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The Lone Gunmen – Three Men and a Smoking Diaper (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.

Three Men and a Smoking Diaper might just be the worst episode of The Lone Gunmen.

It is also the only episode to be written solely by Chris Carter, who had also contributed to The Pilot.

Good advice...

Good advice…

Three Men and a Smoking Diaper is embarrassing in the same ways that a lot of episodes of The Lone Gunmen are embarrassing. The jokes are not funny, instead seeming lazy and trite. Three Men and a Smoking Diaper doesn’t hold back on the sexism or the homophobia. There are even honest-to-goodness prison rape jokes in here, as Langly complains about “nine hours in jail defending [his] honor” and Frohike whines about how “some guy named Maurice tried to make [Frohike] his Afghan.”

There are points at which the juvenile humour in The Lone Gunmen can be charming. The sight of Frohike in a blonde wig and lederhousen in Eine Kleine Frohike is funnier than it really should be; the recurring suggestion that Frohike is a memetic sex god never ceases to be hilarious; Michael McKean sells absolutely ever off-colour gag in All About Yves. The problem with Three Men and a Smoking Diaper is how completely unrelenting the episode is in its appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Ain't no party like a political party...

Ain’t no party like a political party…

In no short order, Three Men and a Smoking Diaper offers:

  • Langly improvising a cover story about Frohike having “gas… terrible, explosive gas”;
  • another gag about Langly looking like a girl when the doctor calls him “nurse”, given the only nurse the audience has seen at the clinic is female;
  • the hilarity of a doctor snapping on a rubber glove while preparing for a rectal exam upon Frohike;
  • Jimmy reacting in disgust when Langly reflects, “we might have ourselves a Deep Throat”;
  • an extended sequence of a baby peeing on Langly;
  • Frohike making another joke about how Langly has long hair and girls also have long hair, observing, “he thinks you’re his mother.”

None of this is funny or edgy. It just feels rote and familiar.

Pushing the envelope...

Pushing the envelope…

The Lone Gunmen has a tendency to go for cheap gags when it needs to add laughs to extended scenes involving copious amounts of exposition. Langly’s vomiting in Bond, Jimmy Bond served to punctuate a long sequence where the Lone Gunmen were digging into the details of a murder. Three Men and a Smoking Diaper seems to double-down on this tendency, as if trying to sweeten a very earnest pill. Idealism about the democratic process goes down better with bodily function gags.

It does not help matters that Three Men and a Smoking Diaper is incredibly gender essentialist. The biggest gag in the entire episode is how ridiculous it would be if three men were to become parents. The issue is not that the Lone Gunmen are ill-equipped to deal with the burden of caring for a child because of their lifestyle or their awkwardness, it seems like Three Men and a Smoking Diaper suggests that the reason that the characters cannot handle a crying infant is because there are no women around.

Getting a read on the situation...

Getting a read on the situation…

This is perhaps most obvious in the way that Three Men and a Smoking Diaper chooses to integrate Yves Adele Harlow into its plot. The Lone Gunmen often struggles to find an excuse to connect Yves back to the wacky adventures of the leading trio, and Three Men and a Smoking Diaper offers perhaps the most spurious connection of the entire run. Unable to care for the infant on his own, Frohike reaches out to Yves for advice. The obvious implication is that Yves is a woman and thus understands babies.

“I’m in no mood for your usual sarcasm, Yves,” Frohike states, as if he stepped out of a forties public service announcement. “Just show us where the volume control is.” Of course, Frohike glosses over the fact that Yves is a fugitive hacker with no familial attachments of which Frohike is aware. Based on what little the Lone Gunmen know of Yves, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that Yves would know anything more about caring for a baby than Frohike or Langly.

Baby love.

Baby love.

Yves does not point any of this out. Instead, she shows a natural predisposition towards motherhood. “Even you’re not that stupid Frohike,” she reflects. “He won’t quite crying until you give him what he wants.” Langly complains that the baby did not come with “an instruction manual”, but it seems like Yves has that instruction manual programmed into her. She instinctively understands that the baby is teething. The baby feels a lot more comfortable being held by Yves than it does by Frohike.

