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The X-Files – X-Cops (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

There is a very serious argument to be made that X-Cops represents the last point at which The X-Files truly pushed itself.

There are experimental episodes later in the run that play with new narrative forms and concepts. Improbable features a snazzy musical number; Lord of the Flies intersects with stunt-driven television shows; Sunshine Days has the characters enter The Brady Bunch. However, X-Cops represents the last time that The X-Files allows itself to be completely submerged in a high-concept idea, following the concept through to its logical conclusion in the spirit of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or Bad Blood or Triangle.

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X-Cops features Mulder and Scully crossing over into an episode of Cops. However, the episode is told entirely from the perspective of the Cops production team, filmed and broadcast as if it were an episode of Fox’s long-running law enforcement reality television show. The camera becomes a performer in X-Cops, and at no point in the entire forty-five minutes does it “break character.” Barring the use of the X-Files opening credits sequence and superimposing the logo at commercials, X-Cops adopts the form and structure of Cops.

This is a boldly experimental piece of television; it is not the sort of episode that viewers expect from a show in its seventh season. This is a giddy and goofy concept more akin to enthusiastic student filmmaking than an established television institution. After Sein und Zeit and Closure suggested that The X-Files was winding down, X-Cops proves that there’s life in the old show yet. Sadly, this feels like something of a last gasp; there would never be quite as much life in The X-Files after this point.

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In keeping with the general mood of the seventh season, X-Cops developed out of a sense of “why the hell not?” According to The Official Guide, Carter ultimately decided to greenlight the episode because Vince Gilligan really wanted to make it and there might not be an opportunity to do it later:

“Vince had wanted to do a Cops show for the longest time,” reflects Carter, “and at that point it was looking more and more like we had only eleven episodes left in the series and that time looked to be running out. So it looked like no time like the present.”

This thought process arguably accounts for a lot of the riskier creative decisions in the seventh season. It feels like Frank Black and Donnie Pfaster deserved stronger return appearances than Millennium or Orison, but those episodes were pushed ahead because there might not be a chance to wait and do it better.

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It is not a surprise that Gilligan wanted to do an episode based around Cops. After all, the writer had already written one official crossover for The X-Files. The guest appearance of Richard Belzer as John Munch in Unusual Suspects served to connect The X-Files to a dense web of cross-referenced and intersecting television; the most literal reading of the crossover would suggest that Fox Mulder and Dana Scully somehow coexisted in a universe with Omar Little and Stringer Bell. The fan fiction writes itself.

More to the point, Gilligan is a writer who is extremely literate in television. While writers like Carter and Spotnitz tended to draw from film, Gilligan was quite fond of slipping classic television references into his scripts. Gilligan’s point of reference for Bad Blood was not Roshomon, but The Dick Van Dyke Show.  When citing the influences on Drive, Gilligan is more likely to cite Homicide: Life on the Street than Speed. Ironically, for a writer who never wanted to work in television, Gilligan was fluent in it.

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Indeed, X-Cops was not the first television crossover. During the fifth season, the episode that had evolved into Bad Blood began as a pitch for a crossover episode of the television series Unsolved Mysteries. The plan, as outlined to Resist or Serve, heavily foreshadows X-Cops:

As Gilligan not-so-fondly remembers it, this aborted comedy would have consisted of a typical X-Files adventure presented as a typical episode of the NBC series Unsolved Mysteries. Robert Stack would have hosted, of course, and for his  real-life true-crime simulation Mulder and Scully would have been played by a couple of other actors. (When Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny got wind of this, reports Gilligan, “They definitely liked the sound of a week off.”)

X-Cops adopts the same rough structure as this aborted crossover, with The X-Files actually morphing to the shape of the television show that has crossed paths with Mulder and Scully. However, the format of Cops allows for Mulder and Scully to actually appear as themselves.

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In many respects, Cops is a logical fit for a crossover. While Unsolved Mysteries is broadcast by NBC, Cops is broadcast by Fox. Given the difficulty that Carter had crossing Red Museum over with Picket Fences, it seems quite likely that trying to work with another network might have been difficult. The logistics become a lot easier when the crossover and co-promotion is happening within the same network; there is no worry that one network is offering another free publicity. That is why Mulder and Scully found it easier to visit Springfield than Rome.

