San Francisco Examiner Magazine
April 9, 1995

Freaky Friday
By Joyce Millman

Network programmers and viewers alike know that the days of the week have personalities as distinctive as snowflakes. Sunday, the domain of "60 Minutes,"

"Murder, She Wrote" and movies of the week, is a night for winding down and playing old-folks-at-home. Thursday, with the weekend in sight, is one big NBC sitcom party, and it makes you so hap-hap-happy, you stay up and watch the 10 p.m. drama too.

And Friday? Well, for years, the night has been characterized by ABC's relentless assembly line of smiley-face kiddie sitcoms ( "Full House," "Step by Step," "Just the Ten of Us," "Family Matters" ).

But this past season, Friday's TV personality underwent a welcome mood swing. The second least-watched TV night of the week (only Saturday draws fewer viewers) has become the must-watch night for those of us with a taste for the paranoid, the eccentric, the pessimistic, the just plain weird.

Welcome to Freaky Friday.

Epitomized by Fox's brilliantly realized creepshow "The X-Files" (the first instance of a Friday night series to stay home for since the days of "Dallas" and "Miami Vice" ), Freaky Friday also includes NBC's dark, sardonic cop show "Homicide: Life on the Street," CBS's New Age-y "Picket Fences," NBC's occult campfest

"Unsolved Mysteries," ABC's scare-story-laden

"20/20," NBC's scare-story laden "Dateline NBC," Fox's murky new virtual-reality thriller "VR.5" and HBO's we're-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket rant

"Dennis Miller Live." (CBS' s icy female cop drama, "Under Suspicion," which also qualifies for membership in this spooky club, took a break March 3.)

Gone are the days when Urkel of "Family Matters" was the scariest thing on TV on Friday nights.

Friday has become the programming night where all the rules get tossed, where low ratings, cult followings and bad attitudes are assets. For youngish viewers stumbling home from another lousy week at the grindstone, the new Friday lineup makes an ideal excuse to collapse in front of the tube and indulge in bleak theories about how everything got so screwed up. What "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" did for the self-esteem of singles (it's OK to be home watching TV alone on Saturday night), "The X-Files" has done for the terminally gloomy.

Now in its second season, the quirky "X-Files" is the night's hottest show, collecting critical acclaim, building decent Nielsen ratings (it regularly finished second to ABC's kiddie-coms during the 1994-95 season) and winning a surprise Golden Globe for best drama series.

"The X-Files," which culls most of its viewers from the 18-49 age group favored by advertisers, has also led TV onto the information highway. It was one of the first network shows to have its own official Internet forum (on Delphi), in which the show's creator/writer/director Chris Carter often answered questions and responded to critiques from fans.

There are numerous other "X-Files" on-line discussion groups as well - X-Philes tend to get very involved with the show.

"The X-Files" is uniquely suited to this sort of word-of-mouth, secret society, techno-geek ambiance.

As devout fans already know, it's about two FBI agents, mordant paranormal buff Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and skeptical forensics expert Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who are assigned to investigate cases that defy rational explanation.

In their short tenure as platonic-yet-smoldering partners, Mulder and Scully have uncovered everything from 6-foot-long human-flukeworm hybrids to alien clones with toxic green blood and a guy who could start fires spontaneously. Scully has also been briefly abducted by extra-terrestrials (and possibly impregnated, but that's another story). Invariably, Mulder and Scully are hung out to dry by superiors involved in some top-level cover-up.

"The X-Files" is the ultimate post-Watergate TV show (indeed, in an example of the show's droll, inky humor, the '94-95 season opener flashed back to the young Mulder watching the Watergate hearings moments before his sister is abducted by space aliens, the incident that makes Fox run).

The government lies to us - that's taken as a given by Mulder, Scully, Carter and the X-Philes at home. And once you accept that enormous betrayal, things like mutants in the sewer system and flesh-eating bacteria come as no shock.

But the greatness of "The X-Files" is that it does keep finding ways to shock. The show is deceptively calm on the surface, with understated dialogue, underplayed tension and Mulder and Scully's serene faith in their respective totems - "extreme possibilities" for him and scientific law for her.

