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‘The X-Files’ Exposes Complex Truths of Trusting in TV Revivals

Although it wasn’t very good – and indeed, veered uncomfortably close to flat-out bad in its final two episodes – “The X-Files” performed well ratings-wise for Fox, particularly in the context of today’s fragmented landscape. Which raises the somewhat unusual question, “Well, now what?”

Normally in television, a success is followed by a pickup or renewal, and everyone is happy to have the work. But with a venerable encore like this one, where stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have plenty of options and seemingly mixed feelings about the extent to which they wish to be further tethered to these roles, the network and studio (in the case of this 20th Century Fox Television property, basically one and the same) can potentially face a higher set of hurdles – and be reduced from simply writing sizable checks to begging, cajoling and writing even bigger checks.

As the participants noted before the January premiere, the short six-episode order was paramount in reassembling the key players. “It was only at the point that we were having conversations about six or eight (episodes of ‘X-Files’) that I would even, or could even, consider it,” Anderson told Variety at the time.

While series creator Chris Carter told the New York Times that he’s optimistic about the program returning, the vagueness of those assertions — certainly in regard to when — would indicate that those hoping to find out where the story goes after its season-ending cliffhanger had better settle in for a good long wait.

In that regard, “The X-Files,” as well as some of its recent reboot ilk, expose one of the inherent limits of this strategy – namely, that the rush of nostalgia that powers these programs can come with corresponding business-affairs headaches. From that perspective, the fact that Fox made this truncated, British-style run such a centerpiece of its season – promoting the series months in advance, and premiering it behind the NFC championship game – feels like putting an awful lot of eggs in that  basket (or, if you prefer, little green men in that spaceship), inasmuch as the show premiered in late January and is gone before March.

Of course, any series that’s successful enough to warrant more is, theoretically, a nice problem to have. But Fox’s big bets on revivals – which includes a planned update of “24” and another “event series” reuniting the gang from “Prison Break” – would seem to be built in part on the enviable media attention those announcements generate, without fully weighing that the best-case scenarios are, in these instances, sometimes as thorny logistically speaking as the worst ones.

Notably, “24” will start over with a new leading man, after a 12-episode stint (which really should have been subtitled “Live Another Half-Day”) featuring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 2014. And while these existing titles can accommodate such possibilities – including do-overs with new (and not incidentally, younger) characters – there’s always risk involved when upsetting the fragile alchemy that made a show a hit.

Obviously, there’s built-in name recognition, as well as a measure of comfort and security for executives grappling with how to stand out, in mining an established franchise. Yet the fact that the future of “The X-Files” remains unclear as this chapter closes speaks to one truth associated with revivals – where a successful launch can mean that the hard work for those tasked with wringing more mileage out of such properties lies ahead of them, not behind them.

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