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The Lone Gunmen – Pilot (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

It is meant to be a joke.

It is an episode known as The Pilot, because it is a proof of concept for a new series that can be shown to executives in the hopes that they might green-light it and give the production team a series order. That is, after all, what a television pilot is. It is the first episode of a television show to be filmed, usually with considerable space between it and the rest of the first season. There is time for network notes and feedback, to determine what works and what doesn’t. There is space for recasting and reshooting, which becomes more problematic on a weekly schedule.

Rocket man.

Rocket man.

However, the fact that the first episode of The Lone Gunmen is called The Pilot is also a rather wry punchline. It is a self-aware reminder that the show takes itself considerably less seriously than Millennium or Harsh Realm. After all, even if this weren’t the very first episode of a new television show, it might be called The Pilot. Based purely on the plot, the episode might have been called The Pilot. It is an episode about a sinister plot to hijack planes using advanced technology. So calling the episode The Pilot is a cheesy and goofy bit of wordplay.

Of course, there is very little funny about it in hindsight.

Don't leave us hanging...

Don’t leave us hanging…

It is hard to talk about The Lone Gunmen without talking about 9/11. Watching The Pilot in the wake of those terrorist attacks is decidedly uncomfortable. Although more than a decade of theorising and gossip has made it difficult to watch the forty-five minutes unspoiled, coming to the episode blind must be a haunting experience. The episode never makes a sharp left turn into uncanny horror. Instead, it follows a very organic and logical path that leads it to a shocking climax that is all the more unsettling for what appears to be its inevitability.

Outlining the ominous and mysterious “scenario 12-D” to his his son, Bertram Byers suggests an idea that feels a little awkward when filtered through the lens of history. “The Cold War’s over, John,” he explains. “But with no clear enemy to stockpile against, the arms market’s flat. But bring down a fully loaded 727 into the middle of New York City and you’ll find a dozen tinpot dictators all over the world just clamouring to take responsibility, and begging to be smart-bombed.”

Three of a kind...

Three of a kind…

Bringing down an airplane in New York as part of a false-flag operation to spark a war? The Pilot is already uncomfortable long before the specific nature of the attack is revealed. When John and Bertram Byers sneak on board the jet that has been selected for the operation, they begin looking for “free hydrocarbons.” The suggestion is that the plan is simply to blow up the plane over New York, like the plane over Lockerbie. “This flight was chosen primarily for its visibility,” Bertram explains. “It’s schedule to pass over Manhattan on its way to Boston.”

However, things only get more uncomfortable from there. It turns out that the plan is not to blow up the plane, but to use it as a missile and target it at a civilian structure. Given the map reference by Langly and Frohike, Byers quickly deduces exactly what the secret government cabal are planning to do. “They’re going to crash it into the World Trade Centre,” he tells his father, distraught. The climax of the episode then proceeds to have  hijacked airplane narrowly miss the World Trade Centre at the last possible minute.

Getting Byers...

Getting Byers…

The spectre of 9/11 looms large. In The Making of the Lone Gunmen, Frank Spotnitz talks about his immediate reaction to the terrorist attacks, which occurred during the filming of Dæmonicus:

The morning of 9/11, I was directing an episode of The X-Files and I woke up to see that on television. My first thought was The Lone Gunmen. And my first thought was – because I didn’t know yet what had happened or why – “I hope this has nothing to do with what we did on television six months ago. I hope we aren’t guilty somehow of inspiring this.” It became clear within hours that, of course, we had nothing to do with it. But it was a terrible feeling.

The irony, of course, would be that the production team would not be accused of inspiring the attacks, but instead of being aware of the attacks ahead of time.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

The Pilot was broadcast in March 2001, but it was actually filmed in March and April 2000. As such, the episode was produced a year-and-a-half before the two hijacked passenger jets would be flown into the World Trade Centre. At the time, the episode’s climax was just a suitably high-stakes threat from the first episode of a new television show. If anything, the climax of the episode seemed ridiculous. It seemed impossible to imagine something like this actually happening. The Lone Gunmen existed in a world where 9/11 was scarcely conceivable.

