The debut of the “X-Files” miniseries this Sunday is a good reminder that sometimes a fictional character transcends her material. (The most extreme example, for me, is Lisbeth Salander, a literary creation I loved despite the often tedious writing of Stieg Larsson). So I have to give an unreservedly warm welcome back to Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) in spite of the show’s fairly weak first episodes.
In the years since “The X-Files” went off the air, we’ve seen a steady stream of tough female cops, detectives, FBI agents and spies on TV. Anderson’s Scully may not have been the first, but she certainly set a standard: In contrast to her partner Mulder’s (David Duchovny) puppyish conspiracy-chasing, she was and is a beacon of skepticism, science, reason and common sense. (Who occasionally, yes, has to admit that aliens are real.)
We find her getting back to her medical roots when the miniseries begins in the episode “My Struggle,” though she’s quickly yanked into reviving her partnership with Mulder when he unearths a (three guesses!) global top-secret plot involving aliens, a governmental cover-up and men (always men) who want to take over the world.
You’d think show creator Chris Carter, who directed this episode, would have known better than to begin with such an over-broad re-entry to the series. Just for example: Most people tuning in will know that Mulder “want(s) to believe,” so to hear him literally say it (or have it said to him) multiple times in a single episode is redundant. Anyone who doesn’t know his famed catchphrase will wonder why he keeps harping on it. And the everything-is-linked plotline at the heart of this one, which co-stars Joel McHale as a Fox News-esque blowhard, is just too much. Why did Carter think he had to stuff it all into ONE episode?
By way of reintroduction to Scully, “My Struggle” gives her about five minutes of skepticism about getting back in the trenches with Mulder before doing it anyway. (The two have, in the intervening years, gone their own ways, as one would pretty much imagine; you can see Scully having a pretty short attention span for sitting in some under-the-radar Luddite cabin with him before she got the hell out of there.) I suppose you could call the fast-paced reunion inevitable — after all, there are only six episodes, so let’s get right into it — but it made me long for the old first episodes of the show, when Scully was so delectably resistant to any suggestion of supernatural goings-on.
The second episode, “Founder’s Mutation,” is better than the first, getting into the case-of-the-week format that was always this show’s strong point. But even that one gives in to sentimentality too quickly. The whole point of Scully is that her displays of emotion weren’t easily earned — if anyone was the macho character in the series, it was her — and it feels like a betrayal of the character to have her give in so immediately to squishy feelings. Too much time is spent within her and Mulder’s respective fantasies of what parenthood would have been like had they not had to give their maybe-part-alien child away to a top-secret adoption because… oh, I forget, and it doesn’t matter anyway, at least in the first couple episodes. Bring back the staunch, wise-cracking Scully of yore!
That said, there was one thing that made me genuinely happy about seeing Scully again: She got to do an autopsy. These scenes were one of my favorite semi-regular occurrences on the original show. Anderson’s cool, unflappable dictation as she sawed up corpses, weighed various organs and found evidence of unthinkable genetic mutations was sly, comedic genius.
I hear things pick up with the third episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” so here’s hoping. Meanwhile, another female agent made her return this week as well: Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) in the second season of ABC’s ’40s-set Marvel show. A confession: I didn’t watch the first season of “Agent Carter” and got taken to task by a friend for not including it on my list of feminist shows for 2015. Judging from the first two episodes of the second, I agree. The thing that struck me about Atwell’s Carter is that she is so fundamentally at ease in such a range of situations — she can brawl with the best of them, she’s an ace detective and she’s a swanky bombshell who effortlessly brushes off the constant pickup lines thrown her way. (I gather she had a thing for Detective Sousa, who in this season has a new love in L.A.)
The show — which veers nicely between humor and drama — is also definitively female-centric while representing an era in which women were systematically sidelined. Men may be all around her, but Carter is always clearly the most capable character in the room. Likewise, the newly captured Dottie Underwood (a season one villain) is a formidable foe for Carter, who handily smacks down other agents (like Chad Michael Murray’s underminer-y Jack Thompson, who tries and fails to interrogate her after sending Carter packing to L.A.). Even Sousa’s new girlfriend is a fleshed-out character who quickly becomes a friend to Carter instead of the typical romantic rival, as is the wife (Lotte Verbeek) of Carter’s butler cohort Jarvis (James D’Arcy).
The show also introduces a pretty fascinating female baddie for this season in Wynn Everett as movie actress Whitney Frost, wife of a business mogul funding the secret development of something called (in a very comic-booky way) Zero Matter. After being publicly shamed by a director for looking too old, she seems to have her eye on reinvention. (Also, it’s kind of hilarious to have a vain actress character looking to get her hands on Zero Matter — the world’s edgiest moisturizer?) I’m not sure I’m completely convinced to watch — the first two episodes both devolve into pretty standard chase-the-bad-guy third acts — but I do think it’s worth more of a look, and may end up outshining the much-hyped, mixed-bag return of “The X-Files.”