Monday, July 21, 2008

"I'm going to have every newspaper in America out here writing about your experimental aircraft!": The X-Files as '70s cop show

Much was written, at the time, about why, exactly, The X-Files broke out and became a huge hit, while virtually none of the copycat series (including some created by X-Files creator Chris Carter himself) managed to take off. While a lot of this focused on the two endlessly complex characters at the show's center (Scully and Mulder are almost as good as symbols or totems of what they're supposed to represent as they are as actual, living, breathing characters) and some of it focused on the very rigid, yet endlessly flexible, concept at the show's core, many also talked about how The X-Files captured the "zeitgeist" of the '90s -- the feeling that things were drawing to a close, that the apocalypse was just around the corner (and, indeed, the show ended in the spring of 2001). The idea was that The X-Files somehow drew on its most obvious forebear (Twin Peaks, whose brief popularity is probably the sole reason X-Files got on the air in the first place), then made it into a more easily digestible compound for the mass audience.

But I kind of think that most of that misses what was so instantly identifiable in the show in the first place. It's a good, old-fashioned '70s cop show, with very slight sci-fi elements. And, as it gradually grew more cinematically stylish in the seasons to come, it would provide a televisual link (that only now becomes obvious in retrospect) between the Kojaks and the CSIs.

The reason the successful '70s cop shows were successful was because they were as much about the "who" as the "what" -- something like Kojak was intimately concerned with Kojak, the detective himself, of course, but it also took its time to build up the suspects and the murderers and the victims. The alternate peaks of this form, to my mind, were Columbo and The Rockford Files, which both took their time in building up just about everyone in the characters' spheres (and at this point, I admit that I haven't seen EVERY '70s cop show -- there were a lot of them). Rockford, in particular, was almost a reactionary show, lashing out at the rigidness of the format in interesting and involving ways (and training a great stable of young writers). And that's why the '70s cop show largely fell out of favor in the '80s. There WERE '70s cop shows on the air (shows like Simon and Simon or Jake and the Fatman), but they had largely been shoved aside by the "workplace drama" (like a Hill Street Blues or an L.A. Law), where the stories could be more "mature" and "complex," ostensibly. By and large, though, a show like Simon and Simon just didn't work because it was far less concerned with the who of its cases and way more concerned with the what -- how did the crime happen, which weapon was used, etc.

There's been a lot of talk about how The X-Files just didn't feel like anything else when it first came on, but, really, it felt EXACTLY like something else. It felt like a really good 70s cop show. Like, maybe the apex of the format. But it DID change two things in that format in pretty interesting ways. It rejuvenated the "He's a loose cannon! He plays by the rules!" dialectic of many a cop show by twisting it on its ear and showing a new side of it ("He believes crazy stuff! She believes rational stuff!"), and it created new methods for the "what," allowing the show to approach its cases through a new genre lens. It says something, I think, that the previously most successful sci-fi series -- Star Trek: The Next Generation -- ALSO took a discarded TV template (the Western, though, obviously, it borrowed that from the original Star Trek) and revitalized it in new ways. In general, TV sci-fi crosses over from the cult to the mass audience when it exists AS sci-fi, but also as something else. This probably also explains why the first season of Lost, when the show was more or less a sci-fi spin on a show like The Love Boat (stay with me here -- the show was about a large band of characters, and it dug into why each character was having some sort of emotional crisis, then semi-resolved that crisis within the episode -- just like The Love Boat!), was far more successful in the ratings than subsequent seasons, when the show embraced its sci-fi nature hard-core.

But the way The X-Files flipped the "who" of the '70s cop show on its ear was by far the most important thing it did to find success. Indeed, I'd argue that a show like, say, Dark Skies or even Millennium screwed itself over by being less interested in the who and more interested in the what. Both shows wrongly assumed that The X-Files was successful simply because it featured sci-fi elements or apocalyptic zaniness. But even in its earliest days, The X-Files was committed to both its central two characters and the various people around its edges. Its monsters, while unbelievable, also end up being oddly human (I'm watching the show's third episode, "Squeeze," right now, and it's amazing how the show makes a guy who can squeeze into any space sort of a recognizable human character). Furthermore, the show populates the edges of its mysteries with people who are quickly, broadly sketched but somehow come to life. (There's probably something to be written about the weird connections between the UK's Doctor Who and The X-Files -- two shows with complicated mythologies that also work as shows where you can settle in and just watch an episode or two and still know what's going on. Who is one of the few shows that also pulls off that "quickly sketched characters" gambit, and it ALSO possesses within its infinitely expandable concept the ability to be just about any type of genre story, just as X-Files left its horror and sci-fi roots to traipse in comedy, romance and even fantasy.)