Cops had a long history with Fox. The show had been commissioned during the Writers’ Strike of 1988, when the network was looking for affordable content that did not need writers. Debuting in March 1989, Cops was notoriously cheap to produce; it was as simple as putting a number of camera teams with on-duty officers and editing the footage into a half-hour episode. An episode of Cops originally cost only $200,000 to produce. By 2005, the figure had grown to $650,000; still a bargain for prime-time viewing.

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Indeed, even the act of emulating Cops resulted in a cheap and cheerful episode of The X-Files. Despite the episode’s departure from the familiar structures of The X-Files, Vince Gilligan noted that the production of X-Cops went very smoothly for all involved:

The crew was very happy because the shooting went very quickly. That’s because we shot it all on video, and because of that the shooting days averaged four to five hours, versus twelve to sixteen… which is how long they normally go. The other reason it was great fun being on the set was that most of the sheriff’s deputies you’ll see in the episode were REAL L.A. County sheriff’s deputies. They were a wonderfully enthusiastic group of men and women who brought a level of realism to our episode, which we could have never accomplished with actors.

Despite the fact that X-Cops was very much a Sweeps episode, it worked out quite cost effective. “FOX loved it because it cost them a million dollars less than every other episode that we did,” Carter quipped of the show.

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Given the budget and production issues that surrounded First Person Shooter, it is surprising that X-Cops came in so smoothly. Then again, the format of Cops is designed to maximise speed and minimise cost; episodes are shot and edited on video, with a minimum of postproduction to distract from the footage. X-Cops is the last episode directed by Michael Watkins, a somewhat underrated late-stage X-Files director. Watkins made a conscious effort to impose the visual style of Cops on the episode.

Watkins explained of his process, “It’s a huge change from our look — all those close-ups and everything. We do one-timers and turn it into that sort of TV show.” Indeed, X-Cops features a number of extended takes, mimicking its source material; with an emphasis on keeping the camera running while repositioning rather than cutting back and forth within a scene. It is an approach that pays off. X-Cops looks and feels like no other episode of The X-Files, whether before or since.

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It is hard to understate just how ambitious all of this is, even from a technical standpoint. Triangle gets a lot of respect and kudos because the long takes and careful choreography are very much the point of the show; the episode was marketed as a series of extended single takes edited together to form a single episode. The long takes that populate X-Cops attract less attention because they are not the point of the show, they are a consequence of the point of the show. X-Cops is a crossover with Cops, Cops uses long takes, so X-Cops uses long takes.

However, it should be noted that X-Cops comes quite close to matching Triangle in those stakes. Triangle contained only twenty-four edits; X-Cops contains forty-five. To put that in perspective, the average X-Files episode contains over eight hundred. X-Cops does not have the prestige of shooting on the Queen Mary, but the episode’s premise has its own challenges. Some of those challenges, like the flipping of Wetzel’s car, are technically impressive. Other challenges, like watching Duchovny try not to corpse with Steve and Edy, are just fun.

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Despite the convenience of the crossover, X-Cops was not a result of corporate synergy or network notes. Gilligan’s desire to write the episode stemmed from his own pet enthusiasms, as he confessed in interviews around the original broadcast:

I had been a fan of Cops even longer than I had been a fan of The X-Files, by virtue of the fact that it has been on the air longer. I couldn’t tell you how many episodes I’ve seen over the years. But the big thing I did in preparation for writing that episode was to spend an 8 PM to 3 AM shift with the LA County Sheriff’s Department. I rode along with a deputy who kept apologizing for how slow the “action” was that night. Nonetheless, he wound up pulling his gun on no fewer than five occasions! It was very exciting — better than Disneyland! I even got to wear a bulletproof vest.

Gilligan’s enthusiasm shines through in the finished product. X-Cops feels like an episode produced by a team enjoying the opportunity to play outside their comfort zone.

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With all of this going on, it would be understandable if X-Cops were just an affectionate pastiche of another popular Fox show. Certainly, there is a lot of fun stuff going on here.As much as Watkins’ direction emulates the form and structure of reality television, Gilligan’s script has great fun with the idea. There is a surprising amount of dark humour in the episode, including Deputy Keith Wetzel trying to ad lib a tribute to a fallen colleague. Well, not a colleague, but somebody “working part-time with the department in a support artistic capacity.”

