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The Lone Gunmen – Madam, I’m Adam (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.

Arriving just before The X-Files returns with DeadAlive, it seems like Madam, I’m Adam has found the perfect tone for The Lone Gunmen.

Madam, I’m Adam is the first episode of The Lone Gunmen to really hone in on a unique and distinctive tone for the show and its characters. A lot of Lone Gunmen episodes can seem very generic or bland, engaging the lead characters in wacky capers that lead to familiar jokes that are not necessarily funny enough to sustain forty-five minutes of television. Madam, I’m Adam seems to understand that The Lone Gunmen needs to be more than just silly imagery and bodily function gags if it wants to sustain itself.

Men at work.

Men at work.

Melancholy is threaded through Madam, I’m Adam. This seems perfectly suited to these characters and their world, elegantly capturing a sense of disconnect and disaffection. Madam, I’m Adam is not the first time that the writers have adopted this approach to the characters. Byer’s desperate loneliness served to make Unusual Suspects so very affecting. The short scene in the bathroom between Frohike and Anna in Eine Kleine Frohike might have been the most effective emotional beat of the first five episodes. Madam, I’m Adam just extends that across an episode.

Madam, I’m Adam is also notable as the first credited teleplay to be written by Thomas Schnauz. To quote Byers from the episode itself, “As first stories go, this one’s a doozy.”

Wild blue yonder...

Wild blue yonder…

Tom Schnauz had attended college with Vince Gilligan in New York. “I got him his start on The Lone Gunmen,” recalled Gilligan in a 2009 interview. Schnauz would go on to write two of the thirteen episodes of The Lone Gunmen before joining the writing staff of The X-Files in its ninth and final season. Schnauz and Gilligan remained close throughout their careers, with Schnauz jokingly suggesting the premise of Breaking Bad to Gilligan over the course of a phone call. Schnauz would go on to work on that show before moving across to Better Call Saul.

There is an argument to be made that Tom Schnauz is the definitive new writer from The Lone Gunmen, in much the same way that Steven Maeda was the definitive new writer from Harsh Realm. Both Schnauz and Maeda were staff writers with no significant prior experience who seemed to have an innate understanding of the show and who scripted some of the stronger episodes in the relatively short lives of those series before finding themselves assimilated up to the mothership when their show was inevitably cancelled.

It doesn't scan...

It doesn’t scan…

Schnauz was not recruited directly on to the writing staff at The Lone Gunmen. He was originally hired to write Madam, I’m Adam on spec. However, as he recalls, the strength of the script led the production team to recruit him full-time:

I remember the first couple of days on The Lone Gunmen much clearer, because it was my first television job. I moved out here, and I did my first episode on spec. I wasn’t a staff member, but then they wanted to hire me after that. I moved out, I got a great office. I was like, “Oh man, this is cool.” And the very first thing that they asked me to do, being on staff, was to write a promotional newspaper for The Lone Gunmen. It went out with video cassettes and DVDs to television reviewers.

Schnauz’s scripts for Madam, I’m Adam and Los Tango de los Pistoleros are probably the two strongest episodes of the first season of The Lone Gunmen. Schnauz seems to instinctively understand the show, marrying ridiculous set-ups to strangely poignant tales of isolation and loneliness.

Wrestling with his demons...

Wrestling with his demons…

Since their introduction in E.B.E., one of the appeals of the Lone Gunmen has been the sense that they are even crazier and weirder than Mulder. Mulder is very much the hero of The X-Files, existing in a world where most (if not all) of his conspiracy theories are true and where he has the opportunity to save the world. In any rational world, Mulder would seem paranoid and delusional with all his talk of aliens and colonisation. The joy of the Lone Gunmen is the fact that they exist on Mulder’s fringe.

The Lone Gunmen exist far beyond the realm of rational though, even within the universe of The X-Files. Given that The X-Files routinely features men made out of cancer or butt-dwelling fakirs, the Lone Gunmen must exist really far away from anything resembling logic or reality. The Lone Gunmen would seem to operate on a plane beyond even Mulder’s darkest nightmares about government conspiracies and sinister cover-ups. Byers, Langly and Frohike exists at the very edge of reason staring into an abyss.

Tobo to go...

Tobo to go…

The problem with a lot of the episodes of The Lone Gunmen is a reluctance to embrace the precarious position of the leading trio. As much as early scripts like Eine Kleine Frohike or Like Water for Octane pay lip service to the idea of the Lone Gunmen as eccentric weirdos, the show has tended to allow the leading trio their own substantial victories. In The Pilot, the Lone Gunmen thwart a plot to destroy the World Trade Centre. In Bond, Jimmy Bond, the characters stop a massive financial plot concocted by a sinister foreign power.

Many of the first season episodes feel too big. Too much of The Lone Gunmen seems to buy into the mythology around the Lone Gunmen, suggesting that they are truly unsung heroes. This seems to be predicated on a misunderstanding of the relationship between the Lone Gunmen and Mulder. The Lone Gunmen are not valiant heroes who will succeed against all odds, toiling in obscurity but saving the world. This misreading of the Lone Gunmen is a large part of what leads to the muddled ending of Jump the Shark.

