Bruce Harwood, Tom Braidwood, Dean Haglund,

This long overdue "X-Files" spinoff has likely missed the moment. Following the travails of a trio of conspiracy nuts who provided invaluable help to Mulder during some memorable investigations, "The Lone Gunmen" feels old even though it's just starting.

This long overdue “X-Files” spinoff has likely missed the moment. Following the travails of a trio of conspiracy nuts who provided invaluable help to Mulder during some memorable investigations, “The Lone Gunmen” feels old even though it’s just starting. The show isn’t scary or complex or stylish, all traits of its predecessor at the height of its game, and instead relies on the more bumbling qualities of its lead characters, on visual references to popular films, and on creaky plotlines. In its earliest episodes, it plays like a cross between “Mission: Impossible” and “Get Smart.” Starting out in “The X-Files” Sunday slot before moving to its regular Friday berth (where “X-Files” first made its mark), “The Lone Gunmen” will draw the curious and then dwindle to a small but potentially loyal subset of its progenitor’s fan base.

For backstory on the group that forms “The Lone Gunmen,” the best source remains the “X-Files” episode that traced their formation. The triumverate is comprised of three members: former government bureaucrat John Byers (Bruce Harwood), the anti-authoritarian, diminutive Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood) and long-haired hacker extraordinaire Richard “Ringo” Langly (Dean Haglund). This ragtag team publishes a newspaper detailing the latest in government cover-ups, big-business encroachments into civil liberties and other similar conspiracy stories. The circulation of their periodical is, shall we say, severely limited, and they barely have enough cash on hand to buy fuel for their VW van with the “Question Authority” sticker on the back windshield — this show’s less evocative answer to Mulder’s “The Truth Is Out There.”

Unlike Mulder, the members of the Lone Gunmen are not obsessed with little green men. Creator/executive producer Chris Carter could have called this show “Look Ma, No Aliens.” Unfortunately, Carter and his core group haven’t found an effective replacement for the shape-shifters and other mutant or mythic monsters that Mulder and Scully continually chased. Conspiracy storylines are fine in principle, but they still require intriguing premises and playful narrative execution. Both are notably lacking in most of the first six episodes of “The Lone Gunmen.”

After the pilot explores the apparent murder of Byers’ own estranged father, the episodes go in far less personal directions. The second episode examines the murder of a computer hacker by an apparently philanthropic organization, but it is notable only for its introduction of a fourth musketeer for the Lone Gunmen, a dumb but likable and good-looking guy named Bond. Jimmy Bond (Stephen Snedden). From there, the group investigates a woman rumored to be a Nazi who poisoned her Alsatian village during WWII, the whereabouts of a water-fueled automobile, a Clinton-like politician who seems to have conveniently gotten rid of a mistress, and, the most reminiscent of “The X-Files,” a man who claims to be living in a parallel universe. The episodes do seem to improve, but there will likely be a significant drop-off after the second and third episodes, which are particularly weak. The others start off strong before fading into blase resolutions.

The other major addition here is a female presence, a mysterious woman named Eva (Zuleikha Robinson) who’s sharper than the men and always arrives in time to claim any financial reward after the guys have done the dirty work. She can be an obstacle or collaborator, or both, whatever the episode at hand seems to need most. It may not take long for this smart woman to develop a sexual attraction to the dumb Jimmy. That seems to be the case because the other characters have already become stagnant, stuck in comic caricatures.

The show seems to be struggling to find itself either as a suspenser or a smart comedy. As is, there’s plenty of toilet humor, lots of recognizable play on movie images (borrowing from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the film version of “Mission: Impossible,” and “Risky Business”), and a running gag that the Gunmen can’t run a scheme where they don’t get caught. It needs some spicing up, maybe even an alien or two.

Tech credits are polished.

The Lone Gunmen

Fox, Sun. March 4, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in British Columbia, by Ten Thirteen Prods. in association with 20th Century Fox Television. Executive producers Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz; co-executive producers, John Peter Kousakis, Rob Bowman (pilot); producers, Paul Rabwin (pilot), Kathy Gilroy-Sereda, Bryan Spicer; co-producer, Gigi Coello-Bannon. Created by Carter, Gilligan, Shiban, Spotnitz, based on characters created by Glen Morgan and James Wong; director, Rob Bowman (pilot).

Crew

Camera, Robert McLachlan (pilot), Barry Donlevy; music, Mark Snow; production design, Michael Bolton (pilot), Mark Freeborn; casting, Coreen Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter, April Webster, Elizabeth Greenberg. 60 MIN.

Cast

John Byers - Bruce Harwood Melvin Frohike - Tom Braidwood Richard "Ringo" Langly - Dean Haglund Jimmy Bond - Stephen Snedden Eve - Zuleikha Robinson

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