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The Lone Gunmen – Bond, Jimmy Bond (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.

If The Pilot is a proof of concept, then Bond, Jimmy Bond is all about demonstrating that The Lone Gunmen can work on a weekly basis.

Second episodes are more important than most viewers realise. While television pilots typically enjoy larger budgets and looser schedules in an effort to demonstrate that a concept can work as a television show, second episodes are very much about demonstrating precisely how that model will be applied to the structure of a weekly television show. The second episode is about transitioning from a pilot into a weekly schedule. As such, Bond, Jimmy Bond is much more indicative of the first season of The Lone Gunmen than The Pilot was.

All set.

All set.

So Bond, Jimmy Bond is largely about laying groundwork for what follows, and for setting the tone for what comes next. The title makes this clear, introducing the fifth and final member of the leading ensemble. While The Pilot had made room for Zuleikha Robinson as the mysterious Yves Adele Harlow, Bond, Jimmy Bond introduces Stephen Snedden as the well-meaning but none-too-bright James “Jimmy” Bond. This is the cast as it will remain for the rest of the run, give or take a guest appearance from Kimmy the Nerd.

However, there are also changes behind the scenes. Rob Bowman directed The Pilot, his last piece of work with Ten Thirteen before leaving to concentrate on feature film work like Reign of Fire and Elektra. On the commentary to The Pilot, Frank Spotnitz affectionately joked that they couldn’t afford Bowman. That seems perfectly believable, given Bowman’s rising star. As such, Bryan Spicer was drafted in to direct Bond, Jimmy Bond. Spicer would direct the lion’s share of the show, helming six of the show’s thirteen episodes.

"I know kung-fu..."

“I know kung-fu…”

Spicer was very much the logical choice. He had only directed a single episode of The X-Files, but it was an important episode from the perspective of The Lone Gunmen. Spicer had helmed Three of a Kind towards the end of the show’s sixth season, the second Gunmen-centric episode and the show that provided a clear inspiration for the television series. In its own way, Three of a Kind was as much a pilot for The Lone Gunmen as Unusual Suspects or The Pilot had been, and Bryan Spicer was a perfectly logical choice for for the show’s signature director.

However, Bond, Jimmy Bond also cements some other details that will be important for the rest of the season. The Pilot had been an off-beat thriller, but it was a story with incredibly high dramatic stakes and a solid dramatic arc. The Pilot skewed, consciously or not, more towards a quirky thriller than an action comedy. As such, the wacky hijinks of Bond, Jimmy Bond are much more in line with the tone of the series than the grave threat that was posed in The Pilot. For better or worse, Bond, Jimmy Bond sets the agenda for the season ahead.

The last time Ten Thirteen got accused of mimicking The Matrix, everything worked out perfectly...

The last time Ten Thirteen got accused of mimicking The Matrix, everything worked out perfectly…

On the audio commentary for The Pilot, writer and producer Frank Spotnitz noted that the episode was considerably darker and more intense than a lot of what followed:

In retrospect, this ended up being the straightest of all the episodes we did in the series. We really veered into comedy – maybe veered too hard into comedy – over the life of the series.

Given the general tone of the Lone Gunmen’s appearances in The X-Files, it makes sense that their own show should be a bit quirkier than the parent series. The Lone Gunmen were very much comic relief in The X-Files, so it would be weird to play them straight.

That's not all that's exposed.

That’s not all that’s exposed.

As such, Bond, Jimmy Bond doubles down on the gags from the opening shot. The teaser is surprisingly enjoyable, featuring the Lone Gunmen conspiring to bring down a Japanese company engaged in illegal whaling through an elaborate martial arts ballet. Any set piece that involves Frohike staging a reenactment of The Matrix is well worth a watch. Over the course of the series, Frohike provides the bulk of the show’s physical comedy. Tom Braidwood is always game, proving perhaps the most comically adept of the lead players.

The teaser is admittedly goofy, but its relatively short run-time means that the gags never feel tired or played out. There is a sense that everybody involved in the show – from the actors to the writers to the directors – were enjoying themselves, lending the series an easy charm. That charm sustains the introductory sequences, but is not enough to support a full forty-five minutes of television. The show’s best teasers often feel like short films emphasising the weird and wacky things that the Lone Gunmen get up to when left to their own devices.

Unlock the gates of hell!

Unlock the gates of hell!

This contributes to the sense that The Lone Gunmen was a show out of time. In the context of twenty-first century television, the introductions to Bond, Jimmy Bond or Maximum Byers might play best as webisodes companions (or web-exclusive content) for The X-Files. They would certainly help to fill gaps in the production schedule and build anticipation between seasons. Sure Mulder is missing, but the Lone Gunmen think they’ve found Elvis! Sure Scully is having her big “no!” moment over Mulder’s corpse, but here’s the Lone Gunmen thwarting whalers!

