On Their Own
Once a trivia question, now a box set. The Lone Gunmen, a short-lived spin-off of the immensely popular The X-Files, is preserved on DVD. A cult item even by X-Files standards, the show chronicles the exploits of its predecessor’s quirkiest supporting characters: Langly (Dean Haglund), Byers (Bruce Harwood), and Frohike (Tom Braidwood), a trio of hackers/journalists/conspiracy theorists who occasionally assisted Mulder and Scully with their knottier cases. In other words, the Gunmen are nerds.
Being a network TV show and therefore bound by certain attractiveness requirements, The Lone Gunmen couldn’t just follow the nerds. Instead, within the first two episodes, it introduced two foils: the mysterious and beautiful “information” specialist Yves (Zuleikha Robinson) and the dim, well-meaning benefactor Jimmy (Stephen Snedden). Hot girl Yves is an appropriately ambiguous ally/adversary for the boys. Poor Jimmy, however, seems doomed to provide “heart” (as noted in one of the commentaries) and stupid jokes (literally, jokes about his stupidity).
With these new characters, the show attempted to generate its own identity, independent of The X-Files (but not too independent, as its run included several crossover appearances). For a casual viewer, the show was an amusing lark. But TV economics are premised on appointment shows, delivering a dependable number of viewers every week. Watching several Gunmen episodes in succession, you see how the series could be tedious. There are too many pratfalls, double takes, and other broad comedy. Most of this can be attributed to the show’s faulty pacing; it runs an hour, as most non-sitcoms do, but the conspiracies (such as a search for a water-powered car) cry out to be resolved in half the time.
If the shaggy-dog stories could use some grooming, the show does “humanize” its nerdy protagonists, elaborating on and repeating a few cartoonish traits. Langly is cranky, Byers is idealistic, Frohike is pugnacious, and cranky… well, they’re all a little cranky, but that’s part of the nerdy charm (in an early X-Files appearance, they invited Mulder to come over later and “nitpick the scientific inaccuracies of Earth2”).
Occasionally, the Gunmen get a story worthy of that nerdy eccentricity, or even one that could pass for a full-blown X-File. In one of the best episodes, “Madam, I’m Adam,” guest stars Stephen Tobolowsky as a man who comes home from work to discover another husband and wife sleeping in his bed. The result is a neat fusion of The Matrix and Memento, and if the episode aired two years after the former, it was written and produced before anyone involved (except maybe Tobolowsky, who was in Memento) would have seen the latter. Sci-fi writers, we see, can nick and anticipate good ideas in equal measure.
This anticipation sometimes turns uncomfortable. In the pilot, which aired in 2001, the Gunmen uncover a terrorist plot which, with every new detail, bears closer resemblance to the September 11 tragedy (it begins as a standard bomb on a plane, and turns out to be a plan to fly a jet from Boston into the World Trade Center; this being a Chris Carter conspiracy show, a faction of the U.S. government is behind it). Creepy as this plot may be looking back, it also taps into a sense of dread more compelling than the Gunmen’s sillier outings (they babysit an infant, they babysit monkeys).
This uneven but amusing series is collected into a nice little package, with a few commentaries from the actors and creators and a standard making-of featurette. One of the most populated commentaries accompanies “Tango Del Los Pistoleros,” in which Yves leads the Gunmen and Jimmy into a tango-heavy Miami underworld. The five principle actors are joined by the episode’s writer, Thomas Schnauz, and the show’s frequent director, Bryan Spicer. It mostly illuminates the chumminess behind the scenes of the show (which might explain some of the slack pacing), as the crew goofs about the difficulties of shooting a Miami-based episode in the show’s native Vancouver. “This is one of those cold [Miami] days when the oranges freeze right up,” notes Haglund.
The best extra, though, is the Season Nine X-Files episode that wrapped up some story threads from the Gunmen series, almost a year after the latter was cancelled. Unfortunately, the finale is a little too final, with the Gunmen giving their lives with moral righteousness, and without nearly the kind of conspiracy-mongering open ending that would be true to the spirit of the characters.