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The Lone Gunmen – Eine Kleine Frohike (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.

With Eine Kleine Frohike, the first season of The Lone Gunmen is still in its teething phase.

There is a sense that the writers are still finding the show’s voice and struggling to get the tone right, while also trying to figure out how to structure an episode and what to do with the two new characters. Eine Kleine Frohike is messy and disjointed, but that is to be expected three episodes into the first season of an hour-long comedy. The first season of any show will inevitably be a bit rough; it is very rare for a television series to emerge from its production team fully formed.

Eich bin ein Frohike...

Eich bin ein Frohike…

At the same time, there are a few things that Eine Kleine Frohike does quite well, with John Shiban honing in on a few of the show’s strengths. Most obviously, Eine Kleine Frohike positions Frohike as the heart of the leading trio. Byers has always been the idealist of the bunch, but Frohike has a fundamental (and perhaps unlikely) dignity that makes him a solid foundation for an episode like this. Indeed, the best scene in Eine Kleine Frohike uses Frohike’s humanity to forge a connection with a guest character who otherwise seems like a joke.

Eine Kleine Frohike is too disjointed to really work, but it does represent a clear step forward for the show.

The son also rises...

The son also rises…

The production team working on The Lone Gunmen have cited Three of a Kind as the prototype for the show. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the late sixth season episode featured the trio embarking upon a comedic episodic adventure directed by Bryan Spicer. There is a sense watching the early episodes of The Lone Gunmen that the production team took Three of a Kind as a template, hoping to produce something akin to that episode on a weekly schedule. The show aspires to be a delivery mechanism for wacky hijinx and goofy humour.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, per se. The biggest problem with Three of a Kind is that it is a very light and airy episode of television that plays best as relief in the context of a darker and heavier show. Producing Three of a Kind on a weekly basis could quickly become tired and familiar, quirk for the sake of quirk with no real depth or nuance. It would be a fine distraction, but hardly a compelling television show in its own right. A lot of Eine Kleine Frohike plays to that tone, as did Bond, Jimmy Bond before it.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

In The Making of the Lone Gunmen, writer and producer John Shiban pitches Eine Kleine Frohike as something of a nostalgic caper:

I’d always been a big fan of the Ealing comedies of the late forties and fifties – British comedies, Alec Guinness, et cetera. Once we started doing the Lone Gunmen series, it was something that I kept saying, “I want to do The Ladykillers! I want to do The Ladykillers!” For a lot of reasons. One, it’s an undercover story. Its an undercover mission. And there’s so much tension in that. And from that tension, so much comic possibility, in my mind.

This makes a great deal of sense, given Shiban’s influences and interests. He would pitch Diagnosis: Jimmy as an homage to Rear Window.

Poison pastry...

Poison pastry…

A lot of Eine Kleine Frohike is powered by the wacky images and crazy premises. There’s a Nazi who looks like Frohike! Frohike goes undercover! Byers and Langly have to doodle on Frohike’s butt! Frohike has to peer at an old lady’s butt! Frohike wears a tracksuit! There’s a poison cupcake! Langly gets the obligatory falling down gag this time! Eine Kleine Frohike is quite exhausting, even if there is enough charm that it never quite grates. However, a lot of the episode feels quite light.

This is, perhaps, the problem with taking Three of a Kind as the template for the show. Three of a Kind might have been fun, but it was not the best episode of The X-Files to focus on the Lone Gunmen. Unusual Suspects was the first such episode, and remains the most effective. Written by Vince Gilligan, Unusual Suspects understood that the zany comic relief of the Lone Gunmen worked best when it was anchored in relatable human emotion. The comedy of the Lone Gunmen is most effectively offset by their sense of quiet melancholy and loneliness.

Over hill and (Alan) Dale...

Over hill and (Alan) Dale…

In many respects, The X-Files is a story about loneliness. Darin Morgan made the point convincingly in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, but Mulder’s quest had always been to prove that we (and he) were not really alone. That is why his decision to lay down his burdens and start a family in Existence doesn’t feel like a betrayal of his quest or his journey. Mulder pursuit of the truth has always been spiritual and emotional. It makes sense to mirror (and amplify) that existential ennui in The Lone Gunmen.

Given that the Lone Gunmen are crazier than Mulder, it makes sense that they should be lonelier than Mulder. While the first season commits wholeheartedly to the model established by Three of a Kind, the show works best when it taps into the emotional beats that made Unusual Suspects so tragic and effective. The best Lone Gunmen episodes tap into that sense of loneliness and connection. The best scene in Eine Kleine Frohike has nothing to do with surveillance or impersonation; it does not even feature Frohike in lederhosen.

Easy, cupcake.

Easy, cupcake.

