The X-Files Returns: Inconsistent, Messy, and Promising
The seminal sci-fi classic is as patchy as ever, but proves it can still be brilliant television.
The nostalgic TV reboot is a tricky thing in the best of circumstances. But when it comes to The X-Files, a new season is burdened with the kind of impossible fan expectations that come with a new Star Wars. It’s easy to argue the seminal sci-fi show is the best and most influential program that ever aired on American television. But it ended horribly in 2002, each season more disappointing than the last, as its overarching conspiracy story tied itself in knots. An attempt at a film revival in 2008 drew mostly shrugs, but on Sunday, The X-Files is back on television where it belongs for a six-episode “event.” The stakes are low: All it has to do is restore the glory of one of TV’s all-time classics. Easy, right?
It’s little wonder then that things start out slow, especially given all the setup the show needs to do justifying its own existence. But don’t be discouraged by the utter incoherence of the first hour: The spirit of the show is still here, waiting to be drawn out, and each installment is better than the last. It’s not ideal, given the brevity of this installment, but since there hasn’t been a consistent season of The X-Files since the 1990s, it’s probably the best anyone could hope for.
The biggest shift concerns the nature of conspiracy-theorizing itself, which in the Internet age has evolved from a demanding hobby for only the most devoted paranoiacs to something far more widespread, accessible, and pervasive. Early stories in The X-Files traded on every whispered secret and half-baked theory about the government, every spooky urban legend, every mythic creature given half a page in the encyclopedia. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) was an obsessive in an old-fashioned way fans could understand—charming and laconic, but with a basement full of weird secrets and passion projects, most having to do with alien abductions. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) balanced him out as the level-headed skeptic, but her characterization and growth over nine years was the show. Mulder was the constant, while Scully was the person who drew all of the drama and crackling wit out of him.
That dynamic, happily, remains in the show’s new incarnation, but things are different for the semi-retired FBI duo. In the first episode, “My Struggle,” written and directed by the show’s creator Chris Carter, Mulder buddies up to a far-right-wing, Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist played by Joel McHale, mourning the current coolness of his relationship with Scully. But his fervor for the planet’s weird and wacky mysteries—the very quality that made him Mulder—seems to have waned. Conspiracy theories are embarrassingly mainstream at this point (think of the egg-avatar Twitter accounts ranting about lizard people or contrails or heaven knows what), and Mulder’s passion for discerning the truth from the lie is apparently sapped.
I don’t know what to say about “My Struggle” (perhaps a reference to the Hitler manifesto of the same name, or the Norwegian autobiographical opus by Karl Ove Knausgaard, although the episode does little to point at either), because I barely understood what happened in it. Chris Carter long ago lost the thread of his “mytharc” for The X-Files, which was initially about a planned alien colonization but morphed into five other related things. “My Struggle” does nothing to clear things up, and it does even less to revitalize Mulder’s ardor for his work. Duchovny, perhaps shell shocked after years of making the drearily sexist Californication on Showtime, sleepwalks through the premiere and gives the usually energetic McHale little to work off of. “My Struggle” feels like it’s trying to catch up to all of contemporary TV’s new cinematic flourishes (which The X-Files helped spark in the 1990s), but its visuals are muddled and its wide-ranging plot idiotic.
But in many ways, none of this matters much. All the viewing public really wants is a trip back to the good old days, when The X-Files was the hottest, creepiest show on television, Mulder and Scully were the greatest will-they-won’t-they couple around, and you could murmur darkly about the government without sounding like a bigoted loon. The second episode, “Founder’s Mutation,” written by the veteran X-Files writer James Wong, gets closer to that vibe and does well to address one of the show’s weightier dangling stories (Mulder and Scully’s “child,” William), but it’s the third hour, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” that really feels like a return to that old-time religion.
It’s written by Darin Morgan—inarguably the original show’s most bulletproof contributor—and crucially has a much lighter tone than the first two episodes, focusing more on Mulder and Scully’s dynamic and the inherent ridiculousness of them returning to a life running around the Vancouver woods like armed cryptozoologists. Duchovny finally wakes up in this one, and Anderson seems as delighted as the audience surely will be. The guest stars Rhys Darby and Kumail Nanjiani (whose brilliant podcast The X-Files Files was credited by producers as helping bring the show back to the airwaves) offer two sharp comic performances. There’s a sense of knowing that the first two episodes lack—that there’s something special about this show, and something crazy about the fact that it’s back. The return of The X-Files shouldn’t feel like some ordinary piece of nostalgia mining, but it’s only in this third episode that it doesn’t.
What to expect from the rest of the season? Perhaps it just needed to build momentum, clear the cobwebs, and set Mulder and Scully on the path again—or perhaps Morgan’s episode was a one-off treat. More likely, this is The X-Files as it has existed for the past 15 or so years—occasionally excellent, often frustrating, and loaded with the kind of history you can’t ignore but that also keeps you coming back to it again and again. For all its faults, it’s great to have the show back on screens, knowing that with any luck, it has more than just one extraordinary hour of TV left to give.