Let's take Squeeze as an example. The show boasts both its monster, the extendable Eugene Tooms, AND a host of Tooms' victims, who are all quickly sketched in as the episode progresses. They're company men or guys who just want a promotion or people trying to keep something covered up. And THEN there are the peripheral characters, like the guy who comes to bring the case to Scully and try to help her get away from Mulder (thereby finding a way to test the show's central relationship -- all of the best X-Files find SOME way to do this). They even find a way to fall back on the '70s cop show standby -- the old, retired cop who knows something vital to the case. Or look at the episode preceding, "Deep Throat," where the show quickly sketches in a bunch of military personnel, some stoners (one played by Seth Green) AND a mysterious G-man (who, again, tests the relationship between Mulder and Scully). Even the Pilot, which has its sketchy moments and is way more devoted to sketching in Mulder and Scully, manages to come up with a bunch of small-town Oregon folk who are frustrated over the weird events happening in their town. You can almost even trace just how successful the show's cumbersome "mytharc" episodes were by how connected they were to the characters in them. Insofar as the conspiracy was hurting regular people and/or the extended X-Files family, it was effective, even if you didn't know what was going on. Once it went off the rails and started trying to provide answers and explain the "what" was going on, it lost the emotional investment so many had in the whole storyline.

It also can't be stated strongly enough how the show's central relationship provided a safe haven for non-SF fans to latch their hooks into. And I'm not talking about people who thought Mulder and Scully should get together. At the center of The X-Files is something almost like Lethal Weapon -- the wound-up tightwad gradually learns to let go and live more like the "crackpot" who becomes their unlikely partner. Because this was couched in the terms "skeptic" and "believer," it didn't immediately SEEM like this was the case, but, indeed, it was, and the pleasure of the old "odd couple" storyline propelled yet another detective drama to success. The show even let the "crackpot" be a little wacky and funny, to ground the strange drama.

Far less important, I think, was the "what." Mostly it was useful insofar as it allowed the series to expand the various ways that crimes could be committed, etc., but the show's science fiction and horror elements were only occasionally so original as to make you sit up and smile in recognition. Tooms was a great creation, as was the "Pusher" of season three, but many of the monsters settle into familiar grooves. They're just there to propel the show's central question of whether or not Mulder will finally make Scully a believer.

But the show also acts as a bridge. When CSI first appeared on the scene, it was also hailed as something that looked like nothing else on TV, but it had clearly been watching The X-Files carefully. Just as X-Files took its template from the '70s cop drama, then gradually refined it, CSI took ITS template fairly obviously from The X-Files (science made cool and tossed into a cinematic blender). CSI was far more about attitude than X-Files, but many of the cinematic tricks the shows had were the same.

The X-Files major contributions to its template cinematically were just that -- the show took a fairly staid format (look at the early episodes, which are filmed straight out of the detective show template, outside of a few horror movie tricks, like a herky-jerky camera as we take on what we suspect is the P.O.V. of Tooms as he stalks Scully) and made it more cinematic (later episodes -- in seasons four and five especially -- broaden the show's template and find new nuance in how the show is shot and framed). While the first season is a lot of fun, it's mostly just the old cop show cinematic grammar with more shadows tossed in to ramp up the horror. By later seasons, the show really begins to look like something like CSI or Without a Trace (does the entire CBS network owe its success to The X-Files? I'll let you know).

None of this is to diminish what The X-Files accomplished -- I like it more than just about any show I've mentioned above (possible exception of Twin Peaks). But I do think that much of the writing about the show misses that central thing that kept it so successful for years and years -- the way it took a very old format and simply found new stories to tell in it by grafting another genre and some interesting characters onto it.


Calraigh said...

This post literally brought tears to my eyes. Why? Because you 'get' it. There's so much absolute guff being written about the series and movie online lately and some of these writers seem simply to revel in talking about it's nadir.It's as if it's been completely forgotten that this series was, at it's height, the best thing a lot of people had ever seen on TV. For me, a lot of it's success was based on the 'cop show' element, as you say. The 'buddy movie' factor was also in effect, not to mention countless other themes. For now though, I just want to say thanks for writing this. It's a salve for a lot of the stuff I've seen lately and can't sadly, erase.

wcdixon said...

Great post....hit the nail on the head.

jsalexandra said...

You are right in some ways.But i think the biggest reason for the success of the x files is the way the actors performed their characters be it the Scully or Mulder.Sometimes i still download x files episodes to enjoy the experience the thrill of the x files show.