‘The X-Files’ and the Problem with TV’s Nostalgia Boom

Fox Fumbles Handoff to 'The X-Files'
Courtesy of Fox

It’s difficult to criticize the urge to mine a precious resource, especially when that gold lies just below the surface of popular culture. For decades, TV in particular has brought us a wide variety of fantastic and exhilarating programs. To extend the mining analogy, why not squeeze a bit more profit out of those gems?

But even if the instinct to exploit a precious commodity is understandable, it’s the execution that worries me. It’s hard not wonder if we’re fast approaching the moment when uninspired cultural strip-mining not only becomes the norm, but starts to choke off the emergence of entirely new ideas and concepts. It’s part of what I call the “blockbuster-ization” of TV, but isn’t one of the benefits of TV the fact that it doesn’t have to ape the film industry’s less inspiring moves?

Many of us are resigned to the fact that most movies — except for a tiny group of Oscar bait films — are reboots, franchises, sequels and otherwise derived from existing and often well-worn source material. Segments of the TV industry appear set to follow: At the recent winter Television Critics Association press tour, “iZombie” executive producer Rob Thomas said it’s “a little bit more of an uphill battle” to get an original idea sold in the current TV environment. Thomas was being diplomatic — bold, fresh ideas, especially in broadcast, are starting to seem like unicorns. Doesn’t anyone remember that “The X-Files” was once a brand-new idea that few people really understood at first?

I’m old enough to recall the show’s first season, when it received little promotion and an unimpressive reception in the media. Yet when friends helping me move took a break to eat pizza and watch an episode, they ended up as converts. The word slowly grew: This show is something special, and it took years of patience from Fox before the drama developed into the behemoth it became. At first, its unique attributes looked to some like hindrances — until it became obvious that those qualities were the show’s core strengths. 

“The X-Files” return is part of a rising wave of weaponized nostalgia, one that includes average sitcoms returning for no particular reason (“Fuller House”); spinoffs without much distinctive substance (“Fear the Walking Dead”); retooled classics with too much cynicism and too little heart (“The Muppets”); overwrought continuations that flop creatively (season four of “Arrested Development”); reboots that feel stale and toothless (“Minority Report”); and chaotic grab bags like “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.” That last project may develop into appointment TV some day, but at its start, it comes off as a messy, chaotic exercise in corporate synergy (not unlike NBC’s eminently forgettable “Heroes Reborn”).

As a TV critic, it’s weird to be in a position of actively hoping that some shows never come back. For a long time, a significant chunk of the job consisted of campaigning for marginal shows that deserved more chances and better odds. But these days, comebacks for successful shows and updates of cult properties are almost more common than pilots based on fresh concepts. At press tour, when a Showtime executive said “Never say never” when asked about a “Dexter” retread, all I could think is, “Please, for the love of Deb, say never.”

The way that “The X-Files” has been brought back makes me afraid of the return of “Twin Peaks”: Both shows had rough patches (actually, in the case of the Fox show, it was a disappointing and clearly profit-driven decline that lasted for years). Both shows were brought back by their creators and many of their original associates; at least they aren’t cynical brand extensions from those who weren’t present at the creation.

But it’s hard not to wonder if the evocative magic they created over the course of many hours is just too difficult to create out of the gate decades later. Everyone wants what they loved right away, but “clunky” and “frantic” — adjectives that aptly describe the first two new “X-Files” installments — are not the words you’d choose to describe the best Mulder and Scully adventures.  

At their bests, “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files” depended on a semi-mystical bond between the audience and the creators, and the chemistry that floated around the characters themselves. Those complicated relationships were fostered by ambiguous, thoughtful and symbolic stories that were not just about murder and monsters but about scarred people who forged unlikely connections. When they worked, “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files” took you on atmospheric journeys that prioritized bittersweet, humane moments about compelling outsiders. But it’s harder for the new “X-Files” to evoke poignant emotions or explore evocative mysteries when the flop sweat is all too evident.

Those who make TV are not engaged in a charitable endeavor, I get that. But if a show, a famous story, or even a historical event is going to be revisited, it would be great if those telling the story had a goal beyond meeting quarterly projections. FX’s “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” for instance, delves into a story we all thought we knew, but makes it addictive in part by finding nuances and elements most of us probably forgot about or were unaware of. It makes the old new again, in a vital and suspenseful way, by having a point of view but also building in complexity and ambiguity. 

Of course, re-imaginings and reboots can be very good (miss you, “Parenthood”!), and even great, as was the case with the updated “Battlestar Galactica.” But there’s a limit. I’m a lifelong fan of TV and the classics it has created, but we may be edging dangerously close to nostalgia overkill.

So here’s where I make my stand. If anyone ever touches “Lost”— well, that is where I draw the line. We really don’t have to go back.

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  1. Good points. What I find missing are two things, perhaps for separate articles. One is any discussion of “what do we want?” For me, Heroes Reborn was great, a super-hero show for introverts, meditating on how easily heroes compromise their own values and slide towards anti-hero, better written and more coherently plotted than the original, one of the best time travel scripts in decades, up there with Looper.

