The rebooted, six-episode version of “The X-Files” (premiering Sunday on Fox) wastes no time acknowledging the obvious: As a people, Americans are a crazier bunch and more prone to conspiracy theories than we were back when FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully closed up their clandestine paranormal investigations unit in 2002.
Today we are terribly aware of the UFOs overhead (in the form of hundreds of thousands of drones) and the constant feeling of being watched, whether by the NSA or by the Facebook algorithm that knows you’ve been shopping for fat pants. Forget the black helicopters — the real invasion came as iPhones. We invited all the surveillance in. Google, Take the Wheel, we say, handing over control of the meandering independence of driving. What is that FitBit on your wrist, after all, if not one more way for Them to keep tabs on you?
With some perspective, it’s easy to regard the best seasons of “The X-Files,” in the mid-1990s, as popular culture’s quaint overture to the actual paranoia and fear that would come to shape our politics and discourse. “The X-Files” may have lingered for a few months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but the world was no longer a Mulder-and-Scully sort of place. It became a Jack Bauer world, deadly serious, devoid of humorous asides. Now it’s a Saul Berenson world, an Edward Snowden world, an Illuminati world.
The motto of “The X-Files,” “the truth is out there,” first sounded like a clarion call to skeptics, scientists and kooks alike, who, it was assumed, could agree to disagree, so long as the result was the unearthing of fact. Today, in a world of birthers and truthers and other conspiracy wackos who find remarkable amplitude with the Internet, “the truth is out there” sounds like a taunt to a people who can no longer agree on what to disagree about. Everyone is spooked by the very real notion that the most outlandish possibilities and rumors could very well be true.
So that’s how we’ve been doing.
How are Mulder and Scully doing?
Not bad, it seems, although their love was long ago case-closed. They remind me a little of Han Solo and Princess Leia. Their son, who possibly has alien DNA, was given up for adoption in his infancy and would now be a teenager.
This was all covered in those “X-Files” episodes watched only by the die-hardest fans who saw the series through to its lowly rated end. One thing lost in all the hype leading up to the show’s return is the inconvenient truth that so many of us peeled off from “The X-Files” in the latter years, after the 1998 release of an inscrutably convoluted theatrical movie, when the stories began to sag like alien skin and co-star David Duchovny was MIA. In one of the new episodes, with what seems like rather obvious acts of foreshadowing, Mulder and Scully separately and wistfully wonder about their son.
Still, the two remain distant friends. Scully (played by the always luminescent Gillian Anderson) has gone back to medicine at a Washington hospital, performing reconstructive surgeries on children born without ears (a rare defect that has left them looking decidedly alien-esque).
Mulder (Duchovny) is a contemplative recluse who lives in a farmhouse far outside the Beltway; the dry wit, Duchovny’s trademark touch, hasn’t changed.
Summoned by their former FBI boss, Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), the two are asked to meet with Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale of “Community” and “The Soup”), a cable-news blowhard who hosts a popular show that spreads the latest anti-government conspiracy theories (a la Alex Jones).
The O’Malley character, an easy jump shot for McHale, is the clearest proof that creator Chris Carter has given more than just a passing thought to what a show called “The X-Files” might look like in 2016. Namely it has to make sense in a thoroughly wired world. Today, no UFO could escape the attention of 300 million smartphones, therefore the most menacing sort of monster in “X-Files” is a guy with his own cable news show.
O’Malley has stumbled into Mulder and Scully’s unfinished business. The show’s previous central conspiracy theory (that the government is secretly in cahoots with an alien race) turned out to be wrong, according to O’Malley. The new theory is more sinister and homegrown, alleging that a secret cabal of humans intends to use (and has used) an alien invasion and alien technology as a distraction, a means to usurp the U.S. government and its laws and install a new ruling order. Their first step is already complete, which was to turn Americans into docile constant consumers.
Or something like that. The new theory is catnip to Mulder, who can only feign so much disinterest before he’s looking into O’Malley’s leads and discovering fresh horrors. As Mulder and O’Malley fill in the blanks in the outlandish narrative, Scully, God bless her, must still carry the banner of common sense. Arms folded, she delivers a beautiful scolding to the two men. Her words drip with an exasperation that Anderson turns into sheer, topical poetry — vintage “X-Files” stuff — and, if you listen with a certain ear, she could easily be speaking to the unhinged farce of present-day politics:
“You can’t say these things,” she insists. “It’s fear-mongering, claptrap, isolationist techno-paranoia — so bogus and dangerous and stupid that it borders on treason. Saying these things would be incredibly irresponsible.”
