Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Glen Morgan

Going for the kill

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for the X-Files episode “Home Again.”

One of the unexpected but undeniable pleasures of the tenth season of The X-Files is the chance it provides to reflect on how television itself has changed over the last twenty years. The original series was so influential in terms of storytelling and tone that it’s easy to forget how compelling its visuals were, too: it managed to tell brooding, cinematic stories on a tiny budget, with the setting and supporting cast changing entirely from one episode to the next, and it mined a tremendous amount of atmosphere from those Vancouver locations. When it pushed itself, it could come up with installments like “Triangle”—one of the first television episodes ever to air in widescreen—or “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” none of which looked like anything you’d ever seen before, but it could be equally impressive in its moody procedural mode. Yet after a couple of decades, even the most innovative shows start to look a little dated. Its blocking and camera style can seem static compared to many contemporary dramas, and one of the most intriguing qualities of the ongoing reboot has been its commitment to maintaining the feel of the initial run of the series while upgrading its technical aspects when necessary. (Sometimes the best choice is to do nothing at all: the decision to keep the classic title sequence bought it tremendous amounts of goodwill, at least with me, and the slightly chintzy digital transformation effects in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” come off as just right.)

This week’s episode, Glen Morgan’s “Home Again,” is interesting mostly as an illustration of the revival’s strengths and limitations. It’s basically a supernatural slasher movie, with a ghostly killer called the Band-Aid Nose Man stalking and tearing apart a string of unsympathetic victims who have exploited the homeless in Philadelphia. And the casefile element here is even more perfunctory than usual. All we get in the way of an explanation is some handwaving about the Tibetan tulpa, which the show undermines at once, and the killer turns out to be hilariously ineffective: he slaughters a bunch of people without doing anything to change the underlying situation. But there’s also a clear implication that the case isn’t meant to be taken seriously, except as a counterpoint to the real story about the death of Scully’s mother. Even there, though, the parallels are strained, and if the implicit point is that the case could have been about anything, literally anything would have been more interesting than this. (There’s another point to be made, which I don’t feel like exploring at length here, about how the show constantly falls back on using Scully’s family—when it isn’t using her body—to put her through the wringer. Scully has lost her father, her sister, and now her mother, and it feels even lazier here than usual, as if the writers thought she’d had too much fun last week, which meant that she had to suffer.)

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny on The X-Files

What we have, then, are a series of scenes—four, to be exact—in which an unstoppable killer goes after his quarry. There’s nothing wrong with this, and if the resulting sequences were genuinely scary, the episode wouldn’t need to work so hard to justify its existence. Yet none of it is particularly memorable or frightening. As I watched it, I was struck by the extent to which the bar has been raised for this kind of televised suspense, particularly in shows like Breaking Bad and Fargo, which expertly blend the comedic and the terrifying. Fargo isn’t even billed as a suspense show, but it has given us scenes and whole episodes over the last two seasons that built the pressure so expertly that they were almost painful to watch: I’ve rarely had a show keep me in a state of dread for so long. And this doesn’t require graphic violence, or even any violence at all. Despite its title, Fargo takes its most important stylistic cue from another Coen brothers movie entirely, and particularly from the sequence in No Country For Old Men in which Llewelyn Moss awaits Anton Chigurh in his motel room. It’s the most brilliantly sustained sequence of tension in recent memory, and it’s built from little more than our knowledge of the two characters, the physical layout of the space, and a shadow under the door. Fargo has given us a version of this scene in every season, and it does it so well that it makes it all the less forgivable when an episode like “Home Again” falls short.

And the funny thing, of course, is that both Fargo and Breaking Bad lie in a direct line of descent from The X-Files. Breaking Bad, obviously, is the handiwork of Vince Gilligan, who learned much of what he knows in his stint on the earlier show, and who revealed himself in “Pusher” to be a master of constructing a tight suspense sequence from a handful of well-chosen elements. And Fargo constantly winks at The X-Files, most notably in the spaceship that darted in and out of sight during the second season, but also in its range and juxtaposition of tones and its sense of stoicism in the face of an incomprehensible universe. If an episode like “Home Again” starts to look a little lame, it’s only because the show’s descendants have done such a good job of expanding upon the basic set of tools that the original series provided. (It also points to a flaw in the show’s decision to allow all the writers to direct their own episodes. It’s a nice gesture, but it also makes me wonder how an episode like this would have played in the hands of a director like, say, Michelle McLaren, who is an expert at extending tension to the breaking point.) Not every Monster of the Week needs to be a masterpiece, but when we’re talking about six episodes after so many years, there’s greater pressure on each installment to give us something special—aside from killing off another member of the Scully family. Because if the show were just a little smarter about dispatching its other victims, it might have decided to let Margaret Scully live.