The episode really invests in this idea that caring for a baby is a task best left to women. “How are we supposed to get any work done?” Frohike demands. “How are we supposed to publish our paper and root out graft, corruption and corporate greed for our loyal readers if we’re changing poopy diapers?” Yves does call him on this, but the episode makes a point to play You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman) at the climax when Senator Jefferson comes to claim the child. The politics of Three Men and a Smoking Diaper feel more than a little regressive.

Flagging concern...

Flagging concern…

At one point, Three Men and a Smoking Diaper even suggests that Yves is biologically drawn to the idea that Frohike might be a good father. Never mind their rivalry over the course of the show, or their disagreements, or Yves’ detachment. “Melvin, I’m so impressed,” she confesses. “I really thought you’d be all thumbs at this fatherhood business. You do know it’s quite a turn-on when a man shows himself so capable.” The episode seems to be entirely sincere in this assessment. Apparently Yves’ prior characterisation is less important than gender stereotypes.

To be fair, this could serve as an interesting (if cliché) gateway into Yves’ character. After all, the show has revealed so little about her that it is entirely possible that Yves might be (or might have been) a mother at one point. It would be interesting to discover that the super-spy was a loving parent, playing somewhat against the expectations of the show. It would run the risk of running into the same sort of essentialist nonsense that drove a lot of the “Scully wants to be a mummy” stuff from the fourth and fifth seasons of The X-Files, but it would offer more about Yves.

Washed up...

Washed up…

Unfortunately, it seems like Chris Carter has no real idea about how to approach Yves as a character. She is simply good with the baby because she is a woman and apparently women are maternal. More than that, Carter writes a shockingly earnest version of Yves. Despite the show’s attempt to portray Yves as morally ambiguous, episodes like Eine Kleine Frohike and Like Water for Octane make it clear that she does have a heart. However, Three Man and a Smoking Diaper puts her in the strange position of functioning as the Lone Gunmen’s moral righteousness.

“You let this man get away with fathering an illegitimate child?” she demands of the trio. “And keeping it a secret from the voters over there? Shame on you.” This seems like a rather strange stance for a woman introduced stealing a high-tech computer chip to sell it to the highest bidder, and who was willing to let Byers (and thousands of others) die until Frohike blackmailed her in The Pilot. It makes perfect sense for Yves to have a conscience, but it seems out of character for her to express it so bluntly and so simply.

Takes a lickin'...

Takes a lickin’…

Then again, it is not as if Three Men and a Smoking Diaper has a much firmer grip on the character of Jimmy. Carter treats Jimmy as an expository resource, a character who exists to make the plot clear to the audience at home. This is precisely as condescending as it sounds, with the script for Three Men and a Smoking Diaper pausing repeatedly so that Jimmy can basically recap the plot to this point. It is an extremely frustrating creative decision, one that seems to assume that the audience has never watched an episode of television before.

When the trio discover Senator Jefferson’s lovechild, Jimmy is shocked. “But the Senator’s a married man,” Jimmy reflects. “What would his wife think?” There is an awkward pause before Langly spells it out. “That’s what this is all about.” Later, Jimmy helpfully offers, “If it gets out that this is the Senator’s baby, he’s gonna lose the election.” Again, one of the leading trio is on hand to spell it all out. “Exactly,” Frohike notes. These are jokes about how stupid Jimmy is, but they also feel like signposts in case the audience is having trouble keeping up with the script.

Like a glove!

Like a glove!

Three Men and a Smoking Diaper positions Jimmy as the conscience of the group, the character with the strongest sense of integrity and faith. As with Bond, Jimmy Bond, this seems redundant. Unusual Suspects established Byers as the most idealistic and optimistic of the trio. Here, it is Jimmy who gets to espouse the virtues of patriotism and his belief in the democratic institutions of the United States. He refuses hush-money offered by Senator Jefferson’s campaign staff. “I want to believe that the Senator’s a great man, but not because somebody’s paying me to.”

There is a very strong patriotic undercurrent running through the first season of The Lone Gunmen. When Byers uncovers a covert government plot in The Pilot, his father is quick to insist #notallgovernmentstaff. Episodes like Los Tango de los Pistoleros and The “Cap’n Toby” Show find the trio working against plans to subvert the authority of the United States. The villains in Bond, Jimmy Bond and The Lying Game are both firmly established as foreign and tied to the end of the Cold War.

Rallying to the cause...

