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Picket Fences – Away in the Manger (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

The crossover that almost was.

Red Museum is a mess of an episode. There are a lot of reasons for that, but perhaps the most obvious is the fact that it was originally intended as a very different story. In fact, Chris Carter had planned to cross The X-Files over with Picket Fences. While The X-Files was airing on Fox, Picket Fences was broadcast on CBS. Perhaps predicting the long-running feud that would evolve between those two networks in the twenty-first century, CBS decided it had better things to do on Friday nights than promote The X-Files.

We can talk about it till the cows come home...

We can talk about it till the cows come home…

The result is that Chris Carter and David E. Kelley had to hastily re-work their episodes, averting the crossover rather late in the cycle. Carter shifted the location of the story, and had to write a new ending. Kelley seems to have been a bit more casual, with Away in the Manger feeling like an episode that takes place perpendicular (if not quite overlapping) to Red Museum. The result is curious, two episodes that speak to their own shows – but also the differences and similarities between Picket Fences and The X-Files.

In some ways, Away in the Manger feels almost like an episode of The X-Files shot from a different perspective.

Agent Morrell, FBI...

Agent Morrell, FBI…

As The X-Files became a bit more experimental, it became more willing to shift perspective on the stories being told. In particular, writers like Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan became interested in how outsiders would look at the weirdness surrounding Mulder and Scully. While never a focus of the show, The X-Files suggested that Mulder and Scully tended to act as magnets for weird stuff, responding in a way that makes sense in the context of that particular show, but could be unnerving outside it.

In Humbug, Darin Morgan portrayed Mulder and Scully as the strangest people in Gibsonton. In José Chung’s “From Outer Space”, Morgan presented the show as filtered through a number of different perspectives, and Mulder and Scully as glimpsed through the eyes of an eccentric writer. Vince Gilligan wrote Hungry from the perspective of the monster, and later X-Cops as an example of how Mulder and Scully might appear in the context of another television show closer to “reality.”

Udder confusion...

Udder confusion…

Away in the Manger – and, perhaps, Picket Fences as a whole – seems like a story told from the perspective of one of those small rural towns that Mulder and Scully visit. It’s a tightly-knit community full of eccentric characters where very weird things tend to happen. The town of Rome would make a nice backdrop for a “monster of the week” story on The X-Files. The twist is that Picket Fences stays in Rome and focuses on the perspective of people inhabiting that small town as weirdness seems to creep in.

Although it is necessarily adapted and tweaked from the original pitch, Away in the Manger does tease the potential of a crossover between The X-Files and Picket Fences. One gets the sense that the crossover would work so well that neither show would be pushed out of its comfort zone in a particularly painful manner. The town of Rome would be another rural American locale for Mulder and Scully, while the case would just be another strange going-on for the people of Rome.

It's a safe vet there's something wrong here...

It’s a safe vet there’s something wrong here…

Small-town sheriff Jimmy Brock finds himself confronted by the bizarre. Unlike Mulder, this isn’t his profession. He is not trained to deal with this. He doesn’t seek it out. He just has to deal with it. “You got human beings coming out of cows here!” he protests, deciding to arrest everybody involved, even though he has no idea what laws have been violated and has no frame of reference for what is going on here.

The second half of Away in the Manger is intriguing, because it processes the fallout of what seems like an X-Files set-up in a way that the other show never would. Barring a quick glimpse in Tooms, we never really see Mulder and Scully helping to prosecute a case, let alone see a judge figuring out how to try on. This is the part that presumably happens after the credits on an episode of The X-Files, where everybody has to sit down and figure out how to deal with an oddity. By this point, Mulder and Scully would be flying home.

Hey kids, it's Don Cheadle!

Hey kids, it’s Don Cheadle!

It feels very much like an episode of The X-Files as seen from a unique vantage point. After all, it’s fun to speculate on what a court case spinning out from The X-Files might look like. One imagines it would sound a little like this. “Roe vs. Wade does not apply to barnyard animals!” one of the lawyers protests, a line the seems to justify the show’s existence and sounds like it might have been taken from a particularly sly Vince Gilligan episode.

Although Chris Carter stripped out all the references to Picket Fences from Red Museum, David E. Kelly seems a little more blaisé. One of the main characters on the show, Coroner Carter Pike, shows up after the credits to offer a succinct summary of the events of Red Museum. Suggesting aliens, he protests, “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not a nut. The FBI’s been all over Delta Glen for the last week. They first thought the cows were being injected by some bovine growth hormone, turns out it was something else.”

