For about six months now, here’s what I’ve been saying when asked about the upcoming new season of “The X-Files”: “The Darin Morgan episode will be great.”
That’s about all I could bring myself to predict about the revival of one of my all-time most beloved franchises, the show that taught me to love television, the show that changed my life in ways I can’t even fully comprehend. The show I very much wanted (and do still want) to be excellent. The show I knew far too well to be confident that it would return strong.
I know the exact date I really fell in love with “The X-Files”: It was February 23, 1996, the airdate of the third season episode “Pusher.” Before, I’d been more of a “Star Trek” girl, and “The X-Files” was the scary sci-fi show my parents watched. While I had seen previous episodes, it wasn’t until I watched “Pusher” that I engaged so immediately and emotionally with the series as a whole.
It’s not hard to figure out why “Pusher” was the one that pushed me over the edge (sorry) — it’s a standout installment, combining the show’s talents for creepy genre storytelling with a deeply emotional, character-centered core. Without featuring any explicitly romantic elements, the entire episode is built upon the trust and affection between FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) as they try to stop a serial killer with the ability to manipulate a person’s will, which only makes its edge-of-your-seat climax all the more intense. (I’m not going to tell you anything about what happens. Either you already know or you should go watch it right now.)
Thus, I know when I fell in love with the show. I know vaguely why it happened. But because love is a mysterious, complicated thing, I’m not totally sure why that love has survived all these years. Writing about “The X-Files” in this manner, right now, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done for Indiewire, because there’s the objectively critical take — the one I feel obligated to have — but there are also my memories of the girl sitting three feet away from the TV on Friday or Sunday nights in the 1990s; the girl who only provided Hostess Snoballs, iced tea and sunflower seeds as snacks for her high school viewing parties; the girl who insisted on visiting the J. Edgar Hoover building during a 1997 trip to Washington D.C.
The first time I watched “My Struggle,” the 10th season premiere set to air this Sunday, I had the biggest grin on my face the entire time. I was so, so happy to be back in this world, with these characters, as performed by these actors. I was so happy it was really happening.
Even though it was bad.
When it comes to the new series, the critical consensus is one I agree with: Of the three episodes that have now been made available to critics, the first one, written and directed by original series creator Chris Carter, is bad. The second, “Founder’s Mutation,” written and directed by James Wong, is tonally in line with the original series but clunky at points. And the third one is the best so far — and might end up being the best of the bunch. It is (unsurprisingly, at least to me) the episode written and directed by Darin Morgan, who won an Emmy writing for the show back in 1996 and was behind four of the series’ most legendary installments. His newest adventure is called “Mulder and Scully Meet the Weremonster.” It airs February 1 and is full of delights.
While we officially reviewed the first episode last October, we’ll have episode reviews for the whole season, because there’s something about “The X-Files” that matters in a fundamental way (a phenomenon that we’ll surely also see when “Twin Peaks” returns to Showtime in 2017). It’s why television just sucks us in unlike film or books, why great long-form storytelling isn’t just an hourly distraction every week — it’s a fundamental part of your life, for years at a time. Because when the right alchemy of character and story comes out just right, this medium is, well, a life-changer.
I like to joke sometimes that Chris Carter ruined my adolescence. It’s a joke because really, it’s not true — he only ruined the summers. Oh, how life dragged on in the months between new seasons of “The X-Files,” especially because one of Carter’s real talents with the original series was finale cliffhangers. It’s a storytelling trope that Carter didn’t pioneer, but one that he utilized frequently during a period of time when serialized storytelling on television was a wee infant of a thing. Mulder would be presumed dead, or the X-Files would be shut down, and I’d sit three feet away from the TV just screaming for more.
