NO ONE was more excited about the return of The X-Files than I was. In the 1990s, that show was my life in an alternate universe. I never met a limb-stretching serial killer who killed people and stole their livers, then hibernated for 30 years in a nest of newspapers, but Tooms was an improvement on some people I knew. (At least Tooms admitted he was a monster.) I did meet some of my favorite people because of The X-Files — they would send me unsigned letters sealed with an X in aluminum foil. On my radio show we would spend an hour discussing the latest episodes, particularly the progress of the Fox Mulder-Dana Scully relationship, whether David Duchovny broke out of deadpan, and whether he could be legally compelled to wear the tiny red Speedo more often. (Obviously we had no advertisers.) Hell, I read Gravity’s Rainbow because it was the subject of Duchovny’s doctoral dissertation.
In case you are very young or were in a cult during the ’90s, The X-Files was about FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, whose obsession with extraterrestrials and paranormal phenomena began with what he believes to be the abduction of his younger sister by aliens when he was 12. The FBI puts him in charge of the X-Files, the department which looks into weird, unexplained occurrences, then assigns Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as his partner. Scully, a skeptic, a pragmatist, and a medical doctor, debunks Mulder’s theories at first, but as the series progresses she becomes a reluctant believer. It helped the series that its two stars had mad chemistry — I, for one, am still waiting for them to announce that they’ve been together all this time.
Chris Carter created a show that appealed specifically to geeks, and it was one of the best times in history to be one. Geeks have always been instrumental to the development of civilization, but with the rise of digital technology, they took over. The X-Files started out as a cult favorite, then became a pop culture phenomenon. You knew the world had changed when the same people who tormented geeks back in high school started claiming to be geeks.
The series’ paranoid conspiracy theorist worldview resonated with viewers who were children in the ’70s, when everyone saw UFOs, planes vanished regularly over the Bermuda Triangle, and killer bees were expected to arrive from South America any day. The martial law administration owned the media so we didn’t know what was happening in the real world, but in our parallel universe we could explain everything as the product of a vast government cover-up of the truth. Which involved extraterrestrials.
I confess that I grew to like the Monster of the Week episodes more than the season-spanning story arcs involving the Cigarette-Smoking Man (who may or may not be Mulder’s father — very Darth Vader) and the alien hybrids bred to be Super Soldiers. The series-long conspiracy narrative grew increasingly tiresome, especially when Mulder disappeared for an entire season. Much as I loved Scully, she needed the true believer to bounce off of. The two X-Files movies Fight the Future and I Want To Believe were forgettable trifles, extended episodes made for the fans who needed their fix. I Want To Believe gave the fans what they wanted: a Scully and Mulder romance. Unfortunately it only enraged the fans, who were deprived of its unfolding.
In the 13 years since the series ended, Gillian Anderson has done amazing work in film (The House of Mirth), TV (The Fall) and the stage. David Duchovny starred in the TV show Californication, and recently published the novel, Holy Cow. The breakout star of The X-Files is writer-producer Vince Gilligan, who wrote some of its most memorable episodes, including “Drive,” in which guest star Bryan Cranston plays a normal man who gets sick and goes absolutely bonkers. Gilligan and Cranston went on to make Breaking Bad, in which a normal man gets sick and goes absolutely bonkers. (Granted, a normal man who was the crystallographer on a team that won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, who gets cancer and breaks bad.)
Last year, Fox announced that The X-Files would return for a tenth season. The first of the six episodes aired in later January, and I am breaking my own rule of reviewing an entire season’s worth of episodes to write up the season premiere.
It’s terrible. Worse, it is crushingly mediocre.
I just spent most of this column extolling the importance of the show, so I wouldn’t have much space left to describe the non-event that is “My Struggle.” It is badly-paced, crammed with chatty exposition, and just plain silly. Wait, isn’t a show about aliens and mutants silly by nature? No. The X-Files worked because no matter how far out the plots became, the series was grounded in logic. Mulder and Scully studied the bizarre and looked for the rational explanation. “My Struggle” takes nothing and tries to convince us that it is something.
We rejoin the pair in the present day, where Scully is practising medicine again and Mulder is… I’m not sure what he’s doing. You have to wonder how he can manage without a job — either he got a massive severance pay from the FBI, or he’s independently wealthy. Tad O’Malley, the host of a conservative, right-to-bear-arms, conspiracy theory TV talk show (think Bill O’Reilly) seeks them out and introduces them to a young woman named Sveta, who is supposedly the key to The Truth.
O’Malley is played by Joel McHale, who was smarmy, smart and hilarious in Community, and Sveta by Annett Mahendru, who is superb as the triple agent in The Americans, and somehow Chris Carter has turned them into cardboard standees reciting stilted dialogue at breakneck speed. On the basis of one conversation Mulder reverses decades of belief, and spends the rest of the hour shouting “Everything’s a lie!” while Scully looks worried. “My Struggle” makes The X-Files look quaint.
The advantage of reviewing just the first episode means the tenth season has five more episodes in which to justify its existence. You told us that the truth is out there, Chris Carter. Now find yours.