Sustaining that level of goofy comedy over forty-five minutes can be tough. All too often, it feels like the writers are looking for any excuse to throw in a cheap “Frohike falls down” joke or some more gay jokes about the guys who all live together. Bond, Jimmy Bond has an inspired “blind football” sequence, but it inevitably builds to both as Frohike gets tackled and Yves gets to make some none-too-subtle innuendo. “You’re crushing my pelvis,” Frohike complains. “Are you talking to Byers?” Yves teases. “It’s just some huge guy,” Frohike responds.

"The name's Bond..."

“The name’s Bond…”

The fixation upon homophobic humour makes The Lone Gunmen feel rather juvenile, but it also marks the script as a product of the nineties. (The jokes about Langly looking like a girl because he has long hair in Los Tango de los Pisteleros and The “Cap’n Toby” Show also feel very sophomoric.) It isn’t that the production team is close-minded or homophobic. While The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen were hardly progressive, the problematic portrayals of the homosexual couple in X-Cops and of the transgender woman in The Lying Game were generally well-meaning.

However, there is a casualness to these gags the feels a little discomforting almost two decades later. Vince Gilligan’s scripts for The X-Files were never afraid to go for cheap laughs that feel a little ill-judged. It could be argued that the tone for these jokes was established the moment that Frohike made jokes about prison rape back in Unusual Suspects, jokes that Mulder continued in Bad Blood. There is never any meanness to these tasteless gags, and it seems fair to write the show off as a product of its time. However, those times were already changing.

Life hacking...

Life hacking…

Some commentators were quite critical of the shift towards the comedic. Interestingly, Frank Spotnitz has been quite candid in his concerns about the comedic tone adopted by the early episodes of The Lone Gunmen, suggesting that perhaps Bond, Jimmy Bond turned a little too sharply into goofy humour:

First, let me say I loved every minute working on this television series and was delighted not just by the performances of Bruce Harwood, Dean Haglund and Tom Braidwood, but our two new cast members – Stephen Snedden and Zuleikha Robinson – as well. Having said that, I suspect that in deciding to push the series toward comedy, we probably made too sharp a turn in this episode. While I loved it – and thought Bryan Spicer did a masterful job – in retrospect, it was probably too sudden an about-face for an audience unaccustomed to seeing these characters in set-ups as blatantly comic as these.

It is a reasonable argument, but it is not necessarily convincing. While All About Yves strikes a better balance of series and comedic, some of the show’s best episodes embraced the weirdness – Madam, I’m Adam, Planet of the Frohikes, Los Tango de los Pisteleros.

A cut-throat industry...

A cut-throat industry…

The difference between the stronger and the weaker episodes of The Lone Gunmen is all about emotional connection. This emotional connection has nothing to do with “Byer’s old college room mate shows up!” or “hey, it’s a baby!” The strongest emotional draw of The Lone Gunmen is quirky melancholia, the sense that the world is a weird place populated by odd people who wind up connecting in the most surreal ways. As odd as it might seem for a show about three conspiracy theorists, the strongest scripts of the season all hinge on love and interpersonal connection.

The problem with Bond, Jimmy Bond has very little to do with its sense of humour. There are a number of nice gags scattered across the hour, even if they tend to elicit grins of mild amusement rather than howls of laughter. The problem is that the show has yet to find its emotional core. There is no real reason to care about any of these wacky computer shenanigans, because the stakes are not particularly high and there is no emotional investment. The problem is not that it is light; the problem is that there is no real substance.

Three amigos...

Three amigos…

Bond, Jimmy Bond is also tasked with introducing the eponymous character, played by Stephen Snedden. The character did not appear in The Pilot, and was added to the show quite late in the process. In The Making of the Lone Gunmen, Frank Spotnitz suggested that Jimmy existed to fill a narrative gap in the show:

After looking at the pilot, which we were pleased with, we realised that we needed one other character. Because the Lone Gunmen, even though we had staked out separate positions for the three of them, they all basically know the same things. They all work for the same newspaper, they all have the same beliefs about conspiracies and the same knowledge about computers. They needed somebody they could talk to, who they could explain this stuff to, because the audience doesn’t know these things and it’s not obvious to the audience.

Again, Spotnitz’s argument makes a certain amount of sense. However, it doesn’t seem like Jimmy is the only possible solution to the problems presented. After all, Vince Gilligan suggested in Unusual Suspects that Byers was a lot less tech-savvy than Frohike or Langly. While has had eleven years to run, he could still work in that capacity.

