Tuesday, September 10, 2013
The Truth Was Out There
In honor of the 20-year anniversary of The X-Files, which premiered on this very day, my list of the twenty best episodes. They are in order:
1. Beyond the Sea, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
2. Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose, written by Darin Morgan
3. Pilot, written by Chris Carter
4. Jose Chung's "From Outer Space", written by Darin Morgan
5. Duane Barry, written by Chris Carter
6. Squeeze, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
7. Paper Hearts, written by Vince Gilligan
8. Little Green Men, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
9. Paper Clip, written by Chris Carter
10. Ice, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
11. Deep Throat, written by Chris Carter
12. The Field Where I Died, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
13. Home, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
14. The Erlenmeyer Flask, written by Chris Carter
15. Fallen Angel, written by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa
16. Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, written by Glen Morgan
17. The Unnatural, written by David Duchovny
18. Pusher, written by Vince Gilligan
19. Grotesque, written by Howard Gordon
20: Aubrey, written by Sara B. Charno
There's been a lot of talk about how we're living in a golden age of television, and that if it wasn't for The Sopranos, we wouldn't have, well, everything, I guess. But I don't think this modern age of television started with The Sopranos. I think it started with The X-Files. I'd rather say modern age than golden age because that does a huge disservice to truly ground-breaking television.
I suppose every generation thinks their television was unique, special, and influential. But now we have a constant stream of choices. And when one ends, another begins: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Homeland... fill in the list your own self. But there's never a moment to breathe, to reflect, or to get any distance at all. Because once you've finished one series, you'd better start on the next one before you get spoiled. Nobody really engages in television these days. The conversations are all about quantity: What have you watched lately? Why aren't you watching this? Where is that on your queue? How many seasons do you have to get through before the next one starts?
Personally, I like having the ability to watch an entire series in a week. I don't necessarily like it because I feel like I accomplished something, though. It's just easier to block out all the noise and immerse myself in the world of the show. That's almost impossible to do when a show only airs once a week, or there's a year between seasons. Because the space between episodes is just filled with SHIT. Recaps and reviews and tweets and Facebook... it's exhausting. I know this is how things work now. The Internet is on all the time, and it must be fed. But there's no sense of discovery anymore. No surprise. We've just become numbed to all of this. We don't expect it anymore. And television addresses that by being bolder, braver, more insane. Every envelope must be pushed. You see that with what's selling right now. Nobody's really thinking about that space where a show lives. They're all looking ahead, anticipating how this particular show is going to feed the Internet monster.
Things weren't like that twenty years ago, when The X-Files premiered. It was on a Friday night, God help it, it was on a network that nobody really watched, and it was some weirdo show about FBI agents who chased aliens.
It wasn't even supposed to be the hit for Fox. The Adventures of Brisco County was.
But The X-Files lived in that quiet space. That space hadn't been occupied before. Shows about paranoia were OUT THERE. "LOOK! I'M PARANOID!" The X-Files wasn't like that. It was beautifully shot, making unique use of the Vancouver locations and particularly the somewhat untapped acting pool. Because of The X-Files, every Vancouver day player has a ten-page resume. The music was moody and almost eerily silent itself. It was different, because it was a part of the show. The X-Files was built on mood, on its ability to get underneath the viewer's skin.
(literally: watch Paper Clip and think about your smallpox scars, if you are old like me)
People champion/blame the show for introducing mythology to television series. But singling out one thing that made the show work (and makes others fail) sends the wrong message. There's never one thing that makes a show or a movie work. There might be one thing that redeems it but when something is working, it's an alchemy of everything and everyone. The X-Files got a great huge headstart thanks to the crucial casting of its two leads, and to the pilot. There aren't very many pilots that are perfect and this is one of them. If you want to work in television (don't do it; seriously), you need to memorize this pilot. You need to understand why it's perfect. Mulder and Scully meeting in the basement, challenging each other, is iconic. It so elegantly introduces the entire series, as well as these two characters, to the audience. It was also unusual for its time. It's been imitated a lot since, and never bettered.
The X-Files' main dish may have been the mythology episodes, where Mulder and Scully ran around with awesome flashlights chasing shadowy government men, but the standalone episodes were the show's engine. Mythology can tie you up; it certainly tied up The X-Files later in its run, but let's be fair -- nobody had done anything like this before. Standalone episodes can be anything, and they were on this show. They were funny, scary, heartfelt. The X-Files may have been a genre show, but it became so much more than that. It's never been successfully imitated. And how could it be? Any show that's driven by somebody who has an idea and won't waver is never going to be imitated. It would be best if we stopped trying, but apparently we never will. The lesson, that it's best to trust the voice behind the project, is still waiting to be learned.
The space was also quiet with regards to the fan community. There was the Internet, but it was such a small part of the show's success. Nobody was on it all the time. You couldn't be if you needed to make a phone call. So everybody had their opinion, their favorite episodes and their interpretations, but it wasn't that easy to share them. Until then, it finally was.
And all hell broke loose.
The X-Files fan community was really the first online community, and it should have served as a warning to every other fan community: DO NOT DO THIS. DO NOT ENGAGE. The show stopped being fun, because you were forced to share it and defend it with all of these other people. I knew they were watching. I just didn't want to know what they always thought. It was easier to turn away from the Internet then. It's impossible now, because you're always bombarded with what people think. The worst infection that's come out of Internet fandom is the notion of ownership. This didn't happen that much with The X-Files. People wrote LETTERS, on actual PAPER. Mostly from prison, but still. It started happening a little near the end but it wasn't enough to be absolutely horrible, like it is now. Because now, it is apparently a rule that the fans own the show/movie/comic book they love, and if the creator of said thing deigns to speak out, that creator is told off. THIS IS OURS. GO AWAY. The inmates have taken over the asylum.
The X-Files would have been a very different show if it had started now. It wouldn't have been a discovery. A secret. Something you looked forward to every week. By the time it aired, you would know every single thing about it. The mystique would be gone, and then the show would have to work ten times as hard to win you over. The X-Files DID have to work harder in later seasons, and it showed. But no other show had done that before. So who knew how to deal with it? Now every show has to work hard, before it gets on the air, before a pilot is made, before a pilot is SOLD. The discovery is stripped away.
And I think that's what I mourn for more than anything else. There will never be that sense of wonder again. We expect our golden age to be amazing, and if it isn't we will set it on fire. And we can do that righteously because IT IS OURS. WE OWN IT.
In the beginning, The X-Files was a pact between creator and viewer: I love this, and I hope you do, too. There's a purity to that. A simplicity. The X-Files informed who I am as a writer for a lot of reasons, and those are chief among them. I've been spending every day since it premiered trying to get back there.