A phenomenon is out there

Edgy TV series celebrates landmark, goes bigscreen

We’ve been told it’s out there somewhere. We’ve waited 100 episodes for it. Here, finally, is the truth: Chris Carter wasn’t exactly thinking phenomenon when he created “The X-Files” and steered it onto the Fox schedule back in September 1993. He was thinking about sticking around until next week.

Then, if all went well, he’d hope for one more week after that. And then another.

“As I often tell people, we work in a business where most things fail,” Carter says. “For anything to succeed is a minor miracle. For something to succeed as this show has, it’s a matter of the gods shining down on us.”

Indeed, a lot of great shows failed to survive long enough to celebrate 100 episodes. “The Honeymooners” didn’t even manage half of that. “Moonlighting” never made it. Neither did “thirtysomething.” But “The X-Files” is there. And it has changed the face of primetime drama as we know it — all over the world — and made international stars of leads David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who could paper a small skyscraper with their magazine covers.

The show supplied network TV with the prototype of a spooky, moody new paranormal/paranoia genre and gave Fox Broadcasting the most successful drama series in its history. And “X-Files” has become a rallying point for people who take their government UFO coverup theories a tad too seriously. The show is so well-produced that it has driven many to blur dramatic fiction with real-life fact.

While FBI special agents Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Anderson) have indeed been pursuing the truth for 100 hours while navigating a tightly woven conspiracy, Carter believes that “X-Files” is more than the mere sum of its parts and certainly “more than a TV show. It’s really about two people on a very personal quest. These are romantic heroes.”

Four years ago, of course, they were just a couple of characters in a show with an uncertain future on Fridays, a night on which Fox had experienced little past success. And there was initially nothing to indicate that “X-Files” was about to change all that.

“Anybody who tells you they knew that ‘X-Files’ would become this cultural phenomenon is a fool or a liar,” insists Sandy Grushow, now prexy of 20th Century Fox TV and president of the Fox Entertainment Group when Peter Roth (then prez of 20th Century Fox TV) and Carter began pitching “X-Files.”

Indeed, it’s now the stuff of legend that Grushow was far more bullish on “The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr.” — another Friday-night series that premiered in the fall of ’93 — than he was on “X-Files.”

From the start, the 9 p.m. “X-Files” outperformed its 8 p.m. lead-in. But Grushow recalls that it wasn’t until February of that first season that it started to become obvious that “something special was happening.”

But Grushow doesn’t lose any sleep over his having failed to see the “X-Files” freight train coming. After all, didn’t ABC pass on “The Cosby Show”? At least Fox didn’t pass on “X-Files.”

“Look at any recent phenomenon, from ‘Seinfeld’ to ‘The Simpsons’ to ‘Roseanne,’ ” Grushow says. “I mean, who knew? The bottom line is that 20th Century Fox TV deserves a lot of credit for its belief in the program.”

That belief, Roth recalls(now prexy of Fox Entertainment Group), began at a lunch with Carter in July 1992. Roth remembers speaking at great length during that fateful lunch about his and Carter’s mutual love for “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” the 1974-75 ABC series starring Darren McGavin that Carter regularly credits for having inspired the “detective of the anomaly” sensibility of “X-Files.”

“There were at the start a lot of Scullys, a lot of skeptics,” Roth says. “But once we screened the pilot for the network, they finally embraced the series. Then a buzz started to develop. But Fox still thought that ‘Briscoe County’ was the big hit. We were sort of the afterthought.”

Bob Greenblatt, co-founder of series developer Greenblatt-Janollari and head of drama development for Fox Broadcasting when “X-Files” was pitched, admits that developing the series and producing a pilot “was not an easy call” for him.

“People don’t believe it, but I initially passed,” Greenblatt says, “because I just wasn’t sure the audience would buy into the paranormal stuff. I wasn’t sure they could pull it off in a realistic way. I kept thinking about these cheesy UFO shows I’d seen before. And up to that point, Chris Carter hadn’t really done anything. So we had an unproven commodity and a tricky idea.”

Once he finally heard the pilot storyline, Greenblatt remembers, he was sold.

“But I’ll tell you, none of us thought this would become one of the most successful drama series in the history of television,” he says. “All you’re ever looking at is getting renewals and keeping your show on the air.”

What finally won over American TV audiences was “the uniqueness of Chris Carter’s vision and the show’s extraordinary craftsmanship,” Roth says. “Being associated with this series from its inception is the greatest accomplishment of my career.”

Lucie Salhany, who was chairman of Fox Broadcasting Co. at the time “X-Files” was going through development, had wanted to do a show about both UFOs and conspiracies, “and this idea fit both bills,” she recalls.

As a bonus, Salhany thought the resulting show was “incredible. … Chris Carter is an incredible writer. He’s made it all work. I wish I could say I’d predicted that ‘X-Files’ would become part of the fabric of young America. I didn’t. But there was never any question in my mind that I knew we had a winner.”

Carter’s agent, Elliot Webb, credits his client with “getting people all over the world to ask, ‘Is it real?’ He’s created a show that plays into everyone’s questions, paranoias and fears.”

However, Carter himself is careful to share the credit for the show’s success, from Glen Morgan and James Wong for their writing in seasons one and two to Bob Goodwin, David Nutter, Kim Manners, Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan and Rob Bowman, who is directing the much-awaited “X-Files” feature, due out June 19.

That feature will find Carter and company unhanging the “X-Files” cliffhanger that will end the current season. It’s that rare instance where fans of a series won’t need to wait three or four months to end their suspense. Instead, all they’ll need to do is plunk down $8. Most probably will consider it a small price to pay.

Yet while “X-Files” remains on a creative high as it sails past the century mark, questions loom concerning its future. For one thing, Carter’s contractual obligation to the show ends after the current fifth season, and his participation beyond next May remains uncertain. Carter will say only, “I won’t rule anything out. But we’re clearly coming to a crossroads.”

Also, co-star Duchovny has made it known that he is unlikely to return to “X-Files” for a sixth season unless the production moves from its longtime base in Vancouver to Los Angeles so he can be close to his wife, actress Tea Leoni.

Carter says, “We haven’t had any formal or official talks about that. But the subject has come up several times over the past few years, and we all understand David’s concerns. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

But that’s all future stuff. For now, there is no time for Carter to ponder what may be, or revel in the success that comes from being the father of a worldwide sensation.

“This is a job that consumes your life,” Carter admits. “I’ve just got to stay hunkered down and do good work. Maybe at some point I’ll be able to look back and think, yeah, that was pretty good.”

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