appeared in a wide range of films such as Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Glau moved on to another widely-praised yet little-watched show on FOX, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which was canceled after 2 seasons and is starring in the upcoming comedy The Knights of Badassdom.
As for the rest of the cast, Gina Torres (who played ship’s first mate and Wash’s wife Zoe) currently has a supporting role on the USA Network drama Suits, Jewel Staite and Sean Maher (mechanic Kaeley and ship’s medic Simon Tam) both have appeared on the SyFy TV series Warehouse 13, with Staite also having been a cast member on the network’s Stargate Atlantis and starring in the Canadian drama The LA Complex, which will premiere on the CW Network on April 24th. Ron Glass (the enigmatic Shephard Book), a character actor long before Firefly, has appeared on the one-season legal drama Shark and has appeared in films such as Lakeview Terrace.
Looking over this quite astounding body of work, it’s almost a blessing in hindsight that Firefly didn’t last that long, huh? Otherwise, these talented performers (and writer/director) would have never achieved the success they have now.
FOX must be kicking themselves. For, as Joni Mitchell once sang, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what ya got ’til it’s gone?”