Review: Why ‘The X-Files’ Revival Disappoints

'The X-Files' Revival: Duchovny, Anderson Reboot
Courtesy Fox

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.

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  1. Dr. Rocker says:

    Suck article!!

  2. I cannot believe that anyone could see something good in the horrible abomination that was the third episode. It was completely insulting to anything that x-files stood for. That was not funny, that was downright retarded. I liked the first two episodes. While they were not written perfect, they gave some insight that something great might happen in future episodes. But the third one was absolutely ridiculous.

  3. Harold says:

    I’m completely entertained, beats watching vampire teen shows and terribly written zombie shows like walking dead. They lost me after the first season and spent the second looking for a girl. Who cares kill zombies! The new spin on the series is refreshing. People have built it up in there heads how it should be tow the line so to speak, but its a revamp hence the different direction and entertainment. Mulder is still Mulder and Skully is still Skully just in 2016 with better everything. I like the fact its more graphic i’m betting Carter likes that too since he can finally convey how it should have looked years ago. I really hope David continues with the show its been his life no need to turn his back on it now as its grabbed the attention of the tv world.

  4. Ana Luisa Hering says:

    I am a die-hard fan of X-files. So much so that I have the whole collection at home and watch some episodes from time to time. Unfortunately, I would agree that this new revival didn’t do it for me. It’s not about their age (everybody gets old) or the chemistry (it is still there, somehow). What I think is missing is the whole VIBE of the original series. There’s no feeling of dread, fear, anticipation. Even the scenario is too crisp, clean, hollywoodian. It’s almost the same feeling as watching Harry Potter in jeans and bare-chested talking about his next movie. The magic is gone, imo.

  5. Rux Pin says:

    this is not the X-files it’s a mockery of all who loved and cherished the X-files and it’s mean spirited mocking. n the original series you were taken on a trip the big “what if?” You were asked to suspend critical thinking and no idea how insane was taken seriously. I looked forward to each trip with relish.
    This was made just to mock. It’s as if whoever is in charge has to stop every 45 seconds to slip in something that says “this isn’t real”. a muted horn going “wa-wa-wa” would be appropriate for this content. I had hoped someone would take up the mantel and announce “Fox has no clothes on” but I guess it’s naive to believe that a king might show favor to anyone to inform them of their error. I guess if everyone is looking at the golden kernel of corn in the turd ‘ll just keep squeezing them out. I’m going going wait for Mulder to the “certainly, YUCK! YUCK! YUCK!” I’m ditching the show and trying to remember what the X-files once was and pretend it died with dignity and this insult never happened.

  6. Sandra says:

    I enjoyed both episodes and that is what X files is about Conspiracy … I want more seasons of X files.

  7. rockerrick says:

    You are completely missing Carter’s story and obviously not a fan. Mulder is simply on the brink of insanity after suffering with severe depression in a “little house” alone. His mania in episode suggests Bipolar Disorder. I thought it was great fun and true to the character’s development. If you want a 25 year old character, then watch the early seasons. The new series is fantastic. However, there will always be haters whenever something popular returns that ignites the truth seeker in all of us. Go away you smokers and leave the X Files alone!

  8. Borhan says:

    Its really sad to see lack of chemistry between the actors & they don’t seem enjoying their old roles .Duchovny’s voice don’t sound convincing about what he was saying.Duchovny’s first appearence looks like he just laying side of the streets all these years .Really not worthy of giving any importance cz he lost the charm .their age & with that duchovny’s childish attitude towards new find is just pathetic to watch . .they looked bored ,tired .They should have started the first episode talking about the main two characters cz this show was revived for the character’s popularity.So giving less time to the character development in the new phase & some how start from where they left 14 years ago didn’t mix well .Just with few phone call all the old member in one place nothing about their previous lives .They could have started slowly with epic ending but they started fast which looks like going to a bad ending

  9. Alli says:

    It’s funny how critics believe they are experts in the way this or that series or movie should have been made. I think critics are so frustrated with the fact that they don’t have enough talent to be a real journalist that they have to justify their importance by nitpicking the slightest thing (Duchovny looked bored? What kind of hard hitting analysis was that?)