Indeed, one of the more simple pleasures of X-Cops is in watching how Mulder and Scully react to the presence of the cameras. As with Bad Blood, Gilligan uses the basic premise of the episode to offer sly commentaries on how Mulder and Scully see themselves; one of the great ironies of reality television is that putting a camera on somebody is likely to tell you more about how they see themselves than it is about the person themselves. People present themselves differently to a camera lens; those differences can be informative.

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Predictably, Mulder doesn’t treat the camera as an objective observer; instead it becomes a platform. Mulder is a character who was willing to let Eugene Victor Tooms slip through the net so he could present his theory about a crazy immortal serial killer to a jury that just wanted to hear about more recent cannibalistic attacks; it makes sense that he would proudly share his werewolf theory with the audience at home. Mulder commits himself entirely to the format of the show; even offering his own monologues and profound insights.

It’s delightful how Mulder treats werewolf as the only logical conclusion in this case. Mulder takes his time getting to the word “werewolf”, but not because he’s dancing around it. He is just demonstrating that it is only rational explanation for what is happening. “These sightings only occur on nights when there’s a full moon which tells me something,” he reflects. “What you saw was large, right? Maybe seven, eight feet tall when it stood up on its two legs? And it was covered in fur and had glowing red eyes and claws…”

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In contrast, Scully is clearly embarrassed by the camera; she refuses to participate in the reality narrative that is being formed until Skinner orders her to do so. Even then, her participation is limited; she only fleetingly (and sarcastically) acknowledges the camera. When the film crew shows up, Mulder takes every opportunity to put his face in the frame, while Scully consciously positions herself so as to obscure her own. At only point, she seems to hide behind an ambulance door to avoid appearing in shot.

There is a sense that Scully is deeply embarrassed by all this. Then again, given her attitudes towards video games in First Person Shooter, it might be interesting to know what she makes of Cops as a television show. It is telling that she only really seems fully in charge of the situation once they get to the autopsy bay; that’s the only scene where she directly addresses the camera, repeating Skinner’s “… because the FBI has nothing to hide” as if it were a four-letter word. This is Scully in her element, more comfortable than out chasing werewolves.

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In X-Cops, the camera (and the audience) become active participants rather than mere observers. Mulder is able to address the audience more directly than ever; even allowing for the show’s tendency for purple prose voice-over monologues. “Well, we’re back at the home of Steve and Edy,” Mulder explains at one point. “Thought we’d check on them because they seem to fit a victim profile.” Scully notes that this is hardly a natural piece of dialogue in context. “I’m sorry. Are you talking to me?” He clearly was not.

The fact that the camera cannot capture the monster at the heart of X-Cops is a clever (and practical) touch. After all, if Mulder gets video proof of the paranormal, the world of The X-Files changes instantly and irreparably. However, this does not mean the camera is an objective observer; there is still distortion at work. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applies as much to television as to physics, the very act of observing an event ultimately impacts how that event plays out.

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There is an interesting aspect of performativity to X-Cops. Given that the format of the episode is so radically different to the rest of the show, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are able to offer very different takes on established characters. Duchovny abandons his minimalist approach to Mulder, turning him into a cocky tour guide into the surreal or unknown. Gillian Anderson adopts an approach that feels more like something from the British school of improvisational comedy, most notable in the scene where she explains the death of the coroner’s assistant.

This is quite a clever structural detail for an episode emulating the structures of reality television. While Mulder and Scully remain entirely recognisable in X-Cops, there is a sense that the cameras are not capturing the “real” characters; paradoxically, the process of filtering Mulder and Scully through “reality television” somehow makes less real than watching them in a more scripted and structured environment. This is perhaps the real experimental postmodern joy of X-Cops, the collision of reality and fantasy that informs both.

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X-Cops was broadcast in February 2000; it aired three months before the debut of Survivor on CBS. Survivor would effectively change the television landscape, leading to a twenty-first century televisual revolution. In the years that followed, American television would be flooded with reality programming. Although the explosion seemed to occur overnight, the reality is far more complicated. The twenty-first century boom in American reality television was rooted in European reality television of the late nineties; Survivor itself was a Swedish import.

More than that, reality television has existed for longer than most would give it credit. Cops is a testament to that, existing as a broadcast institution since the end of the eighties; but modern reality television arguably has antecedents in America’s Most Wanted or America’s Funniest Home Videos. The emphasis on “real people” on television arguably dates back to fifties quiz shows and beyond. However, the obsession with reality on television seems to have reached its zenith in the twenty-first century, with X-Cops arriving at the perfect cultural moment.

