From Mulder with Love

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

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.

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?

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?

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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