Lessons from Great TV #7: The X-Files
The X-Files has influenced my own writing more than any other television series, but the funny thing is, I couldn’t tell you much about it. I don’t remember the truth about Mulder’s sister, or what happened after Mulder was abducted, or what exactly that black oil was supposed to do, and I certainly don’t know what the Syndicate (or was it the Consortium?) was planning. Over time, the details of the show’s conspiracy arc have started to blur together, and even if they amounted to a coherent whole, which I doubt, I’m not that interested in putting together the pieces. Chris Carter, the show’s creator, may have thought that the series’s legacy would rest on its elaborate mythology, but that isn’t what drew me to the show in the first place, and it isn’t what I recall most fondly now. What I remember are the routine episodes, the casefiles and the Monsters of the Week, the stories that infamously led nowhere and solved nothing, but often resulted in some of the most compelling television of its time. This version of the show, which didn’t try to fit the world’s weirdness into any overarching pattern, is the one that got under my skin, and it’s influenced nearly everything I’ve written since, from The Icon Thief to “The Boneless One.” And for all its notorious complexities, its real appeal is gloriously simple: two smart, attractive professionals confronted with a mystery that seems inexplicable at first, but is ultimately revealed to have its own dark logic, as farfetched as it might be.
And it’s easy to underestimate episodes like this. Consider “Pusher,” which is the best classic casefile the show ever did, and one of my favorite hours of episodic television from any series. At first glance, there’s nothing about it that stands out from the rest of the show’s third season: there are no aliens, no conspiracies, and barely any atmosphere—the show takes place in various mundane locations around Washington D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia, and, curiously, almost entirely in the daytime. Its villain, Robert Patrick Modell, while wonderfully played by Robert Wisden, is a pointedly nondescript figure whose only interesting quality is his ability to talk other people into doing anything, including killing themselves in gruesome ways—a decent hook, but no better than most of the show’s usual plots. What sets “Pusher” apart is the grace with which it moves from one familiar beat to another. The script, by future Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, is clever, funny, and suspenseful in all the right proportions, and it concludes with perhaps the strongest dramatic set piece in the show’s history, as Modell challenges Mulder to a psychic game of Russian Roulette. Unlike the great deconstructive episodes written by Darin Morgan, “Pusher” doesn’t question or comment on the show’s conventions, but honors and upholds them. No gimmicks, no aliens, no conspiracies or special effects—just the basic elements of genre elevated by intelligence and craft, in an episode notable only for the fact that it’s, well, the best. And that’s the biggest mystery of all.
Tomorrow: “And that’s why you don’t teach lessons about comedy.”