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‘The X-Files’: 5 Episodes to Watch If You’ve Never Seen The Sci-Fi Drama

These picks, which were tested on someone who had never seen the show before, are the best introduction possible to the Fox series now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1650800a)The X-files , Gillian Anderson, David DuchovnyFilm and Television

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in “The X-Files.”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Twenty-five years ago today, two young FBI agents — one a science-loving skeptic, the other an open-minded believer in the paranormal — began investigating weird crimes on a weekly basis. “The X-Files” would go on to produce over 200 episodes over 11 seasons (including the recent revival), making Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny into international stars and racking up 15 Emmys and a ton more nominations.

People are still discovering this odd gem of a series, especially as it’s now easier than ever to do so: In the dark ages prior to DVDs and Netflix, if you heard about a potentially great TV show that you’d never seen before, there wasn’t an easy way to really dig in and discover it, beyond catching reruns or finding VHS tapes. Today, of course, streaming services have found that some of their most popular content are archival series that are constantly being discovered. However, in many cases there are hundreds of episodes available, and no one wants to commit to watching something if they’re not sure it’ll really be their cup of tea.

Thus, introducing IndieWire’s Hook ‘Em Guide For New Fans, tailor-made to help newcomers curious about a classic show sample it to determine whether they want to continue watching. This isn’t just about picking the best episodes of a given TV show — instead, it’s about curating five episodes that represent the show’s strengths and range, which don’t require an in-depth knowledge of the series to appreciate.

In the case of “The X-Files,” creating this list came down to finding a way to balance the two traditional types of episodes which have always defined the series: stand-alone “monster of the week” installments and “mythology” episodes which develop the overarching narrative. The balance here leans towards MOTWs, admittedly, but that’s largely due to the fact that they were easier to introduce out of context… and they also happened to be great episodes of television.

Because established fans of a show might be a little blind to how newcomers might react to a series, IndieWire decided to put these picks to the test. In order to determine how effective these five episodes might be in terms of hooking a new fan, IndieWire associate TV editor Steve Greene, who had only ever seen clips of the show prior to this experiment, agreed to watch each pick and log his thoughts. Below are the choices, the reasons why they were picked, what Steve was told prior to viewing (in case there were key moments of context he might need), and what Steve ultimately thought.

“Pilot”

Season 1, Episode 1

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884419l) Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny The X Files - 1993-2002 20th Century Fox Television USA Television Scifi The X-Files

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in “The X-Files.”

20th Century Fox Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Official Description (via IMDB): Agent Dana Scully is instructed to debunk an FBI project dubbed “The X-Files,” paranormal cases that have been reopened by Agent Fox Mulder.

What the Newcomer Was Told Prior to Viewing: “When it comes to establishing world, tone, and characters, this is maybe one of the all-time greatest pilots, albeit with some understandable early ’90s awkwardness in terms of the effects and a few supporting performances.”

Why It Was Picked: Basically, what the Newcomer was told. Plus, more often than not, this is a show about aliens and conspiracies. Thus, gotta start with the aliens and conspiracies.

What the Newcomer Thought: “It’s happening again, isn’t it?”

As someone who’s always associated the first part of this with “Twin Peaks,” that last “…isn’t it?” hooked me. One line, right up front that might as well be a mission statement for the show. You’ve got the Mulder sense of certainty and Scully’s natural skepticism working right there, side by side.

This pilot does have to jump through a lot of the requisite setup hoops that are impossible to avoid, but that first Mulder/Scully encounter is really something special. Almost like seeing young pictures of your distant relatives in a family scrapbook: You don’t know them that well, but because you’ve heard a lot about how wonderful they are, you can’t help but be excited at getting the chance to see how they met.

As someone who’s seen and enjoyed Gillian Anderson in more post-”X-Files” contexts than Duchovny, she always struck me as the more versatile of the two. So I wasn’t expecting Duchovny to be the scene-stealer so early on. One thing I’m looking forward to in these upcoming episodes is seeing how he tries to hold on to this early wiseacre spark while she evolves from a far more difficult, awkward starting point.

In a narcissistic way, I appreciated getting to watch Scully transcribe dictations and learn the dangers of not backing up your hard drives. (Kindred spirits!) There’s also something really endearing about the way she’s able to keep a 100 percent neutral face when confronted with challenging information. I imagine that’s one of the appeals of the show, watching that steadfast adherence to the power of science get slowly chipped away.

Something that this taps into really well (that I hope and assume the series maintains throughout its run) is a certain feeling of helplessness. Without sacrificing the fact that these are two observant professionals that are very good at their jobs, I kind of love the idea that they just encounter things they can’t control and have to just watch them happen. These aren’t super detectives that can bend a situation around what they want from it. They may need a little luck and intervention to make it to another week, but they’re dealing with forces that eventually turn everyone into bystanders.

That first alien reveal is terrifying, and the pacing on either side of it is impressive for an hour that has to churn through plot to get everyone where they need to be for the show to move forward. (There’s also a real care to limiting the number of times they have to say “alien” without making it very obvious they’re trying to limit the number of times they have to say “alien.”) The “Raiders”-esque ending is a bit on the nose — especially for an episode that had already invoked Spielberg — but there’s a reason it worked the first time. An impressive shortcut to letting people know just how much there is to go.