Of course, The Pilot cannot be divorced from the events of 9/11. Despite the fact that it was broadcast half-a-year before the attacks, it became a focal point for discussion following those attacks. In March 2002, six months after the attack and towards the end of the final season of The X-Files, an article on TV Guide Online drew attention to the connection that – it argued – “nobody noticed.” The conspiracy theories ballooned from there, to the point where actor Dean Haglund even discussed them with professional conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

In The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, Paul A. Cantor argues that the incorporation of The Pilot into the sorts of conspiracy theories that the The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen played with on a weekly basis represents a postmodern fusion of fact and fiction:

The deeper irony is that the existence of this Lone Gunmen episode has itself fueled conspiracy theories about 9/11. Refusing to accept the idea that the anticipation of 9/11 on television could have been a mere coincidence, conspiracy theorists have offered the episode as proof that some people in the United States must have known about the World Trade Centre plot ahead of time. Some theorists have seized upon the fact that, like The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen was broadcast on the Fox Network, which is owned by the wealthy and powerful media mogul Rupert Murdoch. These people insist that Murdoch must have been actively involved in producing the episode, perhaps trying to warn the public about what turned out to be the 9/11 terrorist attacks, perhaps trying to create disinformation about them in advance. There could be no better example of art and life blurring together than the way in which the pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen has become woven into conspiracy theories about 9/11. In this case, television has become woven into conspiracy theories about 9/11. In this case, television has become part of the reality it is supposed to be merely representing.

It is an interesting example of the lines between reality and fiction becoming more difficult to discern, reflecting the sort of millennial anxieties that defined the seventh and ninth seasons of The X-Files.

Picture this.

Picture this.

Of course, it seems quite unlikely that The Pilot was written with any foreknowledge of 9/11, let alone as a coded warning that the so-called “truther” movement would be correct in their suggestion that 9/11 was an “inside job.” As Dean Haglund has pointed out, the idea of using a plane as a missile is not unprecedented:

I asked Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) this very question when he was on my podcast and he said that this was a case of an artist tapping into some bizarre collective un-conscience item, and he said that he read about the idea in a Tom Clancy novel, so there was no direct involvement in this case. My current opinion is that the pilot now stands as a chilling time capsule when we were just a little less scarred by real life events.

It is not as if the idea came to the four writers credited on The Pilot out of thin air. Pop culture is absolutely saturated with the imagery of planes used as weapons.

Free (telephone) exchange of ideas...

Free (telephone) exchange of ideas…

The Japanese kamikaze pilots of the Second World War made an indelible impression upon the American popular consciousness, turning their planes themselves into weapons that could be deployed against the superior naval forces of their opponents. Even in popular fiction, commercial jets were frequently deployed as ad hoc terrorist weapons. The climax of The Running Man features a jet used as a missile by the protagonist of the novel. The Medusa Touch featured a similar attack conducted by its own central character.

There are a whole host of other pieces of twentieth-century pop culture that seem surprisingly prescient in the context of the twenty-first century. Georgy Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four gets more and more uncanny with each passing year. The Siege feels quite ahead of its time in depicting the consequences of a major terrorist attack by Islamic extremists upon New York. Enemy of the State feels particularly unsettling when filtered through the lens of subsequent revelations about the NSA.

She's a machine...

She’s a machine…

None of these works were created by people with any particular insight into the plans and machinations of governments or terrorists. They drew upon (and extrapolated from) contemporary anxieties and uncertainties. As Ed Zwick explained of The Siege, these stories were a product of a particularly prescient zeitgeist:

I wasn’t being prophetic. I was listening to people whose job is to know those things. I felt there was some inevitability that I was keying in to. But when I look at certain aspects of the film that we imagined – the rounding up of people and interrogations and torture – we were tapping in to something that was there to be mined but no-one else was willing to talk about yet. There were many people, in any number of cultures, that were already quite desperately concerned with [terrorism] but it somehow hadn’t found its way in to the popular imagination.

