Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tower Prep

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.

Learning from the masters: Darin Morgan and The X-Files

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Originally this post was going to be about The Simpsons, which has obviously been a major influence on everyone’s inner life, but since my wife pointed out that I could easily do a whole week’s worth of posts on the fourth season alone, I’ll be saving it for another day. Instead, since my novelette “Kawataro” will hopefully be appearing in bookstores next week, I’ll be talking about the work of art that has influenced my published fiction more than any other. Because until The Icon Thief comes out next year, I’m really just the author of this blog and three novelettes in Analog, with a fourth to come, all of which have been deeply influenced by The X-Files.

Television is a funny thing. One’s experience of it, more than any other art form (aside perhaps from music), is usually the product of timing and proximity. If you grew up in a house like most in America, in the days before our lives were taken over by other glowing rectangles, the television was always on, and your tastes were inevitably shaped by whatever happened to be on the air when you were at an impressionable age. I’m hugely thankful that I born at a time when I could watch the best years of The Simpsons as they aired—especially now that the glut of more recent episodes is driving those episodes out of syndication, so that many younger viewers won’t have seen them at all—but I’m even more grateful for the fact that I was thirteen years old on September 10, 1993, when The X-Files premiered.

Looking back, it’s hard to say why this particular show grabbed my imagination. At first, I was a little skeptical of the premise—I couldn’t see how these two FBI agents could have a new adventure every week and then never refer to it again—but once I got past the anthology format, I found that this was the television show that I’d been waiting for my entire life. It was suspenseful, beautifully crafted, often very clever, and built on a compelling sense of mystery and paranoia. (This was also the year in which I read Foucault’s Pendulum and saw JFK. Take that year away, and I’d be a different person entirely.) My discovery of a vast online fandom played a major role, as did the world of fanfic, where I wrote my earliest stories, and which set me on the course on which I continue today, at least as far as my short fiction is concerned.

The big lesson that The X-Files taught me was the importance of formula. Formulas play a huge role in all episodic television, where the pace of production means that writers and producers need to fall back on certain basic structures. Watching a television series over the course of multiple seasons is the easiest way to get a sense of a formula’s strengths and limitations. What set The X-Files apart is how it discovered, almost by accident, a formula of extraordinary versatility and suppleness: two investigators, an atmospheric location, and an inexplicable event. (It’s so good a formula that I’ve happily appropriated it for some of my own stories.) There’s something reassuring about how each episode falls into the same rhythms, and even more so when the show pushes against its own conventions—another illustration of the power of constraints.

Which brings me to Darin Morgan (whose Wikipedia page I created years ago, although I take no responsibility for its current state). Morgan is a television writer who wrote only four episodes of The X-Files and two more of Millennium, and yet his work continues to resonate. He was the Charlie Kaufman of television, long before anyone had ever heard of Charlie Kaufman: funny, ingenious, and formally inventive, with a deeply despairing view of existence, in which the true secret is not some government conspiracy but the fact that we all die alone. And his work was most interesting—notably in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”—in its struggles against, and subtle contempt for, the show’s own limitations. Perhaps this is why Morgan fell silent for more than a decade: he needed the formula to give shape to his flights of originality, and without Mulder, Scully, and Frank Black, he was never the same. Which only demonstrates how powerful a formula can be.

(Even as I write this, though, I learn that he’s resurfaced as a writer for Tower Prep, of all things. I’m very curious about this…)

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