Two TV Series That Weren’t: Serenity and Mulholland Drive

The networks axed Firefly and Mulholland Drive before they could find life. What might they have been like in the long run?

I’ve never seen the pilot to Twin Peaks.

Even though it’s one of my favorite shows ever, Twin Peaks is one of those programs I inhaled on video – VHS, of course, seeing as how they’ve yet to release its second season on DVD in the states. The only version of the pilot episode I’ve seen is a truncated version with a different ending that Lynch and company shot to make the pilot work as a movie, no doubt so they would have something to release in case ABC didn’t pick up the pilot. The Twin Peaks pilot-as-movie thingy works fine; it’s still much cooler than most movie thrillers out there. Furthermore, in Mulholland Drive, we got to see one of those rejected-TV-pilots-as-full-length-narrative onscreen without ever having seen the complete series to go with it, and like the abruptly ending non-pilot to Peaks, Mulholland Drive works fine as a movie, but I wonder what would have become of Robert Forster’s character, or the two guys in the Denny’s with the creepy homeless guy out back had Lynch been given a full TV series to work with. True, as a network series, we wouldn’t have received the mind-blowing lesbian sex scene, but just think how satisfying it would have been to go through, say, 30 or 32 episodes – well into the second season – before having Lynch reveal to us that the whole Nancy Drew/Hollywood starlet sequence was a pipe dream of Naomi Watts’ pissed-off lesbian character. Then we would have had the rest of season two to sort through that narrative wreckage before the season two finale, which would no doubt feature the second appearance of the Cowboy to deal with Justin Theroux, who by the end of the second season would be quite ready to fire his leading lady. And then in season three, would Lynch shuffle his deck of characters again? What would have happened?

So, no surprise here: I’m a huge Firefly fan, and I miss the series.

Serenity is an astounding success on every level: It works as a movie for psychotic browncoats and novices alike. It expands and enriches the already delectable Firefly universe (or “verse” in psychotic browncoat parlance). It answers a bunch of key questions raised in the series while raising still others. It has some deeply satisfying moments and some typically Whedonesque soap-opera cruelty. It sets up the franchise for a movie trilogy or – dare I dream – a return of the series.

But we all know that the material covered in Serenity – just as the material covered in Mulholland Drive – would have been more than enough for at least two or three seasons worth of great TV.

Incidentally, episodic television has enjoyed a great coming-of-age in the last decade or so. I’m far from the first geekazoid pundit to note this, but with the advent if Buffy the Vampire Slayer and HBO (that wonderful juggernaut of good original programming), TV has raised the bar extremely high. It’s opened up creative avenues for great talents whose work would probably get fucked up in the big movie studio machine – like, say, Joss Whedon’s did with his film version of Buffy and his script of Alien Resurrection. Whedon found a worthy home on TV, and while it’s a terrible shame that the fuckbrains at Fox didn’t get Firefly, it’s an even bigger shame that from here on out, the only new Firefly footage we’re going to get is going to be onscreen.

(If we even get that. Boxofficemojo reports that Serenity opened at number two with about 10 million – lukewarm at best. Hopefully word-of-mouth will expand its appeal.)

Having said all this, let me emphasize that despite their similarities, Serenity is a far more successful movie than Mulholland Drive. I don’t mean to compare their artistic merits – Whedon and Lynch don’t have much in common besides an affection for goodheartedness – but Serenity works better as a full-length narrative because that’s what Whedon wrote it to be. Lynch clearly got screwed by ABC, and he slapped an ending onto Mulholland Drive.

Just imagine how much cooler both of these projects would have been, though, as TV series. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine a parallel universe where Firefly is well into its third season on a Fox that never canceled it, and where Mulholland Drive found a home on the eminent Home Box Office. (Yes, yes, I’m putting it on HBO so we can retain the hot lesbian sex. Sue me.)

Serenity follows a strong three-act structure. No surprise there. But a decent chunk of its first act is exposition. No great sin, and Whedon dispenses with it in quick and lively fashion, spreading it out over an interactive class session in his future dystopia and throughout a long, one-shot scene where he introduces all but two of Firefly’s regulars and sets up the movie’s first set piece, a bank heist that gets interrupted by the marauding cannibal-rapist-wacko reavers.