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In some ways, the seventh season of The X-Files is fascinated by the boundary between the real and the illusory, reflecting contemporary anxieties as the nineties faded into the new millennium. Harsh Realm, The Matrix, The Truman Show, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistence; it seemed like audiences at the end of the twentieth century could not be sure what was real and what was not. Mulder lived an imaginary life in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, while Ricky Jay used CGI to perform magic in The Amazing Maleeni.

Indeed, it could be argued that the entire mythology of The X-Files threads a line between illusion and reality; Chris Carter constructed a grim alternate history of the United States where most of the major political events of the second half of the twentieth century were shaped by a sinister cabal conspiring with extraterrestrials. The world of The X-Files intersects and overlaps with our own, but those very tangible points of intersection only muddy the water. Having Mulder and Scully show up on a reality television show is just icing on the postmodern cake.

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In Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that the boom in twenty-first century reality television is rooted in a perverse desire to render reality itself an illusory construct:

Even if these shows are ‘for real’, people still act in them – they simply play themselves. The standard disclaimer in a novel (‘Characters in this text are ficitonsal, any resemblance to real-life characters is purely accidental’) also holds for participants in reality soaps: what we see there are fictional characters, even if they play themselves for real.

The authentic twentieth-century passion for penetrating the Real Thing (ultimately, the destructive Void) through the cobweb of semblances which constitutes our reality thus culminates in the thrill of the Real as the ultimate ‘effect’, sought after from digitalised special effects, through reality TV and amateur pornography, up to snuff movies.

By this logic “reality” television is a fascinating paradox, an acknowledgement that reality itself is a malleable construct that can be distorted and warped. Reality becomes unreal.

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After all, reality television is very much a misnomer. The scenarios are largely stage-managed; the key moments edited to support a particular narrative. It has been revealed that The Osbournes was largely staged. It seems that television can only handle so much reality. In hindsight, it seems hilarious that anybody believed the thrills of nineties shows like World Wrestling Federation or The Jerry Springer Show to offer anything real. However, this fictionalisation of reality is nothing new on television.

In the fifties, the public was scandalised to learn how quiz shows were set up and staged. Even today, quiz shows tend to audition and hire actors to fill particular roles. As one veteran of the circuit explains, “The main thing to remember is that game shows are cast … you don’t just sign up and they call you in. The producers know what kind of contestants work best on a game show, and they hire casting people to find those contestants. In turn, the casting folks conduct auditions to evaluate potential players.”

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Television is not a medium like a reference book or the internet; it is not designed to feed viewers raw information. Of course, viewers engage with television, but the medium structures its information. As Bill Nichols notes At the Limits of Reality (TV), it is logical that television should adopt a narrative structure:

Story telling is television forte. In addition to drama with its obviously fictional form, news, talk shows, game shows, quiz shows, nature shows, sportscasts, and the recent phenomenon of “reality TV” all erect narrative frames around the situations and events they relay to us. Any firm sense of boundary which such shows attempt to uphold between fact and fiction, narrative and exposition, story telling and reporting inevitably blurs. Everyone and everything can be ripped from its historical ground and contained within this televisual scaffolding.

From a simple logistical standpoint, people are too complicated to fit comfortably within a half-hour (or forty-five minute) box. Television and film cannot capture the full complexity and nuance of a real person or event; they can only hope to convey a clear and concise representation of a person or event.

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Although Cops might be “filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement”, but it is ultimately subject to the same whims and influences. Footage is edited together in post-production to streamline narrative and maximise emotional impact. Darin Morgan once quipped that the editing room is “where you do your final rewrite”, an observation which reinforces the sense that reality television is just as much a narrative construct as a four-camera sitcom.

X-Cops emphasises this, featuring any number of beats familiar to even the casual Cops viewer. While X-Cops does not strictly adhere to the format of a standard Cops episode, it does hit on many of the same narrative tropes and plot beats. The episode opens with Wetzel monologuing about his job, like many of the ridealongs in the show; Steve and Edy provide the grounded “human interest” element, akin to the stories that traditionally populate the final third of a Cops episode. X-Cops stresses the narrative structure of his source material.

