Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Rare or lucky are those who find it.": The short, frustrating career of Darin Morgan

When I was 15, I wanted to be Darin Morgan.

Now I was 15 from November 30, 1995 to November 29, 1996, so this was probably an odd person to want to emulate. I'd wager that most of my classmates wanted to be Michael Jordan (or was that when he was playing baseball?) or Eddie Vedder or even Jerry Seinfeld or something. But wanting to be an obscure TV writer whose name appeared on exactly five scripts (one of which he only got a story credit for)? Mostly unheard of in Armour, S.D. Now, granted, I had just discovered The X-Files in full force due to Morgan's "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" (the first X-Files episode I watched as a dedicated fan), but, still, that I latched on to the writer of the thing instead of any of the actors or even the director is probably indicative of something deep-seeded in my psychology.

And, all things considered, I could have picked a better role model, probably.

Most of the press around Morgan at the time he was working on The X-Files (and I think I bought every fan tie-in magazine or book that existed) centered around how he was a lazy, somewhat reluctant genius. His brother, Glen Morgan, would chuckle about how Darin was just sleeping on Glen's couch (my memory's a bit fuzzy on this point, so if any of the Morgans happen to read this and can clear this up, great!) and looking for writing and acting work when he landed a job playing the famous X-Files monster the Flukeman in the second episode of season two (it's one of the more famous episodes, simply for the fact that the monster attacks from beneath ... while you're on the toilet). Wikipedia says that Morgan found wearing the giant rubber suit that was required to play Flukeman terrible (and, if you've seen the character, pictured above, you can see why). From there, he got an offer to do a script, which ended up being the second season episode "Blood." The episode is not one of the all-time greats of the series, but it's enjoyable enough. Morgan received a story credit (his brother and writing partner James Wong wrote the teleplay), then was asked to come on board as a staff writer. And that's when he wrote the four scripts that changed not only the series but also, possibly, television.

It seems a little hyperbolic to say that the scripts for "Humbug," "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," "War of the Coprophages" and "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" CHANGED TELEVISION, but they definitely changed The X-Files. Before "Humbug," the series had an occasionally crippling self-seriousness, which would occasionally be punctured by various wisecracks, but its glowering seriousness would have tipped the show over into camp at some point, sooner, rather than later. "Humbug" took much of that self-seriousness and found its comic underbelly. It was a surprisingly simple idea (and, actually, one that had been tried on many a '70s cop show, most notably the openly satirical The Rockford Files), but it contained volumes. Even after Morgan left, the show rolled out "lighthearted" episodes, even devoting the first half of season six to these sorts of shenanigans (presumably after the experience of the movie's release made the cast and crew long to indulge in escapism). Many fans hated these episodes when they took over the show, but they loved the work of Morgan, whose four scripts just happened to coincide with a period when the show was at a creative peak.

It's perhaps too easy to suggest that Darin Morgan was the reason The X-Files was so good in seasons two and three, similar to how some fans overstate the importance of Conan O'Brien to The Simpsons in that show's fourth and fifth seasons, but Morgan's understanding of both the very pulp nature of Mulder and Scully and their value as comic characters gave the show a sort of new life. The show remained good for many years after Morgan left (and while I like the two scripts he did on Millennium, they seem, like the series itself, too obviously trying to recapture heights from The X-Files), but his ability to understand that Mulder and Scully could work as both comic AND tragic characters (and, often, as both -- "Jose Chung's" is a masterwork at pulling back these layers) found much within Chris Carter's template that Carter may not have known was even there in the first place (Carter famously said he didn't touch Morgan's scripts).

Morgan also appealed to fans because his scripts were the original Internet-ready scripts, full of neat little touches and literary references -- a Darin Morgan episode was Lost before Lost was Lost. You can watch "Jose Chung's" and just laugh along with it and enjoy the poignant ending, but you could also point out how the episode's alien, Lord Kimbote, is actually a reference to Nabokov's Pale Fire. A lot of this is just "spot the reference" stuff, but Morgan gives all of it enough of an emotional (or humorous) twist that it rises above that and finds a core that goes beyond the references.

It's rare that TV writer has found such an appeal based entirely on six scripts (if we include the two Millennium episodes). Really, even, "War of the Coprophages" is not discussed as often as "Humbug," "Clyde Bruckman" (which won Morgan an Emmy) and "Jose Chung's," all of which have been dissected to death. Since Morgan's years on The X-Files, he's been on the staff of a variety of shows, mostly run by X-Files alums, but he's failed to have a script go into production. Reports continue to surface of him writing a screenplay or something, but it's probably best to assume that Morgan, like the show itself, is something that happened to exist in the mid-90s and then just faded from view. Too bad, really, but at least we have those episodes.


Jason Mittell said...

Todd - kudos for your DM worship! Darin Morgan's name appearing in the credits of an X-Files ep was definitely a viewing highlight, and probably the first time that a specific TV writer penetrated my consciousness. My view of Morgan is intertwined with the portrayal of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation - I think of Morgan as equally tortured, conflicted, and disheveled in his genius.

Dan Coyle said...

Allegedly, a PDF of Darin's script for The Night Stalker is on that DVD. I say allegedly because no one would ever admit to viewing or buying that, would they?

I'm in the minority in thinking "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense" is his best script. I'm also in the minority in thinking "Somehow Satan Got Behind Me" is terrible, wallowing in obvious trajectories and typical angst. It's the work of someone who's given up, who's simply grudgingly accepted Things Will Always Be This Way, and that Darin has produced so little since then isn't surprising. Why bother?

Michael said...

When Jose Chung first aired, there was an interview with DM where he stated, "Mulder is one of the most messed up charaters you'll meet."

Which if you really step back and think about it, Mulder had issues. Big ones. And yet, we rooted for the guy.

The thing that the big four scripts by DM get right is that they step back and really look at who Mulder and Scully are. They examine the characters, rip away the exterior and really delve into them. The most fascinating thing about Jose Chung is that it isn't told from Scully's persepective, but it's told from Jose Chung related what Scully is telling him. It's how Jose Chung sees everyone and we get to see a different side of the truth about both Mulder and Scully.

And don't get me started on how insanely genius Clyde Bruckman is and how I've seen it about a zillion times and yet I can always watch it and always find some new depth to it.