In honor of the future return of The X-Files to television, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley, other funny things) suggested nine episodes from the original run that would get someone hooked on the show, and I decided to put his list to the test. I can do that because, until now, I’ve never seen a single episode.
I know. I know. Calm down. Take a deep breath.
It’s a serious gap in my cultural appreciation, but I’ve started filling that gap with Nanjiani’s guidance in an attempt to answer the question of whether those episodes really would get me hooked on the show. Granted, I’m a soft target because I’m a genre enthusiast, but aliens have also never been a personal favorite. At least not the gray, spindly ones that probe anuses and mutilate cattle.
I’m also going into this experiment with the knowledge of the show that got absorbed through osmosis. I know about the truth being out there, I know about Mulder’s sister, I’ve heard of The Smoking Man. All the unavoidable kernels and icons. Regardless, I’ve definitely got a bias that should make me a fast fan of the series, and I admit that upfront.
So, clearing a Saturday schedule, I dove in. For science.
- Scully meets Mulder over an alien abduction case where their evidence gets torched.
- A humanoid killer pushes himself through air ducts and eats his victims’ livers.
- Murders in a town of circus freaks might be committed by a mermaid myth.
It’s immediately obvious why this show was such a hit in its time and found such a dedicated following. Gillian Anderson is sharp, David Duchovny is handsomely sarcastic, and they work perfectly together as the calm eye of the sci-fi storm. There’s also an appropriate balance between the fantastical elements they’re exploring and a self-awareness of how absurd each episode’s focus really is. It’s a bit like a sci-fi Picket Fences — unless you’re Scully, and then it’s just like Picket Fences.
After watching these three episodes that span through the end of the second season, that’s the question that stands out most: how long can they keep Scully in the dark about what’s going on? Is it realistic that’s she always just around the corner when something undeniably supernatural happens in front of our faces?
Having never seen an episode, my assumption was that the series would play coy with the weirdo stuff. Maybe each entry would offer competing theories and keep things vague enough to make the audience wonder, but, nope, they own it from the onset. Aliens exist, bizarre creates are real, all our nightmares are possible.
We get to see the insane stuff happen even as Scully gets knocked out in the forest. But how sustainable is that? How many episodes will she be somehow shielded from what we — and Mulder — get to witness? Forty-four episodes in, she’s still acting like she doesn’t consistently encounter supernatural insanity, but her hypotheses-forming methods are comfortable with knowledge gaps so she seems unfazed.
A monster like Tooms (in “Squeeze”) fits perfectly into the pocket of Mulder’s addled understanding. Scully sees him and seems to think human beings are simply fucked up genetic pools capable of building newspaper bile nests and snacking on toxin-burning bodily organs. For an episode like “Humbug” that’s comprised wholly of red herrings, the ultimate solution to the puzzle favors Scully’s more disturbing view of people and our DNA cocktails.
As for my own experiment, it’s already over. This show is excellent. I’m hooked. I didn’t even need the other 6 entries, but I’m damned sure going to watch them. Witty, charming, intense at times despite its limitations, and it holds up well. If we could magically change the aspect ratio and HD-ify the pilot, The X-Files could premiere today and stand up to every other police procedural currently on air. Call it CSI: Top Secret, and it would break banks.
Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose/Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”/Home
- A psychic helps solve a series of murders and tells Mulder how he’ll die.
- A genre writer attempts to get the real story about an alien abduction from unreliable sources.
- Zombie Redneck Torture Family gets caught killing a baby.
I’ve never intentionally watched a series out of order before, so it’s been interesting to see the dynamic of episodes stay relatively the same through four seasons. That’s not so unusual for cop shows, though, supernatural or not. Scully and Mulder remain perfect foils for each other. They also work because of our impulse as humans to remain skeptical and curious at the same time. I find myself nodding along to what Scully says only to be seduced by Mulder’s confidence. The world is a weird place — aren’t they just arguing over what particular brand of weird it is?
The thing I appreciate most about Nanjiani’s list is that he doesn’t claim that these are the 9 best episodes of The X-Files (so getting hooked shouldn’t be like watching a trailer with all the best beats of a movie only to be let down later), but he also lists “Clyde Bruckman” as the best X-Files episode ever and “Home” as the scariest television episode of all time. I can’t vouch for the latter contextually (obviously) but it’s a gorgeous piece of storytelling. Heartfelt and heartbreaking. Peter Boyle is unsurprising as a fiercely human figure doomed to understand death in a way few can.
There are a thousand ways for a show like this to be good, but the only way for it to be great is to allow for kind souls to emerge from the muck of government conspiracies and puddles of blood. Meanwhile, Scully’s skepticism still manages to hold strong even after the most tragic prediction of the case, foretold in detail, comes true while holding her hand. She’s a tough nut to crack.
(Or maybe a natural sense of competitiveness keeps her from jumping onto Mulder’s bandwagon wholesale.)
As for “Jose Chung,” I can see why fans of this show must have lost their minds over Cabin in the Woods, and “Home” is genuinely disturbing when not outright terrifying. A stellar grouping that has me glued to the show even tighter.
- A small Texas town might be the feeding ground for a vampire.
- Bryan Cranston can’t slow down below 50mph or his head will explode.
- A cross-over with COPS where an elusive monster stalks a low-income neighborhood.
It’s been apparent for sometime, but after finishing every episode on Nanjiani’s list, I feel even more certain that the core question of The X-Files is, what if an FBI agent took the craziest victims and witnesses at their word?
In fact, a deputy in “X-Cops” asks Mulder why he believes him when he says a giant insect creature attacked him. After all, the cameras didn’t capture it, and he’s a stranger. That’s Mulder, though. Not only does he believe in every corner of the supernatural world, that belief allows him to trust in spooked people who don’t believe their own eyes. Think you saw something crazy? He’ll trust you. He’ll also operate from a position that what you’re saying is the reality that he’ll eventually uncover.
Most of the plots are allowed to exist because of that mindset. In any other show (and in reality), Cranston’s character in “Drive” would have died after stalling out at a police blockade, but Mulder was there to trust in the madman instead of procedural authority. The same way he trusted in a fear-based monster, an adorable old psychic and countless others. That’s what he’s there for. But even though Scully’s mind flies in the opposite direction, she’s also there to save the day, to protect the innocent and to run toward danger. They sharpen each other. Make each other better.
This process has made me question why I never watched the show before. I was 9 when it premiered, mesmerized more at the time by dinosaurs than demon liver-eaters, but as time went on, the real reason I avoided the show was because of how deeply its fans loved it. That may sound strange, but everyone I came into contact with who loved the show, loved the show, so having it recommended was a bit like having heroin recommended to me. Wild-eyed people telling me just to try it once because I’d be hooked; me staring down the barrel of 200 episodes to needle through. You have to be in the right place to walk into an addiction.
I’m there now. I want to believe.
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