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The twenty-first century explosion of reality television arguably takes this confusion and ambiguity about what is real and what is not to its logical conclusion, creating a world where what is labelled as “real” is anything but. As Michiko Kakutani argues:

We live in a relativistic culture where television “reality shows” are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics, where academics argue that history depends on who is writing the history, where an aide to President Bush, dismissing reporters who live in the “reality-based community,” can assert that “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Phrases like “virtual reality” and “creative nonfiction” have become part of our language. Hype and hyperbole are an accepted part of marketing and public relations. And reinvention and repositioning are regarded as useful career moves in the worlds of entertainment and politics. The conspiracy-minded, fact-warping movies of Oliver Stone are regarded by those who don’t know better as genuine history, as are the most sensationalistic of television docudramas.

The very premise of X-Cops emphasises this blur. Mulder and Scully are clearly fictional characters. Having two fictional characters turn up on a reality show suggests the boundaries between real and unreal are ultimately porous.

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Gilligan’s script has a great deal of fun with this conflict. At one point, a coroner’s assistant effectively points out how the narrative conventions of The X-Files simply should not work in the real world. “We should be taking precautions,” the assistant (quite rightly) points out when examining the body that dies from unexplained causes. “If the body could be contagious, you… We’re not even wearing masks.” She clarifies, “The reason I asked is why is it so urgent to do an autopsy at 3am in the morning? I mean, that kind of rush; it’s just unheard of.”

In the real world, it is unheard of; at least for bodies that don’t belong to world leaders or celebrities. However, Mulder and Scully do not inhabit the real world. They do not occupy a space governed by standard procedure or bureaucratic requirements, unless it suits the plot. In X-Cops, Scully needs to complete an autopsy before the full moon sets; that take priority over any other concern. After all, it would be anti-climactic to have Scully explain her findings in a week-later epilogue. The requirements of narrative dictate the rules of Scully’s reality.

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As J.P. Telotte points out in The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, Gilligan’s script is a delightfully postmodern exercise that plays as a wry extended joke:

By seamlessly inserting Mulder and Scully into an episode of a real series, the show both undermines and exploits the idea that any television show can accurately depict reality. In other words, the reality of reality television proves to be just as much an illusion as the reality of a giant wasp monster or a werewolf terrorising south central L.A.

Mulder and Scully wander into an episode of Cops and so proceed to completely undercut any semblance of reality within a show that very consciously and clearly markets itself as “reality television.”

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At the same time, X-Cops works both ways. It is not simply that the Cops production team have wandered into an episode of The X-Files; that would be too simplistic. Mulder and Scully appear to have somehow drifted out of the world of The X-Files and into some ethereal twilight realm half-way between their world and our own. X-Cops does not make a big deal of it, but there are several indications that Mulder and Scully are just as out of their element as Deputy Keith Wetzel.

Mulder assures a distraught Chantara that everything will be okay. He promises, “If you’re afraid that what you tell us we’re not going to believe it, don’t be; because whatever it is you saw tonight – whatever it is, whatever you think you saw however strange or terrifying or bizarre – you are not going to surprise me, okay?” When Chantara explains that she saw Chuco – her “novio” – brutally murder Ricky, Mulder is taken aback. A random killing is a more likely occurrence in South Central than a werewolf attack, but it is not the reality Mulder is accustomed to.

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X-Cops is notable as the only episode of The X-Files to unfold in South Central Los Angeles. Since the show moved its production team to Los Angeles at the start of the sixth season, Los Angeles has played itself on a number of separate occasions; Arcadia, The Amazing Maleeni, Sein und Zeit. However, those depictions tended towards the generic. The show has largely stayed away from the turbulent urban centre, a hotbed of social and urban tensions that bubbled through American popular culture in the nineties.

South Central Los Angeles was associated with gang violence and social upheaval. The 1992 riots following the acquittal of officers filmed beating Rodney King still leave scars. By the middle of the decade, there were over 150,000 gang members in Los Angeles. Even after crime fell in South Central Los Angeles at the end of the nineties, it was still dangerous; an area housing 13% of the city’s inhabitants accounted for 43% of the homicides, while 38% of residents lived below the poverty line.