Baby, we got a problem...

Baby, we got a problem…

“There were two murders up there last week,” Officer Maxine Stewart suggests. Pike continues to offer a plot summary of Red Museum for those who didn’t pop over from Fox. “Plus a mysterious plane crash with a doctor who was injecting kids with some mysterious vitamin drug that turned some of them into teenage rapists.” Later on, when Agent Morrell arrives, Pike demands an explanation for all this “… and the people in the red frocks who won’t eat meat, I want answers!”

One sense Kelley might have been having a bit of fun with The X-Files, wryly foreshadowing the demands that fans would be making for the next seven years or so. FBI Agent Morrell bluntly responds, “That’s an unsolved case, and it doesn’t concern you.” One could easily imagine Mulder and Scully filling the same plot role as Morrell, the show’s recurring FBI agent who disappears about twenty minutes into Away in the Manger.

The court of public opinion...

The court of public opinion…

Of course, The X-Files and Picket Fences feel like perfect companion pieces. Both can trace their origins back to David Lynch’s work on Twin Peaks. While Chris Carter’s X-Files inherited the surreal boundary-pushing weirdness of Twin Peaks, it seemed like Picket Fences dialled that weirdness back in favour of the more grounded eccentricities of small-town life. As David Hughes argued in The Complete Lynch, Picket Fences was “a sophisticated small-town soap opera which often played like a serious spin on Twin Peaks.”

As such, the two shows can be seen as opposite sides of the same coin. Watching Away in the Manger underscores how unique The X-Files was at this point in the nineties. Picket Fences is so earnest. Discussing his daughter, the emotive piano soars as District Attorney John Littleton admits, “Without her, I’m 100% nothing.” Because this is a Christmas episode, cute little kid Zack has a crisis of faith. “Just tell me, whose God should I believe in?” he asks earnestly. It is all very on-the-nose and very keenly self-important.

Pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but you'll never guess what they pull out of the rabbit...

Pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but you’ll never guess what they pull out of the rabbit…

It has been suggested that audiences responded to this hand-on-heart earnestness, enjoying the decision to tone down the subversive bizarreness inherited from Twin Peaks. As Robert J. Thompson contends in Television’s Second Golden Age:

But even as it was being compared to Twin Peaks, Picket Fences was benefiting from the Twin Peaks overdose from which many critics had suffered. By praising Fences, critics could get one more dig at Peaks without appearing to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. While admitting that Picket Fences reminded him of Twin Peaks, one critic qualified his comparison by saying that it was “not as weird and ultimately stupid.”

As you do. This distinction in what Picket Fences and The X-Files had chosen to take from Twin Peaks was perhaps reflected in the praise and recognition that each show received.

Heard it through the bovine...

Heard it through the bovine…

Each of the four seasons of Picket Fences garnered major Emmy Awards. It won fourteen Primetime Emmy Award in its four seasons, from twenty-seven nominations. In contrast, The X-Files only won fifteen Primetime Emmy Awards in nine years, mostly in technical categories. While Picket Fences garnered prestigious awards and attention, The X-Files grew a cult following. The X-Files lent itself to DVDs, spin-offs and merchandise. It has been updated for high definition, while most of Picket Fences is still unavailable on DVD.

Away in the Manger is an interesting glimpse sideways at what might have been. Not only as a potential crossover foiled by network interference, but as another perspective on a potential X-Files story, and even as an example of what else the show might have been if it had inherited a different set of traits from Twin Peaks.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of The X-Files:

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2 Responses

  1. Slight tangent… assume (correctly) that I don’t know much about what goes on behind the scenes of TV shows. Is it especially difficult, or just too much paperwork, or otherwise impractical to make crossovers happen between shows that weren’t planned to mesh together from the start – the kind that you often see in comics and sometimes even between different franchises (Marvel/DC)? I ask because it would seem in theory like the kind of thing studios would love: it’s red meat to fans (think of all the “who would win in a fight between X and Y” and similar discussions on the Internet) with the potential to draw new viewers (each show gets to slip an advertisement for itself into another show and possibly attract a new group of fans from there).

