Very rarely, someone tells a story so well that you can’t put it down, and you wish you never had to.

My own list of such stories is quirky and short. A handful of novels: Arundel by Kenneth Roberts, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré, Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, Watership Down by Richard Adams, The King Must Die by Mary Renault. And a pair of memoirs: An American Childhood by Annie Dillard and Where Courage Is Like a Wild Horse by Chicagoans Sharon Skolnick and Manny Skolnick. (There are never enough. What’s on your list?)

Now I have to add a work in a different medium: a four-year-old TV show that didn’t survive its first season, Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Yeah, I know–I’m late to the party. But there’s something to be said for encountering this masterpiece after the fact. If you saw it live in the fall of 2002 and it didn’t take, bear in mind that the pinheads running Fox showed the episodes out of order, making it hard to follow. The DVD edition puts that right. (And so will the Sci-Fi Channel marathon scheduled for September 18.)

You also might have been expecting something belonging to an identifiable genre. Firefly doesn’t. Set in another solar system 500 years in the future, it fuses sci-fi, Western, sea, suspense, action-adventure–even Donald Westlake’s humorous crime novels, in which morose burglar John Dortmunder and his gang get in and out of incredible scrapes. Julian Sanchez sees Camus in there; I caught glimpses of Huckleberry Finn and the Lost Cause.

The gist: Captain Mal Reynolds named his ship Serenity, after the location of the battle in which his side lost to the empire a few years before. (Star Trek turned inside out, anyone?) He and his eight crew members and passengers, outsiders and fugitives all, now make a dodgy living by buying, selling, hauling, and smuggling between worlds–usually one step ahead of the law, duplicitous business partners, and something unspeakably worse.

Fill out this sketch with energetic plots, epigrammatic writing, nuanced male and female characters brilliantly portrayed, and it’s a story that repays repeated viewing. What animates Firefly without weighing it down–what keeps people talking after each episode–is the underlying moral question.  What do you do when you lose?  What do you become?

(Hat tip to SJH.)