For most of Eine Kleine Frohike, Anna Haag is treated as a joke character. She is a very severe elderly European woman, a refugee from Alsace Lorraine who may (or may not) be a serial poisoner. For most of the episode, she is a severe maternal figure – she is aggressive and confrontational, putting Frohike through his paces in exercise routines set to Plastic Bertrand’s Ça Plane Pour Moi. Anna Haag is very much a stereotype; she is a stereotypical old woman, a stereotypical Germanic foreigner, a stereotypical elderly mother.

However, the best moment in Eine Kleine Frohike humanises Anna by allowing her a moment of compassion and vulnerability. While Frohike is in the bath tub, he desperately tries to conceal the fact that he is wearing a blonde wig. It initially plays as a farcical scene. After he rejects her initial attempts to scrub his back, she responds, “So, we shampoo your hair instead.” He cuts across her, “That’s not my brand of shampoo. I use the high dollar stuff.” It feels like the show is pushing for cheesy laughs as Frohike desperately covers his… er, wig.

It's like a nerdy version of Wiseguy.

It’s like a nerdy version of Wiseguy.

The tension seems to be built around the idea that Anna might realise that Frohike is wearing a stupid blonde wig and that he is really just pretending to be her son. The stakes are primarily plot driven at this point in the conversation, with Anna posing a threat this cheesy undercover sting operation. Those stakes aren’t particular high, given that she is an old lady, but they are built around the idea that Anna might discover that Frohike is not who he claims to be. Shiban’s script very cleverly sets up these expectations and takes them in an altogether different direction.

Anna knows that Frohike is wearing a wig. It seems like she has known for quite some time. After all, the Lone Gunmen are not the most competent of secret agents. However, the reveal is not actually plot-driven. It is character driven. “Don’t talk silly,” she warns him. “And take off that wig.” There is an awkward pause before she adds, “So you got a toupee, so what? I love you just the way you are. Always.  My sweet little boy.” It is a moment of genuine tenderness and affection, one that reveals Anna Haag to be more than a stock character.

Tied into the lie...

Tied into the lie…

Immediately following that revelation, Anna removes her own wig. It is a surprisingly touching scene, particularly given just how personal hair loss can be to person. Removing a wig is akin to taking off a mask, revealing a person’s true self that was hidden away. It is an act of intimacy and trust, allowing another individual to see the person as they really are. Anna’s candidness in discussing Frohike’s hair loss and her willingness to expose her own hair loss reveals her as more than just a cantankerous old woman angry at the world.

For the first time, Frohike and the audience come to see Anna as a person rather than a plot point. She is a mother who lost her child at the end of the Second World War, and who has been haunted by that loss ever since. The best Lone Gunmen episodes play on that idea of loss and isolation, as weird and eccentric individuals struggle to find some meaningful connection in a chaotic world. For that one scene, Eine Kleine Frohike touches on the same themes and ideas that drive Madam, I’m Adam, Planet of the Frohikes or Los Tango de los Pistoleros.

Fifth column...

Fifth column…

Of course, the rest of the episode is incredibly light. The basic premise is amusing enough, and it’s good to see Tom Braidwood afforded his own showcase episode. However, there are a number of obvious structural problems that suggest what will become recurring problems for the show. The most obvious problem with Eine Kleine Frohike is that the episode tries to blend mystery with comedy with espionage. It is certainly a quirky mix, with Shiban making a similar effort on Diagnosis: Jimmy, but it is not a blend best suited to television.

There is a sense that Eine Kleine Frohike bites off more than it can chew when the Lone Gunmen are assigned to investigate a woman who may (or may not) be “the Poisoner of Alsace.” Frohike is sent in undercover to determine Anna Haag’s guilt or innocence, and the episode might have been stronger had it left the issue at that. The obvious resolution to the plot concerns the identity of Anna; either Anna is the poisoner or Anna is not the poisoner. That focus would allow the story to focus more tightly on the the relationship between Frohike and Anna.

It's not Germaine to the investigation...

It’s not Germaine to the investigation…

Shiban’s script extends its focus to include not only the investigation of Anna, but also the identity of the poisoner. It is not enough to reveal that Anna is innocent, it has to expose the real poisoner. There is a sense that this is a little trite and condescending; there is a very cookie-cutter “resolve everything” tone to the episode. After all, just because Anna is not “the Poisoner of Alsace” does not mean that the Lone Gunmen have to expose the identity of the true war criminal. Anna could just be one of the billions of old people who were never Nazis.

(After all, it does undercut the premise of the show if the Lone Gunmen are instrumental in identifying a war criminal who evaded justice for more than half a century. A lot of the comedy of The Lone Gunmen hinges on the inadequacy and inefficiency of the leads, so it seems weird that their third episode should find them out-performing Interpol or Mossad. Eine Kleine Frohike would be a stronger episode were it willing to forgo the “everything wrapped up nicely” ending in favour of something a bit messier or more ambiguous.)

