So much of what made “The X-Files” wonderful is impossible to attain in 2018. When the series debuted, it presented a twilit, rain-soaked landscape of mysterious occurrences, investigated by two terribly dressed FBI agents who barely knew each other. The show thrilled because of how smartly it turned bureaucratic rigor into the characters’ struggle to understand and accept the unknown — and, of course, because of the devastating sexual tension between Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (a then-unknown Gillian Anderson).
But 26 years and 11 seasons later, the initial charm has been stripped to its bare bones. The mystery, whatever it was, spiraled out of control, got Scully pregnant, made Mulder disappear, and now still taunts the viewer with promises of further answers. The show decamped from its original shooting site in gloomy Vancouver to first Los Angeles and now New York City. Anderson, increasingly a grande dame of Hollywood, becomes more glamorous by the day; Scully’s oversized blazers, severe bob and round glasses have been traded in for a hip, mod-ish wardrobe that accentuates her wasp waist, wavy TV locks and, apparently, contact lenses. Meanwhile, Duchovny — tanned, built and fashionable — looks like the California rocker he’s become, not an aging, nerdy conspiracy nut. (His glasses have also not-so-mysteriously disappeared. Maybe the FBI now covers LASIK.)
As a result, much of the 2016 event series felt hollow, a resurrection gone awry. Showrunner Chris Carter leaned into the mythology of the series with an expanded cast and a matryoshka of conspiracies, each more elaborate than the last. It was a run of episodes that squandered any remaining goodwill I had for “The X-Files.”
Or so I thought.
“The X-Files” returns tonight for a Season 11 that is still uneven, but far more satisfying than the warmed-over mysteries of last season. Carter’s mythology for the series as a whole has never seemed more superfluous, and the episodes still linger too long on the confabulations of the paranoid. But even when stripped down to its bare bones, “The X-Files” has plenty to offer its audience. For one thing, the show appears to be more committed to the relationship between its two leads than ever — the friendship, compromise, cooperation, and yes, romance between the two, a connection that defies most ordinary labels. But perhaps more importantly, the series’ paranoia about a shadowy cabal of men in suits running the national security infrastructure of the nation has never seemed more vital. “The X-Files” is riding the thermals of our current mindboggling political situation to new heights of righteous antiestablishmentarianism; when former FBI director Robert Mueller’s name gets dropped, it’s not a coincidence. And let’s not forget that just a few weeks ago, the Pentagon confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a classified defense effort to investigate UFOs. Mulder’s feverish monologues have never seemed more sensible; even the rehash of his greatest hits (Roswell, a faked moon landing, the invasion of Grenada) carries with it a frisson of new fear. After the year we’ve had — after the idiocy, selfishness, and cruelty displayed by the highest echelons of power — it’s much easier to see things from Mulder’s point of view, to give credence to the relentless suspicion of government power that characterizes his paranoia. By contrast, Scully’s faith in common sense — in a reasonable explanation — has never felt more naive.
It’s not just the vivid backdrop that makes this season of “The X-Files” work, though. The episodes released for critics are just better episodes than the first time around — episodes that continue to stage adventures in an inexplicable world, some standalone, some not. Three of the first five episodes are written and directed by longtime “The X-Files” writers — Glen Morgan’s “This,” which revives the specter of the Lone Gunmen; James Wong’s “Ghouli,” which moves the mythology forward in the most meaningful way we’ve seen in approximately two decades; and Darin Morgan’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which has for me made its way to the top tier of “The X-Files” episodes. In the midst of mythology, conjecture, and suspicion, it’s an episode about confronting the past and meaningfully engaging with the present — about the futility of nostalgia, in a vehicle defined by nostalgia. “The X-Files” is doing what few broadcast shows have the opportunity to: It’s mindfully allowing itself, and its characters, to age to the point of obsolescence.
In our current environment of reboots, reunions, and revivals, “The X-Files” might get lost in the shuffle of another beloved property suffering from the imperfection of never quite ending its story. But Season 11 indicates a movement towards resolution and completion, one that nods to the show’s early unexpected greatness and obliquely admits its mistakes. Not everything makes sense — among other things, it’s not totally clear how Mulder and Scully drop back into investigating mysterious phenomena on a regular basis. But it is such a relief: In a world of chaos and confusion, at least we know they are on the case.