However, thanks to those summertime hiatuses (which would often stretch to six months because of Fox’s commitment to Major League Baseball, pushing the premieres of new seasons to early November, and maybe there’s a reason I have for decades vaguely resented the existence of the World Series), I did learn patience. I learned a lot, actually, from “The X-Files”; most importantly, a respect for the craft of writing for television. Not only did I learn to recognize the rhythms of a season by tracking the patterns that emerged year after year, but I learned the names of writers, learned to read every credit for clues as to what was coming. I learned to love Vince Gilligan’s work 12 years before “Breaking Bad” blew onto television (he is the credited writer of “Pusher”). I also learned that when a show did something I didn’t like, there was someone to blame.
Specifically, I learned to be wary about Chris Carter, an instinct which I’ve never struggled to support with evidence. Carter’s track record over the last several years is more misses than hits. The Amazon show “The After,” despite getting greenlit to series, was shut down after just a pilot was produced, and of course there’s “The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” the 2008 feature film he co-wrote and directed that failed to revive the franchise — because, um, it wasn’t very good.
As previously mentioned, Carter’s the writer and director of “My Struggle,” an episode of television I have now seen three times. Each time, I find myself baffled by the dialogue’s complete lack of flow, the poorly mapped geography and plot logistics, not to mention a reliance on voice-over paired with B-roll that grinds any momentum to a halt. (That title — the English translation of “Mein Kampf”? — also feels ill-advised.) On balance, it’s not great.
But being mad at the creator of a thing you love is a hard position to maintain — an experience beautifully unique to fans as well as critics. This also speaks to how the line between fan and critic is an incredibly complex one, one that’s only gotten more blurry as the fans of yesterday grow into the critics of today — and then find themselves confronted by the things that maybe, just maybe, are the reason why they’re now doing what they do.
Sitting down to write this, the phrase “put away childish things” began rattling around in my brain. Like many things rattling around in my brain, I couldn’t remember the source without Googling. Turns out it’s from the Bible, specifically I Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Is my love of “The X-Files” a “childish thing”? It honestly could be. But to treat it that way would mean not just discounting the way the show helped revolutionize storytelling on television, but how it personally drove me to not just love TV, but understand it better. The truth is that as long as I’ve been loving this show, I’ve also been criticizing it — evaluating episodes for their various qualities, preferring certain writers over others. I am now a grown ass lady, no longer “spaking” as a child. While “The X-Files” might be a part of my past, it’s also what led me to my future.
Also, my basic understanding of the Bible is driven not by religious study, but by looking up stuff about the Bible that got referenced over the first nine seasons of “The X-Files.” So what I didn’t realize is that there’s a little more to this section of Corinthians — specifically, the next two bits, as translated in the King James edition. First, we’ve got “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Like many things in the Bible, it’s subject to interpretation, but from this unlearned perspective I think about everything I’ve learned about myself, looking back at this show that made me into me.
And then, following that: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” There are three more episodes left of “The X-Files” Season 10, and two of them will be written and directed by Carter. (The fourth is by another returning writer/director, Glen Morgan.) It might be a childish thing, for me to still be excited about this show, but it’s that excitement which for almost 20 years exactly has fueled my passion for television — a medium which has always found its strength in that sort of dedication. The willingness to keep engaged, to follow along, to tune in next week. The best TV has always derived its power over time, whether it be over 10 binged episodes or months of viewing. The best TV knows how to build upon your attention.
With faith, I’ll be watching the rest of this new season of “The X-Files.” With hope, I want it to be good. I can’t promise much in the way of charity, but as you might be aware, there are multiple translations of that last bit — “the greatest of these is charity,” versus “the greatest of these is love.”
I asked my friend Whitney, a Ph.D candidate in religious studies, about these verses (we actually met because of “The X-Files”; we’ve been friends for over 18 years). She explained that the reason for the love/charity weirdness is the original Greek word agape: “Agape is selfless, pure love for your fellow human, sometimes fancily translated as ‘lovingkindness’ by people who can’t decide so they just make up an English word for it.”
Charity, I may sometimes struggle with. But “lovingkindness”? That, for “The X-Files,” will never be hard for me to find.
“The X-Files” Season 10 premieres Sunday, January 24 on Fox.