Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

In praise of mediocrity

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David Duchovny on "The X-Files"

Over the last few nights, I’ve been revisiting select episodes from the first season of The X-Files, which was quietly released in high definition earlier this year on Netflix. I started with “Ice,” a germinal effort that still ranks among the best four or five classic casefiles the show ever did, and I was happy to see that it played as well as always. Purists might object to the alterations to the original image, but it looked fantastic to me, and there were only a few moments when I noticed any change in the formatting. It helps that the story sucked me in completely: in terms of pure efficiency, few if any hours of television have ever gotten down to business so quickly. (“Pusher,” the sophomore effort by a young writer named Vince Gilligan, is still my favorite episode of the series, but “Ice” isn’t far behind.) Yesterday, though, when I queued up “Fire,” another installment that I remembered fondly, I discovered that it didn’t hold up as well. My memories of it were colored by a handful of fun guest performances—Mark Sheppard, Amanda Pays, and a nice little vignette by Duncan Fraser as an arson investigator—that still land nicely. Elsewhere, though, the storytelling creaks, and the budgetary limitations of a freshman drama on Fox are woefully apparent, with a roaring hotel inferno represented by a single flame glimpsed from around the corner.

Yet I still enjoyed it. Part of this is due to nostalgia: “Fire” was one of the first episodes of the show I ever saw, and watching it immediately takes me twenty years back in time. But its sheer mediocrity was also endearing. At its best, The X-Files was responsible for some of the greatest episodes of television ever produced—the ones I’ve mentioned above, the four installments written by Darin Morgan, and a handful of other standouts—but it also ground along for season after season with aliens, conspiracies, and miscellaneous boogiemen that failed to make any impression. All the while, the chemistry between the two leads kept things interesting, and there aren’t many episodes from the first five seasons that don’t have flashes of wit and invention. A little mediocrity was to be expected from a series that altered its setting, its supporting cast, and even its tone from week to week, and you could say that the breathing room the middling stories provided made the high water marks possible. And even the more forgettable casefiles are fun. At this point, I’ve long since sucked all the pulp from “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” so there’s something enticing about going back to revisit, say, “Lazarus” or “Born Again,” which is nothing more to me than a name.

The X-Files episode "Ice"

You could even argue that a touch of mediocrity deserves to be a part of any balanced diet, for both creators and audiences, whether it’s in books, movies, or television. I’m not sure I’d want to be friends with someone who read nothing but volumes of the Great Books of the Western World or watched nothing but films from the Sight & Sound poll, any more than someone who had no interest in them at all. If we love great art, as Pauline Kael observed, we need to learn to love great junk as well, or, failing that, at least to appreciate an hour’s diversion on its own merits. Anything else leads to snobbism, cynicism, or worse. There’s something to be said for works of art that leave us untouched, since they allow us to live unimpeded with our own thoughts, while leaving open the possibility of pleasant surprises. As the critic Christopher Morley once wrote:

There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what may perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.

Morley, a legendary scholar of Arthur Conan Doyle, knew the value of mediocrity well. Of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, perhaps a third benefit from constant rereading; another third are fine but unexceptional; and the last third are best forgotten except by completists. Conan Doyle, who could be seen as the showrunner and sole creative force behind the most lasting procedural series of them all, wrote so many stories that it’s unrealistic to expect all of them to be great. The fact that the best of them, from “Silver Blaze” to “The Red-Headed League,” merely rearrange the standard components into a more perfect form suggests that it was his sheer volume of work that enabled the outliers. If Conan Doyle had sought only to produce masterpieces, we might not have any of these stories at all—and certainly not efforts like “The Reigate Squires” or “The Beryl Coronet,” which may not be standouts, but which provide undeniable comfort on a long winter’s evening. And although most of us don’t devour short detective stories on a regular basis these days, their place has been amply filled by television, which depends on a certain dose of mediocrity to survive. A few select shows, like Mad Men, have managed to deliver nothing but high points, but that can be exhausting in itself. Otherwise, it’s best to keep the words of Shostakovich in mind: “The real geniuses know where their writing has to be good and where they can get away with some mediocrity.”

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2015 at 10:12 am

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