Jimmyin' the lock...

Jimmyin’ the lock…

The decision to include the real poisoner in Eine Kleine Frohike causes a number of problems. The most obvious problem – and it is a problem shared by Chris Carter’s script for Three Men and a Smoking Diaper and John Shiban’s script for Diagnosis: Jimmy – is that it is a mystery with a really obvious solution to the audience at home. Due to issues with budget and scheduling, there are only so many red herrings an episode of television can have. In an episode like this, the pool of suspects is decidedly limited.

There are only three characters in Eine Kleine Frohike who could conceivably be “the Poisoner of Alsace.” The most obvious suspect is Anna Haag herself. However, she is quickly discounted by the fact that the episode names her as a suspect and by the fact that she is subsequently humanised. The Lone Gunmen tends away from the moral ambiguity of The X-Files, as using making “the Poisoner of Alsace” a Nazi would suggest. Haag’s maid is another viable suspect, but her innocence is quickly affirmed when she becomes a victim.

Blonde ambition...

Blonde ambition…

This leaves only one other person who could possibly be the poisoner, Misses Everidge. The law of conservation of detail makes it very easy to deduce the real villain, because she is the only character who matches all the vital characteristics of the criminal without being the most obvious suspect. This is a common problem with mystery plots on television, particularly mystery plots drafted by writers unfamiliar with the form. It is also a problem with Three Men and a Smoking Diaper and Diagnosis: Jimmy.

The decision to include the real poisoner causes other problems that suggest bigger issues with the show as it stands. Most obviously, the “real poisoner” subplot is designed to give Jimmy and Yves something to do. While the three lead characters are investigating Anna Haag, the two supporting characters branch off into a subplot investigating Michael Wilhelm. The result of this decision is to diffuse the focus of the story, taking away from the more interesting focus on the relationship between Frohike and Anna.

Talk about risky business...

Talk about risky business…

The Lone Gunmen would take a little while to figure out what it could do with Jimmy and Yves. The characters had largely been introduced to make the eponymous characters more accessible and familiar to audiences, but they spent a lot of time sequestered away from the leads involved in their own subplots. (This approach reached its zenith with Diagnosis: Jimmy, where the duo shunted the trio off into the episode’s subplot for a week.) This creates an awkward sense that Jimmy and Yves are not integrated with their own show.

After all, removing Jimmy and Yves (or bumping them down to recurring guest stars) would open up a world of possibilities for the show. The Lone Gunmen could become more concentrated on its lead characters and stripped down to a leaner half-hour comedy. Given that so many episodes in the season feel over-extended, this might not be a bad thing. Alternatively, the show could retain its forty-five minute format while allowing for more exploration of the leading trio. Imagine Eine Kleine Frohike with more scenes like the bathroom scene.

File phile.

File phile.

The inclusion of the poisoner in the episode also creates issues around structuring the climax of the episode. It creates stakes that are more than just emotional. The reveal that Frohike has been lying to Anna creates an effective climax to the episode’s character arcs, but it is undercut by the need to expose the episode’s villain in the boldest way possible. This involves Jimmy putting on a flawless latex mask of Wilhelm in order to call out Misses Everidge. It is a climax right out of Mission: Impossible.

In some respects, this is entirely appropriate. After all, the opening scene of The Pilot featured Frohike engaged in his own Tom Cruise impression. The production team has made no secret of the fact that The Lone Gunmen aspires to be “Mission: Impossible with geeks”, as odd as that pitch might sound in early 2001. The teaser to Bond, Jimmy Bond revealed that the trio had devices that could alter the sound and pitch (and language) of the person speaking. A convincing latex mask is just a logical extension.

"I wanna take his face... off."

“I wanna take his face… off.”

That isn’t the problem. The problem is that the mask effectively arrives out of nowhere at the most convenient moment with absolutely no set up. At least the use of the mask in The Lying Game is set up by its use in Eine Kleine Frohike, and is treated more as a plot point than as a big reveal. The mask also raises some questions about the efficiency of the Lone Gunmen organisation. Even with Jimmy backing them, how do they afford the masks? If they can make those masks, how are they broke? Why don’t they use them more often?

There is a sense that – for all its goofiness – Eine Kleine Frohike positions the Lone Gunmen as far more efficient and effective than they really should be. Much of The Lone Gunmen is predicated on the idea of the team as a bunch of lovable losers, but it seems like the early episodes forget that all too ready. It feels like turning the Lone Gunmen into a trio of quirky but effective heroes undercuts a lot of what makes the series so special and unique.

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