What if they got the band back together, but much of its set consisted of out-of-tune covers? That’s the sense one regularly gets from the return of “The X-Files,” which finally arrives Sunday after an overwhelming promotional campaign that makes presidential contests look like mere blips on the media radar. It’s too bad that, with some exceptions, those participating in this intensely hyped reunion are often just going through the motions.
It’s not all tinny and clanging; sometimes the old harmonies can be heard, most regularly in the third installment, a much-anticipated hour written and directed by “X-Files” all-star Darin Morgan. But the distinctive atmosphere and evocative tone of the show’s best seasons are often buried, especially in the first half of this six-episode mini-season, by storytelling busywork and subtext that is pressed into service as cliched chunks of dialogue. The reunion’s frantic exposition and often uninspired rehashes lead to the sense that this once-loved franchise doesn’t quite know what to do with itself now that it’s back.
For viewers who just wanted to watch David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson revisit the palpable chemistry they established decades ago as FBI agents Mulder and Scully, well, they’ve still got it. But some of the dialogue they’re saddled with, especially in the hollow and chaotic season premiere, is criminally clunky (Scully: “You want to believe. You so badly want to believe!” Mulder, later in the same scene: “The truth is out there, Scully!” Fan-fiction writers would be roasted for that kind of dialogue, which leads one to question whether creator Chris Carter is still truly an engaged fan of his most famous creation.) Most of the time “The X-Files” is both trying too hard and skating superficially across the show’s convoluted mythology, an unsatisfying combination that doesn’t leave Duchovny and Anderson much of substance to dig into.
Fox certainly wants to revisit this franchise down the line — executives have said they want more episodes someday, and the actors are open to return trips to Vancouver, if their busy schedules allow it. But it would probably benefit everyone involved — viewers especially — if it the show came back next time with a dozen or more episodes. This is a drama that, more than most others, needs to give its characters and their concerns the time and space to breathe. Longtime fans already know the show’s mythology never really made a lot of logical sense, but it can be imbued with personal and thematic urgency, given the right kind of crisp pacing and energetic set-up. These episodes are often too compressed or too talky to recreate the atmospheric magic that many fans will be hoping for.
Sometimes a revival leads to thoughts of regime change, and while watching “The X-Files,” it’s hard not to think of George Lucas, who handed off his “Star Wars” empire to a new generation of writers and directors — a move that injected the entire franchise with a much-needed spark of life and relevance. Given the “Phantom Menace”-level dialogue in the “X-Files” season premiere, which supplies action, exposition and explosions instead of intelligent meditations on the surveillance state or any other relevant topic, it might be time for Carter to bestow “The X-Files” on some of the men and women who grew up idolizing its finest episodes and arcs. A new corps of writers might know how to come up with something more politically and emotionally resonant than the kinds of stories that, in the new season, often amount to Mulder and Scully Mad Libs.
As Variety’s Brian Lowry noted in his review of the first episode, which airs Sunday, it’s a little too easy to wonder if Carter has “forgotten what people liked about the show.” That theory hovers over episode two, where it collides with another question: Have key members of the “X-Files” creative team forgotten how to structure an episode of TV for maximum impact? James Wong, who with his writing partner Glen Morgan contributed many memorable episodes in the early days, directed and wrote “Founder’s Mutation,” the Jan. 25 installment. But it’s more of a mishmash of “X-Files”-adjacent ideas and themes than a distinctive and exciting story cleanly told.
In “Founder’s Mutation,” it feels as though a motley collection of the show’s plot elements — aliens, babies, alien babies, conspiracies at the highest levels, military creeps and mad scientists run amok — were thrown into an undercooked stew, and the way that Duchovny dully recites his derivative dialogue doesn’t help. On one level, you can’t blame the actor: This episode and the one before it rely far too much on exposition dumps that slow down the drama’s fitful momentum. On another level, there are moments in all three episodes screened for the media in which Duchovny’s boredom is readily apparent (Anderson seems somewhat more engaged, but the unconvincing wig on her head is distracting). There are also awkwardly staged flashbacks meant to remind the audience that Mulder and Scully once had a child together, but their offspring, like many of the episode’s attempts at emotional traction, remains out of reach.
Ultimately, “Founder’s Mutation” — not unlike many memorable characters in “X-Files” history — comes off as an unholy gene-splicing experiment gone wrong; it’s a mostly unsuccessful hybrid of golden-hued, soft-focus ruminations and perfunctory “X-Men” riffs, with some gore added for good measure. “This could be another phase of the project!” one character warns. So are these episodes, and the first two came out of the lab too early.
A recent re-watch of a few “The X-Files” seasons reaffirms a truth that was always out there: When this drama works, it’s largely due to the way it handles challenging, ambiguous stories about exclusion, loss, loneliness, love and grief. Darin Morgan, who wrote and directed the third episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” was known for his comedic take on “The X-Files,” but “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” are classics not just due to their mordant wit but because of their profound emotional acuity. Morgan (and, of course, many of the show’s other writers) understands that “The X-Files” is the story of a cruel universe in which weirdos sometimes find each other or simply stumble across a moment of understanding and relief. The deep humanity of “The X-Files” is reflected in the idea that even monsters — especially monsters — deserve a moment in which their complexity and desires are recognized. As for Mulder, he looked to the stars or to earthly conspiracies for the answers to his questions, but in its best episodes, the show quietly acknowledged that there are no answers, only serendipitous connections and random tragedies.
Because “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” wisely draws on those themes, it’s able to overcome some early moments of self-conscious flop sweat in order to hit a deeper and more satisfying groove than anything else in the new “X-Files” season. It’s not as ground-breaking as “Jose Chung” — one of the greatest TV episodes of all time — nor as poignant as “Clyde Bruckman,” which stands up to endless re-watches. But in the end, “Were-Monster” is a solidly crafted hour, one that features Rhys Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”) doing some very deft and funny work. “X-Files” super-fan Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) also turns up in a small role, and his laconic approach meshes well with Duchovny’s dry wit.
It’s telling that the best moments in “Were-Monster” are small ones; zingers that pass by lightly as they induce a smile, sweetly absurd confrontations and nicely handled shout-outs the the show’s influences and early days. The monster is more or less a metaphor, an idea that is alluded to in the dialogue, but viewers don’t need to be told that.
A long time ago, “The X-Files” taught us how to forge a new relationship with metaphors. And who knows, one day maybe it will do that again.