What's Going On With 'The X-Files'' Glenn Beck Wannabe Tad O'Malley?
Two decades later, why is the classic sci-fi show suddenly picking sides?
There was not a lot to like in last night’s X-Files premiere (although it gets better!). Exposition-filled, dramatically inert, and made Scully look like a fool. Not good. But all those were crimes The X-Files has committed against itself before — even in its glory years it had bad season premieres. Instead, there was something equally novel and baffling in “My Struggle”: right-wing television personality Tad O’Malley.
O’Malley, played (shockingly unmemorably) by Joel McHale, has a name reminiscent of Bill O’Reilly, but he’s really a Glenn Beck stand-in. His reactionary demagoguery and level of fame seem like direct callbacks to Beck’s power during Obama’s first term. Which is the first problem: An X-Files series in 2016 can work in the present day, and it can go back to the 1990s and its heyday, but to set it political and media awareness level in 2009 makes no sense.
The second issue is that, well, The X-Files getting into any level of politics and media is dangerous territory. The original run of the series was deliberately apolitical in an electoral sense, even as it engaged in post-Cold War anxiety. (Which became quite explicit as the series went on, as members of the conspiracy even said, specifically, following the fall of the USSR and the appearance of the aliens, “Tonight, we have a new enemy.”) It never declared Clinton or Bush to be the problem, or ever really engaged with “mainstream media.” And even on the rare occasions when it did specifically “pick sides,” it always made that more about the specificity of the episode than a general belief that someone’s conspiracy theories were right or wrong.
Yet “My Struggle” says that the Glenn Beck stand-in, Tad O’Malley, is right. Mulder and Scully both disdain him for his partisan leanings, specifically tying him to some of the most vocal Fox News personalities of recent years. And they’re wrong — to the point where their skepticism costs lives. Now, there are always conspiracy theorists, and those conspiracy theorists are often but not always tied into resisting whichever party is in power — Alex Jones and Infowars were prevalent on left-wing sites in the 2000s, while they’ve become legitimized by the right in the 2010s. But O’Malley’s style and shtick are specifically right-wing, and specifically encouraged by “My Struggle.”
And it doesn’t go anywhere. It just leads to Scully and her skepticism being revealed as wrong, and O’Malley and Mulder being right. That’s it. Chris Carter specifically picks a certain, highly political media personality from a direct historical point, implies that his conspiratorial rantings have a point, and then… just leaves it there. Perhaps the finale, titled “My Struggle II,” will complicate this discussion. But it’s scheduled for a month from now, leaving the vast majority of this 10th season of The X-Files to ask “Wait, why is Mulder on Glenn Beck’s side?” That’s not a good look.