Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Vince Gilligan

A young person’s guide to The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Triangle"

I was thirteen years old when The X-Files premiered, and if you’re thirteen now, you were much too young to watch the show in its original run: its final episode would have aired sometime around your second birthday. With so much great television being produced all around us, it can be hard to catch up on a series, even a classic, that concluded its golden years before you were born, and neither syndication nor binge-watching will quite do the trick. It’s a fundamentally uneven show, so it can be something of a crapshoot if you happen to stumble across it on cable, or even if you decide to watch a season straight through. If you’re interested, I’d recommend sampling it at first, checking out a few episodes that offer a sense of what made this series so special before diving into the deep end. Here’s one possible approach:

1. Pusher. Long before Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad, he was one of my personal heroes, since he’d written what I’d argue is the finest hour of television The X-Files ever produced. I’ve discussed it in greater detail elsewhere, but what strikes me the most about it now—with its duel of wits between Mulder, Scully, and a hired killer with the ability to control the minds of others—is how modest it is. There aren’t any aliens, gimmicks, or government conspiracies, no revelations that would reshape the series forever: it’s notable only because it’s the best. And for anyone who wants to see what this show could do at its finest, there’s no better place to start.

2. Ice. David Duchovny once referred to this installment as the show’s first really “rocking” episode, and it holds up better than just about any other. The premise—which traps Mulder and Scully at a snowbound research base with a handful of scientists and an alien threat—is obviously lifted from The Thing, but it’s told with such energy, economy, and wit that it’s hard to complain. It’s one of my favorite bottle episodes in any series, and it has one of the best supporting casts the show ever assembled, with Felicity Huffmann, Xander Berkeley, and Steve Hytner chewing the scenery as they deal with a nasty surprise in Alaska.

David Duchovny in The X-Files episode "Pusher"

3. Humbug/Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose/War of the Coprophages/Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. It’s a bit of a cheat to lump all of Darin Morgan’s episodes together in one entry, but otherwise, he’d have taken over this entire list: I can’t think of another writer in any medium who made such an impact on me with such a small body of work. (For much more on the subject, see here.) “Humbug” shifted the show’s tone forever, mining a newfound vein of mordant humor; “Clyde Bruckman,” for which Morgan won an Emmy, is one of its funniest and most emotional episodes;  “Jose Chung” picks apart and tramples the abduction narrative forever; but “War of the Coprophages,” the goofiest and most humane of the bunch, is the one I revisit the most.

4. Eve. When we think back to The X-Files now, what stands out are its conceptually or formally ambitious episodes, but at its early height, this was the kind of story it told best: a self-contained, creepy tale that lives happily within the confines of its genre while hitting all of its beats with remarkable concentration. This one stands out for a few great shock moments, a fantastic guest turn by Harriet Hansom Harris—in something like three different roles, depending on how you count them—and a nice, twisty plot: it looks at first like a case of alien exsanguination, then gets even weirder. It’s one of the few episodes that left me genuinely curious about what happened after it ended.

5. Triangle. This is a personal choice, and a slightly controversial one: it’s an obvious example of the show’s tendency, in its later seasons, to emphasize visual or structural trickery over plot, and yes, the story is a little thin. But the result is still gorgeous, a fantasia, told primarily in continuous tracking shots, inspired in equal parts by Titanic and The Wizard of Oz, with Mulder traveling back in time via the Bermuda Triangle to a luxury liner in 1939. The moment when Scully, in the present, crosses virtual paths on a split screen with her own doppelgänger is one I treasure to this day, and it’s a reminder that for a show capable of generating so much dread, The X-Files also left its viewers with a surprising amount of joy.

Extra credit: You’ll find countless other lists of essential episodes, but a few more of my personal favorites include “Fire,” “Paper Hearts,” “Quagmire,” “Small Potatoes,” “Field Trip,” and “Piper Maru/Apocrypha.”

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2013 at 8:26 am

Vince Gilligan and the dark genius of Breaking Bad

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It’s generally agreed that the two greatest dramas on television today are Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two consistently fascinating shows that air on the same network and appeal to similar demographics, but which in other respects couldn’t be more different. Mad Men, as I’ve said before, is almost fractal in its simultaneous commitment to fine detail and shapely storytelling, and it comes off as a seamless piece of narrative that could go on serenely forever. Breaking Bad, by contrast, is a lumpier, shaggier, messier show that often seems on the verge of coming apart entirely. It has narrative problems that I don’t think it ever truly solved—notably involving the character of Skyler White—and it didn’t really come into its own until halfway through the third season. It can feel contrived, and its seams often show. But at its best, it reaches greater heights than any other recent show, Mad Men included. And much of its appeal comes from the fact that creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff clearly don’t always know what will happen next, but are willing to follow the characters into strange, dark places.

I’ve been a big fan of Gilligan ever since I first saw “Pusher,” my favorite episode of The X-Files, and one of the great pleasures of  Breaking Bad is the chance it affords to watch Gilligan and his writers think in real time. Breaking Bad is all but unique among important television shows in that its underlying conception changed radically after its first season, as the writers began to honestly examine the story’s implications. The series began as a finely crafted but somewhat facile black comedy about an essentially decent family man forced into a life of crime to pay his medical bills. As the show went on, however, it became increasingly clear that this premise, which made for a great elevator pitch, was unsustainable over the course of many seasons—at least not without a radical shift in tone. The result is a show that has become increasingly bleak in ways I don’t think even Gilligan anticipated, but to his credit, he has remained fully committed to the show’s new direction, based on a simple concept of dazzling audacity. As Gilligan said to the New York Times Magazine: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?”

Which is exactly what Breaking Bad has done. The fact that it has succeeded so completely is a testament to the strength of its cast, especially Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, but also to the power of committing fully to the logic of the narrative, even if you don’t know precisely where it will lead. This applies to individual story arcs and episodes as well as to the shape of the series as a whole. In a wonderful series of interviews with Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club, Gilligan admits that his writing staff will generally begin each season with only a vague idea of where it ends, and often plot only three or four episodes ahead. This is very close to how I write my own novels, with detailed outlines taking me a third of the way through the story at a time, and it’s a thrilling way to write fiction, since it allows you to control the narrative to a certain extent while still being unsure of where the characters will ultimately go. The difference, of course, is that Gilligan and his team are doing it in public, with each season airing before they move on to the next, and it’s especially fun to see the show revisit elements from earlier seasons—like the sinister figure of Tio Salamanca—in ways that nobody could have anticipated.

And it’s also careful to keep its options open. Gilligan notes that even the writing staff doesn’t know much about the mysterious background of Gus Fring, the icy antagonist played so brilliantly by Giancarlo Esposito. This is partly because Gilligan feels, and rightly so, that certain characters “are sometimes more interesting the less you know about them,” but also because they don’t want to commit themselves without reason. Similarly, they’ve never said anything about Walt’s mother, or even shown us her picture, in order to keep certain possibilities alive. Whether or not these elements will ever pay off is an open question, but Gilligan and his writers have proven themselves experts at playing the long game, even if they aren’t entirely sure what the next move may be. It’s that constant play between constraint and possibility—between honoring the rules that the show has established while also leaving a few things in reserve—that makes the series so riveting from episode to episode. And it’s a measure of the show’s mastery that even as Walter White’s options continue to contract, the show’s own options seem limitless.

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2012 at 10:15 am

Lessons from Great TV #7: The X-Files

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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.”

Written by nevalalee

July 10, 2012 at 10:00 am

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