Let me say right at the outset that I haven’t yet watched the new The X-Files episodes. I’ll admit I’m a little obsessive, but I’m trying to work my way through the previous nine seasons and two movies; I want to be completely up to date on the mythology before I try moving on. (When I suggested this project to my wife she left the room without saying anything).
What I hear about these new episodes, though, is that at best they are somewhat uneven. Robert Bianco, at USA Today, titles his review, “This X-Files Misses the Mark”, while Brian Lowry, TV critic at Variety, writes, “based on the premiere, the harsh truth in here is that it’s as if creator Chris Carter and his collaborators have forgotten what people liked about the show” (there have been dissenters to these negative evaluations: The Atlantic’s David Sims offers some hope, noting that while it begins slowly, “each installment is better than the last”).
When I finally make it to watching them (sometime in March, I’m guessing), I may likewise be disappointed, but as someone who is engaged in watching all the previous episodes, I have to take issue particularly with remarks like Lowry’s: I think it’s worth pointing out that maybe the series wasn’t always as wonderful as we remember it in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong: The X-Files looms large both in terms of its formal approach and in terms of its entertainment value. It remains a hugely influential program in the history of television, an important landmark on the way to what I think most critics agree is our current “golden age.” Among its many innovations, it introduced us to the isolated-episodes-within-an-overarching-storyline approach to television structure, re-writing the rulebook for what a show could do and ultimately influencing everything from The Walking Dead to The Big Bang Theory.
Likewise, it was among the first shows to work out its own complex mythology, in many ways offering a template for every comic book-based show, every mainstream sci-fi show, every dystopian show that’s appeared since. Frankly, I think its ground-breaking focus on government conspiracy theories has had a deep and lasting impact beyond the world of television, shaping how we feel about the United States.
What I might suggest, though, is that The X-Files contained some brilliant foundational concepts but that — at least compared to the best shows on today – wasn’t necessarily always strong on execution. That’s not to say it isn’t compulsively watchable. I’m about mid-way through my re-visit, and I’m certainly not in any hurry to finish. In many ways, it’s still the entertaining show I remember: storylines about bizarre creatures and weird events held together by reliable banter between its two leads. I’m still drawn in by the way the structure offers moments of clarity only to ultimately muddy the waters again. I still enjoy puzzling over the deeper motives of Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) and the Smoking Man (William B. Davis). I still find its self-referential humor charming.
There are also some stand-out episodes that deserve high praise, particularly when a talented guest star shows up. Peter Boyle, for example, gives one of his best performances in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, as an insurance salesman with a psychic gift that he finds less miraculous than annoying, and Charles Nelson Reilly ratchets up the comedy as mystery writer Jose Chung in “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'”. Other future stars make notable appearances as well, including B. D. Wong in “Hell Money”, and Tony Shaloub in “Soft Light”. But this isn’t a show that’s brilliant in the way Breaking Bad or Jessica Jones are brilliant, shows where the concepts are high but so are the production values.
Some of my reactions, I’m sure, have to do with the way the show has aged. It’s not easy to watch Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) poke around in this or that dark corner of a warehouse with those immaculately sculpted hairstyles. I have no idea how they manage to move about at all in those voluminous trench coats (in this world D. C. must be a perpetually frozen tundra). Too often, Gillian Anderson looks like a nine-year-old swallowed up in something she’s dug out of her mother’s closet. OK, so the leopard shown in shadow attacking the archeologist in “Teso dos Bichos” is a little too stiff to be anything but stuffed, but CGI has come a long way since 1995. Perhaps most interesting of all, in the age of Ancient Aliens and Finding Bigfoot, many of Mulder’s little history lessons on such esoteric subjects as “Project Paperclip” don’t pack quite the same punch they once did. (Perhaps its influence was so strong as to undermine its own feeling of originality?)
Even making allowances for its age, the dialogue and its delivery can occasionally be a bit wooden (both Duchovny and Anderson have come a long way as actors in the last 20 years — see, in particular, Anderson’s performances in both The Fall and Hannibal). Perhaps more tellingly, the structure of most episodes follows a fairly predictable pattern — ultimately the show is a police procedural, if couched in a radically different environment, and like most police procedurals, you generally know what to expect as each one unfolds: the teaser, the red herring, the final confrontation.
These “weaknesses” in some ways only make The X-Files that much more important. It was, in these terms, a kind of last vestige of the old television landscape, where most series still ground out 20 to 25 episodes a season, where episodes were singular and formulaic, and where what TV actors wanted most in the world was to work in film rather than vice versa. A large part of the series’ charm was that it recognized these limitations and played with them in delightful meta-textual moments.
In that Charles Nelson Reilly episode, “Jose Chung”, for example, witnesses describe Mulder and Scully: “One of them was disguised as a woman, but wasn’t pulling it off. Like, her hair was red, but it was a little too red, y’know? And the other one, the tall, lanky one, his face was so blank and expressionless. He didn’t even seem human. I think he was a mandroid”.
None of which is to diminish the value of the first nine seasons. In fact, what I’m getting at here is quite the opposite: those critics with short memories might be well-advised to remember that this is a show from another place and time, and although it’s suddenly re-appeared in ours, maybe it shouldn’t be measured by contemporary standards.
Elsewhere, I noted that TV these days seems the closest we have come in our march towards genuine virtual reality (we’ll see how the Oculus Rift works out), offering rich, highly developed worlds we can enter and explore. Judged by that standard, watching The X-Files is like watching original Star Trek episodes. You have to suspend your disbelief a little, squint just a bit so the bridge doesn’t seem like quite such a ’60s relic, and ignore the way lines of shadow always crisscross Shatner’s face when he’s meant to be deep in thought.
Am I saying they shouldn’t have tried to reboot the series? Certainly not. In fact, I’m rather gleeful at rumors that Anderson and Duchovny have been mulling the prospect of more episodes. I’m simply arguing that we ought not compare The X-Files reboot with today’s television landscape. We’ve been waiting for this moment since the day the show went off the air, and like the long-awaited reunion of a great band, we’ve built the possibilities up in our minds to unsustainable heights. I expect what we now have is not all that different than what we had then.
Let’s enjoy The X-Files on its merits, the same merits that sustained it for nine years, and stop longing for something that never really was. I’ll let you know if I’m right about it… sometime mid-March.