Friday, December 17, 2010

Compliment Case 7: The X-Files

I was a pretty precocious kid, but I don’t think in 1990, at the age of 11, I would have really appreciated a soap opera/50’s teen movie parody about an unconventional FBI agent investigating the murder of a prom queen/teen prostitute, and becoming increasingly enmeshed in her town’s gothic mythos. I’m sure I’d have said I liked it, and would have believed I did, but I don’t think I would have gotten it. Three years later, though, at 14, when a sci-fi show about an unconventional FBI agent and his smart, capable, super hot red-head partner investigating strange events covered up by shadowy government men connected to the highest levels of power, well, I got that immediately.

In my view, The X-Files is an easier watch today than Twin Peaks, and much of that is by virtue of coming after Twin Peaks. Part of it is that The X-Files feels like a fully modern TV show (hell, it may be the first), with, you know, cinematography, something Twin Peaks deployed in its strongest moments. The two, however, are inextricably linked, and not just because of Duchovny. You can see Special Agent Fox Mulder being born as Agent Dale Cooper gives rocks the names of suspects then throws them at empty bottles, though Coop never had a great partner like Special Agent Dr. Dana Scully to call him on his BS (as great as Sheriff Harry is, he’s a bit of a push-over). You can see the bizarre crimes Scully and Mulder would go on to investigate deep into America’s back corners in Leo’s return to awareness (serious, it wouldn’t have been too out of line for Scully and Mulder to be poking at the birthday cake in the next scene). I remember the two often being mentioned in the same sentence early on, and it doesn’t take a great intuitive leap to see why, even before the outright shout-out in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”.
            While they both had their elements of camp, The X-Files chose two elements to take utterly seriously—its lead characters. Mulder and Scully had a serious core to their existence, no matter how many fluke men or garbage golems they ran into. Their wackiest behaviors are second-hand exaggerations told from the perspective of others. The residents of Twin Peaks are all memorable and vivid, but they tend to keep me at arm’s length. It’s funny when Cooper insists on having a hundred donuts laid out and placed in intricate stacks on a table in the woods, but it’s also hard to forget that people don’t really act that way. Mulder loves porn, and Scully ribs him about his stash. It’s funny too, but doesn’t draw attention to itself. That’s just how people act.
            I’d be remiss to not mention one important fact about my relationship with The X-Files. While it’s my go-to sick day show, I’ve never seen every episode. And will never. Among all the contributions The X-Files has made—weirdness, paranoia, horror influence, the supremacy of brain power, Scully—it’s greatest contribution has been its last 3 seasons. Empty, wheel-spinning exercises in pointlessness, stretching story, character, menace, and fun well past their breaking point, I only caught a few of these post-Mulder episodes, and they remain a lesson shows like Lost learned well—“Quit while you’re ahead.” Twin Peaks didn’t get the chance to teach that, which is too bad. I’d have liked to see how it did it.

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