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To be fair, the effects of this cultural tension could certainly be felt on The X-Files, even if it was rarely directly acknowledged by the characters or the writers. The List was broadcast shortly after the O.J. Simpson verdict brought racial tensions back to the surface, an episode set on death row with a predominantly African American guest cast. It could be argued that the fixation on suburban anxieties in the first season of Millennium were also anchored in a subconscious response to this urban violence.

Of course, it is not as if The X-Files was the only television show to ignore South Central Los Angeles during the nineties. Other media did try to engage; films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society explored the experience of day-to-day life in South Central for young African American characters, while groups like N.W.A. also offered insight. However, these experiences were largely absent from major network television. Even Fox, the network that had targeted African American viewers in its early years, went more aggressively mainstream.

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Perhaps the most high-profile attempt to capture South Central on scripted television came with the arrival of South Central on Fox in April 1994. Creator Ralph Farquhar had attempted to sell the show to CBS, but received considerable pushback, according to Laff Riot:

“The South Central environment is more serious than, say, the Roseanne environment,” explains Ralph Farquhar, an African American from Chicago who now lives with his family in L.A.’s Koreatown. “In most TV shows,” he says, “the audience is told repeatedly that everything’s going to be okay.” South Central would be different. Everything was not going to okay, which was most definitely not okay with CBS.

When the show aired on Fox, it proved divisive. Some commentators argued that the show was stereotypical in its depiction of life in South Central. Nevertheless, Reverend Jesse Jackson threatened to boycott the show if it were cancelled, which it was after ten episodes.

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It seemed like there was a discomfort around the realities of life in South Central. Farquhar found greater success creating Moesha on UPN in 1996, a much more conventional (and less provocative) African American sitcom. Even into the twenty-first century, it seemed like there was a cultural reaction against the inner city area. A few months after the broadcast of X-Cops, the University of Southern California was accused of trying to aggressively gentrify the area. In 2003, the city of Los Angeles “rebranded” the region as a more generic “South Los Angeles.”

South Central Los Angeles appeared quite rarely on scripted nineties television in the nineties; instead, it was primarily confined to news coverage. Of course, as with any other television programming, the choices made in producing news arguably construct narratives of their own. Appropriately enough, given the themes of X-Cops, it could be argued that the depiction of South Central Los Angeles in news and reality television created a radically distorted image of the area in the national consciousness.

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The decision to set X-Cops in South Central Los Angeles allows for a nice piece of social commentary. Mulder and Scully are ultimately chasing a creature that feeds on fear. Paradoxically, the portrayal of South Central Los Angeles in the news media seems to foster more fear and anxiety outside the district than inside it. Sociologist Brian Glassner recalls visiting South Central Los Angeles with documentarian Michael Moore:

“If you watch TV news or movies featuring South Central LA, it is portrayed as a dangerous place where little is occurring but violent crime and drugs,” said Glassner. “Most of what you see in that area does not fit that image. [Moore] was struck by the number of children playing in the street compared to the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods where parents were more afraid to let their kids go out and play.”

That is certainly borne out in X-Cops. Tellingly, the fear monster seems to cause more harm to the visitors to South Central than to the residents. Chantara is the only local resident killed by the creature; both Hyman Escalara and Misses Guerrero survive their attacks without knowing what is causing them. In contrast, Ricky the sketch artist and coroner’s assistant are both killed. (Tellingly by placed in a situation and location that they find uncomfortable.)

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X-Cops suggests that the residents of South Central Los Angeles are no less prone to fear or anxiety than anybody else; in contrast, they are more likely to accept that fear. “You’re not afraid?” Mulder asks Steve when he insists that they will be okay. “Now, I didn’t say that,” Steve responds honestly. “I said ain’t nobody going to chase us out.” Given the economic and social hardships that the community faced in the wake of the 1992 riots and other issues, X-Cops suggests that the local residents have not quite vanquished fear, but learned to live with it.

The setting of X-Cops is not the only aspect of the episode that seems to position Mulder and Scully closer to the real world than ever before. The casting of X-Cops is noticeably more diverse than many X-Files episodes. As a rule, The X-Files is a very white and very middle-class show. Mulder and Scully are both college educated, with Mulder attending Oxford and Scully attending Stanford. The most prominent African American characters across the nine-year run of the show are Mister X and Alvin Kersh, not the most central of characters.