Pixel perfect...

Pixel perfect…

Instead, the best Lone Gunmen episodes understand that the heroism of the Lone Gunmen is not measured in their success rate. The Lone Gunmen are not simply a funnier version of Mulder and Scully. The true heroism of the Lone Gunmen is measured at a different scale and in a different context. Trying to position the Lone Gunmen as a trio of heroes toppling government conspiracies misunderstands the appeal of the characters; Don Quixote doesn’t have to knock down the windmill, it is enough that he tilts at it.

Thomas Schnauz’s scripts seem to understand this. Although Los Tango de los Pistoleros does feature a subplot involving covert weapons schematics, the schematics are nothing more than a macguffin; all Frohike has to do is to swipe a compact disc out of the hand of an extra to win the day. In both Madam, I’m Adam and Los Tango de los Pistoleros, there is an emphasis on the weird loneliness of supporting characters. The stakes are much smaller – and much weirder – than any involving Mulder and Scully.

"Honey, I'm home. I think."

“Honey, I’m home. I think.”

Madam, I’m Adam very cleverly emphasises this sense that The Lone Gunmen exists beyond any frame of reference. When Jimmy arranges to meet Adam Burgess, the script suggests that the trio have wandered into a case that would be too weird for even Mulder and Scully. Adam claims to be “a stranger in this reality”, presenting Byers with “proof of alien contact” that consists of a little tub of blue goo. Later, even Byers is dismissive of the case. “I don’t think real alien goo smells like lavender hand lotion.”

It is worth noting that The Lone Gunmen is the first official spin-off from The X-Files. Although Chris Carter had launched Millennium during the fourth season of The X-Files, the relationship between the two series was kept somewhat ambiguous while they were on the air. Frank Black was only retroactively incorporated into continuity with The X-Files with Millennium after his own show had ended. Harsh Realm was not around long enough to establish a textual connection to The X-Files, barring a few nods and winks.

Good goo...

Good goo…

With all of that in mind, The Lone Gunmen marks the first time that a show had officially launched in continuity with The X-Files. The show stars three central characters who first appeared on The X-Files during its first season. The show’s thirteen-episode season will feature guest appearances from three characters who had previously appeared on The X-Files, and the twin of another character who had been killed off during Three of a Kind. The show was not shy about its connections back to The X-Files.

With all of that going on, it made sense for the production team to try to distinguish The Lone Gunmen from The X-Files. One of the issues with The Pilot was that it felt a little bit too much like a lost episode of The X-Files. Directed by veteran X-Files director Rob Bowman and written by the four longest-serving X-Files staff writers, The Pilot found the Lone Gunmen thwarting a covert government conspiracy intended to inflict a great deal of harm upon the American public. Finding a unique voice was always going to be a challenge.

Obligatory toilet gag!

Obligatory toilet gag!

Introducing Adam Burgess as a man claiming to have been abducted by aliens is a very clever way of wrong-footing the audience. After all, Madam, I’m Adam aired only two days before the broadcast of DeadAlive returned Mulder to The X-Files. Fans watching The Lone Gunmen in real time might have been forgiven for suspected a crossover between the two shows, with the Lone Gunmen embarking upon their own investigation of alien abduction that might dovetail neatly into the bleak ending of This is Not Happening.

Tom Schnauz’s script is very clever. Adam Burgess does not resemble any of the alien abductees who appeared on The X-Files. He does not have the intensity or insight of Duane Barry; he lacks the calmness or confidence of Cassandra Spender; he certainly lacks the purpose of Billy Miles. Adam Burgess does not look like a character who might belong in the grand mythology of The X-Files. He does not appear to be a character who is tied to colonisation or invasion. It is hard to imagine him sharing a scene with Kritschgau or Krycek.

Going the whole front yard...

Going the whole front yard…

Instead, Adam Burgess looks like a real alien abductee. He resembles the kinds of people who pop up in documentaries about the subject, or who appear on television talk shows. In the grand pantheon of alien abductees to appear on The X-Files, Adam Burgess is probably closest to Harold Lamb or Chrissy Giorgio from Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” There is a sense of pathetic desperation and loneliness to him. Just looking at Adam in the diner suggests a man who has lived through horrible trauma, just not trauma tied into a plot against the human race.

Divorced from the fictional world of The X-Files, there is something quite sad about stories concerning alien abduction and experimentation. Studies suggest that these encounters might the product of sleep paralysis and repressed memories of traumatic experiences. There is a sense that some of these alien abduction narratives are an attempt to channel personal trauma into something more meaning or rational. The X-Files has touched on this on a number of occasions, but these are always tempered by the fact that the mythology is based around aliens.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

When Glen Morgan and James Wong created the Lone Gunmen for E.B.E., they were inspired by people they had actually encountered handing out pamphlets about aliens. As Dean Haglund tells it:

Yeah, apparently James Wong and Glen Morgan (producers and writers) were walking through an airport in some small city and there were three guys at a table, one with long hair, one had a leather jacket and one with a suit. They were handing out UFO information brochures, in an airport of all things – wouldn’t happen now, and they thought that was hilarious and they should put that in a TV show some day in the future. Lo and behold the Gunmen come up and they start writing for it in first season and they put in those three characters. So they were based on real people.

