What’s So Wrong with The X-[position] Files, Anyway?

Chris Carter’s ’90s classic television show gets updated…and it’s good.

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What’s So Wrong with The X-[position] Files, Anyway?

Back in the late 90s, Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” on Fox was one of only a few shows I watched with any degree of regularity.  I recall it as a dry period in television.  Today, by contrast, we’re in a Golden Age, or, as some have suggested, seemingly reaching “Peak TV.”

Thus, I was hopeful about the return of “The X-Files” as a six episode miniseries this winter.  These hopes were dashed when I read the early reviews from those who had the opportunity to preview it prior to broadcast. It generally didn’t bode well for my old favorite.

For anyone inexplicably unfamiliar with the show, the show featured two FBI special agents, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) who were relegated to a basement office in the J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building in Washington, D.C. to investigate unexplained or unsolved crimes of a paranormal or unexplained variety, dubbed “X-files.”

Scully, a skeptic, who was also conveniently a medical doctor/scientist, was initially planted to debunk Mulder’s conspiracy-minded theories, though we later learn his presence wasn’t exactly coincidental, either.  His self-purported mission in life was to find his younger sister, who went missing as a girl, and who he suspected was abducted by alien forces, facilitated, we’re led to believe, by the government.

Some episodes were “monsters-of-the-week” — stand-alone, or self-contained episodes about the supernatural or unexplained phenomena. Other episodes followed the increasingly complex government conspiracy concerning the existence of extraterrestrials. These mythology episodes, for which the show became famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view, were highly serialized and became increasingly convoluted and never really reached any conclusion.  From time to time, the show ventured into comedic episodes.

The cross-genre versatility of the show was remarkable, even in its day, when 22 episodes were the norm rather than the exception. It would be virtually unthinkable today, especially with abbreviated seasons, to produce a show which stretches across genres the way “The X-Files” did.

The series followed the two agents’ relationship as it developed.  Ultimately, Scully and Mulder (as they oddly called each other) got together in the biblical sense and had a baby, William, who was given up for adoption ostensibly for his own safety because his parents had unearthed such sinister forces. These forces were never fully explained in the original series, and the ambiguity over its nine seasons on Fox was both maddening and intriguing to fans, or self-styled “x-philes.”.

At another point, Scully had an unusual cancer ostensibly caused by, it is suggested, her own abduction by aliens.

Some of the major recurring characters included Assistant FBI Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), their boss, who sometimes overlooked, or even encouraged their zealous investigations.  The mysterious Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis) was a dark force who said few words but, we learned, apparently pulled a lot of strings in the government conspiracy.

This miniseries, or Season 10, didn’t necessarily illuminate the mythology, but neither did it obscure it. It expanded and contemporized it. The negative reviews were, I think, unduly harsh, and overall, I view the season very favorably, if too short.

One complaint of reviewers involved heavy exposition, particularly in the episodes penned by Carter, earning the series the moniker, “The Exposition Files” by one snarky viewer.

But the show, by its nature and history, was generally exposition-heavy. Good stories sometimes involve doses of exposition, but when it’s presented in an engaging way, if it’s light-handed, doled out incrementally, and presented in an interesting visual way, it’s unobjectionable. Some exposition was voice-over to reorient the viewer. Some sought to illuminate the science behind the story. Reviewers who complained about it were a bit hypercritical, and perhaps a little forgetful.

Another problem people seemed to have was the clunky dialog.  I didn’t consider the dialog the show’s strong suit originally, so again, I’m forgiving about this.  Since when do lovers call each other by their last names, anyway?

The third major issue raised was the show’s unevenness.  It never was consistent.  In the days when 22 episodes per season was the norm, some scripts were inevitably produced before their time.  From the beginning, too, the show shuffled between monster-of-the-week, mythology, and even the occasional comedy, so you’d never really know what to expect. In the current world of TV, this flexibility is unheard of. Over the years, fans have rallied around one type or the other; preferred some episodes over others.  It is still true today.  In that regard, the new miniseries was, I think, a resounding success.

As to the claim it seemed like a money-grab, I don’t know how to respond.  Art for art’s sake is fine, but I’m also quintessentially American and don’t blame anyone for trying to capitalize on their previous success.  “The X-Files” is deserving of its franchise and I don’t begrudge it.

Finally, some asserted Anderson and Duchovny’s performances fell flat.  That was always the case, as well.  I seem to recall some of Carter’s interviews or commentaries where he discussed his dislike for talking with one’s hands or expansive gesturing.  The actors, I think, had the flatness baked into that cake from inception.  Furthermore, Mulder and Scully were clearly depressed, at least at the outset of the new series, when not only had the X-Files come to a close, but so had their relationship.

Here’s hoping for a longer Season 11.  It’s deserving, timely, and  beautifully produced.  I want to believe we’ll have one.

“Better Call Saul” Breaks Better Than “Breaking Bad”

About midway through the second season of “Better Call Saul,” I admit I’m still delighted with the show…more so than Breaking Bad.

