O Joss! My Joss!

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

I'm left with nothing to do but replay the great moments of TV 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 spin-off Angel, which really came into its own during the 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 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. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Mal) and his crew were 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 were fleeing after an unsuccessful uprising against the Alliance, the government that held "the inner planets" in a choke hold of economic and military domination. Others were 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.

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's characters are too big and complex for TV - 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 marry 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 I struggle with every day - and watching other people deal with them has really helped me understand that life is meaningful and that there are countless diverse ways in which 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 Lucaks, because I was always partial to the Lucaks 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 that 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.

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