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The casting X-Cops is decidedly more diverse than most episodes of the show. Deputy Keith Wetzel is the only major white guest character to appear in X-Cops. The other law enforcement officers and most of the people encountered in South Central are of African American or Latino descent, reflecting the true-to-life demographics of the area. Indeed, X-Cops is also notable for featuring the first explicitly gay couple to appear on The X-Files, with Mulder and Scully encountering Steve and Edy.

Ten Thirteen does not have the best track record when it comes to LGBTQ characters. To be fair, they are mostly invisible; Roy Cohn is perhaps the most significant gay guest character to appear on The X-Files, which would be problematic even if Travelers had confirmed it. The show is very fond of prison rape jokes – with Gilligan responsible for a couple in Unusual Suspects and Bad Blood. In Gender Bender, it seems like the show takes place in a world where bisexuals are less common than killers who can spontaneously change gender.

The rest of Ten Thirteen’s output fares little better. Two gay characters appeared in Inga Fossa, the third episode of Harsh Realm; it was a cringe-inducing portrayal. Perhaps the most nuanced and affecting portrayal of a homosexual relationship in the Ten Thirteen canon comes from Chip Johannessen, who wrote In Arcadia Ego to focus on a lesbian couple who receive an immaculate conception. That said, the lesbian couple were in prison together; the portrayal was somewhat stereotypical.

(This is to say nothing of the somewhat unfortunate undertones of The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz’s 2008 return to the franchise. The feature film had a lot of homophobic subtext. To be fair to Carter and Spotnitz, most of these issues seem to have been ported over from the basic story beats of The Silence of the Lambs, an obvious inspiration on the script and a text with its own problematic aspects. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate that the production team could occasionally be a little tonedeaf in their handling of LGBTQ content.)

It is tempting to excuse this clumsiness as a product of the nineties; after all, time is seldom kind to media when it comes to important social issues. For a franchise that claimed to be progressive, the Star Trek franchise was disappointingly silent on LGBTQ rights during the nineties and into the twenty-first century. However, that excuse does not hold water. Although certainly under-represented on television at large, many mainstream nineties shows did at least make an effort to engage with the community.

Friends famously broadcast a gay wedding in January 1996. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out on The Oprah Winfrey Show with her then-girlfriend Anne Heche in April 1997, the same day that the character of Ellen Morgan came out on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in April 1997. It was not unreasonable to expect more than prison rape jokes and stereotypes from The X-Files. Steve and Edy are very much a stock gay couple, with Steve cast in the role of stoic while Edy is overly dramatic; it is not one of the show’s finer moments.

At the same time, as cliché as Steve and Edy might be, the portrayal is at least well-intentioned. There is no malice here. While Edy’s soap opera theatrics play into the stereotype of gay men as melodramatic, X-Cops is never less than sympathetic to its gay couple. As Sergeant Duthie summarises, “They’re good folks.” They are comfortable in their skins and their surroundings in a way that characters like Deputy Wetzel and Chantara are not. Despite their arguments, X-Cops makes it clear that their love is no less real or valid.

One of the ironies in representation is that a well-intentioned but problematic portrayal is more likely to attract criticism than a complete absence – if only because it is more appropriate to talk about the series’ LGBTQ issues in the context of X-Cops than it would be in the context of Closure or First Person Shooter. This does not entirely excuse the handling of Steve and Edy, particularly given their status as one of only two gay couples to appear in The X-Files. It is more a reminder of the show’s failures than a moment of triumph.

For all that the portrayal of Steve and Edy makes X-Cops feel regressive or outdated, there are some aspects of the episode that seem quite in line with the times. In terms of form and structure, X-Cops is as cutting edge as The X-Files has ever been. One of the big tensions in the seventh season is the worry that the series might be getting too old or outdated, balanced by a number of episodes that actually seem to be a year or two ahead of the popular curve. Doing “The X-Files meets reality television” in February 2000 is ahead of the curve.

However, X-Cops feels like more than just an intersection between The X-Files and Cops. After all, there are structural limitations on how closely X-Cops can mimic the form of Cops. Most obviously, it is a forty-five minute show that is shot in widescreen at a point where Cops was a half-hour show shot at 4:3. In terms of plot, X-Cops is given over to a single linear narrative; episodes of Cops are traditionally divided among three separate ten-minute segments. Cops is obviously a police show, X-Cops is a horror story.

