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Can The X-Files still do a serious episode? 'Familiar' argues yes...kind of

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The best X-Files episodes this season are the weirdest. Darin Morgan’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” paid homage to the fading possibility that we live in a shared reality. Last week’s “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” imagined that normal life in 2018 is a never-ending X-file. Neither episode was perfect, but I loved them, loved their cockeyed-yet-mythic view of Scully and Mulder. The FBI agents were suddenly “heroic” the way Adam West’s Batman was heroic, droll icons less concerned about exploding houses than half-remembered rip-off Jell-O. Impressively, both episodes also landed on sweet, poignant, romantic-if-you-want moments of quiet grace.

Good stuff! Especially by comparison. I don’t want to rag more than the world already has on the awful season premiere, but I’ve felt a lack of spark in all the “normal” episodes this year. Awkward attempts toward serialization have felt inconsequential. And then an episode like “Kitten” feels beamed in from a distant X-Files eon: boomerish Vietnam fixation, woodsy horror, government paranoia out of the anti-fluoride anarchist’s cookbook.

If The X-Files continues — big, huge, Gillian Anderson-sized “if” there — I’m not averse to a whole show of dark-humor absurdity. But maybe you think X-Files‘ appeal requires the mixture of serious and silly. Wednesday’s “Familiar” implies that the show can still do straight-faced, clever procedural storytelling. But only up to a point.

“Straight-faced” is the wrong word. “Familiar” features one of David Duchovny’s funniest line readings, “Iiiii did not see that coming,” after the local police chief admits to an affair with his subordinate’s wife. But “Familiar” starts with a mutilated kid-corpse and ends with a death parade. Along the way, it takes big swings, exploring the history and topicality of American hysteria.

In a small town in Connecticut, a police officer’s child dies. The local PD suspects an animal, coyote or wolf or maybe even a coywolf. Scully suspects humanity: An adult, a local, maybe even a parent, with a predilection for child suffering. Mulder’s suspicions are more fantastic. This is witch country. There’s always the possibility of a hellhound.

Scully brushes aside Mulder’s fantasies of phony witch history. “As we’ve discussed before,” Scully says, patiently, “People don’t just spontaneously combust.” But their investigation does spontaneously combust, the violence spiraling in unexpected directions. The townspeople’s lives are full of soap operatics — sexy affairs, bloody murder — and the melodrama falls like a fog over the actual supernatural mystery.

The best part of the episode is also the most explicitly thematic. Rumors of a child-murderer lead the dead boy’s father to a local sex offender’s house. The house contains what Colin Farrell in Minority Report referred to as an “orgy of evidence”: Eerie pictures of young children, all kept inside a darkened house. The man’s nowhere to be seen, but an angry mob gathers.

“This guy has no chance,” says Mulder. Why defend a convicted sex offender? Because of due process. “This rush to judgment, “Mulder decries. “What happened to the precious presumption of innocence? … You and this mob are reconvicting him right here and now for the sins of his past, with a fervor that we see too often in this American experience of ours.” Quoting two different beleaguered presidents, Mulder says, “This is a witch hunt.”

This American experience of ours. Don’t give writer Benjamin Van Allen points for poetry, but X-Files can be fun when it’s blunt. The broadest, non-hellhound-ish summary of “Familiar” sounds like any episode of Criminal Minds, but with X-Files you get the dark humor of Mulder, the ruminative skepticism of Scully, the cockeyed sense that any monster isn’t as monstrous your average regular person.

So the sex offender arrives, is brutally attacked by the policeman. And then the mob positively stones him. Finally, the cop pulls out his gun and shoots the man through the head: Judge, jury, executioner, the kind of hero America worships in bland procedurals. This is thoughtful stuff. It almost works.

The episode guest stars Roger Cross, one of TV’s best familiar-face character actors. Cross is probably best known as Curtis from 24, the solid dude-liest ally Jack Bauer ever had. (The show went downhill, immediately and forever, when Curtis died.) He played four different roles on the original run of X-Files, always in some uniform, an Officer, a Private, a Lieutenant, an Agent. In “Familiar,” as the one seemingly sane person in the town, he brings a thoughtfulness to the role of an old-fashioned lawman. “I didn’t become a cop,” he tells the FBI agents, “To watch men get gunned down without due process.”

Cross also happens to be black, which doesn’t necessarily have to matter in this episode. But there’s provocative material being played with here. Mulder decries the double injustice of the sex offender’s murder: “The death of an innocent man, and the escape of a guilty officer.” The language nods toward the contemporary conversation about police brutality and unarmed-suspect fatalities. But the hysterical circumstances make the provocation feel defanged. And Cross’ character fades when he should come to the forefront. So the fuddy-duddy side of the X-Files revival is very much on display here. See also: The kids love a TV show that looks exactly like Teletubbies, which reached the height of its popularity around X-Files season 7.

But “Familiar” works in a way no other “serious” episodes have lately. There’s no incoherent William drama, no awkward struggle to incorporate fan-service cameos. The supernatural event is as old-fashioned as the American colonies, but that means “Familiar” feels blissfully nothing like Black Mirror or Mr. Robot. Director Holly Dale shoots the woods with sumptuous dark greens, filming one of the doomed children in an extreme long shot that has the eerie resonance of a fairy tale. The town itself is called Eastwood, named for one of American’s true icons of manhood. And the town’s witch-killing history reflects a national original sin of anti-femininity. Is there hope for the future? Almost everyone — man, woman, child — winds up dead.

So Mulder and Scully do the one thing they can. They leave, looking for anywhere better.