Friday, December 30, 2011

An Appreciation of the X-Files

TV is an easy target for a social critic like me. Too easy, which is why I usually refrain from writing about it here.

But every once in a while, something goes wrong. The lowest common denominator formulas that usually guard against this sort of thing fail, and we the people end up with something fresh and different.

For four seasons and most of a fifth, The X-Files provided some of the most-compelling television of the twentieth century. Episodes stuffed with government conspiracies and unspeakable monsters terrorized our imaginations when its wry, left-of-center humor wasn't provoking double takes.

It was new and unique and reliably disturbing.

Not so unique were the problems that eventually plagued it; the spiraling demands of newly-famous actors, writers, producers and directors and a dearth of fresh storylines.

Tired of the weekly commute between his home in Los Angeles and the show’s set in Vancouver, David Duchovny successfully lobbied for filming to be moved to L.A.

While not always sufficiently camouflaged to resemble Iowa or New Jersey, British Columbia nevertheless provided X-Files with just the backdrop its scripts demanded. The moody, dank clime was ideal for spawning Fluke Man or the crazed victim of one too many alien abductions.

The shadowy light acted as a metaphor, underscoring the morally-ambivalent world Scully and Mulder inhabited. Sunny SoCal just wasn’t the same.

And it was probably inevitable that one day the show would begin to run out of ideas. If producing a quality script for a movie is difficult, imagine what cranking out two-dozen per season for a TV series is like.

Season five revealed the first signs of full-blown fatigue, where a reliance on soap opera-styled plot conventions reared its ugly head.

Scully is abducted. Scully has cancer. Scully can’t have babies. While the first two of these developments actually came to light near the end of the fourth season, they are taken to their melodramatic extremes in season five.

One has only to watch the insufferable two-parter Christmas Carol and Emily to see the depths to which X-Files could fall.

But I come to praise X-Files, not bury it.

The X-Files was Moonlighting and Night Gallery and CSI all rolled into one. No other series had ever fused such disparate genres so successfully.

Sure, some of the conspiracy plots were more labyrinthine than The Big Sleep. And Scully's skepticism was occasionally a little nonsensical and a little too automatic. But it scared us and challenged us and made us laugh. It was habit-forming.

And if that moment in Unruhe when Scully realizes she is face-to-face with the prime suspect in several gruesome murders while alone in a gutted building undergoing rehab isn’t the most chilling in television history, I don’t know what is.

These days, X-Files would air on a premium cable channel, and not network TV. Only those with hundreds of dollars to spend on TV each month would be privileged enough to enjoy its compelling scripts, distinctive look and appealing cast. I am forever grateful it was not.

What follows is a highly-subjective list of my favorite episodes. They appear in order of broadcast because attempting to order them any other way would make my hair fall out.

Not surprisingly, they skew heavily to the first four seasons, since those had first crack at my imagination.

Comments welcome.

Top Ten:

Beyond the Sea
Irresistible
Dod Calm
Humbug
Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
Grotesque
Pusher
Wetwired
Unruhe
Small Potatoes


Honorable Mentions:

Miracle Man
Duane Barry/Ascension
Excelsis Dei
Aubrey
Die Hand Die Verletzt
War of the Coprophages
Syzygy
Hell Money
Quagmire
Bad Blood

4 comments:

  1. I came to the X-Files late. The first episode I ever watched was The Host. After that I was hooked. Happy new year by the way. I only just got back after my account was hacked.

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  2. Good to hear from you, Marcus!

    I remember that episode vividly. Nearly as creepy as one party's presidential nominees!

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  3. Incidentally, when we changed our data entry system at work, we needed a way to distinguish between client files under the old system and files under the new system. I successfully lobbied for putting an X at the beginning of the numbers on our new system. So we now have X files at work :)

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