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

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.

More TV

  • Disney-Family-Movies

    Disney Family Movies SVOD Service Is Shutting Down Ahead of Disney Plus Debut

    After 11 years, Disney is pulling the plug on Disney Family Movies On Demand — with the service’s shutdown coming just days before the launch of the Mouse House’s Disney Plus. Disney Family Movies, which cost between $5-$10 per month, has been available via pay-TV providers in the U.S., including Comcast Xfinity, Charter Communications, Verizon [...]

  • Sunnyside

    TV Ratings: 'Sunnyside' Stable in Final Broadcast Episode

    NBC’s “Sunnyside,” which was pulled from the network’s schedule this week, closed off its broadcast run to roughly the same numbers as last week. The Kal Penn comedy posted a 0.3 rating and 1.2 million total viewers, continuing its run as the lowest rated and least watched new fall show in Live+Same Day. NBC has [...]

  • Bill Macy dead

    Bill Macy, 'Maude' Star, Dies at 97

    Bill Macy, who played Bea Arthur’s husband Walter Findlay on the “All in the Family” spinoff, “Maude,” died on Thursday. He was 97. “My buddy Bill Macy passed away at 7:13pm tonight. He was a spitfire right up to the end,” producer and manager Matt Beckoff wrote on Facebook. “My condolences to his beautiful wife Samantha [...]

  • Credit: Netflix / Black Mirror

    All3Media Drops Out of the Bidding for Endemol Shine (EXCLUSIVE)

    All3Media has dropped out of the running to buy rival production and distribution giant Endemol Shine, Variety has learned. All3Media, jointly owned by Discovery and Liberty Global, had lately been running the numbers to see if the acquisition made sense. Liberty is building up a huge war chest, having gained approval to offload a raft [...]

  • Issa Rae Launches Raedio Label With

    Issa Rae Launches Raedio Label With Atlantic; Watch First Release, TeaMarrr’s ‘Kinda Love’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Raedio, the new label co-founded by Emmy-nominated actress-producer-writer Issa Rae, and Atlantic Records have announced a new partnership, which kicks off with today’s release of the new single, “Kinda Love,” by singer-rapper TeaMarrr. The companion visual, directed by child (Ari Lennox, Lucky Daye), features cameos from Rae and comedian Jessie Woo — watch it below. [...]

  • Chris-Hayes-live-audience-MSNBC

    Live, From New York... It's MSNBC Anchor Chris Hayes?

    The comedian wanted people to laugh. But not all the time. Sometimes, not at all. Ryan Reiss typically spends his evenings warming up studio audiences for Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” show. Big guffaws are in demand. On recent Friday evenings, however, Reiss has held forth in a different studio at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content