The use of handheld cameras, long takes, improvisational dialogue and the diegetic inclusion of camera as an actor all conspire to ensure that X-Cops feels like a “found footage” horror film. Much like reality television, the genre has a long and distinguished history; although it only exploded in popularity in the twenty-first century, it could be argued that the genre traces its roots to Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust. As with reality television, it is a genre that lends itself to postmodern criticism.

X-Cops arrived right around the cusp of the resurgence of found footage horror. The Blair Witch Project had been released in July 1999, amid a media frenzy that included the obligatory debates about whether the footage was actually real. It is worth noting that savvy marketing teams still enjoy roping in gullible movie-goers; sixteen years after the release of The Blair Witch Project, there was speculation that Unfriended might actually have been constructed from real footage.

There are any number theories about why found footage horror has become so popular in recent years. It is possible that the genre fills the same cultural niche as reality television, a blurring of the real and the unreal. It might simply be a shift enabled by technological concerns; in a world where video cameras and mobile phones have made it possible to documenting every moment, found footage takes the idea to its logical extreme. Found footage horror documents something that cannot (or should not) be recorded and broadcast.

There are other, more culturally specific possibilities. In Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, Kevin J. Wetmore argues that these films resonate with twenty-first century anxieties, evoking both “the amateur video document of 9/11 and the terrorist-made, internet-dispersed video of real torture and death.” This argument certainly makes sense if one considers the expansion of the “found footage” approach to genres other than horror, with films like Cloverfield and Chronicle.

It may also be a case of excess supply shaping demand. One of the appeals of found footage horror is that it is notoriously cheap for studios to produce. Major studios have always liked horror movies because fairly basic scripts, affordable directors, and low-wattage stars help to keep costs down; horror films don’t need to break box office records to serve as sound investments. The general belief is that audiences are not necessarily selective when it comes to horror cinema; the material (or production) quality of the film is less of a selling point than it would otherwise be.

This is certainly borne out by X-Cops, which was a very cheap episode to produce, despite its novelty. Part of the reason that found footage is so affordable is that the genre generally doesn’t require expensive special effects or prosthetics. One of the appeals of the genre is the desire to keep it all low-key, so found footage doesn’t need establishing shots of hordes of zombies; stunts and set pieces can be staged from advantageous angles. Notable, the fear monster at the heart of X-Cops never actually appears on tape.

Even if this absence is shaped by budgetary concerns for found footage horror (or for plotting concerns on X-Cops), it has become one of the defining postmodern characteristics of the genre. As Adam Charles Hart argues Millennial Fears:

Found footage films normalise this activation of offscreen space and further the mode of paranoid viewing that results by placing this incomplete, inadequate camera perspective within the diegesis. If modern horror films in general are expected to withhold important information about the location and physicality of the monster or killer, the found footage film exaggerates this tendency with constant reminders that the camera’s perspective is neither privileged nor optimal in terms of classical notions of display: the monster is potentially located just outside the range of the camera at any given time. These films frequently thematise this inadequacy – the characters are trying to detect any and all threats simultaneously with the audience.

Appropriately enough for a horror story, the fear monster at the heart of X-Cops exists as something entire subjective. As with fear it represents, it is hazy and ambiguous; to see it on video tape would be capture or diminish it, to reduce it to a single image and undercut its power.

X-Cops is perhaps the last episode of The X-Files to stretch the show so profoundly. In a way, it feels appropriate that X-Cops aired directly after Closure. There is a sense that the end is truly near and that the curtains are drawing down on the series. X-Cops is a show that feels like a very self-conscious “last hurrah”, what might just be a triumphant mic drop were it positioned in the middle of the final year of a seven-season show. Appropriately enough, something (or, perhaps, nothing) is silently lurking at the very edge of the frame.

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

2 Responses

  1. Great review as always. I remember this episode and thought it was a lot of fun at the time.

    Regarding the found footage popularity I wonder if it’s related to the same phenomana as the 1970s speculation ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ was based on true events, and thus be a less recent thing than we think?

    • Good spot.

      With that in mind, I wonder if you could trace it even further to the epistolary format of novels like Dracula, which are structured to read like the were written “in-universe.” Of course, I can’t think of any marketing campaign that tried to convince people an epistolary novel was based on real events. (Perhaps, then, the genre could be traced back to the tabloid tradition of posting stories that are obviously outlandish and unreal, but which approximate reality by virtue of being published in a tabloid?)

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