After all, international terrorists had been a fixture of political life for decades at this point. Hollywood cinema of the nineties was particularly fond of incorporating the Irish Republican Army into thrillers like Patriot Games, The Devil’s Own or The Jackal. Osama Bin Laden had already attempted to blow up the Twin Towers in 1993.

Pilot error...

Pilot error…

While nobody could predict the exact nature or origin of the attacks, quite a few experts suspected that something was looming. Perhaps it was just residual millennial anxiety looking for a convenient and timely outlet. Perhaps it was more. Lawrence Wright, the writer of The Siege, was an expert in Osama Bin Laden who would win the Pulitzer in 2007 for The Looming Tower, Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. In the lead-up to September 2001, United States intelligence agencies picked up increased “chatter” among of Islamic extremists.

In hindsight, connections and possibilities suggest themselves. That is the way that the human mind works. The mind is designed to recognise patterns and rhythms; the brain has evolved to find comfort in the routine and the familiar. The unknown and the unpredictable was dangerous; survival instinct draws the brain towards problem-solving and pattern recognition. This may be the primal lure of conspiracy theory, the belief that the world is ordered and structured in a way that makes sense. A world controlled by evil men is better than a cruel and chaotic world.

Shining a light on it...

Shining a light on it…

Speaking in 2004, author Michael Barkun explained the appeal of conspiracy theories like those that would grow up around 9/11:

The appeal of conspiracism is threefold. First, conspiracy theories claim to explain what others can’t. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. Second, they do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents. Finally, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters’ deceptions.

It is easy to see the appeal of conspiracy theories as a way of ordering the world and of asserting a person’s own importance in the world.

Road to nowhere...

Road to nowhere…

Although The Lone Gunmen is built on this foundation, this has always been the suggestion of The X-Files. Mulder tries to make sense of the dissolution of his family by tying it to a massive colonisation plot involving the government and extraterrestrials. Mulder tries to impose his own order upon the universe, to make sense of a senseless tragedy. Because Mulder is the hero of his own narrative, he is afforded that opportunity. Mulder gets to vanquish a conspiracy that actually exists. He gets to expose a tower of lies built upon a foundation of betrayal.

In contrast, the Lone Gunmen have always seemed more uncertain. In E.B.E., the three characters were established as completely bonkers. Mulder was handsome and charming; more than that, he was right. The Lone Gunmen seemed like they might genuinely be crazy. Perhaps they represented the kind of self-feeding loop of paranoia into which Mulder might wander without Scully to anchor him. Perhaps they simply reflected the real world where most aggressive and vocal proponents of conspiracy theory do not resemble a square-jawed righteous hero.

Piecing it together...

Piecing it together…

Vince Gilligan reinforced this idea when it came time to craft an origin story for the gang in Unusual Suspects. Whereas the audience always knew that Mulder understood the score, it seemed like the Lone Gunmen stood on shaky ground. Unusual Suspects wondered whether the Lone Gunmen were anything more than three paranoid loners tied together by isolation and desperation. It seemed like their own uncertainty was allowed to creep into Mulder’s quest, with Gilligan cheekily wondering if The X-Files was all Mulder’s paranoid delusion.

Whereas Mulder has the luxury of investigating conspiracies that actually exist within the world of the show, the Lone Gunmen always seem a little “off.” And, so, it seems appropriate that the first episode of their spin-off series should find itself tied to one of the most prominent conspiracy theories of the twenty-first century, a theory roundly and convincingly dismissed as “a punch line” by the facts of the case. The isolation and loneliness of associated with the members of the 9/11 “truther” movement feels more in tune with the Lone Gunmen than with Mulder.

