Sunday, February 12, 2006

Perfect episodes: "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'"

When we talk about moments that change our lives, what do we really mean? Surely getting married or having a child or losing a parent is a moment that changes your life, but the moments that really change lives are small, almost insignificant-seeming at the time.

When I was 15, I didn't have much of a social life. A combination of not being allowed to drive after 8 p.m. (it was the law, yo), living out in the country and being a freshman in high school led to lots of dull, long Friday nights.

Here's the part where you expect me to tell you how I watched The X-Files every week.

Except I didn't. I talked on the phone to a girl all of the time who loved the show, and I had heard the buzz about the show even in its first season, but I didn't have access to Fox (my parents still don't get The WB or UPN to this day). When I was able to find the show through static (back then, my family had a big satellite dish, which I used to peruse the heavens), I wasn't entirely sure what was going on. (To this day, I remember the three X-Files I saw before "Chung's": "The Calumari," "Grotesque" and "Born Again." Told you I was a nerd.)

But on April 12, 1996, I found a solid Fox feed. And all of that changed. Because of this episode.

So when I talk about moments that changed my life, that was one of them. Before "The X-Files," I had never really considered a career as a television writer or critic. Before "The X-Files," I didn't know how a television show was put together. Before "The X-Files," I just didn't care. TV arrived magically through the satellite waves as far as I was concerned.

Granted, other shows have been more important to me ultimately, but "The X-Files" was the first, and you never forget your first.

Not to go all Aint-It-Cool on you.

But there are other reasons I consider "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" to be a perfect episode. And the first reason is the script.

Darin Morgan is one of the finest writers in the history of television. He's been responsible for four episodes of "The X-Files" and two of "Millennium." He's notorious for his lack of work ethic and his hatred of the pressures of TV, so we haven't gotten more from him over the years (when I was picking role models, this was probably a bad one to latch on to).

But he's also a genius writer. He introduced comedy to the self-seriousness of The X-Files. Literary references pepper his scripts. Every single one of them is a puzzle box of a construction, doubling back in on itself, then coming back out to open up.

"Jose Chung's" was his final effort for The X-Files. Like dozens of other shows before and after it, the episode employs a "Rashomon"-esque plot structure. In short, several different viewpoints are used to examine what at first appears to be an alien abduction. As the episode wears on, we simultaneously discover more of the story and see how the psyches of the characters inform their viewpoints. What Scully sees is different from what Mulder sees is different from what the abducted teenagers see.

The script is dense, dense, dense and packed with references to earlier X-Files episodes, works of literature and films. To be fair, this intertextuality makes the episode harder to watch for a novice fan (and for this reason, Morgan's Emmy-winning episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" is probably a better starting point for someone who's never seen The X-Files), but it's a thrill for someone who wants to pick up on all of the references.

But what can this teach us (if anything) about television writing and/or criticism?

A lot, actually. Most of the time, when a show does a "stunt" episode (i.e. one that differs in filming style from a normal episode), the stunt itself is the reason for the episode to exist (the glorious exception to this rule is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). That is to say, if you film an episode as a faux episode of The Twilight Zone (as Felicity did once), the only thing that episode is going to be good for is as an homage to The Twilight Zone.

With the Rashomon structure, "Jose Chung's" is technically a stunt episode. However, Morgan uses this to examine one of the show's central themes: loneliness.

At their centers, Mulder and Scully are lonely characters. For one thing, they've got the weight of a government conspiracy on their backs. For another, they're the only people in the world doing what they do. The show usually shied away from this, preferring to find their partnership to be a companionable one, but as with any partnership, elements of frustration were there. The writers were careful to always make them exact opposites, and there's nothing more lonely than having your closest friend also be your greatest potential enemy.

Morgan doesn't directly bring out these elements, but they inform the script (especially the marvelous summation at the end). When we see how Mulder and Scully see each other, we see that they know each other but cannot truly understand each other. They're on different wavelengths. And possibly always will be.

So Morgan uses the conceit of seeing one story from many different angles to unveil hidden subtexts to the show we don't really know about. Even as someone who had never seen the show, who didn't know a lot about TV storytelling, I got this point, at least.

"Jose Chung's" is well worth a revisiting on DVD. I guarantee it's like little else you've ever seen on TV. Even if most elements of The X-Files style have been co-opted by other shows, the raw insanity of Darin Morgan has not.

And thank God for that.

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