Rallying to the cause…

The colours of the American flag absolutely saturate the first season of The Lone Gunmen, with the production team largely eschewing the sharp contrast that marked the eighth season of The X-Files. To be fair, it makes sense for the colours red, white and blue to saturate the campaign scenes of Three Men and a Smoking Diaper. However, the use of the colour scheme makes less sense in the teaser of Like Water for Octane or the tango competition in Los Tango de los Pistoleros.

There is a very strong patriotic tone running through the first season of The Lone Gunmen. There is none of the mistrust of authority that defined so much of the early seasons of The X-Files. Then again, this arguably reflects the tone of the eighth season of The X-Files, which seemed to suggest that the real threat to the American people was not misuse of government authority but instead the infiltration and subversion of the state by alien invaders. The Lone Gunmen is very much of a piece with those revised anxieties.

Question time...

Question time…

A lot of attention has been focused on the swell in patriotism following the horrific events of 9/11, but American patriotism was arguably resurgent before those attacks. In a way, it could be seen as a response to the cynicism of the nineties. In July 2000, David M. Kennedy argued:

Always a plural people, Americans in recent years have grown downright fractious — not a condition that conduces to patriotic emotion. Loyalties to tribe and race and communities both virtual and vital, not to mention ardor for mergers and startups and global networking, have apparently crowded out love of nation. The booming economy also tends to make mere sunshine patriots of us all.

In the wake of the Cold War, the American people were afforded an opportunity for reflection or insight. Shows like The X-Files offered a cynical prism through which the population might examine the history and legacy of the United States. By the turn of the millennium, perhaps the population had grown tired of such knee-jerk skepticism.

"What? You mean Jerry Hardin's showing up?"

“What? You mean Jerry Hardin’s showing up?”

There was a sense that the American people had grown apart during the relative peace and prosperity of the nineties, that pride in national identity had been lost. In July 2001, essayist and speechwriter William Safire argued:

We are taught that pride in independence is arrogant except in the case of the weak. Its opposite, interdependence, is now the passion of the elites: As ”travelers on the Earth together,” we are members of one world, one planetary family, transfixed by the notion that national aspirations and powers should defer to a loose, global government driven by the power of world opinion.

Perhaps this patriotic pride was the logical end point for The X-Files‘ anxieties about globalisation and homogenisation. Belief in American exceptionalism might make for an adequate defense.

It was funnier in Home Alone.

It was funnier in Home Alone.

In hindsight, there is something tragic about this hunger for a newfound patriotism, given where it would lead. The patriotic fervour in the wake of 9/11 would allow the Bush administration carte blanche to restrict civil liberties and increase the power of the surveillance state. More than that, there is something quite uncomfortable in reading turn of the millennium articles where people complain that the contemporary generation has not been galvinised by war or conflict. Given the fractures caused by the War on Terror, these observations seem almost tragic.

It is tempting to tie all of this patriotism back to the election of George W. Bush to the White House. Certainly, the success of the Bush campaign suggests that certain strands of conservatism were resurgent at the dawn of the twenty-first century. However, both The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen stand rather tentatively at the cusp of this bold new frontier. The eighth season of The X-Files deserves a great deal of credit for pushing the show into the twenty-first century, but the ninth season suggested that the show was still stuck in the nineties.

"Daddy Frohike."

“Daddy Frohike.”

The Lone Gunmen faces a similar crisis. The Pilot opens with a conspiracy plot eerily similar to the events of 9/11, making it clear that The Lone Gunmen belongs to a time when such a horrific event was considered fanciful or absurd. Episodes like Bond, Jimmy Bond and The Lying Game are very much rooted in the aftermath of the Cold War, while The “Cap’n Toby” Show suggests that “Red China” is the most pressing foreign policy concern for the United States government.

As much as Three Men and a Smoking Diaper might have been produced and broadcast during a Republican presidency, the episode is very firmly rooted in crises of the Democratic Party. The accusations levelled by Langly at Senator Jefferson in the teaser concern “the death of a Jefferson campaign worker in a mysterious auto accident.” Even though Senator Jefferson himself was not actually in the car, it recalls the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in Ted Kennedy’s car. Frohike even remarks that Jefferson has “gone Chappaquiddick.”

Toilet humour...