Truth to power...

Truth to power…

Then again, the eerie parallels between The Pilot and the events of 9/11 underscore just how firmly the show is rooted in the nineties. The Lone Gunmen might have been filmed in early 2000 and broadcast in early 2001, but it is a show still very much in tune with the mood and aesthetics of the late twentieth century. The Pilot was produced and filmed at a point when the idea of a jet colliding with the World Trade Centre could be a climax to a comedy action show. The horror of 9/11 was something that could be confined to television, rather than anything real.

The entire first season of The Lone Gunmen feels rooted in the tone of the nineties rather than standing at the cusp of the twenty-first century. The end of the Cold War looms large over a significant number of episodes, from the rogue former Soviet republic in Bond, Jimmy Bond to the Russian mobsters in The Lying Game to the shifted communist threat of “Red China” in The “Cap’n Toby” Show. When the show features a philandering politician in Three Men and a Smoking Diaper, there is no ambiguity about the target of the show’s satire.

Grave danger...

Grave danger…

It is interesting to wonder whether The Lone Gunmen arrived too late or too early. Vince Gilligan has suggested that the failure of the show was largely down to timing. Certainly, it seems odd to have launched a spin-off of The X-Files at a point where The X-Files was entering its eighth season with dwindling ratings and the loss of David Duchovny. There was a time when Fox would have eagerly clamoured for a spin-off from The X-Files. It is no secret that a lot of the muted reaction to Millennium came from the fact that it wasn’t simply a spin-off from Chris Carter’s other show.

The Lone Gunmen might have been better served to launch while The X-Files was at its zenith, much like the Star Trek franchise had capitalised upon the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation to create a seven-year window where there was always two Star Trek shows on the air. Would The Lone Gunmen have found more success launching out of the show’s third season? Would it have been better to take over the Friday night slot when The X-Files was moved to Sundays during the fourth season? What about around The X-Files: Fight the Future?

Happy trails.

Happy trails.

There was certainly some fan eagerness for the show. As early as 1995, actor Bruce Harwood was fielding questions about the possibility of a spin-off centred around everybody’s favourite conspiracy obsessives:

You mean our own series?  I haven’t the faintest idea. People keep passing the rumors around, but, uhh, they’re only rumours,  you know.  No one’s actually said, no one really important has  actually, you know, called me into a corner and said, “You know we’re  really thinking of…”  No one’s actually said that.  So I would  say not a chance, friend.

The mood and tone of The Lone Gunmen would have been odd at any point in television history, but it seemed particularly surreal arriving at a point where The X-Files was considered a spent force.

Examinations...

Examinations…

The wacky high-concept episodic adventures of the leading trio feel quite out of place against the backdrop of the twenty-first century television landscape. Prestige networks were pushing the medium closer and closer to the cinematic paradigm that Rob Bowman and David Nutter had established for The X-Files, with shows like The Sopranos pointing the way forward. On network television, the trend was more towards reality television like Survivor and game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

In contrast, The Lone Gunmen arrived as a weird hybrid of The A-Team and Mission: Impossible. Producer John Shiban effectively summarised the show as “Mission: Impossible with geeks”, a comparison that The Pilot embraces by having Frohike re-enact the most iconic sequence of Brian dePalma’s 1995 feature film adaptation in the teaser of the episode. The first season is populated with homages to classic films like The Ladykillers or Rear Window, even without delving into the manic insanity of Madam, I’m Adam or Planet of the Frohikes.

The idea was almost scrapped...

The idea was almost scrapped…

It was an odd combination. It was every bit as odd (if not even moreso) as The X-Files had been when it first appeared in September 1993. In The Making of The Lone Gunmen, Shiban complains about the cancellation given the show’s ratings performance:

I think that we all felt like we found our groove and that the show was really working. The ratings were acceptable and good. And as good as The X-Files in the early days.

