'X' Marks What's Hot
With a quirky sense of humor and a generous helping of the paranormal, Fox's 'X-Files' slyly alters the time-tested recipe for mystery solving.
By Ken Tucker
Anyone who doubts that THE X-FILES (Fox, Fridays, 9-10 p.m.) is the most confidently eccentric series currently on television needs look no further than the show's opening title sequence. At the start of every episode, just after the credit for X-Files creator Chris Carter, a printed statement streams across the screen: "The truth is out there." Wha??? Fingering your remote control, you may think you've stumbled upon some new Fox mutation–Herman's Head-Trip?– but as that ominous non sequitur implies (the truth is...um, where?), The X-Files is darker and wilder than that.
To be sure, this show about a pair of FBI special agents, played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, is out there–our heroes track paranormal activity all across America. One week, it's a matter of proving the existence of a hairy half-human, half-beast that eats people in New Jersey (yes, it did look a little like Bruce Springsteen); the next, it's up to Alaska, where the harried duo gazes, horrified, at people whose skin is literally crawling with a worm-shaped virus that skitters through their bloodstreams. Another week's "x-file"–the show's term for an unsolved case of questionable authenticity–takes them to Boston, where there are reports of a guy who can set people on fire just by staring at them really hard. As Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, Duchovny and Anderson are forever checking into drab motels, crisscrossing the country to grill baffled locals about inexplicable phenomena.
Unlike spook-TV predecessors such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, X-Files has no high-minded moral to teach, no winking irony to impart; all it wants to do is shake your faith in reality. The X-Files is the only TV series in which a star of the show can say, "I believe in psychic ability, without a doubt," and we're supposed to agree with him, not think he's a wacko. The vintage program it's closest to in spirit is Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the 1974-75 oddity that starred Darren McGavin as a reporter who saw vampires and goblins where no else did.
But The X-Files is really its own creation; its protagonists display more emotion than the usual cardboard sci-fi characters, and its scripts–most of them written by Carter–achieve a sort of hard-boiled eloquence. In the X-Files episode about the supernatural firebug, a minor character says that any big, frightening fire has "a certain demon poetry." There's an eerie echo of that observation in a new book about the emotional power of the movies called The Phantom Empire, when author Geoffrey O'Brien remarks that "classic horror movies depicted ordinary life as intolerably flat and banal until invaded by the poetry of the demonic." And indeed, that's what makes The X-Files' two FBI agents interesting. Mulder's beliefs have been bolstered by the bizarre cases he has tackled with Scully, who in the show's fall premiere was set up as a scoffing skeptic. It's now gotten to the point, however, where Mulder can say to his colleague, "Dana, after all you've seen, why can't you believe?" and her honest response is, "I'm afraid to believe."
Shot in Vancouver, The X-Files has a bland, anonymous look to it that only enhances the show's unsettling atmosphere. Its special effects aren't anything out of the ordinary; instead, Carter, who's also the executive producer, elicits our heebie-jeebies by creating disturbing moods, and by extracting convincingly rattled performances from the actors. (A recent edition featured a spectacular turn by Brad Dourif [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] as a death-row inmate who may or may not have psychic powers.)
Duchovny and Anderson have become a unique team. The show has downplayed the hovering romantic attraction between the two characters in favor of a rough-edged camaraderie; they're both morose cusses who have to josh each other out of grim moods. And while X-Files gives them a lot to be grim about, the series gives off a warm glow of assured wit. Give yourself over th The X-Files, and you'll be in the hands of people who know exactly how to mess with your mind. A