There’s the finale for season one, folks. Inara and Book leave the crew, Mal and the others go on a few more adventures, and by season’s end, the Serenity crew are in the same dire financial straits as they were in the pilot, which forces them to knock over a well-protected bank that’s closely associated with the uber-utopio-fascists of the Alliance. End season one with this cliffhanger: They’re trapped in the bank with reavers at the gates.

As for Mulholland Drive: The Series, I personally hope that parallel-universe Lynch would continue to probe the mixing-and-missing identities madness he so expertly explores in the Mulholland Drive film as well as its cinematic counterpart, the toweringly kick-ass Lost Highway. Now, Mulholland Drive isn’t as obtuse as Highway; the second half, though still kooky, is pretty clearly the “real” world, while the first half is Naomi Watt’s jilted-lover fantasy. The best I can make of Highway is that Robert Blake’s nameless creepozoid is some kind of all-powerful, all-perverted dispenser of justice who decides to keep poor Fred Madison and Peter Dayton in an endless time loop for who knows what reason. Lost Highway is nightmare made real; Mulholland Drive is wish-fulfillment made real … only to collapse under the truth of despair and heartbreak.

And speaking of parallel-universe Lynch: In Twin Peaks, Lynch took the chance to make real and concrete one of his grandest creations, the bizarre, red-curtained netherworld where agent Cooper remains trapped at series’ end. Lynch took one of he greatest chances a purveyor of horror can take: he made his horror real, and he gave it a name, The Black Lodge (and its benevolent counterpart, the White Lodge, though we didn’t see much of it). Lynch even had the military get involved in the search for the Black Lodge, and in taking such a turn for the Mulder, Lynch risked losing the mystery surrounding this crazy place.

But he didn’t. Somehow, he didn’t, and the finale of Twin Peaks remains one of the proudest moments in all of cinema. (I’ll get to two more proud moments in cinema history in a moment, one in Twin Peaks and one in Serenity.) I humbly submit to Mr. Parallel Universe David Lynch, wherever he is, that he should take Mulholland Drive in the same X-Files-y direction and challenge his characters with an actual breakdown of the barriers between parallel universes.

Yeah, yeah – I know. You think I’m an idiot. You think that inserting a sci-fi plotline, no matter how elegantly played, would sully the otherwise trippy experience of a Mulholland Drive TV series.

Well, consider this: What if Naomi Watts’ angry, jilted, butch lesbian character actually, literally slipped into the Nancy Drew fantasy world? What if the angry lesbian actually met a Rita/Camilla Rhodes who was attracted to her? Or what if she met her bouncy-bubblegum-blonde Nancy Drew counterpart?

I rest my case, and further submit that Michael J. Anderson’s man-behind-the-mike character could act as a benevolent agent pitted against Monty Mongomery’s hokey-as-hell-on-earth Cowboy. Maybe Lynch could even slip in a back-door return to the Twin Peaks narrative. Could you imagine if the Evil-Bob-possessed Coop reemerged in season three of Mulholland Drive and forced sheriff Truman to travel to Los Angeles to team up with agent Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) to not only stop Evil Bob/Coop, not only rescue the good Coop from the Black Lodge, but also to realign the universes?

Do you think Naomi Watts’ jilted lover would willingly leave the Nancy Drew fantasy universe and return to being sad and alone? Can you imagine a black-hearted alliance between her and Evil Bob/Coop to forever jumble reality?

(Let’s take a few breaths so we can all stop salivating over the idea of a return to Twin Peaks under any circumstances.)

I promised earlier that I would recount two of the proudest moments in the history of cinema. Here they are:

Midway through season two of Twin Peaks, we discover that Laura Palmer’s murderer was her father (Robert Wise), possessed by the wandering evil spirit named Bob. Mr. Palmer himself realizes this and has a nervous breakdown on the floor of his jail cell. Agent Cooper kneels over him and gives him a non-denominational absolution.

