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'X-Files' redux 

Is the truth still out there?

click to enlarge SCULLY AND MULDER: Anderson and Duchovney, still waiting to be taken seriously.
  • SCULLY AND MULDER: Anderson and Duchovney, still waiting to be taken seriously.

"The X-Files" premiered in September 1993, during the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency, and persisted until the early months of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Ten years, nine seasons, 202 episodes: At 44 minutes per episode, that amounts to a little over 148 hours of television. It's a big number — you might think the public would be satisfied with a number like that. But like toddlers or addicts, we have lost all sense of proportion and restraint. We liked "The X-Files" and wanted it back, and nothing is more accommodating than television, and so the show has returned for a 10th season, which premiered last month and will conclude Monday night.

I used to watch "The X-Files" after school, before my parents got home from work. I'd watch it while eating Pop-Tarts or doing algebra or whatever. I admired Fox Mulder and Dana Scully for what I understood as their coldness. Teenagers are always projecting their misanthropy onto others, but Mulder (David Duchov-ney) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) were the real deal. They were constantly sighing and mumbling and rolling their eyes. Everything disappointed them; they were never taken seriously. Another way of putting this is that they were unhappy. Their very existences — neglected, deep in the cluttered basement of the FBI, sorting through the surreal dregs of the mutant criminal imagination — suggested an unhappy interpretation of American history and American life. I found this unhappiness deeply likeable. This is how the great pulp detectives used to carry themselves, after all, indifferent to civilians or small kindnesses. Mulder wasn't even an especially nice or charismatic person; as the critic Robert Warshow has written of the archetypal film noir hero, "He is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become."

Because we are putatively in the middle of a Golden Age of Television, I expected the return of "The X-Files" to be taken fairly seriously. I thought they'd assemble a crack team of bright and self-aware writers who would bring together everything we loved about "The X-Files" and smooth over the rest. I expected an HBO-quality sheen, basically. Surprisingly, and maybe to their credit, this is not at all what they've done. Of the new episodes I've seen, one was brilliant and funny, two were sketchy but diverting, and one was among the worst episodes of television I've ever seen. In other words, this is exactly "The X-Files" I remember. Bureaucrats are dismembered by ghosts; lizard-men attack teenagers in the woods; siblings are telepathically destructive — what else were we expecting?

Episodes of the show can historically be divided into three categories, all of which are represented here: the myth-arc episodes that constitute the series' main through-line, in which the subject of alien-human hybrids is always being raised, tentatively and confusingly; the "monster-of-the-week" episodes, which are self-contained pulp-horror mysteries, like a cross between "Law & Order" and "The Twilight Zone"; and the post-modern, fourth-wall-splitting, comedic episodes, a handful of which were written by longtime producer Darin Morgan and widely considered the show's peaks (they also typically claimed the best titles: "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," "War of the Coprophages," "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space' ").

All of this is intact in the new season. So why does the overall tone feel slightly, somehow, near imperceptibly but crucially wrong? There are many factors in play here, most of them boring. But one big problem with transplanting "The X-Files" into 2016 is pretty interesting, and I think it has something to do with what used to be called the "credibility gap." What was once a gap — an ambient sense that the government might not always be totally forthright, or have our best interests at heart — has developed into something more like a crater or a canyon. In 2016 we would never expect a national politician to be honest with us; it would be unseemly. The government is absolutely, demonstrably not concerned with our best interests. In 2016, we all know the conspiratorial view of history is essentially the only valid one. But — and here's the problem for Mulder and Scully — it doesn't have anything to do with alien-human hybrids. The conspiracy is much less exciting, less phenomenal and more frightening than that.

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