‘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.