Shiban has a very fair point there. In 1993 and 1994, The X-Files had been a assured a full season order and a renewal based upon comparable ratings. However, Fox was simply not the same network that it had been in the early nineties.

Kebab sticking it to the man...

Kebab sticking it to the man…

With The X-Files, Fox could tolerate a slow burn because it was a small and hungry network. The network could generously allow Chris Carter the opportunity to grow his audience, because those ratings were strong in the context of where Fox was in the nineties. Times change, and television changes with them. Because it was competing on a whole other level, Fox could no longer tolerate that slow burn with The Lone Gunmen. The network needed something with the resonance and impact of American Idol or Temptation Island.

Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz had arguably learned that lesson with Harsh Realm, the show that was famously (or infamously) cancelled after only three episodes had been broadcast. “I think if these people had been in charge when The X-Files launched, X-Files would have been cancelled,” Spotnitz reflected in interviews around the time that Harsh Realm was cancelled. The Lone Gunmen would seem to support that theory, suggesting that what had been considered solid ratings for Fox in 1993 were not solid ratings for Fox in 2001.

Ringing true...

Ringing true…

Maybe The Lone Gunmen arrived too late, past the point where The X-Files could have properly supported a spin-off and past the point where audiences were clamouring for episodic espionage adventures. On the other hand, maybe The Lone Gunmen arrived too early. With its three unconventional leads, its shortened season order, its loyal fanbase, its eccentric tone, its rich selection of influences, there is an argument to be made that The Lone Gunmen might have survived better on a smaller or quirkier network without the expectations of mass appeal.

It might have fared well on FX, once Fox’s sister network had broken into original programming with quirky shows like The Shield, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Rescue Me. While The Lone Gunmen lacks the edge of those shows, it feels just as surreal. Indeed, if the production team had waited a few years to launch the show, it is easy to imagine a version of The Lone Gunmen that might have looked like Bored to Death. While The Lone Gunmen was never going to be an easy sell, it seemed to arrive at precisely the wrong time.

Take it or Yves it...

Take it or Yves it…

Interestingly, the idea of The Lone Gunmen did not develop with Chris Carter. Although Chris Carter is a producer on the show, and is credited on two of the show’s thirteen scripts, the idea came from the team of Vince Gilligan, Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban. Carter readily acknowledges that they were the creative force driving the show:

I love those characters… they are the creation of James Wong and Glen Morgan. They were a nice addition to the show and I thought they were a good idea for a spin-off series. The idea for a spin-off series wasn’t mine though, it was the idea of Vince Gilligan, Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban. And even though my name was on it, it was really their series and I thought they did a fantastic job. The reason the show did not make it I think had more to do with the promotion of that show and the network and studio’s belief in it.

Carter was always generous to his staffers, allowing his writers to evolve with the programme. He encouraged the writing staff to develop their skills and expand their interests. After so many years on staff, it seemed like allowing Vince Gilligan, Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban the opportunity to run their own show was the next logical step.

Mission: Quite Possible.

Mission: Quite Possible.

According to Frank Spotnitz, the “John Gilnitz” team had been angling for a Lone Gunmen spin-off for quite some time:

“We talked about [this series] for years,” adds Spotnitz. “And it was really at the end of the sixth season, after we did the second Lone Gunmen episode [Three of a Kind] that we saw what the [spin-off] could be.” Fox announced a pilot followed by a 12-episode commitment almost a year ago, to the surprise of the three leading actors. “We always joked about it, but I don’t think any of us seriously thought for a moment that [it would happen],” claims Braidwood.

Carter’s support of his producers is commendable, and a demonstration of how The X-Files managed to grow so many showrunners.

Business as usual...

Business as usual…

Of course, there are likely pragmatic reasons for putting Carter’s name on the show. Under a massive deal he signed with Fox, Carter had agreed to develop a number of high-profile television shows for the networkHarsh Realm had been intended as the first of these shows. However, the way the network had treated Harsh Realm genuinely upset the creator. Carter was always even-handed in discussing his business relationships, but the cancellation of Harsh Realm really seemed to get under his skin.

