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When The X-Files returned to Fox for its six-episode 10th season in early 2016, the results were quite a roller coaster.
A disheartening and sluggish start with the Chris Carter-written and -directed premiere was followed by increasing optimism for three monster-of-the-week episodes from X-Files veterans James Wong and Glen Morgan, peaking with the third episode, Darin Morgan’s silly-and-inspired “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.”
AIR DATE Jan 03, 2018
Then with two more Carter-driven mythology episodes, the season fell back into a muddle; the finale closed in such a mess of aliens and viruses that another season was practically required.
That 11th season, this time boosted to 10 episodes, premieres Wednesday.
Through the season’s first five episodes sent to critics, I can affirm that if nothing else, fans and more casual viewers now know what to expect from the new X-Files, so there are no qualitative surprises.
Once again, the series returns with a disappointing mythology episode written and directed by Carter. Make that “a frustratingly disappointing mythology episode,” given how the cliffhangers of the last finale are resolved.
The shift from mythology-to-monster X-Files episodes was always a bit on the whiplash-y side. That applies even more so in these condensed Fox seasons that require Mulder (still David Duchovny) and Scully (still Gillian Anderson) one week to be facing a massive, extinction-level event that somehow involves extra-terrestrials and Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) and their absent son William, and then the next week have them chilling on the couch watching TV and poking around for oddball occurrences, only to be like, “Oh right! The world is ending!” the week after that.
Yes, that was always the way the show worked, and it always had appreciators who didn’t care at all about the grand mythology stuff and just watched for the crazy, contained episodes. Then there were other advocates who put up with the oddballs and freaks just to get one step closer to The Truth. The transitions feel more jarring now, as does the gap in quality.
To give credit, the mythology episodes this season are clearer and more effectively pandering to the audience. Leaving aside the annoying cliffhanger resolution, clunky scene-setting exposition and one horribly staged car chase, the premiere conveys a lot of somewhat new information and keeps repeating the name “William” over and over again so that you’re certain Mulder and Scully’s kid is going to be central to this run of episodes. It introduces a new character played by Barbara Hershey who has some wide-reaching goals that will impact the rest of the season. It gives the illusion of progress on some fronts, which is probably what fans want. It’s the only one of the five episodes Carter directed — Carter wrote the third episode, but Kevin Hooks helmed — and it’s the worst of the five episodes by a wide margin.
It takes about two seconds into the second episode, Glen Morgan’s “This,” to notice the renewed attention to camera placement, sound design and the general atmosphere of paranoia that lapsed in the premiere, even if the plotline involving a reality simulation and a returning character from Mulder and Scully’s past isn’t very exciting.
There’s more improvement in that third episode from Carter and Hooks, “Plus One,” especially the work from Karin Konoval, previously seen on the classic episode “Home.” It left me feeling like Carter is more of a problem for the franchise as a director than as a writer. When he’s left wearing only one hat, his script has a few jokes, and with different guidance, Duchovny and Anderson are giving more relaxed performances.
And so, once again, after a weak opener optimism builds in the lead-up to the episode from Darin Morgan, and once again the Morgan episode is the one episode I’d tell viewers to tune into regardless of their feelings about anything else happening on the show. And, once again, it’s an episode that can be seen without watching any of what came before.
“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is basically plotless, a series of monologues on the Mandela Effect and on the declining power and relevance of truthseekers like Fox Mulder in a “fake news” era. It may come across as more of a brilliant and twisted Twitter thread than a TV episode, but it’s funny, insightful, and features a great guest turn from veteran character actor Brian Huskey. It made me wonder if I really need to bother watching future X-Files episodes that come from writer-directors other than Morgan. But that may also be the subtext of the episode, so that’s OK.
The last of the five episodes sent to critics is “Ghouli,” a solid mythology-monster hybrid from Wong. It’s not as entertaining as the Morgan episode, but few things are. Like “Plus One,” “Ghouli” is spooky instead of scary and these early episodes definitely aren’t steering into the show’s more horrifying territory, if that happens to be what you most enjoy.
Speaking generally, Duchovny and Anderson are more at ease in these five episodes. There’s more banter and more flirting, should that be the thing you watch The X-Files for. Mitch Pileggi’s Skinner is better utilized, though not for flirting. There’s also more of a sense that The X-Files is taking place in 2017 and not just resurrecting old scripts (or, in the case of “Were-Monster,” scripts intended for different TV shows). That’s evident both in the ways the show acknowledges Donald Trump (without naming him) and in a planned or unplanned mirroring of contemporary events, with an executive branch threat on the FBI (and therefore, our heroes).
Still, anybody hoping for more consistency from The X-Files in this latest resurrection should probably get used to this being what the series is. Since the show is Carter’s baby and he isn’t going anywhere or loosening up on the reins, you either find the bursts of inspiration and spookiness worth the plodding stretches of perfunctory mythology or you don’t.
Cast: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson
Creator: Chris Carter
Premieres: Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)
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