The answer to the question in the blog post title is: "Of course not." In the strictest sense, no sci-fi show is overrated, because people in general ought to watch more sci-fi and less of whatever they're watching now. Science fiction has taken over movies, but not TV. Fortunately, with great programs like Black Mirror, Stranger Things, etc., there's still lots of good stuff out there.
But Firefly, more than probably any other show, holds a special place in the heart of my generation of geek-Americans. And it really is a great show. It's consistently at the top of user-generated lists of the best sci-fi shows ever. It's the subject of countless...OK, I'm not even going to finish this paragraph, because we all know that all geeks love Firefly like economists love envelope theorems.
Well, maybe not all geeks. A few have been known to write grumpy Tumblr posts about how the show is racist and/or sexist. But aggrieved identity-politics driven Tumblr rants are like death and taxes, except that Peter Thiel can escape the latter two.
But buried deep within those overdone rants, I see the seeds of something that really did make Firefly different from other sci-fi TV shows - besides the snappier dialogue and Western motif, I mean. It has to do with the culture the series drew on for its mythos. Firefly was, at its root, a Southern show.
First of all, there's the well-known connection of the Firefly backstory to the Confederacy - Joss Whedon has said that the show was inspired by a Civil War novel. The Browncoats are the Rebs, and the Alliance is the U.S. Mal is the outlaw/pioneer/cowboy who went West after the Lost Cause was lost. Everyone knows that. But Firefly's connections to the South are more cultural than political. Almost every character on the show is some sort of traditional Southern stereotype.
Mal is the classic ideal of the Southern gentleman. He's brave, rigidly honorable, quick to violence...gallant, protective, and respectful toward women. He's sharp and clever but no intellectual. I imagine him as a planter's son from Virginia, who can trace his ancestors back to the Cavaliers in the English Civil War.
Jayne is the poor white Southern guy. He's the overseer, the patroller, the farm hand. He's tough, mean, not too bright, selfish, opportunistic, uneducated, and a bully. He's often the villain of the show, barely kept in check by Mal's aristocratic alpha-male dominance. He's shown improving a bit as the show goes on, though of course it was canceled before this could get very far.
Inara is the fallen Southern belle - the kind of woman who once ruled a plantation, then was forced to prostitute herself to make ends meet after the war, but who still maintains some kind of honor and dignity. An R-rated Scarlett O'Hara.
Wash and Zoe are the Yankees (despite the fact that Zoe fought for the Browncoats, which is something I suspect Whedon threw in to muddy the parallels a bit). Wash is a geek, effeminate, playing with his dinosaur toys - Jayne calls him "little man." He's somewhat dominated by his wife, who is strong, independent, and sexually uninhibited. They're also a mixed-race couple, which of course was a Southern stereotype of the North. Shepherd Book is a black man whose violent past has been tamed by the civilizing power of Christianity. Kaylee is a simple backwoods country girl. The doctor and River are also Yankees, though they are external plot drivers and hence less stereotypical.
And as a Southern show, Firefly is notably devoid of intellectual characters. There are no scientists on Serenity - Simon the doctor is the closest thing, and his uppity smarty-pants attitude earns him repeated face-punches from the dashing Mal. Kaylee, the engineer, works by intuition alone.
So the characters are mostly from Southern culture, but so is the theme of the show - it's all about honor. Mal's honor is central to his decent, noble conduct, and is the reason the Serenity crew is sympathetic instead of being a bunch of rascally piratical n'er-do-wells (which they probably would be if the show were Japanese or British). Serenity's captain is an upright man in a lawless, dirty world.
But honor is also the reason why Serenity is out there in space in the first place. Mal and the rest could presumably go live as Alliance citizens - it's not clear how repressive the Alliance government is, but the people seem to be pretty wealthy. We don't know what cause the Browncoats were fighting for. But it's pretty clear that Mal went to space to become an outlaw because his sense of honor makes him refuse to knuckle under to his conqueror. "You can't take the sky from me," as the theme song's lyrics go.
And this, really, is why I was always a little dissatisfied with Firefly. In most space opera shows, the cosmos is vast, exciting, full of wonders - the final frontier. Humans go to space because it's our destiny. We go in search of our better selves - to learn new science, to meet aliens, to teach others about our culture and learn about theirs, and to bring a better, more just order to the Universe. In Star Trek (The Original Series and The Next Generation) we go just to go. In Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 we go to make the galaxy safe for liberal values. In Robotech and Farscape we go to fall in love with aliens (hey, why the hell not). Battlestar Galactica and Space Battleship Yamato are darker shows about survival, but also depict a struggle to preserve liberal values in the face of overwhelming existential threats. Now you know I've watched way too much space opera in my life.
But in Firefly, why do we - meaning the crew of Serenity - go to space? It's not for a higher purpose. There's no science being done, no galaxy being saved. The show's theme song may be about freedom, but unlike many of the people around them, Mal and his crew aren't colonists. They aren't going to found a new, more liberal republic on the virgin soil of a distant world. They aren't going to build a city on a hill. They have no quest, they seek no knowledge, they fight for no cause, they meet no aliens. Their existence is simply a big fat middle finger to the government in the distance.
And that's fine. It's fun, it's exciting, it makes for some great gunfights. But it doesn't resonate with me. I grew up in Texas, but I don't really have the Southern honor culture, and even if the Civil War hadn't been about slavery the Lost Cause would have little or no romance for me.
That's why Firefly, as fun and as well-written and as adorable as it was, can never quite be the Greatest of All Time as far as I'm concerned. I mean, guys - you're in space. You're on a spaceship. You're flying around from planet to planet, and instead of looking out the window at the incredible sweep of the unknown, you're thinking about your honor, and how you lost a war, and how to earn your next dollar. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the stuff of inspiration. I don't know about y'all, but when I gaze up at the night sky, I hope my first thought isn't "Damn...somewhere out there is a place where I could evade some federal regulation."