JUST BECAUSE YOU'RE paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you to watch heir creepy and sometimes crappy TV shows. In an earthly phenomenon that's all too explainable and familiar, the success of The X-Files (Fox, Fridays, 9 p.m.) has spawned a number of new series that deal with unexplained phenomena --including Strange Luck, American Gothic and Nowhere Man. Taken as a spooky programming pack meant to entrap X-philes, these shows can get pretty damn inexplicable themselves.
I confess to being paranormally late in exploring The X-Files, but in recent months the strangest thing has happened. As if part of some sinister plot by a vague, Trilateral Commission-like shadow government, I find myself hooked by the series' creepy artfulness and the very hot platonic chemistry between The X-Files' FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). This mini-Mod Squad examines conspiracies so immense that they would make Timothy McVeigh go ballistic.
Reasonably enough, Chris Carter --the creator and executive producer of The X-Files--doesn't sound too thrilled when confronted with the notion that his series could be required viewing in the TV rooms of our nation's militia rec halls. "Our show says, 'Question authority', not 'Kill it'," he says. Still, Carter's got no problem capitalizing on the widespread distrust of our government. "There is incredible paranoia out there, and we play to it," he says. "That's what the test-marketing process taught us. To a man--or to a woman--everyone thought that the government wasn't acting in their best interest."
The X-Files and its spooky televised brethren dwell in that political twilight zone where left and right meet and greet --an Orwellian, Kaflca-esque alien nation that's populaced with suspicious folks who have too much time on their hands and a deep sense that something is horribly, horribly wrong. Carter says he has heard from a number of individuals who claim to have worked for the government: "The comment I've gotten is that we have no idea how close we are." But for Carter, the true secret of the show's appeal is much more primal. "We live in a frightening world," he says, "and if we can give people a good roller-coaster ride, that's great."
About the shows now trying to entice viewers to take similar rides, Carter is graciously circumspect. "I've been too busy doing this show to really watch them," he says, "but I don't see any imitations --no one's taken our tone. We've just opened the door." A gracious sentiment --or could it be that one of the show's all-powerful Majestic 12, or one of those other shows' publicists, has already gotten to him?
Strange Luck (Fox, Fridays, 8 p.m.) enjoys the straightforward luck of sharing a night and a network with The X-Files. The new show also has the good fortune of boasting a strangely talented group of actors, including D.B. Sweeney, Pamela Gidley and Frances Fisher. Sweeney plays good-natured photojournalist Chance Harper, who has had the most curious streak of luck since he survived a plane crash as a child. Coming off as more goofy than spooky, Strange Luck is less paranoid than the other offerings and has an almost hokey structure--sort of a New Age version of The Millionaire on a budget. Inevitably, the show has turned increasingly to humor, as in a recent episode that prominently featured a potato that looked like Elvis Presley. Note for Fox conspiracy nuts: Strange Luck creator Karl Schaefer grew up in the same town as Chris Carter--Bellflower, Calif. More than a confidence?
American Gothic (CBS, Fridays, 10 p.m.) also benefits from a fine, frightening cast--particularly Gary Cole, who plays Lucas Buck, the psychotic and supernaturally powerful sheriff of Trinity, S.C.--TVs new capital of Southern discomfort. Indeed, the players throw themselves into these self-consciously bizarre proceedings as if the show were the inspired work of a collaboration between Tennessee Williams and Stephen King. In fact, it's as if creator Shaun Cassidy --yes, that Shaun Cassidy were trying to mutate Twin Peaks and The Andy Griffith Show. American Gothic is scary, but not always for the right reasons. Watching a few episodes lately, I was struck by one terrifying thing: Cole would be absolutely perfect to play Mark Fuhrman. Now there's a scary series for you.
The most seriously twisted and paranoid of the shows, Nowhere Man (UPN, Mondays, 9 p.m.), gains an appealing noir power by taking itself so seriously. For the show's title character, Thomas Veil --played by Bruce Greenwood reality bites in a big way, as if it weren't tough enough just being on UPN. Although Nowhere Man is nutty stuff, it's gripping nutty stuff Veil--a photojournalist with lousy luck--finds his identity stolen by some Big Brother-ish cabal because of a picture he has shot titled "Hidden Agenda." Back in the real world, Nowhere Man's unhidden agenda now has to be: Get those ratings up quick.
Three seasons into its own crowd-pleasing weirdness, The X-Files remains compelling viewing even for the well adjusted. At their best all the other shows can occasionally have even the relatively sane among us looking over our shoulders At their worst they suggest only the very real possibility of a rather widespread conspiracy of network dunces. And, ultimately, what could be scarier than that?