“Die Hand die Verletzt”

Season 2, Episode 14

Official Description: The agents investigate a murder in a small town populated by devil worshippers.

What the Newcomer Was Told Prior to Viewing: “A very spooky standalone, no context needed!”

Why It Was Picked: In creating this list, it felt important to spotlight how “The X-Files” revitalized the concept of horror for broadcast television — ergo, our newcomer would need to watch one of the show’s scariest and most disturbing episodes, arguably one of the scariest episodes of broadcast television ever.

What the Newcomer Thought: I’m glad union rules let the EPs put Chargers fan shoutouts in the opening credits. I am also painfully aware that there was little joy to be had during Super Bowl XXIX that Sunday night (or since, really, for any San Diego football fans).

But, if it’s any consolation, they got an excellent episode of TV out of it. Even if the opening lathers on the spooky portentous setup a little more than it needs to, it settles into a really unsettling hour. All the supernatural elements (goodness, that wrist-slitting scene) are eerie in their own right, but the throughline is what people are capable of when they feel they’re cornered. There’s something very real about that dangerous kind of desperation that goes beyond any special effects or custom snake-eyes contact lenses.

And considering it’s been over two decades since this premiered, tackling this subject matter in this way feels like a bold milestone, especially concerning discussions of abuse. Even against the “Monster of the Week” backdrop, that Heather McComb monologue is still a really powerful combination of writing and performance. And putting the blame on parents speaking out of both sides of their mouths rather than scapegoating kids and their angry music is a brilliant condemnation of what had been over a decade of nationwide hysteria around satanic cults.

I called out the episode for an excessive Spielberg reference, but here’s one of my own: All the snake stuff is a great vindication of the “less is more” Bruce the Shark precedent. Hinting at it coming down the stairs and cutting between Jim getting strangled and all the angry Paddock faces is more effective than loading thousands of dollars into a CGI budget. And that confrontation between Jim and Mulder in the basement is a gorgeous bit of TV. A conversation that can breathe, all lit by a single flashlight? That has me more excited about what the rest of this show has in store more than any of the creature design.

(Also, this is an interesting snapshot of a time when people only found Nazis on the internet when they were digging up newspaper articles from the 1930s.)

“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”

Season 3, Episode 4

A man with psychic powers (Peter Boyle, R) assists agents Mulder (David Duchovny, L) and Scully (Gillian Anderson, not pictured) with the hunt for a killer in THE X-FILES episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" which originally aired on Sunday, Oct. 13, 1995.

Official Description: A grumpy old man with psychic powers that show him how someone will die assists the agents with the hunt for a crazed killer who targets psychics. 

What the Newcomer Was Told Prior to Viewing: “You can have a lot of fights about which Darin Morgan episode is the best ever, but this is the one the Emmys chose to recognize with two trophies.”

Why It Was Picked: Again, basically what the Newcomer was told. There’s more than one amazing Darin Morgan episode to be enjoyed during the run of “The X-Files,” but the beautifully dark touches and deeply human narrative makes this an episode anyone, “X-Files” fan or not, should see.

What the Newcomer Thought: Near the start of its third season, as it was on its way to being a real phenomenon, it’s nice to see an episode like this one tap into some laughs outside of Mulder’s wisecracks. When he walks into the first crime scene, that long pause before “Who are you?” is quality self-deprecation and a reminder that even the stars of this show still have to start with a blank slate most times. And this is tapping into ideas so universal that it doesn’t feel like a betrayal when Scully finally relents and sneaks the death question that no one else was too afraid to ask either.

Peter Boyle is astounding here, to the point where it would be easy to say that Clyde Bruckman wouldn’t work with anyone else. But there’s such a simplicity in the explanation and execution of his powers that it makes sense Morgan continues to get just as much recognition for writing the thing in the first place.

There are some lovely, small grace notes in his story that leave it up to you to fill in his anxieties. A lesser episode would have lingered more on overexplaining his backstory, but aside from Mulder digging into the semantics of his visions (the fact that Mulder is a big process guy is the most endearing thing about him so far), there’s enough removal from how it works that doesn’t feel like cheating. You can read a lifetime of pain into the simple idea that he’s never been surprised by a joke before. That’s heartbreaking!

Whenever superhero stories center on the obligations that come with their power (great responsibility and all that), it’s usually rooted in the perspective of a young man’s frustrations. Boyle’s performance carries this burden with such a strong sense of weariness that even the tiniest revelations become a new level of paralysis. It makes sense that Morgan would sideline much of the killer’s actions in favor of the compelling figure trying to stay one step ahead of him.

The endings of these episodes are like ones from classic short stories. No tidy wrap up, no cute button. Even with Scully throwing her phone at the TV, there’s a sense of dread that comes from the idea that large chunks of these investigations are never really finished. There’s always more “out there.” That’s pretty impressive for something designed to work so well as a standalone piece of storytelling.

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