Toilet humour…

It makes sense for The Lone Gunmen to offer their own version of the Chappaquiddick incident. The horrific accident – and Ted Kennedy’s behaviour in the wake of the accident – shattered any real hope of the Kennedy family as a political dynasty. In its own way, the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in July 1969 represented the definite end of “Camelot” and the fading of sixties idealism. Although less prominent than the escalation of Vietnam or the Watergate Scandal, the Chappaquiddick incident feels like a point of transition toward the cynicism of the seventies.

If The X-Files was rooted in the cynicism of the seventies, The Lone Gunmen aspires toward the utopianism of the sixties. Indeed, Via Negativa made a point to suggest that Frohike rode on the bus with Ken Kesey during the sixties before witnessing the end of the decade at Altamont. In The Pilot, Byers launches his fathers’ ashes into space in a model rocket. In Like Water for Octane, the water-powered car is portrayed as a counter-culture relic. Even the title of Bond, Jimmy Bond nods towards a sixties cultural icon.

The mother of all gender essentialism...

The mother of all gender essentialism…

Perhaps this nostalgia is tied into the same anxieties that informed the resurgent patriotism at the end of the twentieth century, suggesting a population increasingly tired of the cynicism and skepticism of contemporary life. Robert D. Putnam argues in Bowling Alone:

At the conclusion of the twentieth century, ordinary Americans shared this sense of civic malaise. We were reasonably content about our economic prospects, hardly a surprise after an expansion of unprecedented length, but we were not equally convinced that we were on the right track morally or culturally. Of baby boomers interviewed in 1987, 53 percent thought their parents’ generation was better in terms of “being a concerned citizen, involved in helping others in the community,” as compared with only 21 percent who thought their own generation was better. Fully 77 percent said the nation was worse off because of “less involvement in community activities.” In 1992 three-quarters of the U.S. workforce said that “the breakdown of community” and “selfishness” were “serious” or “extremely serious” problems in America. In 1996 only 8 percent of all Americans said that “the honesty and integrity of the average American” were improving, as compared with 50 percent of us who thought we were becoming less trustworthy. Those of us who said that people had become less civil over the preceding ten years outnumbered those who thought people had become more civil, 80 percent to 12 percent. In several surveys in 1999 two-thirds of Americans said that America’s civic life had weakened in recent years, that social and moral values were higher when they were growing up, and that our society was focused more on the individual than the community.

With all of this going on, it makes sense to look backwards with a sense of nostalgia and romance, to believe that there really was a more innocent time that ould possibly be recaptured and reclaimed. The Lone Gunmen yearns for a version of the sixties that was likely to be almost as fictional as the water-powered car.

Baby on board...

Baby on board…

In its own way, of course, this serves to distinguish The Lone Gunmen from the other Ten Thirteen shows. One of the defining features of the Ten Thirteen shows is the way that they approach the link between past and future. The X-Files meditates upon the idea that the present is shaped by past misconduct and abuses, that the current generation are trapped by the sins of those who came before them. Millennium is anxious about the future that the current generation leaves for their children. Harsh Realm suggests the past is liable to repeat itself.

In contrast, The Lone Gunmen actually seems hopeful and optimistic in its assessment of the past. According to The Lone Gunmen, the past was bright and hopeful. More than that, the past can be recovered. In some respects, the sixties nostalgia of The Lone Gunmen feels a little ahead of its time. A decade late, pop culture would come to embrace that yearning for sixties utopianism, allowing the nostalgia to bleed through into films like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Getting By(ers)...

Getting By(ers)…

However, Three Men and a Smoking Diaper also espouses a more contemporary nostalgia. It is not too difficult to figure out which famous politician provided the basis of Senator Jefferson. The name is a hint, as is the philandering. The final act really ups the ante, featuring Senator Jefferson joining his musicians on stage while playing a saxophone and finally settling upon a name for his illegitimate love child. “You know what?” he ponders. “I believe I’m going to call you… William. How about that? William Jefferson.” Clinton, maybe?

Three Men and a Smoking Diaper is obviously informed by all the scandal around President William Jefferson Clinton. “Come on, Senator, how many bimbos do you have to ice to bury the truth, being that you’ve buried more pipe than Exxon in Alaska?” Langly demands at one point, in what might just be the best line of the entire episode. The episode opens with Langly haranguing Senator Jefferson “about [his] drunken behaviour, and [his] reckless carousing and the death of one of [his] campaign workers.”

Oh, baby.

Oh, baby.

