Watching Firefly and reading some of the responses to it from back when it was first broadcast makes me wonder: how many series have been more well-received on DVD than on TV? I mean, for me, watching shows on disc long after they’re gone is par for the course, but I didn’t think that was the normal order of things.

I can see why the show might have had problems in its initial run, though. Fox chose to exclude the pilot and mix up the order of episodes, which — considering how continuity-heavy the show is — I imagine confused the heck out of audiences. Since so much of what makes the show and its cast likable are the little bits of character development that are sprinkled in amidst the action of the often stock A-plots (a train robbery here, a sinking ship there), scrambling that development could only serve to undermine the show’s potential emotional connection to the viewer.

Seeing everything in order, though, you can follow the relationships between the characters as they simmer and bubble over: Wash’s resentment of the war-forged bond between his wife Zoe and their captain Mal; the oddly easy, trash-talking camaraderie between preacher Book and mercenary Jayne; Kaylee’s growing affection for Simon and her growing fear of his deeply weird sister, River; the U.S.T. (Unresolved Sexual Tension) between Mal and Inara. Characters that could easily be cardboard cutouts (the Stoic Soldier, the Weenie Doctor, the Hooker With a Heart of Gold) play off of each other to become more than the sum of their stereotypes.

Even though the show contains plenty of po-mo formal trickery and became popular in the closed format of DVD, it exhibits some very traditional traits of television shows: nearly every episode involves a conflict that threatens the stability or safety of the “family,” and nearly every episode ends with the restoration and reinforcement of that familial stability. While this equilibrium is comforting and contributes to the likability of the characters, it also leaves the broader story arcs kind of hanging as we wait for the inevitable meltdown of the group dynamic that is a hallmark of Joss Whedon’s shows (cf. Angel Season 4 and Buffy Season 7). Not that I’m blaming the producers for some sort of failure of spirit: I can only assume that the show got cancelled while they were still establishing the players and their relationships, so that they could break them down and build them up again.

Watching a TV show with a long, ongoing story arc (Twin Peaks, Lost, etc.) is like reading a serialized novel (Dickens would have been a great TV producer), and watching them in a DVD box set is like getting the whole novel in a nice hardback binding. Watching Firefly, though, is like getting the nice binding with only half a novel in it, leaving the reader/viewer hanging. Hopefully the movie will tie up some of the many loose plot ends.