But when the scary stuff comes, it's really, really scary.

"The X-Files" has featured parasites burrowing into human organs and then bursting through flesh, swarms of mutant gnats cocooning their victims, a cannibalistic serial killer who can stretch his body to slip through heating grates, up bathroom plumbing and down chimneys. This is classic fear-of-penetration stuff, part Dr. Strangelove (in which a crazed American general's belief that the Soviets have contaminated our "precious bodily fluids" triggers WWIII), part Alien.

"The X-Files" flickers between two guiding principles:

"The Truth Is Out There," which is emblazoned over the opening credits, and "Trust No One," which Mulder learns through his betrayals by shadowy Deep Throat contacts who surface from the murk of official deniability to feed him classified information and throw him off the scent. Then there's Mulder's personal mantra,

"I want to believe." He's always challenging Scully to give him a scientific explanation that sticks. But most often, Mulder and Scully's cases end as a draw between science fiction and science fact. If the truth is out there, it sure is slippery. The best the agents can come up with (and here's the show at its most cautionary and provocative) is this: Maybe byproducts of progress - nuclear waste, global warming, drug-resistant viruses - have caused the old rules to fall away.

"I want to believe" / "Trust no one." "The X-Files" captures the paradox of '90s America - the deep paranoia and distrust of government and social systems, yet a need for belief that manifests itself in everything from angel worship to conspiracy theories to the restlessness of the electorate - better than any political pundit. "The X-Files" is not for the light of heart.

Neither is "Homicide: Life on the Street," which, in tandem with "The X-Files," forms the brooding soul of Freaky Friday. An ensemble cop drama created by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) and produced by film director Barry Levinson (Bugsy, Disclosure), "Homicide," which airs its season finale April 28, is as firmly rooted in reality as "The X-Files" is loosely tethered. Yet it provides the same sort of subversive pleasures.

"Homicide" eschews the ranking Steven Bochco cop drama formula, coming up with a jagged style of its own. A startling editing trick repeats pivotal lines of dialogue in lightning-quick triplicate from three different angles, accompanied by a harsh throb of what sounds like guitar reverb. If you could see an implication sinking into someone's consciousness, this is what it would look like. The crowning achievement of

"Homicide," though, is its use of the neglected art of dialogue. There are reams of words, bitterly funny, sweepingly theatrical, sometimes downright poetic.

"Homicide" is like a marriage of Mamet and Shakespeare. Or maybe Johnny Rotten and Roy Orbison. At once bracing and baroque, with characters noted for their unlovability and sour moods, "Homicide" is anti-TV that seems always on the verge of chaos, signified by the annoying nonstop bleat of the squad room phone and the actors' speed-freak recitations.

The characters' irritability with one another is barely contained; you never know when someone will choose to take a dig to heart. There's a reckless, agitated quality to the needling; it feels ad-libbed, as if the actors are about to fall out of character and razz each other's performances. The effect is thrillingly risky and maybe intentional, suggesting how fragile the act of belief is - in actors on a screen, in cops on the street, in the orderly functioning of society.

"Homicide" has no fear. It will do anything to make its point that truth, justice, law and order are shaky concepts. These wonderfully complicated Baltimore cops lie, bring personal problems to the job, abuse their power, use questionable methods to obtain confessions. Maybe one of them even killed a guy suspected of ambushing three cops.

It's hard to be a hero, says "Homicide," in an unraveling society where you're always in danger of being some superior's fall guy or some gang-banger's target practice. When nobody seems to care that the cop-ambusher has turned up with a regulation cop-bullet in his head, rapidly bending straight-arrow Det. Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) worries, "Doesn't that make us, like, terrorists?"

"You're forgetting something," says Det. Frank Pembleton (the magnificent Andre Braugher), a Jesuit-educated Catholic, thinker, pragmatist and the damned angriest cop on TV, as he flashes a Mona Lisa smile, brings his shiny shaved head close to Bayliss' and enunciates, "We're-the-good-guys."

Ah, more food for thought from hell's takeout window. It must be Friday.