Saturday, January 23, 2016

Your "X" Favorite Series Returns...With a Melancholy Drone

Do you really think it's sheer coincidence that a massive Stormageddon is blasting out of the sky and engulfing major East Coast population centers this weekend, trapping people inside their homes where they're more likely to watch TV this Sunday night?

Mulder and Scully are Back..lit (FOX/Frank Ockenfels)
Or could it be the work of...aliens?

The truth is out there – or more accurately, on there, as on the FOX primetime schedule. The network has gone back to the future to exhume one of its all-time defining series, The X-Files, for a limited six-episode encore. It kicks off with a two-night "event" beginning at approximately 10 p.m./9c in the cushy, coveted time slot following the NFL's NFC Conference championship slugfest.

In more than one sense, the return of FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) to FOX after 201 episodes, a 14-year absence and two relatively unsatisfying feature films is achingly bittersweet. For the better part of the 2000s, no matter how woefully its fall season stumbled from the gate, the network could rely on the midseason January launches of 24 and American Idol to propel it to a string of weekly ratings victories down the stretch. In 2016, however, the clock has stopped ticking for Jack Bauer and Idol is limping into its 15th and farewell season, no longer capable of holding the nation in its thrall as the recording industry's newest pop sensation is unveiled.

And Empire isn't returning until March. For FOX, midseason ain't what it used to be.

So the whole affair also has an air of sadness in that the network felt compelled to reach back to its earliest glory days, mend fences with The X-Files executive producer and creative mastermind Chris Carter and pull one last buzz-inducing January programming stunt out of its hat while it scrambles to figure out what to do in 2017. And it did so with the full knowledge that there now exists an entire generation of vidkid millennials who have no idea what all The X-Files buzz is about.

Well, kidlets, let me tell you: in its mid-2000s heyday, The X-Files could frighten the holy feces out of you on a weekly basis in a way Hitchcock and Serling could only dream about, given the limitations of the medium and censorship in their eras. Even the show's theme song could send chills up your back. (In full recognition of this, the FOX press kit for this mini-blockbuster included a faked-up red FBI "dossier" that played the theme when you opened it.) I remember thinking back then that the song was so identifiable that it should have lyrics, so I penned some on my own:

"There is a scary show
About where aliens go,
It stars Fox and Scul-leee.
It scares hell out of meeee:
Boodlee-boodlee-boodlee-boodlee – BOO!"

So they've gotten the old gang back together, and what do we have? Of course, both leads are older now. Duchovny has enjoyed some Californication and the dawning of Aquarius during the interim years, but the square-jawed former JFK Jr. classmate never seems to age. Maybe it's because of the world-weary cockiness he brings to almost every role. And Anderson has been – hey, where has Gillian Anderson been the last 14 years?

Besides Hannibal and the current A&E/History/Lifetime remake of War and Peace, she's been mostly on the stage and small screen in and around London, where the onetime Grand Rapids, Mich., resident has made her home since The X-Files series ended. Anderson has taken on even more of a pale, porcelain gauntness, like Julie Andrews' baby sister, either because of her living environment or because the blood still hasn't returned to her face after initially being offered half as much money as Duchovny to return for the miniseries. Before the first hour is over you'll also briefly see FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) and the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) – it's safe to say, as you've never seen him before.
Joel McHale (of all people) guests as a conservative TV talk host.
As the script reminds us, however, this is a different age as well. The '90s, you may or may not recall, were an extremely paranoid time in America; the new storyline asks the question, in a post 9/11 era of ubiquitous video surveillance and TSA body scans, are we more secure or more paranoid? "How they police us, spy on us and tell us that makes us safer?" the script asks. "We've never been in more danger."

This conundrum is wrapped in two persons: Tad O'Malley (guest star Joel McHale), a conservative TV and Internet talking head with enough celebrity juice, money and wild conspiracy theories to spring Mulder back into action (Hmmm: Fox...news...O'Malley. Wonder if the politically astute Carter is alluding to anyone here?); and a mysterious young woman named Sveta (Annet Mahendru) who claims to have been the mom for a string of extraterrestrial babies...and has multiple scoops taken out of her stomach to prove it. Her very cool last scene in the first hour is proof that Carter's special effects budget for this miniseries is enormously greater than it was back in the day.

I like how Carter manages to review and summarize the entire X-Files history in the first few minutes through photos and stock footage. Theoretically, that should have opened the door to hit this new storyline running, with the pace and action such a classic revival deserves. Sadly, however, the first episode – ironically titled "My Struggle" – plods annoyingly through much of its hour, as if the script and the characters are trying to find their rhythm again.

The action picks up conspicuously as the episode concludes, and morphs into some of the "Monster of the Week" scenarios that X-Files fans grew to love farther down its six-week arc. But longtime fans of the series will need to exercise considerable patience, and newcomers to the Mulder-Scully matrix are certain to wonder initially what all the hype was about.

"It's about controlling the past to control the future!" Mulder rages at one point. "It's about fiction masquerading as fact. I spent a decade of my life in this office, and all the time I was being led by my nose through a dark alley to a dead end. Exactly as they planned."

I feel you, Fox.

Big Glowing Box Remote rating (1-10): 7 clicks


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