“Better Call Saul” Breaks Better  Than “Breaking Bad”

About midway through the second season of “Better Call Saul,” I admit I’m still delighted with the show. When Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” (“BB”) prequel began over a year ago, I envisioned it, at best, as being a sort of “The Lone Gunman” styled spinoff.  The Gunmen were the comic relief characters of the “The X-Files,” much as Saul Goodman was in “BB.”

I was a fan of both “The X-Files” and “BB,” and it was because of his work on the former that I knew who Gilligan was when AMC first promoted the show. Name recognition as “BB’s” showrunner (in an age with showrunner-as-celebrity), along with the tantalizing title, geared me up for “BB” at the outset.

The show’s hook, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer has his last hurrah manufacturing crystal meth, was certainly original. Early on, though, I had difficulty buying some of the premises of the plot.

Why, I wondered, would any American school teacher ever be without health insurance? School systems are known for, yes, low pay, but yes, good benefits, too. (Remember this was before the ACA, but still…)  True, you might have to be smart enough to enroll for the benefits, but wasn’t Walter supposed to be smart? And wasn’t his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), clipping coupons and selling on e-Bay in an effort at home economy?

Why, I further mulled, wouldn’t Skyler work, however far along in even a potentially difficult pregnancy, even in some capacity, if economic difficulty befell her family? (Recall Walter, Jr.  [R.J. Mitte] had a disability, but he was of an age and self-sufficient enough to get by without her hanging around.)

As the show progressed (slowly, due to an inopportune writers strike in its first season), these incongruities mattered less, though, since the story really wasn’t about Walter’s cancer, but about his hubris and greed.

The only reason I continued watching was I knew roughly where the story was going plot-wise.  But I’m not prone, even in bouts, to schadenfreude, so that certainly wasn’t keeping me tuned in.  I really hated the characters.  In fact, other than Jesse, I didn’t even care what happened to any of the main ones.

Walt, although an adequate teacher and father, was an arrogant, boorish, and humorless man even before his unfortunate diagnosis. Skyler was a whiny, nagging hold-out. Her sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), was even worse with her vacuousness, purple palette, and inexplicable penchant for stealing shoes. Walter, Jr. was, honestly, just plain difficult to watch. The arrogant DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), at least had the redeeming quality of having a sense of humor.  His co-workers were fine, but it wasn’t their story.

The tweekers, like Badger and Skinny Pete, were mildly interesting (if underdeveloped), but Aaron Paul, in his role as Jesse Pinkman, was the clear breakout talent in the series.  Jesse’s family, Jane, and her father added depth to his character.

Underdeveloped, too, was the couple and their backstory with Grey Matter, which may have gone a long way in making Walter a more sympathetic character, as a screwed-over scientist in a cruelly mystifying business milieu.

Skyler’s lover, Ted Beneke, who might have given her part-time employment earlier could have added dimension to her character as well, perhaps with her learning some financial tricks from him after Walt’s Grey Matter days that would test both her skills and morals in Walt’s later venture.

Gale, and later Lydia, were enjoyable but short-lived characters.   Gus Fring, conversely, was just despicable. Tuco, Tio, and the cousins were all cast well and good in a story about drug trade in New Mexico.  But personally I didn’t need more of them.

Which is a perfect lead-in to the characters of Mike Ehrmantraut and Saul Goodman, the most compelling of them, although I didn’t fully appreciate the possibility at the time. That was especially true when I heard it was dubbed a comedy, until I recalled TV Guide had originally advertised “BB” as a comedy, too.  Like I said, I envisaged a “The Lone Gunman” thing.  Not that that was a bad little show.  I rather fancied it.

I would’ve written “BB” differently, but it was Gilligan’s story and he deservedly got the big bucks. It had fits and starts due to extended hiatuses, but the finale was satisfying, and at least AMC had the decency to give it an end — along with “Mad Men.” But what Gilligan and his writers room have done in “Better Call Saul” far surpassed my most hopeful expectations and even gave us a twofer, I think, with the inclusion of Mike.

On this, his second series, Gilligan (and Peter Gould) appear to have learned a great deal from “BB,” especially in terms of character development.  They have given Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) the chance to breathe and not rushed him into the inevitable, namely, Saul Goodman.  They have provided Mike (Jonathan Banks) with a credible back story involving his dead cop son, daughter-in-law Stacie, and granddaughter, Kaylee.

They introduced Jimmy’s whacked-out brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a law partner in a large firm, adding dimension to Jimmy, but creating another compelling character in his own right (with a strange electromagnetic sensitivity) along with fellow partner, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). Who the other Hamlin is in HHM is remains a mystery. Associate attorney, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), plays an appropriate love interest for Jimmy.  The Kettlemans, Pryce, and others, while flawed, have appeal, manage to pique interest, and aren’t totally despicable. At least I care to know what happens to them.

My hope is that Gilligan and Gould won’t rush Jimmy into the Saul Goodman or “BB” world. We’ve been there, done that.  Jimmy has his own story to tell:  how he broke bad as a lawyer.

Now how about a pre-prequel about Mike’s ‘Nam days?