From Mulder with Love

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

If we're the right demographic, we live comfortably yet in a kind of terror, bouncing off one another in a search for something meaningful before it all melts down. The movies, God bless them, rewire Hollywood's classic narratives as if nothing had changed since 1938 (as with You've Got Mail). But Chris Carter's world, hemmed in by the TV screen, knows our weak points and persistently exposes those areas where we just can't trust the world, or perhaps ourselves, as much as we used to.

Before this season we'd seen hints of attraction amid all the narrative gravity, as Mulder and Scully wrangled over a belief in the supernatural or chased down yet another phantom sister, all the while glancing over at the other for a glimpse of compassion or fellow-feeling. Carter worked an audacious change by placing the screwball load on the male character, and David Duchovny's light comic touch made it pay off. The most famously overeducated actor on TV (a lapsed Ph.D. candidate in Yale's English program, or hadn't you heard?), Duchovny learned to cut down the sluggish philosophizing and play up Mulder's quirkiness, his porn fetish, and that wonderful deadpan. (Figure him as Irene Dunne, Gillian Anderson as a no-nonsense but warmhearted Spencer Tracy type, and Mitch Pileggi's Skinner as the Ralph Bellamy character who always gets left at the altar.)

Without ever announcing itself as such, the show recast the screwball universe as a war of good and evil without ever losing the screwiness. Remember the black-and-white horror-comic episode, with John O'Hurley (who also played J. Peterman on Seinfeld) waxing profound as Dr. Frankenstein? Or the episode that urged us to empathize with Cancer Man for his bad novels and his baseless desire to thwart the Buffalo Bills?

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

Call it pomo game-playing or call it a breath of fresh air--or an infusion of creative life-force if you're less charitably inclined. Any way you slice it, increased production values and a wider narrative compass have helped find the heart, in every sense, of The X-Files. Carter and his cast have put together a world that's at once incoherent and utterly coherent, magic and irrational, where trusting (almost) no one keeps you sane, and nothing much makes sense except the co-workers' devotion to one another. Call it, in the end, a paranoiac romance for the year 2000: The love is out there.

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