Friday, July 7, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 8: The X-Files

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio


The X-Files is a show that I often compare to one's first serious girlfriend. You become infatuated with her, you give her everything and in the end she breaks your heart into a thousand pieces.

Despite that, your car keys are in your hands within seconds of receiving a "U up?" text, no matter how bad it ended last time.

By my count, this series broke my heart AT LEAST four times:

1) The revelation of what happened to Mulder's sister. Seriously, what was that?

2) The finale, which somehow managed to spend half its running time in a courtroom and still offer no real answers that hadn't already been revealed by the show. This was capped off with the Smoking Man coming back AGAIN, and a really unsatisfying open ending with Mulder and Scully on the run.

3) X-FILES: THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE, when they tried to tell a movie about paranormal investigates working a case with no paranormal elements.

4) The finale of the recent revival. Another open ending, this one a major cliffhanger, coming on the heels of mytharc stories that only made the conspiracy even MORE incomprehensible.

But it's coming back again next season and I can't wait.

I'm not sure even I appreciated how different The X-Files was when I started getting into it at the top of its third season. I knew that it was cooler looking than most shows on TV and had a vibe and a concept that hadn't really been done before, a sort of sci-fi procedural about FBI agents who investigate the paranormal. The more I learned about TV history, the more I realized that at most points in the past, if a show like this had been done, it would have leaned into the silliness. (EERIE, INDIANA - another excellent show - is probably a good citation of how the paranormal was usually treated with a wink rather than solemn seriousness.) There are a lot of things that define The X-Files, but it's serious-as-hell tone probably ranks near the top. It's determined to take its cases as seriously as Clarice Starling takes hunting Buffalo Bill.

Another rarity for the time was the utter lack of closure that many cases got. Try to imagine the reports that Mulder and Scully must have filed each week and you realize that rarely do they even get as far as taking a suspect into custody or finding an explanation for events that would be taken seriously by any bureau. This is probably the cusp of TV challenging its audience by not tying up everything neatly.

Genre TV had been ghettoized for a long time. Look up the history of any genre show from the 80s or early 90s and odds are that most of them were relegated to first-run syndication. Network TV wasn't inclined to take sci-fi seriously, nor did they see their audience as particularly sophisticated. The X-Files changed all that. Not every attempt to clone the series worked (Fox had a LOT of stone-serious sci-fi failures in the back half of the decade), but it seemed to let the genie out of the bottle. You can draw a straight line from The X-Files to LOST, and in turn, the wave of genre TV that the latter show spawned.

So what keeps me coming back to The X-Files despite increasing dissatisfaction with the creative direction? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. I was never a hard-core Mulder and Scully "shipper" in that I was desperate to see them hook up, but their relationship was always the core of the show. Mulder never met a circumstance he didn't have a bizarre left-field explanation for, a complete opposite to Scully's conviction to finding answers in science. In retrospect, it's notable that though they had a conflict of methods, they were always professional. Today I wonder if writers might make the mistake of amping up the conflict between the two to the levels of a buddy cop movie. These two were partners, first and foremost, and that harmony was always more fascinating than whether or not they were schtupping. Also, on all counts, its the more interesting and less obvious tone for their dynamic. Conflict is the essence of drama, but that doesn't mean that opposing characters need to be irrevocably polarized in order to be fascinating.

Personally, I always preferred Scully to Mulder and though I'm in the minority, I really liked Season 8's notion of finally making Scully more of a believer and pairing her with the no-nonsense former cop John Doggett. I could have seen that partnership lasting a few more seasons had the show been able to make a clean break from the Mulder era.

So this leads perhaps to one of the biggest impressions the show made on me: Know when to resolve long-running storylines. What really caused the show to stagnate was its insistence on tying EVERYTHING back to the main alien mytharc. Thus, each subsequent year, that mythology acquired more baggage and more detritus. Had they tied off the storyline definitively in season 6 with the end of the conspiracy, the show might have moved forward. Certainly the full-time departure of Mulder at the end of Season 8 should have been the cue to tie off the uber arc and let next season begin with Scully, Doggett and Reyes investigating entirely new paranormal storylines.

The X-Files's lack of closure once made it a breath of fresh air. By the end, it was just an exercise in frustration. The show is scared to leave an element this big behind and so it makes the storyline confusing and impenetrable for even those of us who've followed it from the start. It was a little like if Buffy spent seven seasons with The Master as the Big Bad behind it all. At a certain point, a writer has to be willing to close the door on some threads and play a few new notes.

When I was younger, it was the mytharc episodes I loved the most. Those were the episodes that really seemed to matter because they dangled the possibility of revelation and change. In reruns, however, knowing that the path that show takes leads only to a lot of red herrings and narrative cul-de-sacs, I now favor the well-crafted standalones.

I didn't need The X-Files to tie everything up in a neat bow, but the occasional resolution would have gone a long way to restoring audience goodwill. This is probably one of the few shows on this list that has nearly as many "don't do this" lessons as "steal from this."

But what do I know? As I said, I'll be there on premiere night for the next limited-run revival. I just can't quit Mulder and Scully.

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