"Stop trying to hit me and hit me."

“Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”

Stephen Snedden and Zuleikha Robinson do good work in their roles, but there is a sense that neither Jimmy Bond nor Yves Adele Harlow are essential to The Lone Gunmen. In fact, the characters seem to clutter up the plot. Yves seems to exist primarily to add a very high-school idea of sexuality to the show; Robinson dons a lot of catsuits and skimpy outfits over the course of these eleven episodes. Jimmy seems to exist primarily as comic relief to the Lone Gunmen; Snedden has great timing, but he is essentially playing comic relief to comic relief.

With all of that in mind, the characters of Jimmy Bond and Yves Adele Harlow seem like a rather patronising nod towards both the network and the lowest common denominator. They seem like an attempt to convince both the viewers and the executives that The Lone Gunmen will feature conventionally attractive people. It is telling that the obligatory sexual tension on The Lone Gunmen was between the two youngest and prettiest members of the cast. The show’s “will they?”/“won’t they?” tension was essentially dumped on the two characters who had been drafted in.

A gas time...

A gas time…

Of course, pairing off Yves with Frohike might play to other stereotypes and pose its own challenges to the writing staff; it would run the risk of playing out like a pervy “May December thing”, to quote Mulder. It would make more sense to avoid giving any of the four male leads any obligatory sexual tension with Yves, instead allowing Yves to exist as her own character without being emotionally tethered to a male member of the ensemble.  The addition of Jimmy and Yves is perhaps the most disappointing and cliché creative decision of the entire series.

Early episodes often struggle to figure out what to do with Jimmy and Yves, how best to involve them in the plot. There is a sense that the first season might have been stronger if it knocked Jimmy and Yves down to recurring guest stars, rather than having to find a new way to involve Jimmy in the story or to connect the current case back to Yves. Often it feels like the writing staff waste too much energy trying to figure out what Jimmy and Yves are doing at any given moment, when the scripts would benefit from a tighter focus.

A whale of a time...

A whale of a time…

That said, it seems inevitable that The Lone Gunmen could not be about the Lone Gunmen. Bruce Harwood, Tom Braidwood and Dean Haglund work very well together, but they are not conventional network television leads. In fact, it is worth comparing those three characters (and their actors) to the archetypal nerds that would come to populate Chuck Lorre’s The Big Bang Theory. The three characters at the heart of The Lone Gunmen would be unlikely to hold down a network show today, let alone at the turn of the millennium.

Again, there is a sense that The Lone Gunmen arrived at precisely the wrong moment in television history. It was too late for the show to buoy itself off the success of The X-Files, but too soon to thrive in a television climate that rewards quirky shows that can draw solid audiences. It is interesting to wonder what The Lone Gunmen might have looked like if it arrived a decade later. It probably would have emerged with a stronger sense of its own identity than Bond, Jimmy Bond would suggest.

Fools Russia in...

Fools Russia in…

Of course, the identity crisis facing The Lone Gunmen is not purely related to the new characters. The three central characters have been around for seven years at this point, becoming part of the fabric of The X-Files. Byers, Langly and Frohike are all recognisable and distinct from each other. Their character designs go a long way. Byers’ business suit and neatly-trimmed beard say a lot about the character, just like Frohike’s fingerless gloves and gigantic glasses or Langly’s classic rock t-shirts. However, there is still a sense that the trio are largely archetypes.

Oddly enough, Frohike is the member of the Lone Gunmen who first developed a distinct personality. It was Frohike who showed up with flowers while Scully was in a coma in One Breath, suggesting that there was something gentlemanly and sincere buried beneath his sleazy chat-up lines. Byers only really developed his own sense of character when Vince Gilligan made him the focal point of Unusual Suspects. His role as protagonist of Unusual Suspects and Three of a Kind offered him a unique position within the trio.

Camoflaged...

Camouflaged…

This leaves Langly. What exactly does Langly bring to the group? Dean Haglund plays cheeky and petulant very well, and there is a sense that Langly is the most passionate of the trio, but there is no real sense of what his character is actually about. The use of Langly to this point has been largely utilitarian. Unusual Suspects suggested that he was the most technically proficient hacker of the trio; Three of a Kind featured Langly networking with other nerds. Langly is the most broadly drawn and archetypal of the gang.

The Pilot faced a similar problem when it came to Langly. The plot of The Pilot was built around Byers’ relationship to his father, cleverly exploiting the idea that Byers is the most relatable member of the trio. However, the script also found room for character beats involving Frohike; his long-standing relationship with Yves Adele Harlow and his advice to Byers on the best way to reconcile with his old man suggested that Frohike was the group’s eldest in more than simply years. The Pilot positioned Frohike as the wise old sage.

