Television

Not Just a Fluke: How Darin Morgan Saved The X-Files

Jonathan Kirby

After playing the “Fluke Man”, Darin Morgan reluctantly agreed to write for The X-Files. His four episodes turned a struggling show around with humor and a deep concern with the pain of loneliness in a strange and incomprehensible world.

In its nine years on the air,The X-Files brought shadowy government conspiracies back to the center of national attention like nothing since Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment. The show, along with other cultural milestones like Oliver Stone’s JFK, made conspiracy theory again part of the American pop culture fabric, fueling the imaginations of a public alternately fascinated by and dismissive of conspiratorial visions.

Conspiracy scholar Peter Knight has suggested that “a quasi-paranoid hermeneutic of suspicion is now taken for granted by many Americans”, for whom it provides a therapeutic release valve, allowing us to assign agency in an often-frictionless postmodern existence. We refuse to bracket the possibility of real conspiracies, especially given the reality of government abuses such as the infamous MKULTRA program, or the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, but we also keep our tongues in our cheeks, unable to resist jokes at the expense of perpetually marginalized conspiracy theorists like The X-Files’ Lone Gunmen.

Over the course of its nine-season run, The X-Files accordingly developed a healthy sense of humor about itself, playfully satirizing Fox Mulder’s dogged search for the truth and the suspicion of clandestine cabals behind any mundane event. And no one was more instrumental in bringing humor and self-awareness to the show than Darin Morgan. A reluctant, maverick addition to show’s staff, Morgan developed as singular an authorial voice as the show had ever seen. He completely changed the nature of The X-Files over the course of just four episodes, in the process articulating the cautious and self-conscious paranoid style of postmodern America.

Morgan, whose parents named him after pop vocalist Bobby Darin, harbored no ambitions of becoming a writer, let alone a science-fiction scribe. Growing up in Syracuse, NY, his tastes tended towards vintage comedy film, especially the work of classic slapstick performers like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. And when Morgan’s brother Glen went to Loyola Marymount University, Darin followed him into the school’s film program.

At LMU, Morgan made a six-minute mockumentary called “Legends of Doo-Wop” that revealed the untold story of two pompadour’d, Spectorian ’60s pop producers. Supposedly the duo was secretly responsible for the slaps, scrapes, and tapping sounds that made “Everyday” and “Stand By Me” into gold records. The short became a sensation on campus, and in an incredible turn, won the young auteur a three-picture deal with Tri-Star at the tender age of 19. But Morgan, a square peg shoved into the round hole of high-concept Hollywood, quickly found himself miserable and out of work.

Morgan also dropped out of LMU before completing his studies, “to avoid the shame of being a film school grad in a town crawling with ’em.” He picked up the odd acting job, and in 1994 snagged a role on The X-Files, where his brother Glen worked as a writer in tandem with partner James Wong. Together the two penned a number of fan favorites, including the haunting first season standout “Beyond the Sea”, appropriately, Darin Morgan’s favorite episode.

Darin Morgan as "Fluke Man"

Morgan appeared in the second episode of season two as “Flukeman”, a carnivorous humanoid mutant lurking in the New Jersey sewers; he described his experience under the thick latex bodysuit as “terrible, just terrible.” But later that season, brother Glen enlisted Morgan’s help in fleshing out the story of “Blood”, an eerie tale of small town psychosis where government pesticide sprayings and malevolent home appliances drive a town’s otherwise-normal residents into a murderous frenzy. The story mines the classic conspiracy trope of the government using chemicals to practice mind control, true in the case of MKULTRA, only suspected in the case of water fluoridation. Morgan, who received a story credit for the episode, was offered a job on the show’s writing staff alongside his brother.

Despite his agent’s pleas to the contrary, Morgan almost turned down the job. He considered himself first and foremost a comedy writer, and worried that his sensibilities wouldn’t harmonize with the dark palette of The X-Files. Morgan also had no illusions about his work ethic, or lack thereof. A somewhat downbeat personality to begin with, Morgan had what could at best be called a lackadaisical approach to any kind of labor. David Duchovny remarked of the writer: “Darin doesn’t mope as an act. He’s tortured by self-doubt, almost paralyzed by it, which I think is his greatest charm.” But Morgan reluctantly accepted the job, and set to work on his first script.

“Humbug”, Morgan’s debut offering aired on March 31, 1995. Before it aired, the script provoked massive anxiety amongst the show’s creative staff. Morgan’s story was more explicitly comedic than anything The X-Files had done in the past, and several of the author’s favorite scenes had to be cut, including one where Mulder, confronted by a monster, attempts to flee only to find himself remaining stationary on a treadmill. A scene that his brother remarked would’ve been great for Harold Lloyd, but not for Fox Mulder. Discussing Morgan, Duchovny himself would later note, “What I loved about his scripts was that he seemed to be trying to destroy the show.”