The Lone Gunmen could thus serve as new show from Chris Carter without the burden of an original premise and without the need to divide his attention. The eighth season of The X-Files was a massively important season for the show, and so Carter was understandably anxious to keep his attention on the series that had really established his reputation as a television super-producer. Allowing three of his star writers to over-see the spin-off allowed him a greater degree of freedom than he had enjoyed during the launch of Millennium or Harsh Realm.

Up on the roof...

Up on the roof…

The Pilot makes a choice to focus on the character of John Fitzpatrick Byers. This makes a great deal of sense. With his brown suit and neat beard, Byers is perhaps the most recognisable and sympathetic of the three characters. Byers is the most grounded and level-headed of the trio, often relegated to the role of the group’s conscience and integrity. Sometimes this works quite well (being one of only two things about The Lying Game that works) and sometimes it feels lazy or easy (as in Maximum Byers or Diagnosis: Jimmy).

It helps that Byers had effectively carried the two Lone-Gunmen-centric episodes of The X-Files. Both Unusual Suspects and Three of a Kind were built around Byers’ romantic infatuation with Susanne Modeski. Byers’ impulsive attraction towards and sympathy for Susanne brought the group together in Unusual Suspects, while his desire to reunite with her drove Three of a Kind. Bruce Harwood has an impressive vulnerability, and it makes sense to anchor The Pilot in Byers rather than Langly or Frohike.

Ringing true.

Ringing true.

The Pilot exists in a weird middle-ground. The episode does not have to introduce its central characters; the trio have been a part of The X-Files since the end of the first season. However, the episode has to decide how best to differentiate between The Lone Gunmen and The X-Files. As Frank Spotnitz concedes on the commentary:

We thought about it a lot. What is this show’s domain versus The X-Files? And where are we overlapping and where are we not? And we didn’t want to overlap in the supernatural at all, but conspiracy we wanted. But we wanted to push it away from government, especially after The Pilot and make it more… it’s Nazis, it’s evil corporations, it’s all other sorts of conspiracies.

As such, the decision to built The Pilot around a plot by the government (or by factions of the government) seems like a very strange choice. It is a decision that will invite inevitable comparisons to The X-Files, and feels particularly odd given a prescient opening sequence about a tech giant violating their customers’ privacy.

Wading through it...

Wading through it…

The Pilot does a good job of suggesting shared thematic spaces between The Lone Gunmen and The X-Files. It is about more than just government conspiracies or cover-ups. In many ways, the story of The X-Files is about generational conflict; Mulder and Scully are gradually unearthing the sins of their parents’ generation, with Mulder’s father literally destroying the family unit. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is very much an archetypal tyrannical father figure against which Mulder might rebel.

The decision to incorporate Bertram Byers into the plot of The Pilot makes a great deal of sense, and not only as the pay-off to a quick dialogue gag in Unusual Suspects. Pushing Byers into confrontation with his own father makes it quite clear that The Lone Gunmen is engaged with similar concerns to The X-Files; the show operates within the same world, with the same rules and the same logic. Byers is playing out his own twist on the same arguments that Mulder has with his own (literal and surrogate) father figures.

Everything's upside down...

Everything’s upside down…

Indeed, one of the more interesting dynamics suggested by The Pilot positions Frohike as something of a father figure to Byers. It is Frohike who urges Byers to reconcile with his father, with Tom Braidwood playing a sage father figure with surprising conviction. “All I’m saying is I don’t want you setting yourself up for a disappointment,” Frohike urges. “I’m saying make peace with your father in another way.” There is something very traditional about the “reconcile with the father” narrative of The Pilot.