A gagging order...

A gagging order…

In contrast, Langly was mostly just the emotional member of the trio. He was the character who ranted and raved about abuses of civil liberties, but he was also the character who networked with Kimmy and who spotted Yves at the firing range. (Notably, neither of these involved a major emotional beat; the big confrontation with Yves at the climax involved Frohike rather than Langly.) The deepest characterisation of Langly in The Pilot came from Kimmy, who suggested that Langly could have been the most financially successful member of the trio.

This sets up the character beats of Bond, Jimmy Bond. Although the title concerns the fifth and final member of the cast, a considerable amount of Bond, Jimmy Bond is given over to defining and outlining the character of Langly. Building on Kimmy’s remarks in The Pilot, it seems that Langly is the more aggressively zealous of the trio. While Byers is optimistic about the human condition, Langly is driven by something approaching anger. Langly is the character who really pushes the trio, who believes most vocally in the work that the Lone Gunmen do.

Catch me if you can...

Catch me if you can…

“I should be a dot com gazillionaire instead of gracing you two with my hacking brilliance,” Langly complains at one point in the episode. When Langly wanders back into the lion’s den, Frohike struggles to understand his motivation. Luckily, Byers is handy to provide exposition. “He was thinking with his heart, not his head,” Byers explains. “It was the question he asked of me: how far will we go?” He elaborates, “How far will we go to tell the truth, to get the story, to fight the good fight? This is his answer: all the way.”

Bond, Jimmy Bond feels a little shallow, if only because focusing so firmly on Langly’s commitment to the cause glosses over the sacrifices that Byers and Frohike have also made for the cause. It does feel like a clumsy attempt to give Langly his own unique character hook, to distinguish him from Byers and Frohike beyond his long blonde hair and his sarcastic quips. Langly always seemed the most sardonic and petty of the group, while Byers always seemed like the romantic. Suggesting Langly is more of an idealist than Byers merely confuses the dynamics.

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

In his own assessment of the group, Dean Haglund has suggested that the trio conform to a loose Freudian archetype:

“If you want to be Freudian about it, Byers is the superego, Frohike is the ego and Langly is the id,” Haglund explains. “He is the emotional, irrational and somewhat impulsive guy fighting against ‘The Man’ as a computer hacker. I like to think he is the fighting spirit behind the team.”

This is an astute reading of the dynamic, and one which underscores the fun that the production team might have writing for a leading trio rather than a leading duo.

Huddle time!

Huddle time!

As such, it feels perfectly consistent to suggest that Langly is the most impulsive member of the Lone Gunmen. Byers’ reckless behaviour in both Unusual Suspects and Three of a Kind was firmly established as out of character, so it makes sense for Langly to occupy the role of “the passionate one.” This is a choice that plays quite well to Dean Haglund’s strengths as a performer, much like casting Byers as the level-headed idealist plays to those of Bruce Harwood.

Bond, Jimmy Bond is arguably a more accurate taste of what The Lone Gunmen is to become. Certainly, the plot is a lot more reflective of the show’s aesthetic than The Pilot had been. Whereas The Pilot found our heroes investigating a sinister conspiracy inside the United States government, Bond, Jimmy Bond provides a suitably foreign threat in the vein of the Russian gangsters of The Lying Game or the secret Nazis of Eine Kleine Frohike or the Chinese spy ring of The “Cap’n Toby” Show.

A strong Bond is forged...

The blind side.

It seems like the greatest threats to the American people come from outside their government. Indeed, one of the strangest aspects of The Lone Gunmen was its sincerely-held patriotism. “This is America, and every citizen has a God-given right to play football!” Jimmy proclaims, a sentiment the show finds as endearing as absurd. Given the skepticism of the government expressed on The X-Files – frequently by the Lone Gunmen themselves – it is a little strange that show is so earnest in its faith in “the American Way.”

The villains in Bond, Jimmy Bond hark from “Belamisk”, a fictitious “break-way republic from the former Soviet Union.” While this lends the episode some spy-film credibility, it also cements the idea that The Lone Gunmen is anchored in the nineties rather than the new millennium. The first season of The Lone Gunmen feels as rooted in the aftermath of the Cold War as the first season of The X-Files had been. With its “former Soviet agents infiltrating silicon valley” plot, Bond, Jimmy Bond harks back to A View to a Kill, more than a decade and a half earlier.

"The name's Frohike. Melvin Frohike."

“The name’s Frohike. Melvin Frohike.”

Then again, there was always a sense that The Lone Gunmen existed somewhat outside of time. It is never entirely clear whether it arrived too early or too late, but it never really felt like a show that should have been airing in early 2001.

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