“Humbug” found Mulder and Scully investigating a series of grisly murders amongst a community of sideshow performers. “The word came down from Glen, ‘do one about circus freaks,’” Morgan said, furnished with a tape of modern sideshow act the Jim Rose Circus. The episode featured several great cameos, with Twin Peaks alum Michael J. Anderson turning in an especially delightful performance as a prickly hotel manager. In the episode’s greatest moment, Scully appears to swallow a live cricket, her legerdemain giving Mulder and body manipulator Dr. Blockhead, (played by Jim Rose himself), the impression that she ate the wriggling insect. Gillian Anderson actually did, in an ad-lib that impressed the cast and crew.

The episode marked the beginning of Morgan’s aesthetic: satirizing the two agents’ personas and relationship while simultaneously lending them greater human depth, a sly but affectionate skewering of the show’s conspiratorial norms. In a great relief to the staff, the unusual episode proved wildly popular with X-Philes.

But “Humbug” also had one vocal and disillusioned detractor: Darin Morgan. Despite the fact that “Humbug” received an Edgar Award nomination for Best Television Episode, the cuts and alterations to his work distressed Morgan, who sank into a deep, implacable gloom. “I was so depressed after ‘Humbug’ that I felt suicidal,” Morgan said. “So I said, I’m going to write about a character that will commit suicide at the end.”

Morgan’s next story concerned a lonely, middle-aged insurance salesman named Clyde Bruckman, who has the psychic ability to foresee the deaths of everyone he meets. Bruckman’s character may have had a real-life inspiration in Morgan’s father, who worked as an insurance salesman. The episode presented psychic ability not as a cosmic gift to be desired, as Mulder saw it, but as a curse, with Bruckman’s wry wisecracking camouflaging a deeply depressed resignation. The episode, which ran in October, featured poignancy deeper than anything audiences had seen in “Humbug”. A connection develops between the lewd Bruckman and a classically skeptical Scully, who more so than Mulder is capable of seeing Bruckman as a human being and not just another X-File. The show guest-starred Peter Boyle, who played the title character to weary perfection.

Where “Humbug” had earned a positive reception despite Morgan’s misgivings, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” won enthusiastic adoration from fans and critics alike. The show won two Emmys, with Peter Boyle receiving a statue for his performance and Morgan himself given the award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing for a Drama Series. As if that wasn’t enough, Morgan received a phone call from science fiction author Harlan Ellison to congratulate him on the show. Morgan, the slapstick aficionado, had never read Ellison: “He was the childhood idol of some of the writers on our staff and they were all pissed off that I didn’t even know who he was, and he called me.”

Morgan followed the story of Clyde Bruckman with his most screwball script yet, the wild parody of paranoia, “War of the Coprophages.” Inspired by the public hysteria that followed the initial airing of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio drama, the show featured a small town seemingly under siege by a swarm of killer cockroaches. “That was the idea behind the mass hysteria: that people don’t think about what’s happening,” Morgan explained. “They just hear something and react, and scurry around like insects.” The script piled reversal upon reversal, with explanations adopted and rejected until it’s suggested that the eponymous creepy-crawlies are actually extraterrestrial robot explorers that run on processed manure. Morgan, who felt that the script was rushed, later admitted, “It’s never boring. It moves really fast. And there’s a certain achievement in centering an episode around cockroaches and dung.”

The best part of the show came from its irreverent portrayal of the Mulder/Scully dynamic, which more than any of his other scripts “War of the Coprophages” established as a Morgan trademark. Both agents begin the episode on their night off, and while Mulder gets sucked into the orbit of yet another X-file, viewers get to see Scully relaxing at home, engaged in a series of amusing and human diversions: cleaning her sidearm, shampooing a dog (left to her at the end of “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”), reading Truman Capote, and eating ice cream out of the carton. Morgan deftly parodies the relationship between the true believer and the cautious skeptic, as each successive victim prompts a new rational explanation from Scully, which is in turn challenged by new evidence and imaginative interpretations. And the story gleefully underscores the unresolved sexual tension between the two partners by introducing a potential romantic interest for Mulder, the comely entomologist Dr. Bambi Berenbaum.

“War of the Coprophages” represented the deepest self-awareness yet seen in Morgan’s work, self-consciously undermining the paranoid ethos at the same time that he left it open as a possibility. “War” made a wry comment on the show’s conspiracism and simultaneously spun a novel conspiracy of its own. The idea that alien invaders would not necessarily appear in their traditional, big-eyed guise but as robot bugs sounded surprisingly refreshing after season three’s gauntlet of mythology shows. The screwball humor of Morgan’s writing went beyond the final broadcast product, as an excerpt from his “Coprophages” script indicates: “Describing her like one of the insects she studies, DR. BAMBI BERENBAUM has luscious mandibles, a voluptuous pair of thoraxes, and a great ovipositor, all of which are accentuated by her tight-fitting flannel shirt, African safari shorts, and hiking boots. She stands with her hands defiantly on her shapely coxae. (hips).¬”

