Television today is possibly the best it’s ever been. There’s a show for every type of person: reality tv for the attention deficit, competition game shows, medical/legal/police procedurals, high school drama and high school musical, all the way to shows about vampires, dragons, and Timelords. There are epic stories with dense mythologies and fun, family-centered sitcoms. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when that wasn’t so, but there’s always a time before.
Which brings me to today’s throwback, nostalgia-infused post: centering around the 90s hit “The X-Files.” It wasn’t the first show to deal with the supernatural (I do believe I’ve heard of a little something called “The Twilight Zone.”) Nor was it the first show to create a mythology and carry plotlines through from episode to episode. But gosh darn it, it was one of the first and best to do it, and to do it in primetime, nonetheless.
I’ve been rewatching it lately, drawn in once again to the show. The show, in it’s first four seasons, did three things right: it had a pair of leads with insane amounts of chemistry; it created an overarching mythology that was built upon science fiction, but grounded in reality; and it had a lot of heart. Seasons 5 and 6 saw a drastic reduction in the quality of the mythology, but retained the spark between the two leads, and replaced some of the lack of mythic epicness with some really funny writing. And season seven, as we all know, is when it started to go drastically downhill.
But when the X-Files was good, it was more than good: it was a show that transcended its own genre. I’ve always had a particular fondness for stories that are worth more than their genre: tv shows like Lost (seasons 1 – 3) and books by the likes of Ray Bradbury, or Usula LeGuin. Stories that have a certain degree of universality to them, despite the appearance of supernatural elements.
Plus, Mulder was pretty smoking.
Many episodes of the X-Files were like many novels by Stephen King: pulpy, semi-predictable pieces of genre fluff. But certain episodes transcended the material, and spoke to deeper themes of humanity — just as The Stand and The Shining are monumental works, about so much more than a superflu or haunted house. Take, for instance, the Season Four Episode “Humbug.”
Apparently Mulder’s mother never taught him that it’s impolite to point at people.
The elements of an X-file are there: a myth about a fiji mermaid, a town filled with circus people, a tiny, demon-like creature that lives within a man and detaches to hunt. But, in dealing with the supernatural, the agents ruminate on racial profiling, on the value of being different, and on what makes a family. Similarly, Season 5’s episode “The Post Modern Prometheus” deals with universal themes of acceptance, love and family, amid the story of a genetically engineered monster that is apparently impregnating women in a small, backwoods town. In the end the monster is found — but of course, the real monster is not the man with the grotesque face and distorted figure, but the one who vilifies him based upon appearance. “Small Potatoes” where ostensibly the story is all about a shapeshifter, but the underlying theme is one of connection. The villain in this episode is a middling man — below average looks, below average intelligence, and unlucky in love — ultimately, he’s looking for a way to connect to other people (which does not, of course, excuse the fact that after his father died he continues to cash in on SS payments by shifting into his father’s shape occassionally, or the fact that he deludes women into sleeping with them by shifting into the visages of their husbands — beside the point). The loneliness of the villain is mirrored by the loneliness of the two leads.
The characterization on the show was also almost unparalleled by other tv. There are only two real leads, of course: Agents Mulder and Scully. They each have an almost painfully convoluted backstory, and for the first two seasons the show enjoys carefully pulling by the layers to reveal little tidbits of their pasts: Mulder is afraid of fire, Scully is a Catholic, Mulder had multiple romantic liasions in his past, Scully’s brother doesn’t like anyone she dates. . .but the show really hits it stride a little later on, when the facets that are being revealed aren’t just facts, but are tied into the deeper themes of the show: claustrophobia, loneliness, sacrifice.
I have to be honest and admit that I haven’t seen the entire series — I lost interest in late Season 7, when Mulder exited the show and new characters were introduced. While 90% of the time I am a fan of a show continuing on after a lead has exited the show, the X-files was the exception. Recently, Cory Monteith of Glee passed away, and a flurry of media sprung up regarding whether the show would continue — which of course it will, because Monteith’s character was never an inextricable part of the show — like any ensemble cast, it can continue on without one character, regardless of how pivotal it may seem. But to take a show that was focused around two characters, is a different story. Maybe The X-Files could have survived without Scully — but it didn’t make sense to continue without Mulder. The plot revolved around his obsessive search, but even more, thematically the show revolved around him. Scully’s character was always able to connect to the outside world — she could make friends, she had a tight-knit family, she could function in regular society. She chose the X-Files, and she chose Mulder. He, however, was an entirely different sort — he was consumed by his work, and it was destroying him. Mulder’s excruciating loneliness, his inability to fit in (despite the fact that he was insanely attractive, as the show enjoyed pointing out, very tongue in cheek), his obsession, and his sacrifice were direct mirrors for most of the show’s themes, but in isolated episodes and as an overlying arch. To lose him was to lose the core of the show, and it’s connection to humanity.
In the same way, I was slightly disappointed in the latter seasons when Mulder and Scully became romantically entangled. Admittedly, thirteen year-old me desperately wanted them to fall in love, get married, and have babies, but rewatching it later. . .well, it seems to almost cheapen the relationship that the two have. If ever a pair of people were “soulmates” it was Mulder and Scully. They offset one another, challenged one another, complemented one another, and undoubtedly loved one another. That deep love was present from the first season (it’s hard to forget an impassioned Scully telling a death row inmate and murder suspect that if Mulder didn’t live, she would hit the switch herself). For the next six seasons that love only grew — they were intellectual soulmates, and could say more with a glance than most on-screen couples can with an elongated (but tasteful!) make-out session.
Ooh–scandalous! Also, a magazine cover, and never occurring in the show.
There was never a “will they or won’t they” pull with the two — they respected each other, loved each other, and steadfastedly slept in different beds. There were no angst-ridden conversations with confidantes and friends, no moments of realization when they realized they were in love — they just were. It wasn’t a case of the timing being wrong, or the unwillingness to let love interfere with work — Mulder’s obsession, Scully’s detached cynicism, the very core of who they were prevented them from ever acting on any shared sentiments. While each character went on dates and experienced jealousy, and while the writers poked fun at the underlying sexual tension, the characters themselves were unable to even acknowlege what was happening between them. The moment that they did, the mystic of the show was lost. When Mulder had Scully he wasn’t alone any longer — when they were actually together romantically, a whole new world opened up — one of laughter and children, and a house with a picket fence. Both had sacrificed that future — Mulder before the first episode, even — but by having them get together it reappeared, and it simply didn’t make sense to the viewer that they didn’t take it. They could have been Lois Lane and Superman, or Mary Jane and Spiderman, (or, to speak anachronistically, Brennan and Booth, or Castle and Beckett) — but such a union went against the theme of the show as a whole — the sense of being other, being apart, being different. So when Mulder and Scully got together in the way of normal, mundane, flesh and blood entities, that theme collapsed within itself. (There’s a reason the show focused on aliens — what can be more lonely, more apart, more different than being from an entirely separate planet?)
Still. Seasons 1 through 6 were absolutely phenomenal, with some fantastic episodes. If you haven’t seen the show, absolutely watch it — those of you who marathon shows, consider starting with Season Two, when the actors have fully settled into the show — for those of you who are uncertain whether it’s “your thing” check out the episodes specifically mentioned, for a taste of how great the show can be in stand-alone episodes.
And always remember. . .the truth is out there.