Well, there’s talk of another season, but chances are that after this spring, The X-Files will survive only in syndicated reruns and the occasional big-budget movie. What are the X-Philes to do for their weekly dose of conspiracy-theory television after the final episode of Chris Carter’s award-winning TV show airs? Well, the Fox network’s banking most of them will tune in to the The X-Files’ spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, which premiered Sunday March 4 during Agents Scully and Doggett’s regular airtime. (Expectations couldn’t be made more obvious than that.) Fortunately for X-Files fans, The Lone Gunmen moved to its permanent timeslot on March 16, leaving its precursor to finish the answer to the series’ most gut-wrenching mystery: What really happened to Agent Mulder?
While the mood of The X-Files grows more somber, The Lone Gunmen arrives on the scene with a much-needed dose of lightheartedness. Not only does the show preserve the wit and intrigue of The X-Files, it also maintains top-notch directing and writing, this time layered with Marx Brothers-like quirkiness. It rehashes the mood of those humorous X-Files episodes, such as “Rain King” or “The Unnatural,” which tend, as The Lone Gunmen does, to poke fun at and push the limits of its genre. However, it’s not quite clear into exactly which genre The Lone Gunmen falls, which may wind up being either its downfall or its crowning achievement. Non-Files-fans may not tune in to watch three oddball characters whom they’ve never met, and those familiar with the three computer-savvy conspiracy theorists/journalists may not enjoy the lack of gravity. Nonetheless, The Lone Gunmen goes to the trouble of specifically not associating itself with The X-Files.
The Lone Gunmen
Bruce Harwood, Dean Haglund, Tom Braidwood, Zuleikha Robinson, Stephen Snedden
Regular airtime: Fridays, 9pm EST
No drop-by visit from Scully graces the first episodes of The Lone Gunmen. Instead, each of the first three shows introduces each of its three financially struggling, paranoid characters. “Pilot” brings the show’s premise and unofficial Gunmen head Byers (Bruce Harwood) to the forefront, combining elements of comedy, science fiction, and espionage. Byers, Langly (Dean Haglund), and Frohike (Tom Braidwood) run an underground alternative-press newspaper—The Lone Gunman—which focuses on exposing conspiracies ranging from Kennedy’s assassination to the Area 51 cover-up. The three are clearly not in it for the money (since they barely have any) but, as Byers repeatedly points out, to fight for people’s freedom and right to know what is going on around them.
While true believer and resident straight-man Byers provides a Mulder-esque idealism, the sarcastic Langly is the resident hacker genius and gruff, older Frohike an expert in surveillance. Unlike Federal Agent Fox Mulder, these guys, sitting penniless in a warehouse laden with powerful computers and espionage equipment, are true subversives.
The subversiveness carries through in the show’s form as well, continuously undercutting it and our expectations. The second episode, “Bond, Jimmy Bond,” makes this clear as the show opens with the middle-aged and stocky Frohike bursting onto the scene of a knife-wielding, Japanese eco-terrorist’s kidnapping of a corporate whale poacher. The scene becomes an obvious parody of The Matrix as Frohike performs impossible feats of flight and martial arts to frighten away the apparently stupefied kidnapper from the room, which happens to look awfully similar to the backdrop of the now-classic sparring scene between Neo and Morpheus. As the viewer wonders whether Frohike somehow truly possesses these talents or, as portrayed in The Matrix, is hooked into some computer-generated virtual-reality fantasy, the cameras pull back to reveal a mini-set, arranged by the Gunmen in order to discover the position of the poacher’s whaling fleet, complete with actors and special effects equipment (Frohike is actually jumping around with the aid of invisible wires running to tracks in the ceiling, and the fellow pretending to be the terrorist has a good laugh sitting next to the other two after shedding his ruse). The joke’s on us, and it’s this sort of self-aware, yet slapstick, humor that The Lone Gunmen presents. Later in the episode, as they try to uncover some info about a legendary computer hacker’s murder, they find the absurdly phony name “James Bond” behind much of the wrongdoing, and immediately arrive at the same conclusion the audiences does: it’s a bodiless front. Wrong again, gentle viewer. James Bond (Stephen Snedden) is a real guy—a very dim jock type who’s been duped into thinking the charity money for his startup football league for the blind comes from a bona fide humanistic organization. The sight of the overly testosteroned, visually impaired players crashing into themselves as all-American Jimmy very, very slowly gets what’s going on, makes it clear that The Lone Gunmen‘s target audience is definitely not the well-chiseled. Or even particularly the mainstream. Heaven knows it’s not PC to make fun of the physically challenged, or even the dim-witted…at least, not on prime time network television.
Then again, this is Fox, and the once-upstart network has made it a tradition to take chances by presenting shows that fall outside the box of typicality and, too often with it, good taste. So far, The Lone Gunmen has pulled off its extremeness with downright good scripts and a very unique angle. The now-canceled, yet similarly techno-oriented, investigative series, Freakylinks, failed precisely because it lacked those components, at least in a formula as fresh and intelligent as Byers, Langly, and Frohike bring to the screen. There’s also a wider range of characters in The Lone Gunmen—in a near polar opposite role to Snedder’s unintelligent and clumsy character, Zuleikha Robinson plays Yves Adela Harlow, the mysterious female spy who always has and keeps her one-up on the trio, although she routinely teams up with the Gunmen in order to help defeat the bad guys. Whether Yves is a bad guy (gal, I should say) is still a mystery, and this already comes through as an overarching storyline, one that could draw the vital backbone of a regular viewer base.
The Lone Gunmen have appeared regularly on The X-Files, popping up as Mulder’s informants at least three or four times per season since the first season’s sixteenth episode (“E.B.E”). Regular viewers react to the three comrades’ spontaneous arrivals with as much mirth as the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s appearances generate loathing. That inherent connection to so strong a viewership could bring in much of the lost steam left in The X-Files‘s wake. It’s doubtful such a well-crafted show can fail, but it has quite a looming shadow from which to break free. Even I cannot help but refer to it in terms of The X-Files, but many strong shows have spun from the set of another hit, such as The Jeffersons from All in the Family and Laverne and Shirley from Happy Days.
It’s a tight wire The Lone Gunmen must walk, between full disavowal of its mother show and complete duplication of previously enacted themes and events. The self-parodic element of The Lone Gunmen is its strongest characteristic and one it must stick to in order to develop its own voice and audience. So far, it has yet to disappoint, and regular viewers of The X-Files may actually have something that would placate their thirst for a seditiously intelligent series. At the same time, non-fans won’t have to worry about catching up on eight years of back story and may discover a show that could very easily turn out to be the best new series of the year. It’s up to the Gunman now to continue to uncover the hidden evil lurking in the shadows of a political, technological world. As always, the truth is out there.