    We’re about thirty years too late for that MacGyver/A-Team crossover I wish someone had thought of, but there’s always hope for future shows…

    • With television, crossovers are difficult for a number of reasons, both practical and theoretical.

      Assuming you have shows that are meant to coexist and are produced by the same creative teams and all that, it can very difficult to do it logistically. The most obvious example is the Star Trek franchise, where actors seem more likely to appear from shows off the air than shows currently on the air. This is because, in practical terms, being a series regular on one show can involve up to six fourteen hour days in a week.

      This is why guest or supporting characters are more likely to crossover than lead actors, and why crossovers tend to air at the start of the season. To pick an actual example from television, Siddig El Fadil was chosen to be the ambassador from DS9 to TNG for their crossover episode not for any logical plot reason, but because he had a very minor role in the episode that was being produced during that block. (Move Along Home, where Bashir literally disappears half-way through the episode.) Similarly, this explains why appearances tend to be relatively small. When Duchovny made a guest appearance on Space: Above and Beyond as a favour to Glen Morgan, it was little more than a cameo, because he was working fourteen-hour days at the time. (When Helen Hunt crossed over from Mad About You into Friends, she had about thirty seconds of screentime.) The shooting of The X-Files movie between the fourth and fifth seasons of the show meant that the fifth season order had to be cut to twenty episodes, and even that wasn’t enough. The first episode of the fifth season to be produced was an episode written around the Lone Gunmen, to give Duchovny and Anderson more time.

      And all of that occurs where the producers and production companies are on the same page. David E. Kelley was very good at managing crossovers between his shows, but that was helped by the fact that he wrote a huge amount of the shows himself, and so could balance all the competing demands without having to worry about coordinating between multiple writers’ rooms and executive producers. In many respects, Kelley really took the comic book crossover and brought it to primetime television. I actually still remember a lot of his Practice/Ally McBeal crossover, which would have been impossible if Kelley weren’t driving both himself.

      Once you get beyond that, things get exponentially more complicated. If creators want to crossover shows across different networks, there’s an understandable reluctance on the part of the network to publicise a show airing on a different channel. This crossover would have been trying to get Fox viewers to switch to CBS at 10pm and get CBS viewers to watch Fox at 9pm. Given that Fox was a scrappy underdog, this wasn’t a big deal for them. For CBS, it seemed like it would have been a very stupid decision – particularly since they shrewdly realised that The X-Files was well on its way to being a juggernaut for Fox, without any help.

      The alternative is that the network might want a crossover for its own reasons, but the creators might not. This, again, is understandable. Running a show is a tough job, and you typically have your own vision of what you want. Having to take an episode out of your season to promote somebody’s else’s show or to satisfy a network marketing hook can be very frustrating. For example, consider the “Blackout Thursday” that NBC wanted on 3rd November 1994. The idea was that all four of their Thursday night comedies would feature a blackout in New York City. So the blackout was caused by Jamie’s attempts to wire a TV in Mad About You, leading to the citywide blackout seen on Friends. However, the producers on Seinfeld didn’t want to play along, so they just aired The Gymnast, suggesting that Mad About You and Friends co-exist in the same New York, but Seinfeld does not.

      And then there are all the demands that both sides would have to agree to meet. Russell T. Davies has admitted he would have loved to crossover Doctor Who and Star Trek, but he only had one small window of opportunity to do that, and he remembers worrying about all the red tape that would have been involved – clearing all his writing with the studio, the producers, the actors. Comic crossovers are largely driven by editors overseeing lots of writers driving individual books, but television tends to be driven by executive producers who run their own territory and drive the writers’ room.

      Of course, there are exceptions to the general rule. CSI has capitalised on the crossover. The Simpsons and The X-Files did actually crossover, as did The Simpsons and 24 – the fact that only celebrity voices are required probably makes production a bit easier. However, there were also some earlier examples. I remember watching a bizarre Murder She Wrote/Magnum P.I. crossover that worked much better than it really should have. (Novel Connection and Magnum on Ice, for pun fans in the audience.)

      It’s also worth keeping in mind that home media for television shows didn’t really take off until the launch of DVDs in the late nineties and early naughties. So crossing over was a potential syndication risk. If the network didn’t by both Murder She Wrote and Magnum P.I., you’d end up with an orphaned two-parter airing in repeats.

      Sorry, that was a very long answer.

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