October 21, 1995
Vol. 173, Iss. 12

By James Martin

LAST YEAR, this magazine conducted an extensive survey of readers that confirmed, among other things, that its readers are extremely well educated, very well read and more or less middle aged. (Plenty of Catholics read the magazine, too. Go figure.)

If the marketing gurus in the television industry are to be believed, these data would indicate that our readers prefer shows like "60 Minutes," "Masterpiece Theater" and the occasional "Murder, She Wrote." Allow me, then, to introduce you to a show that might have flown under your radar, as it were.

The X-Files (Fox, Fridays, 9:00 P.M. ET) is a certifiable hit. Last season the show increased its audience share by 44 percent--the most of any network series. It has also spawned a number of imitators this fall, including Fox's own "Strange Luck," UPN's "Nowhere Man," and CBS's slick "American Gothic."

Like many of Fox's offerings, "The X-Files" seems to be pitched to the elusive 18-35 crowd. It's a monster hit among the young and techie crowd, and boasts a huge Internet following. (If you follow the popular comic strip "Fox Trot" you'll know that the geeky younger son, Jason, is a big "X-Files" fan.) This may explain why it is sometimes overlooked by the 50-something crowd, who are more likely to tune into the show's Friday night competition, "Dateline NBC" and CBS's increasingly loopy "Picket Fences."

Moreover, tuning in to "The X-Files" for the first time without a road map can prove daunting, since the show assumes at least a passing familiarity with the characters and situations. It's rather like tuning into an unfamiliar soap opera. But missing it entirely would be unfortunate--it's an imaginative series. Don't get me wrong: we're not talking "Masterpiece Theater." But that's O.K. Some nights you just don't feel like another Jane Austen novel.

So here's a short primer. David Duchovny plays Fox Mulder (whether he was named after his network is left suspiciously unclear), an oddball F.B.I. agent assigned to investigate the bureau's "X-Files," which encompass U.F.O.s, aliens, ghosts, voodoo and the like. Mulder's interest in the paranormal developed after his younger sister was abducted by aliens. None of his colleagues believes this, and his nickname in the department is "Spooky."

Mr. Duchovny plays Fox as an intelligent, taciturn, methodical man, who is rather inclined to believe in the irrational. In real life, Mr. Duchovny was for a number of years a Ph.D. student in English literature at Yale. This could explain his familiarity with other-worldly theories.

Gillian Anderson plays F.B.I. Agent Dana Scully, who has been assigned to keep an eye on Fox Mulder. As a medical doctor, she is determined to prove that science can explain the unexplainable and is constantly doubting Mulder's views on...whatever. Nevertheless, together over the past three seasons the two have been drawn deeper into the bizarre, the confusing, the unexplained. Last season, they stumbled on a grand Government-sponsored conspiracy that lurks behind some of the unusual goings-on.

While it's helpful to know the background, most of the time the show can simply function as a clever one-hour mystery. And, as the elliptical title would indicate, anything is fair game. Last season, Mulder and Scully were called in to investigate a strange death in a logging camp. (They're always investigating strange deaths.) The bodies of loggers were being eaten alive by some tiny, unknown creatures that emerged at night. Eventually, we learned that the culprits were prehistoric, flesh-eating bugs that lived within primeval trees now being forested by a greedy developer. (It was a very eco-sensitive episode.) After solving the mystery, Mulder and Scully escaped in the nick of time. My favorite episode was one in which Mulder comes face to face with alien abductors and--well, you get the idea.

WHAT'S THE APPEAL of the "The X-Files"? For one thing, it taps into the natural interest of young people in the other, the different, the bizarre. It taps into the interest in "spirituality" (and I use the term very loosely) among young adults. There are plenty of references to ancient religions, spirits, runes and the like. It taps into popular suspicions of an overarching Government conspiracy--as favored by older adolescents like Oliver Stone.

But it's clearly the characters of Mulder and Scully who cement the show: they're brainy, dedicated and articulate. And, for once, the big question about this working couple isn't "Will they sleep together?" Instead, it's: "Will they catch the bad guys?"

Or, in this case, bad things. So try the "The X-Files." It might prove a nice change of pace. After all, when was the last time Angela Lansbury was abducted by aliens?