Roswell, 9/11, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Kimmel, Faraday Cages, the military-industrial complex, kids without ears, the military-industrial complex, JFK, Henrietta Lacks, Saddam Hussein, “Mission Accomplished,” the Patriot Act, Edward Snowden, communism, terrorism, fascism, the Venus Syndrome, “They’ve reopened the X-Files.”
There, I just spoiled “My Struggle,” the rebooted premiere of The X-Files and one of the single strangest episodes of anything ever. “My Struggle” is a chain-gun barrage of catchphrase paranoia and midlife-crisis crypto-Randian anti-philosophy. It’s like creator Chris Carter took 13 years of pent-up ideas and printed them on Froot Loops. Here’s a typical throwaway comment from the premiere: “Since 9/11, this country’s taken a big turn in a very strange direction.” I’ll say!
Meet, again: Dana Scully and Fox Mulder. Gillian Anderson’s bemused skeptic is still in the hospital where we left her in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, the only movie to ever truly waste Xzibit. David Duchovny’s believer is in a depressive funk. They’re called back into alien-hunting by Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), an alarmist, Glenn Beckian newsbag. O’Malley is a 9/11 Truther, a Roswell Truther, and probably a Beyoncé Truther. He may also be right.
He leads Mulder and Scully to a woman who — well, I could try to explain what happens, but nothing really does. There is technobabble, shouted exposition, looney-pulp non-dialogue. At one point O’Malley declares, “If I’m putting my ass out there, I need to know it’s hanging by more than just a very slender thread.” Logic question: Who has ever hung an ass with anything?
(ASIDE: In the era of Black Mirror, nothing makes The X-Files feel more like an angry middle-aged version of itself than its loopy portrayal of the internet. The characters all watch O’Malley’s show on a fake version of YouTube called “mindQUAD.” Sometimes, they use a fake Google called “Finder Spyder.” Early on, Scully asks Mulder if he’s been watching Tad O’Malley “on the Net?” I haven’t heard anyone say “The Net” since The Net became a TV show nobody watched. END OF ASIDE.)
As a longform saga, the original X-Files was influential — and disappointing. The show’s central conspiracy arc dead-ended into one blind alley after another. (The show’s newest Deep Throat informant explicitly states that most, if not all, of the original mythology was “nonsense”.) Now that every show is serialized, the stand-alone X-Files episodes actually look better, and stranger. Go to Netflix right now to watch “Squeeze,” “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” “Bad Blood,” “Triangle,” “Home,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.”
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Cards on the table: I think The X-Files was the best TV drama of the 1990s. It was always a mixed bag — all television was, with 24 episodes per season! — but X-Files uses the standard operating Mixed Bag-ness of television as a laboratory for ideas and narrative concepts. It helped that creator Chris Carter had a murderers’ row of embryonic TV greats, with writers like Vince Gilligan and Darin Morgan and James Wong working alongside episode directors like Kim Manners and Michelle MacLaren. In their hands, X-Files could be anything: Funny and scary, romantic and cerebral, gorgeous throwback black-and-white, or handheld found-footage. And there was a blunt-force transgressive paranoid thrill even in the show’s worst episodes.
But by the end of the original run, it was pretty much only worst episodes — and “My Struggle” is actually worse. It could only get better. In the second episode, “Founder’s Mutation,” Mulder and Scully investigate a mysterious doctor performing shady experiments that involve pregnant women: You’ve seen this X-Files episode a dozen times; on Fringe, or Lost, or The Event, or, hell, Surface. But “Founder’s Mutation” will be fun for fans of the show — an improvement over the premiere, which is fun for no one.
Still, nothing could have prepared me for episode 3. Written and directed by the famously gonzo Morgan, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” — actual title! — is a wild, playful, brain-twisting, heart-pulling, and above all adventurous episode of television. In one respect, it’s a vintage Monster-of-the-Week episode. The agents head to a corner of woodland America that looks like Vancouver. There are reports of a lizard-man killing people; confusingly, said lizard-man is wearing tighty-whities. But in another respect, “Were-Monster” is about monster-of-the-week episodes, a lighthearted but very smart self-dissection. (X-Files was doing meta-farce before it was cool; if Lost was descended from X-Files, then so was Community.)
To say much more would actually spoil a daffy plot everyone should enjoy. Suffice it to say that “Were-Monster” feels like The X-Files you remember. Duchovny and Anderson both seem more relaxed, finally rediscovering their old zip-zap chemistry. Guest stars Kumail Nanjiani and Rhys Darby are delightful. It’s scary, then funny, then existential, then shockingly moving. (There’s even a 9/11 joke — and it’s funny!) “I forgot how much fun these cases could be,” says Scully. Me, too.
“My Struggle”: C-
“Founder’s Mutation”: B
“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”: A
Average Grade: B
The X-Files returns to Fox Jan. 24 at 10 p.m. ET.