I single out this moment because Lynch takes an already beautiful scene and catapults it into the stratosphere with a goofy device: he makes the sprinkler system in the jail malfunction and drench everyone inside, and though I’m loathe to categorize the malfunctioning sprinklers under the hoary junior high literary device of “cleansing rain,” Lynch revitalizes this cliché with such reverent irreverence that I don’t mind.

Serenity begins with one such proud moment. The movie opens with a flashback to an event only spoken of in the series: Simon Tam’s (Sean Maher) rescue of his sister, River Tam (Summer Glau) from a government laboratory. We then see that the flashback is actually a holographic record of the event being watched by the movie’s villain, the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The Operative then executes the government doctor (Michael Hitchcock) who witnessed River’s escape by paralyzing him with a blow to a nerve cluster and allowing the doctor to fall on the Operative’s own sword.

“This is a good death,” the Operative says to the dying doctor, continuing into a nondenominational absolution, assuring him that despite his incompetence, he has done his part to make the world “better.” The Operative assures the doctor that he should feel no shame in his death. He assures him.

Whedon’s characters talk to each other. Growing up so many bad movies pissed me off because the characters never said what I wanted them to say. I hated it when characters in murder mysteries didn’t ask the right questions, and I hated it even more when characters in straight dramas didn’t say the right things to resolve disputes with family or friends. Granted, I didn’t understand at the time that people very seldom say the perfect thing to resolve a dispute – if they did, we wouldn’t have any drama – but I was on to something; I was already starting to recognize clichés in writing. Whedon recognizes clichés, too, and he’s elevated cliché-busting to an Olympic sport.

I’m at a loss to describe how wonderful and refreshing it is to hear an arch-villain assure his victim that his death is honorable and really, truly mean it. Whedon explores the themes of faith and belief in Serenity – two thematic standbys for him – and he does so by showing us the Operative, a character awash in belief. This guy believes in the Alliance with such innocent totalitarianism that he doesn’t hesitate to later admit that his actions are categorically evil – another speech that he delivers with utter, non-clichéd calm.

But despite the strength of the Operative character, I still missed those scary bastards with the blue hands from the series. I also suspect that the Operative may have been a stand in for those guys. In making this movie, Whedon had the clout to score some great actors for the “guest” starring roles, and he got one in Ejiofor, who might be the best actor in the universe. Had the events of Serenity taken place over the course of the series, I imagine we would have seen more of the “two-by-two, hands of blue” baddies … and I also imagine we still would have seen Wash take a tree to the chest after a heroic landing.

Listen, all you fellow browncoats out there reading: I’m right there with you. Wash’s death floored me. I expected Book to die, but I was stunned that Whedon killed off the Xander of Firefly in the movie, and I must also admit that I find the prospect of another Firefly movie or TV series much grimmer without a wisecracking goofball at the helm of Serenity.

But look at Whedon’s track record with couples in his shows:

Buffy and Angel. After they boink for the first time, Angel transforms into the must-be-killed-at-all-costs arch-villain of season two. Buffy eventually sends him to a hell-dimension to avert the apocalypse-of-the-week. They have a few more near-misses, but never connect.

Giles and Jenny. In one of the first great examples of Whedon’s sick sense of romance, our favorite tweedy mentor finds a match in the school’s resident pagan-techno-witch/heart-stoppingly hot MILF — only to lose her to a spin-the-dish neck-snap, courtesy of a fully vamped and soulless Angel.

Xander and Cordelia. Happy couple until Cordelia falls on a spike. She lives but eventually catches Xander smooching with Willow. They break up.

Buffy and Riley. They last about three-quarters of a season until Buffy blows it and Riley bolts for black-ops duty. He shows up happy, scarred and married in the ultra-depressing sixth season just to twist the fucking knife.

Willow and Oz. A happy couple for about a season until Willow finds out that Oz pulled a John Proctor with a luscious lycanthrope babe in season four. They break up, Oz vanishes, Willow switches sexual orientations, which brings us to …

Willow and Tara. Happy couple until Willow gets hooked on witchcraft. As soon as they make up, Tara gets shot in the head.

Buffy and Spike. Another kinda-long-running couple. Spike actually gets a soul to win Buffy’s affection, only to sacrifice himself in the series finale.

