Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The X-Files (2016)

The six episode reboot of The X-Files airing on Fox in February 2016 has all the flaws and brilliance of the original series.  When the show explores conspiracy theories about alien abduction, pervasive gloom and paranoia seriously dampens the fun -- writers who are generally witty and hip take themselves too seriously and an underlit lugubrious atmosphere prevails:  the dire mood dampens the sexual tension between the principals and the plots deviate into nasty intimations of mortality.  But, of course, The X-Files was, also, one of the funniest shows on TV and, when its scripts find the exact delirious combination of the macabre and the comical, there is no better show on TV.  Unfortunately, the first two episodes of this outing seemed designed primarily for fan-boys, that is, the geeks and nerds enamored with the morbid paranoid conspiracy plots --  mostly gynecological horror-stories involving monstrous government conspiracies supervised by the "smoking man" (he now inhales his unfiltered cigarettes through an ostomy hole drilled in his throat) were always the backbone of the show and provided its connective tissue, but this was the element of the program that was most problematic.  In this reboot, with obligatory and morose conspiracy stuff mostly out of the way in the first two shows, the program is free indulge itself in the fun monster-chases and heavily ironic haunted-house stuff that made the program wildly popular in the nineties.  The third episode about a "were-man" was diverting, very funny, and, even, profound in a kinky sort of way.  But with the fourth episode, the show achieves TV nirvana, delivering a story that was simultaneously tragic and hilarious -- one of the best things ever devised for network TV.  I presume the fun will continue for, at least, one more episode before the program descends again into purgatorial gloom -- and, in fairness, I should note that the slow-moving and depressive conspiracy thread is always effectively presented and has its moments; it's just not as entertaining as the haunted houses filled with monstrous cryptoids, chimeras, and spooks.

Apparently, Scully and Mulder have stayed in the touch during the intervening years since the X-Files were closed, presumably because our duo was encroaching too closely on the truth.  Scully, beautiful as ever, but a bit gaunt, I think, and haggard. is working in a hospital, a specialist in making ears for children born without those appendages.  (The show was always good at mobilizing audience fears and disgust by relating the monstrous to real, and disturbing, medical conditions.)  Mulder has put on a few pounds and looks a little shabby -- his movie star good looks have deteriorated into caricature.  For a couple episodes, Scully and Mulder brood over their child, a creature possibly with alien DNA, who by his absence is an important element of the show -- there is a flashback to Roswell, some eerie encounters between Mulder and his ancient informant on the Mall in Washington and, generally, lots of darkness.  The third episode was far more lively -- a horned toad somehow transforms into a man during certain cycles of the moon and is mistaken for a savage murderer.  In fact, the poor toad is, as he tells us, "an insectivore" and uninterested in killing people -- in fact, he is appalled and disgusted by his transformation into a human and wishes only to be restored to the serenity of horny toad existence.  This episode features a sinister motel with the owner peering into rooms through mask-like taxidermy trophies and a fantasy sex-scene between the toad and Scully.  The show was very funny, ironic and precise about the human condition, and features a hilarious turn by the actor playing the toad-man -- the monster's human incarnation, who we first see with his pants down in a porta-potty, is played by the comedian who was indelible in the role of Murray, the hapless New Zealand embassy official, in Flight of the Conchords.

The fourth episode of The X-Files involves a plan to expel the homeless from their alleyway haunts in Philadelphia.  This plan is thwarted by a hideous seven-foot tall zombie, leaking maggots and pus all over the landscape.  The zombie is delivered to the sites of his depredations in a garbage truck.  He shreds his victims and, then, calmly returns to the sinister truck to bed down in the filth.  In the morning, after killing the vicious officials responsible for displacing the homeless people, the zombie appears as a huge Banksy-style icon, a larger-than-life-size bit of graffiti stenciled on the wall above the fatal alley.  The show's fundamental metaphor, both witty and disturbing, is that the poor and homeless are regarded as trash and they have to be moved out of the city to make way for progress.  The zombie trash-man, however, is their champion and avenger.  This story-line is effectively combined with a subplot involving the death of Scully's mother -- Scully spends much of the show brooding over her mother's death bed.  (And we understand that the dead are also a form of trash to be carted away to some place where their detritus does not disturb us.)  The subplot is very powerful precisely because it is developed in concert with the jokey-horrible (and very gory) narrative involving the zombie murderer.  We are responsible, ultimately, for the trash that we make -- a theme that resonates through the entire show in clever, and thought-provoking, variations:  Scully thinks of the child that she gave up for adoption as something that she created, not exactly trash, but a creature that has been set aside, Scully's mother mistakes Mulder for her estranged son, a shocking and heartbreaking moment that resonates with Scully's grief at having surrendered her baby for adoption; a madman and graffiti artist has somehow created the zombie avenger, a kind of stinking Golem and the show explores his responsibility for that child of his imagination.  In some sense, we have created the poor and homeless; but we regard them as "garbage" to be set aside.  The show features a wonderful debate between a Philadelphia city official and a self-righteous suburbanite from Bucks County.  (Anyone who has ever spent time in Philly will understand the deep distrust and dislike between Central City residents and the people living in toney Bucks County).  The woman from Bucks County detests the poor and homeless and, of course, wants them to be kept far from where she lives.  So she gets a visit from the monster in her suburban home, a spectacular and gruesome home invasion cut to the tune of Petulia Clark's hit "Downtown" -- parts of the self-righteous lady end up in her own trash compactor.  At one key point in the story, Scully and Mulder are descending into a sinister garbage choked pit, walking down steep wet stairs into subterranean darkness. A pseudo-golem monster appears, like an overside insect larva, and, then, shoves past them.  Mulder says that he can't pursue the creature because "I'm old and I don't stairs any more."  Scully notes that she used to chase monsters up and down those stairs -- "and in three-inch heels as well."  Mulder shrugs:  "That was back in the day," he says.  "No, this is the day," Scully tells him.  And, then, there materializes in her hands, a huge flashlight.  Suddenly, Mulder also has a flashlight, the trademark of the show --- flashlight beams probing an intense and frightening darkness.  The eerie music begins and the flashlight beams shine through the murk and the viewer is in TV heaven. 

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