Last year, when Vulture held a March Madness style tournament to determine “the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years,” only three of the eight quarter finalists were shows that originally aired on commercial broadcast networks: Buffy the Vampire Slayer,* Twin Peaks, and my personal favorite, The X-Files. None of them made it any further than that; Special Agents Mulder and Scully were kicked out by the eventual winner, The Wire.
Maybe the show, following two FBI agents (played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) investigating the paranormal, falls a little short compared to the finely crafted offerings of golden age cable television. But it holds up remarkably well and is very much worth revisiting – or visiting for the first time, as it were.
Running for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, The X-Files was a moderate hit for Fox, especially in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic. The show spawned two feature films, The X-Files in 1998 (the height of its popularity), and The X-Files: I Want to Believe in 2008, six years after the series had ended. All in all there are more than 150 hours of what became an important pop culture touchstone of the Nineties. So if you have avoided the show until now but finally want to find out what all the fuss was about, you probably have no idea where to start.
First, an important distinction between the two types of X-Files episodes. There are those that follow a vast government conspiracy to cover up alien abductions, including the one that Fox Mulder believes is responsible for the disappearance of his sister Samantha when he was a child. These are part of the so-called “mytharc” (mythology arc).
Then there are stand-alone episodes, featuring serial killers in all shapes and sizes – from stretchy, liver-eating mutants to bigamist demons to, well, just plain-old serial killers – plus mysterious creatures ranging from a human-sized tapeworm to a tattoo that talks in the voice of Jodie Foster. Those are called Monster-of-the-Week episodes.
Ask any X-Phile (yes, that is what we fans call ourselves) to name their favorite episode, you will get great examples like “Drive,” written by the creator of Breaking Bad and starring Bryan Cranston, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” featuring Peter Boyle in an Emmy-winning turn as a melancholy insurance agent who can tell you how you are going to die just by looking at you, or the three-part deep dive into the mytharc, “Anasazi,” “The Blessing Way” and “Paper Clip.”
And then there is another special subset of X-Files episode: The funny one. From the beginning, the series has had a certain element of humor in the way it looked at itself, but starting with “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” in the third year, we get, about one per season, episodes that can only be classified as comedy first, mystery later.
As a first-timer, you’ll want to delay watching the funny episodes until you have gotten to know Mulder and Scully – and the show – a little bit better. Having a basic familiarity with the characters’ foibles and the dynamics of their relationship will give you a much greater appreciation of the self-deprecating humor in these episodes later.
Instead, start with “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” the finale episode of the first season. Written by series creator Chris Carter, it introduces the audience to the elements that would make up much of the mythology to come: human-alien hybrids, government cover-ups, and the origin of Mulder’s iconic mantra, “Trust no one.” It may not be the best episode of The X-Files – not even the best of the first season – but for newcomers it is an easy way into the themes of the show, and the then relatively young mythology is explained away in a few handy lines of exposition.
The episode opens with a dramatic high-speed car chase and the unexplained disappearance of a (literally) green-blooded suspect, after which Agent Mulder is tipped off by his enigmatic informant Deep Throat to investigate. Right away, Mulder and Scully come across tampered evidence and other attempts to hide the truth from them.
The X-Files will often separate Mulder and Scully for dramatic effect, but the show is at its best when they are on screen together, doing some good old-fashioned police work. Fueled by the undeniable chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson, the back and forth between the agents, not without the occasional wisecrack, keeps the series grounded amid its more fantastic elements, and it’s why we came back to watch week after week.
Here, Mulder and Scully come up against a chain of increasingly out of this world (pun fully intended) artifacts, from extra-terrestrial bacteria to fully-grown naked men suspended in fish-tanks, all while being pursued by sinister men in black.
If “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” even with all its signifiers of mid-Nineties TV (why did everyone wear suits two sizes too big back then?) makes you want to spend more time with Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, you’re in luck. The truth is out there – all 202 episodes are available for streaming on Hulu Plus and Netflix.
* It was Sally Tamarkin‘s great Slate piece on Buffy that inspired me to write this one.