    The other is more emphasis on “voice.” New X-Files, except for the two UFO episodes, lost its voice entirely, just filling time. Minority Report? No voice, no point of view other than “keep the star-making machinery profitable.” Having a voice does not guarantee ratings as Heroes Reborn proves in my mind. But I think voice is a needed started place for critical success. Another good example of “no voice” the Pan movie and first two Maze Runner movies, excellent examples of the pattern of high production values masking plots nailed down by corporate types whose motivation is to “have a good meeting and all of come out looking good” instead of “defining a vision and a voice.”

    On the other extreme is the Revenant, perhaps an example of “voice gone wild.”

    • “Voice” is pretty much the “soul” or “spirit” of a TV series. Not so sure it’s exactly the same for movies, possibly. Minority Report, non-UFO X-files 2016 episodes, etc–no voice, no spirit. Supergirl has the strongest voice of shows I watch. The healthiest show for girls and boys 8-9-10 on television in years? A show for tweens that does nto exploit or talk down to them about life? Pretty amazing. Readers interested in teh “voice” of Supergirl are invited to read the many comments by creators and actors prior to the debut about replicating the upbeat “voice” of the Richard Donner Chris Reeves early Superman movies. Voice, voice, voice. Vision, vision, vision.

  2. Robert Chatain says:

    Mo, thanks for this, and I like “weaponized nostalgia” — but I still think it’s a good time for scripted drama. “Mr. Robot,” “Orphan Black” and “The Americans” all knocked me out when I came to them a bit late. “True Detective” was a killer. As for series based on novels, SciFi’s “The Expanse” may settle in for a long run, and “The Magicians” was I thought better than you judged it — I didn’t mind the re-tooled storyline, the acting isn’t that bad and the players will have a lot to work with down the road.

  3. Patrick J says:

    I find it interesting that most viewers (large in numbers) watching the same show that mainstream media is posting about have such opposing views on how the show is going. I’m not trying to be dumb here but maybe mainstream media is a little bit nervous that they are a front & center character of the revivals plot line (not in a positive way either). What to do when a largely watched show is implicating major media outlets of being controlled by government in order to control a population? Write articles about how much the show “isn’t working” and you should prob not waste your time watching it.

  4. Carol says:

    I understand you completely. The key is if you are going to reboot an old hit or do a spin-off of an odd favorite; it should be done well so that the theme and chemistry that made that show loved by fans is not lost.

  5. Kenya says:

    Sweet hunni Maureen, what is up with your shade on this revival? Your struggle is real. #thirsty

  6. KathyB says:

    I appreciate your point of view, Mo.As a professional you are committed to the health and future of television. And I am grateful for your work. Network broadcast tv struggles to serve as more than filler between ads and product placement.

    The early years of the XFiles rewarded those of us who stumbled upon it and took the ride. Without the XFiles there would have been no Fringe and my favorite character of all time Walter Bishop.

    Good stuff is being made and seen. I love that. Heady in many ways. I am in nobody’s target demographic but watch anyway. Not everything. But more than I probably should. Keep on fighting for enlightened viewers an honest providers. We need you. I’ll turn off the gush now.

  7. Mayobe says:

    I’m not at all opposed to nostalgia media in and of itself, but I think you hit it on the head when you pointed out that the money is turning everything to crap. Shows like TP and XF were worthwhile because someone out there believed in what they were doing enough to do it right, not because of market research or adherence or pandering to the audience. Nostalgia has been getting a bad rap in various forms of media lately, and I think that’s really unfair. The problem is this pervasive culture of profit-driven cowards who have turned art into soulless clock-punching. Such people can’t make anything worthwhile regardless of their source material.

  8. Wasn’t the Mulder-Scully dynamic already killed-off when the ‘get ’em laid with each other mob’ reduced that ‘special’ Xfiles concept down to dating with alien hunt as a background theme? Rhetorical Question.

    Since ‘Californication’ I am disgusted by the American approach itself, and that celebrated Mr. D.D. misbehaving like a lobotomized teenager all the time. Though such is only my personal decision.

    Interesting prose in your article. Thanks.

  9. tomholste says:

    While retreads aren’t necessarily new, and commenting on said retreads also aren’t new, you manage to bring some fresh insight in this article, Maureen. Thanks for your thoughts!

  10. Maureen TV Movie revivals like 6 million dollar man man from uncle and even gilligan’s island have been happening since the 70s-80’s long before movies started doing nostalgia reunion/remake films.
    This is nothing new for TV and frankly you should already know that given your TV watching prowess.

  11. me says:

    Look at the 2 biggest movies of last year: Jurassic World and Star Wars. There is nothing new under the sun.

  12. overly sensitve says:

    Wow, shill much?

  13. Lynne says:

    While I agree with some points, I also think that the TV landscape has TOO MANY shows now, and that by reviving the ones that are popular will perhaps help the new shows get dwindled down to the few that people actually want to see rather than these fillers no one watches and aren’t creative that get canceled after a few weeks. I don’t think revivals will hinder any other new, cutting-edge show from still coming out. Perhaps they will weed out the crap that tries to recapture the old shows anyways.

  14. prowe89 says:

    With an extended cut, the first episode could have been decent. The second episode was pretty good. The third episode has been described as an instant classic. Critics are going way overboard with attacking this series. How is it only an exercise in nostalgia? Younger viewers are mostly the ones who want a series like this.

  15. Mike says:

    I think “reboot” is being abused at this point. Same stars, but older, same mythology and original director/creator behind it? It might end up stinking, but this is hardly a reboot and is more what any fan of an old series would want when they think “man, where are they now?”,

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