Written by nevalalee

February 11, 2016 at 9:30 am

The Darin Morgan files

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Darin Morgan in The X-Files episode "Small Potatoes"

Yesterday, I finally listened to the fantastic interview between Kumail Nanjiani and the writer Darin Morgan, which took up nearly two full hours of the former’s ongoing podcast about The X-Files. If anything, it was too short: Morgan came fully prepared with stories about his brief tenure on my favorite television show of all time, and they only managed to get through “Humbug” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” (They’ve promised a reunion to cover “War of the Coprophages” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” and I’ll be awaiting it even more eagerly than the next installment of Serial.) I’ve written about Morgan here before, but I don’t think I’ve made it clear how great my debt to him really is: if I were to make an objective list of the writers who have most influenced my own work, he’d rank in the top five. And I can trace it all back to one line in “Humbug,” after a circus performer performs an impromptu eulogy at a funeral by driving a railroad spike into his chest. After the rest of the crowd has dispersed, Mulder observes, still seated: “I can’t wait for the wake.” And while I was already a fan of The X-Files, something in that moment opened up a new world of possibilities: it’s no exaggeration to say that my sense of the genre’s potential been quietly but permanently expanded.

After listening to the interview, I turned, naturally enough, to Darin Morgan’s Wikipedia page. I was primarily interested in learning more about his current gig—the show Intruders, which, like most of his recent work, was produced by his brother Glen—but I ended up being confronted by something strangely familiar. It wasn’t until I’d opened the page and read the first paragraph, in fact, that I remembered that I’d created that article more than ten years ago, back in Wikipedia’s wild early days. (It’s a reflection of how important Morgan is to me that this article was one of the first I contributed, right after the one for mix tape.) And I was a little startled by how much of my original text is still intact, although unseen hands have done a helpful job of providing necessary references and citations. This is a reflection both of Wikipedia’s curious inertia, in which some pages can go untouched for years, but also to the apparent stasis of Morgan’s own career. Ten years ago, I was able to accurately describe Morgan as a writer best known for six offbeat episodes of The X-Files and Millennium, and that hasn’t really changed. Since then, his only visible productions have been two episodes of the show Tower Prep, one episode of Those Who Kill, and his aforementioned work on Intruders—the latter two of which aren’t even listed in the article yet, although I’ll probably add them if I have a spare moment later today.

Charles Nelson Reilly and Lance Henriksen in "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense"

So what happened? I’m hoping that Nanjiani and Morgan will discuss this further in their next chat, but the reason isn’t hard to pin down: it’s some combination of the natural uncertainty of a writer’s life and Morgan’s own discomfort with the television medium. Trying to write for a living, particularly in Hollywood, is so tenuous an enterprise that it’s not surprising to find acclaimed writers—even those with Emmys—toiling for decades without any new credits to show for it. There are countless examples of screenwriters who made one big splash and haven’t appeared anywhere since, and this doesn’t mean that they haven’t been working: for a given writer’s name to end up on a movie, not only does the script have to survive the development process, but all the ensuing factors involved in production and arbitration have to line up just right. If anything, it’s more surprising when it happens than when it doesn’t. The conditions in television are somewhat different, but in his interview with Nanjiani, Morgan reiterates that he never felt especially comfortable in the writer’s room. (After seeing the first dailies for “Humbug,” which were nothing like what he’d seen in his head, he was physically distressed to the point that he nearly got into a car accident on the way home.)

What’s funny, of course, is that Morgan has continued to work in television ever since, albeit sporadically, and he says that his experience on The X-Files was by a large measure the best he would ever have, even if he wasn’t able to appreciate this at the time. (He notes that his episodes were shot with a minimum of network interference, whereas his scripts these days come back with pages of notes, and his thoughts on this are enlightening in themselves—he thinks that the constant threat of cancellation has compressed the timeline in which a television series can evolve, creating enormous pressure on writers and executives alike.) It isn’t hard to imagine a world in which Morgan had a career more like that of his old colleague Vince Gilligan, or even of Charlie Kaufman, whose work he anticipated by half a decade—and under far greater constraints. And the fact that he hasn’t serves as another reminder of how much lies outside a writer’s control, regardless of talent or recognition. This isn’t a lesson that Morgan needed to be taught: from “Clyde Bruckman” on, one of his great themes has been how little we can influence or understand the tricks the world plays on us. I don’t know what Morgan’s life has been like in the ten years since I created his page on Wikipedia, but I suspect that it would make an interesting movie. And Charlie Kaufman would probably get to write it.

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