Naturally, this draws quite heavily on the conspiracy theories that built up around William and Hillary Clinton. The infamous (and completely baseless) “Bill Clinton body count list” has been a fixture of conspiracy theorising since the late nineties. Three Men and a Smoking Diaper cleverly predicted the more recent “Bill Clinton’s love-child” stories, but those were really inevitable given the politician’s reputation and the fall-out from the Monica Lewinsky Scandal.

It makes sense that Chris Carter should want to touch on these topics. Carter had voted for Clinton twice, and the Lewinsky Scandal had cast quite the shadows over contemporary American politics. Indeed, Gillian Anderson’s script for all things seemed to allude to the Lewinsky Scandal in its way, imagining Scully involved in a (possibly) inappropriate relationship with an older male authority figure during her student days. While it is hard to imagine the mythology of The X-Files handling the Lewinsky Affair, The Lone Gunmen is perhaps light enough to pull it off.

America, #!?% yeah!"

“America, #!?% yeah!”

It does seem a bit strange for The Lone Gunmen to build an entire episode around a thinly-veiled caricature of Bill Clinton. Clinton had been out of office for several months at this point; he was hardly an on-going concern. Three Men and a Smoking Diaper might have seemed timely had it aired a year or two prior, but it seemed oddly out of place in the early months of George W. Bush’s presidency. As with so much about the final seasons of The X-Files, it suggested a show and a production team that were becoming unstuck in time.

Then again, perhaps it is appropriate to offer an episode focusing on a stand-in for William Jefferson Clinton. The X-Files is undeniably a product of the nineties, and so it makes sense to anchor The Lone Gunmen in that decade as well. Bill Clinton is far from the first president to be the subject of conspiracy theories; John Kennedy and Richard Nixon are the patron saints of United States political paranoia. However, Clinton was in office at a time when conspiracy theories entered the mainstream. He was the first president to deal with conspiracy theory so candidly.

After all, both sides of the political divide were able to harness conspiracy theory as a political tool. Those opposed to Clinton could cite the suicide of Vince Foster or the death of Ron Brown as evidence that the Clintons were not who they claimed to be. Those defending Clinton (like Monica Lewinsky or Hillary Clinton) could argue that the President was the victim of “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” The nineties saw the emergence of conspiracy theory as a tool of political discourse, and President Clinton was a major part of that.

In a way, then, it feels like Three Men and a Smoking Diaper is really a eulogy to the Clinton era. It marks the passing of the nineties into history by acknowledging the massive influence that Clinton had in the mainstreaming of paranoia and the popularising of conspiracy theory. The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen are ultimately a product of the same cultural stew that tied the Clinton presidency so tightly to a culture of baseless speculation and paranoid gossip. There is something worth exploring there, particularly at the turn of the millennium.

The problem is that Three Men and a Smoking Diaper really has very little insightful to say about this culture of paranoia and the relationship that it enjoys to political discourse. There is a very clever and very funny episode to be written about how these conspiracy theories have influenced the way that people engage with the political process, but Three Men and a Smoking Diaper is not interested in any of those big ideas. Instead, it spends forty-five minutes making gender essentialist jokes before settling on the idea that Bill Clinton probably wasn’t a bad guy after all.

Three Men and a Smoking Diaper is the weakest episode of the first season of The Lone Gunmen. It is also the first episode of the show to air on Friday nights, slipping back into the slot that had been occupied by The X-Files. (And Millennium, and Harsh Realm.) It is not an auspicious beginning.

2 Responses

  1. (Each time I think my opinion of Carter can’t go any lower.)

    Very insightful stuff about the Clintons. In many ways Reagan was the last democratic President. I mean democratic in the social sense. He wanted (or seemed to want) to improve peoples’ lives. hHe called on them to participate in and take pride in the country.

    As I write, nationalism is on a sharp rise in Europe and on the wane in the States. The Tea Party, Socialists, and even weirdos like the Ancaps can all agree on one thing. The beltway doesn’t represent our interests. Yet no one is offering an alternative. Our organizational skills are nil. We merely mean to replace the existing system and put their own guys at the top. Patriotism, even civic responsibility doesn’t enter into it. Power does.

    We’ve managed to create a real scary race of people over here.

    • That’s interesting point about Reagan. Goes to show how arbitrary the part labels in the States can be. (I always found it strange how the label “socialist” is such a horrible insult, as if it were inherently evil rather than just a political descriptor.)

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