    You are obviously not a fan of the series (and since the only episodes you can cite are two of the most famous, it’s clear you haven’t watched much of it either)

    Real fans of the series loved the series for what it stood for and didn’t condemn it because of a few flubs here are there or scientific inaccuracies. Older scifi TV shows had a lot of bad dialogue, exposition, and unbelievable story lines. But people were and still are fans of those shows today. The only difference between the time when those shows aired for the first time and now is that the media nowadays just loves tearing something to shreds so it can get more attention and more readers (I sorely regretted clicking on the link to this page. Believe me, I won’t be doing it much with Variety.com anymore). Entertainment journalism has become one long series of “Mean Tweets”. Congratulations.

    I’m sure this comment won’t even make it through, since all of your comments are “moderated”, i.e. censored. I see a lot of comments listed that of course agree with the author of this article, but I would be willing to wager that a lot of the comments against it didn’t make the cut.

  10. Will says:

    Bush, Bush, Bush, Conservative….no mention of Obama. Will they parade a Palin look a like out next? Alex Jones conspiracies linked to Bush while outright criminality via the IRS, CIA, NSA, drone programs ect ect of the last 8 years never existed. They could have pulled from todays paper, but no.
    Its like their hatred of an out of control government ended as Obama was elected.
    So, i was turned off at the very beginning. Everything else about the first episode this writer mentioned i agree with.

  11. Irene says:

    I don’t like the new x files. If I want to hear about politics I’ll watch a news channel

  12. Nonay says:

    Yea, all of you “critics” I doubt are real xfiles fans. I’m sure the millions of die-hard xfilers will absolutely LOVE every show!

    • Alaia says:

      I’m a huge fan of the show and I’ve seen a couple of episodes from the new season already. I’m excited its back and have enjoyed the episodes.

      That said, It isn’t requirement for critics to be fans of every show they review. I don’t expect them to be and it doesn’t matter to me if they are or not.

  13. BillUSA says:

    Okay, I’ll admit to being mostly a scientist and nowhere near an X-phile. But, even if I liked the show back in it’s heyday, it was a middle-of-the-road sort of attraction.

    I’m also a sci-fi fan who, at almost every second of viewing anything, has to suspend his disbelief in order to feel entertained. I manage to do that quite well. But one element of “The X-Files” which always stood between me and the franchise was with the government being so adept at hiding such fantastic subjects.

    I won’t go so far as to suggest the government doesn’t do such things to some extent for the purpose of national security, but if an alien species is intelligent enough to find it’s way here, why would they go through the added trouble of concealing their presence from a greater portion of the population? They should also be able to figure out that humans are incapable of doing anything without the specter of treachery hanging over any deal.

    In other words, why employ feeble-minded humans to carry out an unnecessary conspiracy to hide their presence from the rest of the feeble-minded humans?

    Anyway, as entertainment, “The X-Files” delivers, but I don’t get the “super-fan” phenomena. Perhaps they could dedicate an hour to that particular subject matter.

  14. Dean says:

    The X-Files of the ’90s was dry, dull and anti climactic. Why would they bring it back? The original program was disappointing to say the least, to bring it back is equally disappointing. My wife liked the series and plans on watching the reboot. Fortunately I won’t have to stay in the same room when it airs……Again.

  15. Mozda says:

    reviews is mostly positive. In Cannes critics and people loved first episode, in NY and LA premiere also and don’t forget that Carter wrote on of the best episodes in series. Anasazi, post modern prometheus, triangle, the host, duane barry. He is great writer. But hardcore shipper don’t like him and they hypocrite.

  16. John Miller says:

    Duchovny looks like he’s half asleep in the promos.

  17. Trevor says:

    Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose wasn’t a comedy episode at all.