Xander and Anya. Whedon’s longest-running happy couple. They last until the Buffy series finale, where Anya gets killed by a supervamp.

 

Angel and Cordelia. They dance around each other until they almost hook up, but on their way to meet for their first steamy date, the Powers that Be promote Cordy to demigod. Later she shows up in one of those “holy-shit-she-was-a-ghost-the-whole-time” guest-starring roles.

Wesley and Lilah. A threnody of grudge-fucking until Lilah dies and goes to hell.

Fred and Gunn. Happy couple until Gunn kills some guy in cold blood and Fred bails.

Wesley and Fred. Happy couple for half a goddamn fucking episode until Fred catches some exotic, demonic ailment and fucking dies.

Have I made my point? Did I fucking miss anyone? Have all you glutton-for-punishment Joss Whedon fans realized by now that becoming romantically involved with someone in the Whedonverse is like signing a treaty with Nazi Germany? That it means you’re fucking doomed? This is the Whedonesque soap-opera cruelty I mentioned earlier. Whedon likes to torture his fans, and he wrings a lot of drama out of his material by doing so. Wash and Zoe were already having marital trouble in the 14 episodes of Firefly released on DVD. Had the show progressed, they either would have become estranged, or, perhaps later in season two or three, Wash would have taken a tree to the chest. If there’s a sequel to Serenity, I am fully prepared for Simon to fall off a cliff or Kaylee to die saving Serenity from a core breach in vintage Spock-in-Wrath-of-Khan fashion or some such heart-breaking shit. Fuck, I don’t even want to imagine what gruesome fate awaits Mal or Inara if they ever hook up.

All in favor of a “look but don’t touch” policy for the captain and their resident registered companion say aye! Aye!

But back to my thesis: the big plot twist in Serenity – that the Alliance accidentally created the marauding reavers while testing an airborne mind-control drug – would have made a great cliffhanger for season two. In the finale to season two, we would see the Serenity crew watching the holographic tape that reveals the Alliance’s blunder, and we could then follow them all the way to Mr. Universe’s blog-o-planet, where Wash could take a tree to the chest and the crew would find themselves trapped and surrounded by reavers – to be continued!

Season three would then open with the resolution of this situation, with the third season premiere episode bringing us to the end of the events in Serenity.

OK, enough speculative blather. Let’s celebrate Joss Whedon’s first fully successful movie on his own terms. Yes, he’s known for some great script polishes – the venerable Toy Story springs to mind – but Serenity is his first triumph in movie theaters, and it’s both long overdue and well-deserved.

Whedon has a better Millenium Falcon in his Serenity, and he has a more compelling Han Solo in Nathan Fillion’s pitch-perfect Mal Reynolds. I once described Reynolds as a Han Solo who went back to the Death Star and missed, and a Captain Kirk who never got laid. Well, Mal’s still a lonely guy in Serenity, but this guy would never have returned to the Death Star … at least not until this movie. Whedon and Fillion show us the journey that Han must have made after he left Yavin IV laden with the Rebels’ booty; the decision he must have made to accept a purpose into his life.

I must further praise Whedon for Shepherd Book’s cameo. Yes, we all wanted to see Ron Glass as a kickass preacher again, but Whedon doesn’t waste his screentime; no, Book shows up to deliver the movie’s theme: the importance of belief. Not necessarily belief in god, but belief in something, whether it be a cause, yourself or your friends.

Like David Lynch, Whedon believes in evil, but unlike Lynch, Whedon believes we should fight it. I’m not saying Lynch thinks we should capitulate to the forces of evil, but I do think Lynch sees the battle as an inevitable win for the forces of good. Whedon believes no such thing. As Dr. McCoy said in the original Star Trek, “Evil will win unless good is very, very careful.” Whedon takes it a step further, bringing the fight to evil’s doorstep, and he handles the tricky and volatile issue of morality with grace and maturity, and he delivers his ever-so-welcome homilies with wit and heart-breaking gravity. I don’t know how he does it.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: movies and TV shows like Serenity, Firefly, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway are not movies and TV shows; movie theaters and TV sets are merely their chariots. We’re lucky to have Joss Whedon, and don’t forget it.