September 9, 1994
Vol. 121, Iss. 15

Go ahead, take a peek
By Frank McConnell

Let us now praise the Fox Network.

TV, as its most Cromwellian critics never tire to tell us, is debased, popular entertainment out to make the fastest possible buck by pandering to the most vulgar possible mass tastes. The same charge of whoredom has been brought, at various times, against the Hollywood film, the Victorian novel, and Elizabethan drama. But I am by now tired of refuting the Cromwellians: they never, bless their pointy little heads, listen anyway. The mass-cult imagination, as history teaches us, is a much more fertile soil for art than the hydroponic gardens of "refined" taste. And the good folks at Fox--as shamelessly and exuberantly profit-driven and pandering as Shakespeare, Mozart, or Balanchine--have, in a few short years, raised the medium to a level of vulgarity and magnificence, stupidity and perspicuity, that it never enjoyed during the long domination of the three big, over-their networks.

It was the cable revolution that made the upstart Fox thinkable, because the advent of cable broke the stranglehold of ABC, CBS, and NBC on the available transmission-bands. You can analogize this change to the wedding, in the early nineteenth century, of the printing press and the steam engine: suddenly everybody could publish books in great quantities, and that pop cult monster, the Victorian novel, was born. Now there are Christian channels, occult channels, gay channels, anti-gay (morose?) channels, cooking channels, und so weirer. (My own fantasy is a TV-Anon channel: twenty-four hours of white noise for viewers in withdrawal--maybe with New Age music on the soundtrack.)

But if the technology made Fox possible, it was only genius that could make it actual.

I've said before that the novel is a writer's medium, film a director's medium, and TV a producer's medium. They are all simply--in the phrase of that brilliant man, Neil Gaiman--"machines for telling stories." At each stage of complexity-of-production, though, the machine demands more elaborate maintenance; so we think of Dickens's novels, Hitchcock's films, and Bochco's series.

Given the cable revolution, Fox trusted the innate kinkiness of mass-cult taste, while the Big Three continued to bank on its glacial conservatism. (It's happened before: in 1954 RCA bought Elvis from Sun Records and changed history.) By and large, Fox didn't do more "Charlie's Angels" or more variations on "Different Strokes": they did counter programming, betting imaginatively on the imagination of the American viewer. And they won.

Not that this is a deification of Fox. The network that gave us "In Living Color" has to spend some time in Dante's Purgatory; and the one that gave us "Married...with Children" has got to send at least somebody to his Inferno (Eighth Circle, I figure--the Fraudulent and Malicious). But as that major aesthetician Mel Brooks says, "Listen: Art has nothing to do with good taste" (the man who wrote both the sublime Lear and the god awful Timon of Athens would have agreed). Who else but the folks with guts enough to roll the dice on "Married" would also have the guts to roll them on "The Simpsons," "The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.," or on buying up the rights to HBO's wonderfully grand-guignol "Tales from the Crypt"? And then, of course, there' s "Beverly Hills 90210," or, as I think of it, "Gidget Gets an Abortion." Uptight exiled-to-California Chicagoan that I am, I just can't watch it for a whole episode. But neither can I deny that it's brilliant and honest and--a word that for me carries a huckload of admiration--charitable . The imaginative failure is mine, not the show's.

And then there is--there are?--"The X-Files," and that's mainly what I wanted to talk to you about.

TV, let' s face facts, has never done horror very well. Science fiction, sure; the grotesque, as in "Twilight Zone," of course; and the gnarly/violent, oi vey! But not horror. And here's why. Because TY wants to show you things, and real horror, as Poe knew and Clive Barker knows, is not what you see but what you're afraid you might have to see in a minute. It's when remember when you were six?--you had to, but didn't want to, peek over the edge of the blanket. And that moment before you did peek: that's the moment of horror.

THE TRUTH Is OUT THERE. That legend appears at the beginning of every "X-Files," and its promise-threat is just the stuff of the blanket-moment.

Here' s the setup. F.B.I. Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny)--yes, dammit, the first name is a dumb pun--is obsessed with the fact that his sister, when they were both children, was abducted by a UFO. To the dismay of his superiors in the Bureau, he spends most of his time running down cases of the extraterrestrial, the paranormal, or the unnatural that the Bureau itself has junked under the presumably lunatic category of the "X" Files. He has been assigned an assistant, Agent Dana Sculley (Gillian Anderson), a good hard-headed skeptic, whose job is as much to ride herd on Mulder's perceived dottiness as actually help him. UFOs, demonic possession, gender-switching alien invaders--each week Mulder attempts to track down another eruption of the uncanny, and each week, naturally, the sensible Sculley insists to him that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the events he thinks so ominous--until, again naturally, the last ten minutes, when the uncanny is shown to be there.

Formulaic? Right: like about 90 percent of all the stories we've ever bothered to enjoy. At one level, "X-Files" has all the subtlety of those headlines in the tabloids ("Aliens Clone Hitler's Child!") that you wish--confess, now--you could peruse in full, if only the guy ahead of you had fourteen more frozen dinners to check out.

At another level, though, it draws upon what Harold Bloom used to call our debased, but still authentic, yearning for the sublime; our sense that even absurdities like sentient octopi from Planet Zord or three-headed, telepathic calves are somehow, though false, more real than the mundane, infinitely recurative commonplaces of "The World According to Benjamin Franklin." For these things are of what the Middle Ages called, beautifully, faerie: not "fairyland" in the cuddly Disneyesque sense, but the truly and fearfully strange, out of which gods and demons--and humanity--are born.

For its first season, at least, "X-Files" proved last year to be one of the very closest approaches TV has made to the shiver of confronting faerie. The dialogue was crisp and wryly literate; the pacing was brilliant; and the camera work, virtually without distracting special effects, was as good as--and derivative from--the best work of Spielberg (Close Encounters) or John Carpenter (Halloween). But the stunning goodness of the show was in the original concept of executive producer Chris Carter.

The ghost-hunter in "X-Files" is not the occult Dr. Van Helsing-type of the Dracula myth, but the squeaky-clean Agent Mulder of the computer-dominated F.B.I. It's impossible, for me at least, not to read Mulder's position as a parable about Religious Man in the Age of Perfect Information. For all the transformation of the world into pure data, Mulder still feels the terror and allure of the world as Mystery, a visionary trapped in the informet. And Sculley, the careerist/rationalist, finds herself increasingly drawn into Mulder's universe. By season's end, Sculley had joined Mulder in his sense that "The Truth Is Out There"--at the risk of both their careers in the Bureau.

The second season, which begins later this month, will be fascinating to watch, just to see if the show can maintain its very wise balance between the mundane and the uncanny. I hope it will, because this is some of the very best storytelling on the Tube these days.

Would I lie to you? Come on, some of you have even learned to like "NYPD Blue." This fall, watch "The X-Files."