In 1993 The X-Files took the pop-culture fringe into prime time. It absorbed a galaxy of offbeat influences — B-movie horror, trippy pulp sci-fi, urban legend, Atomic Age paranoia, post-Watergate paranoia — and refracted them through the lens of the procedural. Scully was so familiar a small- screen archetype that she was a doctor and a cop. And Mulder was the sardonic guide welcoming us to worlds unlike anything television had ever seen.
The central cult-mainstream dissonance was key. The spookiest agent in the FBI was played by a 6-ft.-tall Ivy Leaguer with a killer chin. His levelheaded, methodical partner — a character that would seem to encourage crusty-old-lifer typecasting — was brought to life by a young actress discovered playing a college student on FOX’s short-lived coed drama Class of ’96. Mulder is a conspiracy nut raging against the system — and yet he is the system, an FBI agent with a bottomless expense account. Scully is a scientist and a Christian, skeptic and believer — and no matter what monstrosity she witnesses this week, she will always be the first person to doubt Mulder’s musings next week.
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson sold the paradox. Their sparkling chemistry led fans to coin the term “shipping,” an essential part of the she-and-him detective genre that followed in their wake: Bones, Castle and Sleepy Hollow. From the actors’ rock-solid foundation, the writers built endless experiments — most famously the large-scale alien-cover-up arc that launched so many season-finale cliff-hangers. (To be a kid who loved The X-Files was to be the only kid who wanted summer to just end already.) Today every TV show has a mythology — there’s a wiki for NCIS — and the Binge Era has made “serialization” an essential part of the TV writers’ toolkit.
But lately it’s also become common to praise The X-Files for the precise opposite of serialization. While the mythology had some written-on-the-fly excesses, the stand-alone episodes look more than ever like shining examples of TV artistry. Mr. Robot’s single-take thriller Pretty Little Liars’ black-and-white Old Hollywood adventure, the flashback origin-of-the-villain stories that popped up on Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Heroes? The X-Files got there first, with “Triangle,” “The Post-Modern Prometheus” and “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” The breadth of material produced by The X-Files launched careers that would go on to define television, like Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan, Homeland’s Howard Gordon, ace TV director Michelle MacLaren.
The revival X-Files season debuted with 16.19 million viewers, huge 1996 numbers in 2016’s splintered media landscape. Mulder’s “spooky” fascinations have become central tenets of entertainment. There’s a clear line from The X-Files to Lost to Stranger Things — and another from The X-Files to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Twilight. The reboots of Doctor Who and Westworld bear recognizable marks of Chris Carter DNA — and the series-long conspiracy prepared audiences for the ongoing narratives of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. The show’s legacy is still growing, like a tantalizing truth spreading further out there.
Excerpt from Entertainment Weekly’s The Ultimate Guide to The X-Files, celebrating 25 years of out-there conspiracies. On sale Jan. 5, buy it here now.