There are several things about Firefly that I can't stand – primarily, it's that Firefly masquerades as science-fiction. Foregoing the more superficial aspects of the genre, such as the spaceships and extra-terrestrial names, you're left with a pretty tacky western. You could try and look for the alien life, or the technological advancement, but you wouldn't really find it.
Firefly's characters are all stereotypes. There is the strong hearted, protective father figu– captain, Malcolm; there's Jayne, the muscular alpha male obsessed with guns; Zoe, the action figure/robot; Wash, the only-sometimes-funny witticism-dispenser; and Kaylee, the genius engineer who ensures the jargon-o-matic works. There are also some other losers: a wise, mysterious shepherd; a whore; some kid doctor from a well-off family; and the latter's autistic sister. Throughout the show, none of these characters really develop, and to see why, it's easiest to examine them individually:
I'm told that Firefly has an ensemble cast, but it really seems like this guy always has the final/only word. Yeah, he's the captain, but he's the captain of a bunch of criminals, who defer to him primarily because he gets them miscellaneous jobs (never the corresponding wealth, though). I guess I'm trying to say that it's inexplicable that Malcolm is able to maintain order aboard Serenity, because aside from the script, nothing should really be keeping the clashing personalities of the crew from... well, clashing. According to the show, the crew is quite diverse, originating from a variety of planets and having various upbringings, and yet, everyone gets along – and when the token dissenter, Jayne, seems to cross some sort of line (every episode), Malcolm emptily threatens to kick the former off the ship, and within a few scenes, everything is back to normal. In this sense, Malcolm holds an unrealistic amount of power – it's never really explained why everyone aboard the ship is so friendly towards one another, and evidence is eventually given showing that Malcolm actually made for a pretty lousy leader in the war (or if you count the first scene, you're set). In a word, it's just kind of dumb.
Aside from this, Malcolm serves as Whedon's vessel for the anti-authority theme. He is a survivor of the war, a proud hater of the Alliance, and is always on the lookout for a way to screw said party over. Unlike a believable, meaningful rebel, however, Malcolm, and for that matter, his crew, is never really in danger from the Alliance. Malcolm mostly prances about, delivering vapid remarks about the evils of the Alliance, but never goes so far as to explain or provide the necessary context for why the Alliance is evil. On the contrary, several times, Malcolm informs the audience as to the good that the Alliance has brought the world – the inner planets are well-kept, have access to a superior standard of life, and are generally safe from harm. Furthermore, Malcolm never defines the Alliance as anything other than an assumably evil entity, so the audience has little context with which to view the Alliance in a negative light – never is there a mention of the evildoings of the Alliance, aside from the experiments conducted on River (which isn't actually something Malcolm brings up himself anyway). In short, Malcolm is a teenager trapped in a grown man's body; he is prone to boredom, constantly seeks adventure, and wants to stick it to the man, although he won't really say why.
Zoe doesn't amount to much. Not in terms of plot, nor character. She is married to Wash. She was a soldier. She goes on missions with Malcolm, to which she brings a gun. What is it that Zoe contributes to this show again...? Perhaps the most you can say of Zoe is that she is a bit of a badass, but even that much is little praise when you consider that Book is supposed to be a priest, yet delivers 100% more badassery than Zoe per episode anyway. Seriously, it's like Zoe is some kind of action figure – she has absolutely no personality, and we're supposed to believe that she has chemistry with Wash. Yeah, good one – Zoe and Wash being married makes about as much sense as a single, run-down ship constantly thwarting the über-powerful Allian–
Every time this guy opens his mouth, I grimace. The thing about comedic relief is that it has to actually be comedic – and Wash just isn't funny. But maybe this is more of a subjective thing. Aside from this, Wash's only other function on the show is to act as the moral compass, although only for a few minutes, since aside from that drugs thing, no one ever listens anyway. I'm really at a loss about what to write for Wash, since like Zoe, he doesn't have much personality, and doesn't do all that much aside from piloting the ship. Perhaps this is fitting, however, since the previously mentioned Zoe is similar in this regard – and by sticking the two together, perhaps Whedon thought he'd get a single, whole character out of the mix.
What a shame. Jewel Staite is probably the best actress on Firefly, but she ended up being the most clichéd character, too. It doesn't help that any time Kaylee is involved, there is a bunch of space-jargon, though maybe this is a parallel of sorts for Kaylee's character – she's sort of nonsensical. While it's explained how Kaylee ever came aboard Serenity, she is probably the crew member least likely to conceivably want to stay: Malcolm captains the ship, and is invested in it; Zoe is loyal to the former due to the war; Wash is married to Zoe and will always defer to her; Inara has a mobile fuckpad attached the ship; Simon and River need a place to hide; and Book probably has a story explaining his reasons that he isn't going to share. Kaylee, however, has a lucrative set of talents easily marketable in the world Firefly presents, potential severance pay she wouldn't have a particularly hard time negotiating from Malcolm, and a reasonable incentive to leave given that she is portrayed as having an aversion to the violence that often befalls the crew. And yet, Kaylee champions on, for no clear reason other than to get laid. Such a shame.