Unfortunately, that’s also the first episode’s lone moment of emotive brilliance, and it comes not long after a dreadful scene on Mulder’s front porch, with the two having an uninspired version of the argument they’ve always been having.
Scully: I’m here as somebody who cares about you — as somebody’s who’s worried about you.
Mulder: Scully, you gotta to trust me on this. . . . This will finally be their undoing.
Scully: It’ll be your undoing, Mulder. You want to believe, you so badly want to believe!
Mulder: I do believe!
Scully: Mulder, have a Snickers. You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.
All right, all right — I added that last part, but that’s how closely the scene plays to satire.
“The X-Files” has returned in a moment of chronic resurrections of TV and movie franchises, with new episodes of shows that enjoy the devotion of fans who are easily stirred into a frenzy by the merest suggestion of a revival, whether they were actually good or not to begin with. In some cases, the fans are even asked to cough up the seed money that will get these beloved shows back. (A recent example would be the $5.76 million that 48,270 fans contributed to a Kickstarter effort to create new episodes of the cult comedy cable series “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”)
The unsolved mystery here, the real conspiracy I’d like Mulder and Scully to investigate, is why our culture seems so hung up on the nostalgic oldies, from “Star Wars” on down to the minor cult hits, rather than demanding original content and all-new stories about refreshingly new characters we’ve never met before. In the case of “The X-Files,” it’s particularly vexing, since both Anderson and Duchovny have found serviceable-to-fairly-terrific work in other TV projects (check her out in “The Fall” on Netflix; go back and have a look at how good he was last summer in NBC’s detective series “Aquarius”).
Carter, for his part, has had his ups and downs (a pilot he did for Amazon wasn’t picked up for a full series), but, as he told a roomful of reporters last week at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., he kept working on possible stories for “The X-Files,” thinking ahead through the show’s mythology and master conspiracies should the moment ever come for a return.
That leaves Fox (the network, not Agent Mulder) as the one who most needs “The X-Files” back on the schedule. The vast conspiracy at play in the television business has Netflix written all over it: If you don’t tend to your legacy shows and the fans’ desires to see them again, you may very well find those shows eagerly hopping over to some streaming service that is only too happy to send these subscriber/viewers on that nostalgia trip. (That’s how “Fuller House” wound up on Netflix and not ABC, where it originated.) Pleased with all the “X-Files” hype, Fox has now ordered new iterations of previous hits “24” and “Prison Break.” Looking back into the past catalogue has become as crucial to TV’s business model as looking ahead.
But whether you choose to keep hopping into the Wayback Machine is up to you.
After a skittery and slightly tedious start, which is heavy on Carter’s need to keep infusing Mulder and Scully’s world with a convoluted master theory, “The X-Files” settles in and starts to relocate some of its creepy vibe and playfulness. Mulder and Scully reopen their office in that drab Brutalist beauty on Pennsylvania Avenue NW known as the J. Edgar Hoover Building (she claims the iconic “I Want to Believe” poster with the flying saucer on it is hers), and the sleuthing begins anew on a smattering of procedural cases.
At the TV press tour, Duchovny accurately and cleverly described these six new episodes as “a bento box of ‘The X-Files’ ” — a little of this, a little of that.
And by the funny and delightfully weird third episode (written by Darin Morgan, one of the show’s old hands), the agents are very much back in a groove, traveling to a mist-shrouded American no-place to investigate a reptilian “were-monster” suspected in a series of killings. Kumail Nanjiani of “Silicon Valley” guest-stars as a park ranger scared out of his wits (Nanjiani is one of those “X-Files” superfans; he hosts a podcast about the show) and the close encounters just keep coming.
“The X-Files” cannot possibly hope to make sense of the mess we’ve made of the real world, but when two FBI agents we’ve loved and admired chase a man-size reptile into a port-a-potty, one is struck by how much has changed — and how much has not.
The X-Files (one hour) premieres Sunday after the NFC championship game on Fox (approximately 10 p.m.). Continues in its regular time slot Monday at 8 p.m.