From Mulder with Love

The X-Files '99: Is the universe out to get us or are we just having trouble getting it on?

As I'm sure you've noticed, the bucks are out there. That is, The X-Files is big business. You can augment your viewing experience with novels, CD-ROM games, guides both authorized and un-. Probably action figures, too. There's been one successful movie, with sequels in the works, thematic spinoffs like Millennium, copycat shows and satires, and a raft of useless publicity about the stars: Gillian Anderson used to be a punk! David Duchovny went to prep school! A typical progression, in its way. To continue the pattern, the next year should see the departure of a significant player or writer, the introduction of a new character or three to pick up the slack (preferably a toddler), and the gradual creative slump to which every successful show succumbs.

What's especially weird is that most of this probably wasn't intended to happen. When The X-Files first beamed down, it was intended as subcult fodder on the model of Star Trek--not a major success in its day but the property of fanatical cultists ever since. Outside a small sect of saucer geeks (among whom I would be, uh, proud to count myself), few understood what "Roswell" or "Men in Black" meant in 1993. The best prognosis for the show was probably a tenuous hold on a third-rate time slot for a year or two as fanboys nationwide spread the word, then eternal afterlife in reruns and a tribute movie 15 years later. Yet somehow, something caught on: By now the show is surfing a zeitgeist Chris Carter helped create, with millennial dread the common currency of entertainment and politics. A few years back, the specter of computerphobes grabbing rifles and heading for the desert in anticipation of a Y2K catastrophe (surprisingly, a panic the show has missed thus far) would have been grist for urbanites' mockery; now, it's sober reportage.

But how have the years worn on the institution that started this all? Has the series' move from the friendly (and, ahem, low-budget) confines of Vancouver to L.A. made it, well, go L.A.? Whether through serendipity or some secret plan--with a popular artist whose major aim is to make you believe he's always had a secret design for where he's going, who can tell?--Chris Carter has finally figured out the real subject of the X-Files. And the show isn't fundamentally about millennial dread or the shadow government, much less what's really going on behind the doors of Area 51. Nope: Five years of a cosmology oozing with ectoplasm, satanic high-school teachers, and black oil has created a mythology so top-heavy it's unsustainable. No matter how perverse your aesthetic (and at heart Carter's not a serious cultural analyst, just a nerdy teen scaring neighbors with his glow-in-the-dark Dracula fangs), few popular genres can maintain their effervescence when they're shoring up something so huge. Even those who liked the movie have to admit that by now you can't tell the conspirators without a scorecard (or is that a Web site?). So maybe it's self-preservation as much as anything else that accounts for the new season's direction.

Kiss me Spooky: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny try on the roles of Hepburn and Tracy
Kiss me Spooky: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny try on the roles of Hepburn and Tracy

Fundamentally, this fall has repositioned The X-Files as a romantic comedy very much in the traditional Hollywood mode--with crackling wordplay between handsome professionals and dropped glances that represent TV's best facsimile of Hepburn/Tracy or Powell/Loy. The spooky stuff works as so much camouflage, intended to throw off suits who get nervous when they see a smart couple without some cute kids or funny neighbors to keep the yahoos guffawing: See, we're about conspiracy here, not wit. (Without camouflage, the end is near. Remember the ignominious fate accorded the fine Anything but Love, with Jamie Lee Curtis playing coolly off Richard Lewis's shrieking Jewish angst?)

The will-they-or-won't-they question, here reduced to the mere matter of a kiss, is as much in evidence as ever, but this time it's delayed by the occult. One kiss was aborted by a virus-carrying bee that put Scully in a coma; another was consummated, but between Mulder and an OSS agent who only looked like Scully--plus it was in 1939 in the Bermuda Triangle (talk about looking for love in all the wrong places!). And two weeks later Mulder invited Scully up to his bachelor pad, except it was the lumpy middle-manager, played by Michael McKean (Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins, and, of course, Lenny on Laverne and Shirley) inhabiting Mulder's body, see, and so that didn't count either. What with a narrative ruse dating back to before Shakespeare, there are few changes left to be worked.

Or let's give Carter more credit. Maybe we have here the roots of a new genre, one in which e-mail emoticons are as good as it gets; where the whispered cell-phone conversation passes for intimacy; and where what's keeping our lovers apart is a whole lot more than just convention. Perhaps that will be the show's lasting contribution to our culture, for by sketching the rules of love in a world obsessed with infection and abduction--all the violations the flesh is heir to--The X-Files tells its viewers what they need to know. How do we live now?

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