Firefly is at its heart, about "family", albeit not necessarily families "by blood", but what counts for "family" when you are fighting/scraping to stay alive in a hostile, unforgiving environment. And, it's a retelling of the cyclical pain and suffering that is inevitable, when, throughout human history (since our ancestors left the trees), humanity has forsaken the "safe and familiar" to see what lies beyond the distant horizon. Historically speaking, the pioneers, on the leading edge of those wanderings, have never fared too well (statistically speaking), and the advantage of "family", has often been what tipped the scales, for those who managed to survive.
Firefly's "universe" is about humanity, having had to abandon the planet that we knew (and "used up"), for another star system where the planets or moons available were either suitable to support immediate life, or, with a bit of work (terraforming) eventually transform into something survivable. The problem is that this is no "Star Trek" universe, with some slow, well-planned migrations, but instead, is more like a mass exodus of humanity, crammed into whatever transport they can manage (so as not to be "left behind" on the rotting planet earth), and at the far end of that journey, many of them being dumped into landscapes where technology is non-existent, and an agrarian lifestyle may be the only means of survival (think "a few acres, and some livestock", if you are lucky
Of course, in that scenario (as in all that preceded it of human existence) there were the "have's", and the "have nots", and prior to the series timeline, in this new solar system, there has already been a major war, to attempt to rectify some of those injustices (which, of course, failed to rectify anything). Thus, this "new home", of multiple planets and moons, is a mix of both wealth and poverty, not to mention being not too dissimilar to any other "new frontier", in that it contains its mix of rogues, bandits, and worse, who are always ready to exploit the weak. And, due to the vastness of the space that separates all of the livable worlds, there really isn't any effective means of policing any of that, so it truly is just a space-born version of the early, American West (i.e. a mix of civilized population centers, bordered by large swaths of "no man's land").
Amidst that dystopian future, is the ship Firefly, and her small crew, which consists of a strange collection of (loosely speaking) "outcasts". And despite the limited episodes in this series, we still get to see (and enjoy) the genesis of, and evolution of, the relationships that make these characters so endearing to the legions of Firefly fans. And all of that plays out, as this core characters attempt to carve out a living doing "odd jobs", shipping some form of cargo from one habitable planet/moon, to another. Some of that cargo isn't always on the "up and up", so that adds a bit of complexity (often "life threatening") to some of those so called "jobs".
It is in that setting, that Firefly plays out, with this "family" sometimes dealing with internal strife, while at others, banding together tightly, often to fend of "life or death" scenarios. What makes this all so very special is not only how well these characters were written (and that is understatement), but the instantly synergistic relationship of the cast. Whereas it takes some casts a number of episodes to "find their way home", to a proper understanding of their characters, this cast was "already there", right out of the gate. They "felt like family" from the beginning, and you were immediately invested in their fate, and well-being. This all assumes that you actual view the season in the order that was intended. One of the things that almost certainly led to its demise, is Fox's interference with the series, resulting in episodes airing completely out of sequence, and the two-hour pilot not even being aired as the pilot episode. When you get to see the whole series "as was intended", it is truly a work of art. And the final episode is easily one of the most tense, and moving television episodes ever. It was a pivotal episode, for this space-faring "family", with significant "reveals" that would have set the stage for much of what should have followed.
Thankfully, Whedon (and company) got to eventually tell the key aspects of that story, when Universal supported the making of the movie, Serenity, which is the bookend to the series, and should be thought of as the "final episode", with any viewing of the TV series (which again, should be seen in the proper sequence, starting with the first episode, also named Serenity, and ending with "Objects in Space".
So, that's at least an attempt to provide a spoiler-free description of the "nature" of the series, as well as what made it special for me. It's just rare to see so many things done this well, which makes it that much more despicable that a bunch of network yahoos managed to muck it all up, by meddling in something that they clearly did not understand. It's one of those experiences that is so special that you pull out (in my case) the Blu-Rays, and regularly make another run through the whole series (and movie), just because you always feel better, afterward (and then, unfortunately, also re-live the lament, and loss, because it was all so short-lived). But, make no mistake, there is a COMPLETE story here. You won't be left "hanging" at the end, and the IMDb ratings should be evidence that you won't be disappointed.
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