  18. This reviewer is simply wrong. The Magic of this series which made it one of TV’s best is all here to enjoy anew.

    • Alaia says:

      I love the show, but until I see the first episode, I’m not willing to declare that they are wrong. I’ve seen the 3rd one, that Morgan wrote. That one was very good. The fact that most reviewers seem to not like the first one is making me think they may be write. One bad review is one thing, but no one has raved about the first one. This is my favorite TV show and even I can acknowledge there were some stinkers. Its bound to happen in 202 episodes. This doesn’t damper my love for the show or my excitement for the revival at all. I can’t wait!

      On Wed, Jan 20, 2016 at 7:32 PM, Variety wrote:

      > Robert O’Dell commented: “This reviewer is simply wrong. The Magic of this > series which made it one of TV’s best is all here to enjoy anew.” >

  19. Gabby Simone says:

    As an X-Files blogger with a large following who also follows other X-Files blogs, I can tell you that this article realizes fans biggest fears about the revival. None of us were happy to see Chris Carter doing a significant amount of the revival’s writing. In fact, we feared it, especially after sneak previews this summer were reported as verging on parody. We just kept praying that the Morgan brothers and James Wong would undo the damage caused. We were also concerned as to why the revival went forward without ensuring Vince Gilligan could participate, given he was one of the show’s strongest writers. But Carter has always done exactly what he’s wanted to do, fans and reviewers be damned, and he’s never been responsive to concerns. He’d rather tell us what we want, and I can assure you that after 23 years and a child, we don’t want unresolved sexual tension between the leads. The chemistry between Mulder and Scully and the actors who play them has always being one of the most compelling reasons to tune in. How about we skip the bathos and show two hot middle-aged people chasing monsters through funny and intriguing plotlines while having one hell of a sex life? Now THAT would be some television!

    • Blackwood says:

      You don’t speak for all fans. I’m so glad that Chris Cater is writing and directing the lion’s share of the event series – no one else could do the show justice. Morgan and Wong are decent standalone writers, but no more than that. Vince Gilligan is simply too busy with other work to be involved despite everyone’s best intentions – that’s just life. And there are just as many fans who have little interest in Mulder and Scully’s sex lives as there are rabid shippers. If you don’t like it, that’s up to you, but don’t try to claim your opinion is the same as all fans everywhere. It’s not.

  20. Ivan Bozov says:

    I believe this article is lame. But anyway, critic is always useless.

  21. Blackwood says:

    I Want to Believe gave us a grown-up X-Files that had matured beyond the series and refused to pander to nostalgia or old cliches, but critics wanted to see aliens, conspiracies, Mulder and Scully flashing their badges and pulling their guns. Is it any wonder that’s exactly what they’re giving us now? But once again critics demand the exact opposite, fixating on everything it’s not instead of enjoying it for what it is. The creative team are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

  22. Mick says:

    “It’s not as ground-breaking as “Jose Chung” — one of the greatest TV episodes of all time —”

    Really?…. Come one, it’s not even the best X-files episode.

    • X-Fan says:

      If you think ‘Jose Chung…’ is a great , or even a good, episode, you are admitting that you don’t really like or understand the show. If you think it’s an important moment in television history, you shouldn’t be writing about television.

  23. Lex says:

    I was wishing they would of put it on Fridays, like when I first started watching it. I hated it when they put on Sundays.

    If this isn’t successful, we won’t be seeing a reboot of other Friday night shows, either. No revivals of Brisco County Jr., Sliders, Strange Luke, Harsh Realm nor not even that most beloved of shows… M.A.N.T.I.S. :)

  24. Alaia says:

    I’m nervous about episode one, but I’ve seen the 3rd episode and its very good. In general, I’m very excited about this revival!

  25. Bill B. says:

    I was a fan long ago, but I think I will skip this.

  26. Dunstan says:

    This show always eluded me with each one of the leads yelling “Mulder” or “Scully” over and over. Silly to begin with, it’s revival should have been left alone.

    • You’ve already posted this very same comment on other threads on other articles concerning this series. That’s all the proof I need to think you’re just trolling to get a rise. If you never got the series (and it wasn’t just the two of them yelling each others names..actually they hardly ever shouted) then what is your fascination with the revival?

    • James says:

      Why are you click on this article if it’s so silly? Why did you take the arduous task of commenting? You obviously have zero idea what it is?

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