The similarities to The X-Files are informative, but the differences are revealing. While The X-Files is rooted in the cynicism and paranoia of the seventies, The Lone Gunmen is anchored in the enthusiasm and idealism of the sixties. After all, the newspaper is named in reference to the Kennedy assassination. The lead character in The Pilot shares his first two names with President Kennedy. The new female character introduced in The Pilot operates under a series of anagrams derived from “Lee Harvey Oswald.” As Frohike deadpans, “Some joke.”

Chip off the old block...

Chip off the old block…

In its own way, this fascination with lost sixties idealism feels oddly appropriate for the characters. The Lone Gunmen were created by writers Jim Wong and Glen Morgan during the first season. When the two writers left The X-Files in the late second season to explore other opportunities, they created Space: Above and Beyond. Much like The Lone Gunmen, it felt like Space: Above and Beyond was structured as a nostalgic ode to the lost innocence of the sixties – particularly as it related to the mystery and majesty of the “new frontier” offered by outer space.

Discussing his relationship with his father, Byers confesses, “My father used to talk about JFK when I was a kid. Camelot, a government as good as its people, the American dream. I don’t know when or why he stopped believing in it, but those stories made me who I am. Made me believe in the promise of our country.” This is very much in keeping with the teaser to Three of a Kind, which featured similar sentiments from the idealistic young man. Byers wants to believe in a way more innocent and naive than Mulder.

Running start...

Running start…

In fact, The Lone Gunmen feels decidedly less cynical than The X-Files. While The X-Files seems to suggest that power inherently corrupts, The Lone Gunmen seems to believe that power and authority can be used for a greater purpose. “The R stood for Roosevelt,” Ray Helm notes in his eulogy of Bertram Byers. “Which is a name fit for a true believer if ever I heard one. A true believer; that was Bert. Thirty-odd years that I was lucky enough to call him a friend. He never lost his faith in the government, its mighty power to do good.”

Over the course of the thirteen episodes of the first season, The Lone Gunmen seems a lot less cynical of government power than its parent series. Even in The Pilot, Bertram Byers is quick to correct his son when he suggests that the United States government would be willfully complicit in the murders of thousands of innocent lives. “There you go again,” Bertram complains. “Blaming the entire government as usual. In fact, a small faction…” It seems like The Lone Gunmen wants to believe even more than The X-Files.

Everybody chips in...

Everybody chips in…

Patriotism becomes a recurring motif of The Lone Gunmen. With the exception of All About Yves and The Pilot, the opening credits sequences all open with an electric guitar strumming out the first notes of The Star Spangled Banner. The series is absolutely saturated with the colours red, white and blue – most notably in the teaser to Like Water for Octane and the DVD cover art. In some ways, it feels like a surreal transition from the cynicism that marked the early years of The X-Files.

(However, it does feel somewhat in tune with the mood and tone of the eighth season of The X-Files. While the first seven seasons of The X-Files suggested that the government was willfully complicit in a conspiracy against its own people, while the eight instead suggests that the government has been infiltrated and subverted by outside forces. In its own way, this resurgent patriotism and rejection of cynicism seems just as oddly prescient as the evil plot in The Pilot. The mood and tone of these episodes would not feel out of place a year later.)

The Lone Gunmen comes packed with sixties iconography. The trio drive around in a beat-up Volkswagen minibus that has its own associations with the decade – whether as the vehicle of choice for the hippie movement or as the “mystery machine” from the classic Scooby Doo cartoons. At his father’s funeral, Byers oversees the launch of a miniature rocket to carry the ashes up into the sky. The priest even refers to the destination as a “bold frontier”, evoking both the “final frontier” of Star Trek and the “new frontier” of John F. Kennedy.

The funeral sequence of The Pilot is perhaps the most effective scene of the episode. It is the only sequence in the episode that captures the weird melancholy that underscores the strongest episodes of the season – the desperation and loneliness that bleeds through Madam, I’m Adam, Planet of the Frohikes and Tango de los Pistoleros. The sight of John Byers preparing to launch his father’s ashes into orbit using a model rocket is strange and sad in a way that very few contemporary television shows could be strange and sad.

