DISCLAIMER: No important spoilers from the new series are ahead.
The premiere of FOX’s reboot of The X-Files is a week and a half away, but the verdicts on the hour-long episode have already been coming in for months. It was selectively screened in California in the early fall, and has been available to critics since the holiday season. The verdict has mostly been…negative. Even for those who didn’t see the full episode, a lot can be gleaned from the 21-minute featurette, The X-Files Reopened, that was released in late December.
I understand the inclination toward skepticism. The lines in the premiere are stagey, often unbelievably verbose: Even for Fox Mulder info-dumps, the explanatory conspiracy monologues packed into this 45-minute episode are just ludicrously loaded, not to mention full of speculations way beyond any evidence we actually see in the episode. Sometimes, the plot seems built from scraps of other episodes throughout the rest of the show’s run. On the basest level, Mulder and Scully follow a very familiar trajectory: link up with an odd accomplice/guide, go to an odd house, and explore the circumstances of an apparent abduction (of The Americans’ Annet Mahendru).
The show also launches into the fracas without much explanation of what Mulder and Scully have been doing all these years, which they’ve come out on the other end of with Scully looking better than ever. She’s full of passion for a medical career devoted to helping others, rather than suspecting them all of being part of some sordid coverup. Mulder, on the other hand, looks like literal hell (much better than Duchovny looked on Aquarius though, mind you), barely emergent from a bout of depression which left him essentially out of commission.
But the issue I have of criticisms relating to these attributes is this: The perspective assumes that The X-Files should have, in some significant tonal way, changed with the times. Its value system should be different. Today’s Esquire interview with creator Chris Carter and the cast adds fuel to the flames of assuming that The X-Files, in the “peak”/“Golden Age” of TV, might look more self-serious or prestige-y. Carter sites shows like Breaking Bad, True Detective (season 1), and Mad Men as an inspiration telling longer, more involved stories.
But The X-Files was always silly — a show made for primetime which allured both kids and adults. Duchovny was always stuck with more lines than his acting skills could handle. Somehow the implausibility of his herculean leaps of logic — like any good procedural — became so much more charming in his awkward delivery. It got harder as the show went on, but for its best seasons you saw Mulder’s weirdness as a character choice: evidence of a truly distinct, unforgettable weirdo no one could get enough of.
Check out his opening monologue here:
Also, in terms of backstory, Carter and the gang always left us a bit in the dark when it came to gaps in time, or even personal concerns of the characters that happen off screen. We don’t see exactly when Mulder and Scully sleep together (how did they have a child?) or know for sure whether The Smoking Man is Mulder’s father, though these are all hinted at by evidence in the show’s final seasons. We don’t even know everything that happened to Scully during the time she was abducted.
Keeping the backstory vague and sticking to the work is important in The X-Files. In terms of the reboot, we already care about and love these characters; we don’t need more filled-in for us. We wouldn’t be watching them — so much craggier these many years later — if we didn’t. The audience just wants to know: Will the former agents reach the the point of no return? Will they even truly “believe”? Will their life work — always in danger of extinction — be vindicated?
Like a good comic-book-style show, The X-Files addresses the “fan service” end of the implicit deal in exactly the way you would want it to. Everyone’s favorite characters and major threads are brought up in the first episode — this is where I will omit details. Carter is ready to answer questions from the audience in the way he deems appropriate.
And we should trust him, because he is no idiot: He made one of the more iconic and often brilliant supernatural television shows of all time, developed and distilled endless outlandish scenarios, and made scares and even modest gross-outs fit for prime time and endless reruns. Even if the show’s last handful of seasons went seriously off the rails conceptually in its final full seasons (What even is The X-Files minus one or both of its main characters?) Carter is coming at this project revitalized, but aware that it would be harder to make it work past just six episodes.
Do you want anything less than the biggest possible — and in some way, most generic — stakes from this X-Files miniseries?
Don’t you want to understand, as Mulder puts it, the way how “alien technology is used by us against us…in a venal conspiracy of men against humanity”?
Let The X-Files keep its stagey, hyperbolic tone, and high-dramatic atmosphere; it will be the better for it. The mini-season moves us into the 21st century enough with its cartoony shades of post-NSA paranoia (Mulder: ““They police us and spy us and tell us we’re safer… we’ve never been in more danger”) and all sorts of other resonances. Some of this is buried in the garbled but weirdly salient ramblings or a kooky, conservative Truther of a talk show host, played appealingly by Joel McHale.
But no, Duchovny and Anderson are not playing this for Emmy noms. They are doing something in the spirit of the show, and, as Anderson mentions in the featurette, “for the fans.” The latter statement — in a free-form, episodic franchise like this — is not necessarily a pejorative. The X-Files isn’t stuck in its old ways — as the skit on Kimmel last night would have you believe — but it’s not warping its identity too much either. It should be a short, fast, fun, and self-effacing ride that you’d be foolish to get pissed about.