Despite this kind of madcap sensibility, X-Files creator Chris Carter has remarked that Morgan’s scripts were the only ones he never rewrote, and other staff writers quickly took to imitating Morgan, including even Carter himself. The week after “War of the Coprophages” aired, The X-Files ran a Carter-penned episode entitled “Syzygy” that plays like a Darin Morgan homage. The show depicts an unusually snippy Mulder and Scully traveling to, (surprise!), a small town to investigate claims of ritual murders by Satanists. Carter examines the paranoia surrounding allegations of satanic ritual abuse in the ’80s and ’90s, and again plays up the romantic tension between Mulder and Scully by teaming them with an attractive local detective. The vitriol and quirkiness exhibited by the two agents in the episode, which features Mulder swigging vodka, and a chain-smoking Scully muttering bitterly about Mulder’s interest in the female detective, makes it an oft-forgotten gem, and testament to the impact Morgan had on the show.

The pressure of weekly TV deadlines wore on Morgan, but he had one more episode in him, a story that represented the epitome of his sensibilities and quickly became an enduring favorite amongst X-Philes: “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space.’” Rob Bowman, who directed the episode, famously noted that he had to read Morgan’s script 15 times before he understood it. Ostensibly, the story concerns Scully’s testimony to the Truman Capote-inspired title character, an author investigating alien abduction in an effort to write the first “non-fiction science fiction.” The episode reaches nearly Pynchonian levels of self-referential complexity, weaving a dense web that references everything from The Manchurian Candidate to rock and roll sky-watcher Roky Erikson. And throughout it all, Morgan relentlessly reminds viewers that they are, in fact, watching a TV show. A hard-bitten detective peppers his speech with onomatopoeic “bleeps” to get past network censors, Scully autopsies a man wearing a rubber alien suit, cigarette-smoking alien “greys” are abducted by other aliens, Mulder inhales pie like Kyle McLachlan on Twin Peaks, and the shiftless Darin Morgan himself appears as a true believer who longs to be abducted so that he won’t have to find a job.

The Rashomon-like structure of “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” presents a world where, in the phrasing of Vladimir Nabokov, (Morgan’s favorite author), reality is a word that should be written with quotes around it. At one point, an abducted air force pilot confesses to Mulder in a fit of frustration, “I can’t be sure of anything anymore!” His words echo conspiracy scholar Peter Knight, who has argued that modern conspiracism is ruled by a “vertigo of interpretation” where “nothing is certain; everything can be reinterpreted…like literary research in the wake of poststructuralism, the process of interpretation threatens, (or promises?), to become endless.” The final revelation is constantly deferred, with a complete view of the overarching conspiratorial design always just slightly out of reach. The truth is, literally, out there.

Morgan left The X-Files after “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”. His last contribution was a fan favorite exchange between Mulder and Scully in the decidedly Morgan-esque episode “Quagmire”. He later resurfaced on Chris Carter’s sister series Millennium, where he wrote and directed the sequel “Jose Chung’s ‘Doomsday Defense’” and penned the bizarre occult parody “Somehow Satan Got Behind Me.” Even more than The X-Files, Millennium’s darkness seemed to cry out for Morgan’s lighter touch. But as the writer himself noted of the show, “The problem wasn’t that it was too dark. It just wasn’t too good. If the stories were better who’d care if they were dark?” But a morose Morgan seemed to find directing as miserable as playing Fluke man, lamenting that “It’s been kind of a terrible experience, and I don’t even want to write again, so I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to do anything. That’s the problem.”

His apathy is our loss, because Morgan’s formidable prowess could lend great depth to today’s crowd of X-Files descendents. Lost has largely taken over the role that The X-Files abdicated. As the prime-time series that gives voice to the vertigo of interpretation: more than ever the truth lies just beyond our reach, with new mysteries proliferating much faster than old ones can be solved. And the characters of Lost are even more adrift than Mulder and Scully, shipwrecked in surreal surroundings that some fans have refused to believe even exist. For a show that tends to take itself very seriously, one can only imagine the anarchic havoc Morgan could wreak among Jack and company.

Morgan’s contribution to The X-Files cannot be overstated. He brought humor to a show that struggled to stay on the air during its first season, helping it to win a broader mainstream audience. Events such as Mulder and Scully’s guest appearance on The Simpsons were unimaginable before Darin Morgan. And the enduring popularity of Morgan’s episodes doesn’t come solely from his phenomenal comic gifts. His work on the show artfully articulated a sentiment deeply rooted in American cultural politics, what Peter Knight has called a “quasi-paranoid hermeneutic of suspicion.” But for all his metafictional self-awareness, Morgan’s stories have a very human heart. At the root of his work is a deep concern with the pain of loneliness in a strange and incomprehensible world. And although his scripts were never very scary, Chris Carter has made an apt comment about Darin Morgan: “He has such a gift, it’s frightening.“

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