This guy is a joke. Every time he puts down his foot, Malcolm swoops in, threatens to kick him off the ship, and Jayne reverts to complacency. Supposedly, Jayne is the alpha male of the group, although River's inclusion kind of overshadows Jayne's otherwise superior physical prowess – so as far as being the muscle, Jayne already kind of fails. There's really not much else to this guy... he has that one trope going for him where he's constantly feminized – the name should be obvious enough, but there's the episode about the entire town in his name where he has an emotional breakdown of sorts. It's some cool character stuff, but after that episode, it never really comes up again. Beyond this, Jayne is pretty stereotypical: muscular, in love with guns, dumb, and always the first to think of a violent solution.
Joss Whedon can certainly be praised for ever doing Buffy, a show that was feminist during a time no other show really was (well, except for Star Trek: Voyager). But then he made Inara, a character which stands to shit all over that progress. Respectable prostitution. Let that settle for a moment. This is what the audience is made to believe about Inara's profession – that being a Companion entails all the elements of prostitution, yet eschews the degradation inherent in selling yourself for sex. It's a sort of facade – because Inara picks her own clients, and because Inara is well-educated, she is not selling herself short when she sleeps with men (or women) she has never met before, for a living. If anything, the opposite is true: a character this well-off should be doing something, anything else. Yet, as the lore of Firefly explains, being a Companion is a thing of high regard, with such a status being very difficult to maintain – although it's never really explained why. As the facts are presented, nothing actually distinguishes the intelligence Inara must possess from the intelligence Kaylee or Simon or River have; they are all gifted human beings. And yet, as Firefly shows us, the pinnacle of respectability, once a woman is so educated and versed in the 'verse, means becoming a whore and literally owning a flying fuckpad. The only other Companion of note, Saffron, doesn't do the Guild any favors, either, since she is a manipulative, thieving criminal. Well, I guess that's not really a good example, since Inara is pretty much a criminal herself, what with helping Malcolm with his shenanigans. It ends up being very unfortunate, because like Jewel Staite, Morena Baccarin is a wonderful actress.
To Firefly's defense, Book's character arc was likely not intended to be explored until well into the second or further seasons, and as such, calling Book shallow is pretty pointless. However, what can be said is that for the spiritual man he is supposed to be, Book is hardly ever seen praying, or relating at all to the words of God, aside from the occasional, unrelated biblical quotation. So, again, unfortunately, Book gets the short end of the stick, because FOX had the good sense to cancel the show. As it stands, Book radiates intrigue and mystery, but Firefly was never given the chance to let the audience in on his secrets.
Simon is the central component in the arc about the evils of the Alliance, but because of the ridiculous nature of the show, danger was always warded off with the proper gunshot or asinine trick. As such, every time Simon's tirades about River's mistreatment are substantiated, the audience is cheated out of a payoff. It is probably the case for Simon that his character benefits the most from the context and lore that the film provides, since it demonstrates his love and caring for River in a manner not entirely composed of whiny wool-gathering. As it stands, however, Firefly offers little in terms of Simon's role as a brother, since he is consistently incapable of demonstrating his connection to River because the two have significantly less screen time than the rest of the cast. Simon is a cool guy, and is certainly well-acted, but ends up not mattering so much because the majority of his involvement has him stitching people up and not developing as a character. Further, as the show progresses, the emphasis on the dangers of the Tams' ordeal shifts towards River, and Simon's involvement in his sister's arc doesn't end up notably differing from the rest of the crew – like them, he is understandably in awe, but it lets the show down when his familial bond with River doesn't end up influencing his involvement with her, aside from a few remarks about it all being the fault of the Alliance.
I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but River Tam is another unfortunate case of a character with the potential to be interesting, that was let down by the structure of the show. Namely, as increasing layers of River's past are unfolded, the process becomes increasingly rewarding to watch, but eventually, because the Alliance ends up being kind of a joke, it's just hard to take the whole thing seriously – how bad could it have been if all it takes to break into one of the most heavily-guarded Alliance facilities is a fake ambulance and a corpse? The show is simply too cheery and swashbuckling for any darker themes to remain so, and as such, River ends up wasted (until the last episode, anyway). It should be noted, though, that River is in the same boat as Book – unfairly unfinished.
Have you noticed the pattern yet, among the characters? The question is too vague, and fans often dismiss the issue anyway, but it's that not a single one of them is Asian. Left unexplored is the notion that being the other superpower in the world, China colonized planets alongside the United States when Earth was no longer a desirable habitat – it makes sense of all the Chinese that constantly appears on the show. Why then, is it the case that there is not a single Asian character on the show? And why does everyone only use Chinese to curse? Do the Chinese only curse in English?
The whole thing feels sort of hackneyed, like the Western theme that Whedon constantly forces onto the show. It's ironic, almost, that Whedon felt it necessary to inject so many comparisons between the swashbuckling space-adventure and the older times of the cowboys – it's just completely unnecessary. Perhaps he simply saw too much Star Trek, and decided that he was going to take the theme of the final frontier more literally; nearly every planet on the outer rim has people illogically riding horses and wearing 1800s attire – how in fuck does it make sense to terraform a planet just to end up using technology that's centuries old? Surely something newer and more efficient exists, but Firefly never really bothers. Maybe bonnets are just making a comeback.
Overall, Firefly could have been pretty good. But it wasn't. So FOX cancelled it.