The biggest problem with the first season of The Lone Gunmen as a whole is to do with balancing tone. The show struggles to figure out what emotions it is pitching. That is just as evident with The Pilot. On the commentary, Vince Gilligan concedes as much:

To be fair, I don’t think we got it… I think Rob got it right, but we as the writers… I’m not sure we got the tone right in this first one. But I think it developed over the life of the series, such as it was. Because it’s tricky, as you just said, to get that tone right.

Is The Lone Gunmen a comedy series with some higher stakes than usual? Is it a thrill that offsets its darkness with a wry self-aware wit? Is it an existential tragedy masquerading as farce? Just what is The Lone Gunmen about on a fundamental level?

The most frustrating sections of the first season of The Lone Gunmen are those which pitch the show as a goofy comedy. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that the hour-long format takes quite a toll on humour; they require a delicate balancing act that is very difficult with the constraints of network television. Quite a few episodes of The Lone Gunmen might play better in a half-hour episode (or even ten-minute webisode) format, wrapping up before they overstay their welcome.

However, there is also a sense that the writers are not necessarily funny enough to churn out hilarious scripts on a weekly basis. The Lone Gunmen frequently feels tired and cheap as it slums for laughs, drawing groans rather than chuckles from the audience. The Pilot features two separate “Frohike falls down” jokes, and it seems like every episode of the season features a comedy fall. (That said, the episode’s third and final fall gag – and Byer’s quip about “government contractors” – is perhaps the funniest moment in the episode.)

The Lone Gunmen‘s sense of humour is incredibly juvenile and awkward, in a way that further identifies the show as rooted in the nineties. In particular, the show finds gay and butt jokes hilarious. The teaser to The Pilot climaxes with a man-on-man kiss and a “full body cavity search” gag, thinking that this is hilarious that Langly and Frohike fixate upon it into the next scene. Langly protests, “We’re not gonna let this injustice stand. We’re gonna stop these corporate goons from doing to the American people what they did to us last night!”

These jokes are not confined to The Pilot, either. All About Yves features a lazy joke about rectal probing, adding a consistently awkward theme of homophobic humour to the season as a whole. This sophomoric sense of humour leads to problems like those underpinning The Lying Game, which makes cheap transphobic jokes while trying to tell a heartwarming transgender story. Even ignoring the tiredness of some of the jokes, the problem is that The Lone Gunmen is not consistently funny enough to be an hour-long comedy.

To be fair, this is not a fatal problem. The Lone Gunmen would spend most of its first season trying to find the right tone. It would miss more often than it would hit, but that is to be expected. What are first seasons for if not for experimentation and development? There are points at which the show seems to find just the right tone for these characters, eschewing zany comedy for wistful melancholy. It is interesting to wonder what a hypothetical second season might have looked like for this show.

It is one of the great ironies of The Pilot is that exists unstuck in time, supporting Vince Gilligan’s assertion that The Lone Gunmen arrived at the wrong moment in history. Playing the horror of 9/11 as thrilling comedy (or comedic thrills) mere months before the attacks took place, The Pilot feels at once caught between the existential listlessness of the nineties and the political uncertainty of the new millennium. The Pilot feels at once prescient and outdated, a taste of horrors yet to come unfolding in a decidedly nostalgic style.

Even without the additional context, The Pilot suggests that The Lone Gunmen are artifacts of the late twentieth century lost at the start of the twenty-first.

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2 Responses

  1. Wow, good writeup.

    “In its own way, this resurgent patriotism and rejection of cynicism seems just as oddly prescient”

    I’m waiting to see if the same thing happens to Black Mirror.

    • I loved the excerpts from the script posted on Twitter. It is arguably the best publicity that the show could ever have. I hope the production team is bringing home the bacon. So to speak.

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