The Lone Gunmen have always seemed more convincing as UFO enthusiasts than Mulder. After all, very few experts in alien abduction look and dress like David Duchovny.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

Madam, I’m Adam is free from the baggage of the parent show’s mythology, and so it can take an alien abduction narrative in a very different direction. The initial interaction between Adam Burgess and John Byers suggests that the Lone Gunmen occupy a very different niche to Mulder and Scully. Due to the nature of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully will tend to be drawn to abduction cases that suggest some larger conspiracy. However, the Lone Gunmen exist at a level where they can attract alien abductees who seem more realistic.

In its own strange way, The Lone Gunmen feels more grounded and more realistic than The X-Files. In crafting a story about alien abduction and experimentation, The X-Files deals with its grand themes of isolation and loneliness through metaphor. Mulder’s crusade might allow him to make sense of the dissolution of his family, but it also allows him to wrestle with faceless aliens and save the world. In contrast, The Lone Gunmen seems to tackle these themes of desperation and longing in a way that is much more candid.

Milking it...

Milking it…

Adam Burgess has not been abducted by aliens. He has, however, volunteered to take part in an experiment involving personality change and virtual reality. However, Adam’s trauma all ties back to a bizarre love triangle involving a television salesman and the daughter of a wrestling champion. Adam Burgess was once Charles Muckle, a man trying to make sense of his messy and confused personal life by imposing a narrative upon it. Alien abduction would just be another narrative applied in an effort to explain that past trauma.

In Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, Frohike drew upon Henry David Thoreau’s observation that most men live “lives of quiet desperation” when describing the life and times of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. However, Vince Gilligan’s script to Unusual Suspects suggested that the phrase is just as applicable to Byers. Conspiracy theory is largely about trying to make sense of a chaotic and random universe, insisting that everything happens for a reason and that human lives are not governed by simple chance or happenstance.

"I know this is going to sound crazy, but..."

“I know this is going to sound crazy, but…”

Of course, some conspiracies are true. The CIA really has plotted to overthrow various democratically-elected governments in service of American foreign policy. The NSA really is spying on everybody. Richard Nixon really was involved in some very shady business. However, conspiracy theory often exists as a way of imposing a streamlined fictional narrative upon a much more complicated reality. Everybody tells themselves stories to help them understand the workings of the world, conspiracy theories are just an extension of that.

Ultimately, the climax of Madam, I’m Adam hinges on Charlie deciding to reject the neat and convenient narrative placed in front of him. Charlie only finds satisfaction in deciding to embrace the chaotic mess of his real life. In its own way, this all ties back to the suggestion in Unusual Suspects that the Lone Gunmen are trapped in their own fantasy world as a way of dealing with their own losses and their own dysfunctions. Madam, I’m Adam ends with Charlie accepting the contradictions of the real world, but are the Lone Gunmen just as trapped in their own fantasy?

Bringing down the house...

Bringing down the house…

Madam, I’m Adam feels like a wacky companion piece to The X-Files. Tom Schnauz hones in on a number of familiar themes, while still finding a way to put a unique spin on them. Loss of identity is one of the biggest recurring anxieties on The X-Files, as reflected in the episodes focusing on suburban or through the incorporation of clones into the mythology. Madam, I’m Adam hits on many of the same ideas in its own eccentric way, with Adam essentially “programmed” in order to appreciate conventional suburban life.

Outlining the story to Jimmy, Byers sums it up neatly. “You’ve got an unproven virtual reality therapy that threatens to strip its patients of their very identities,” he insists. “It’s exactly what the American people need to be warned about.” In its own way, this is just another iteration of the threat posed by the colonists in the mythology of The X-Files, a plan to erode personal identity and to impose a new rigid order upon the world. It goes without saying that suburban Adam Burgess is much more generic than roughhousing Charlie Muckle.

Take it or Yves it...

Take it or Yves it…

Trying to figure out what is going on, Langly asks, “Why would someone want to pump his head full of images of a happy suburban life? Make him think he’s got a home and a wife and all that?” The goal, it seems, is to try to make Charlie conform to an ideal of “normality.” What little we see of Adam’s life suggested a decidedly middle-class suburban existence, right down to the beaten up suit that he wears. In contrast, Charlie lives a much rougher life that is not as archetypal or as simple as that presented to him as an ideal.

After a nostalgic trip back to nineties politics with Three Men and a Smoking Diaper, it is interesting to see Madam, I’m Adam apply a clever twenty-first century twist to these familiar themes. Meeting Adam for the first time in the diner, Byers observes, “Mister Burgess, if Jimmy understood you correctly you’re the victim of some sort of identity theft, is that right?” Adam agrees entire. “My whole life is gone,” he confesses to Byers. The crime of identity theft has been around for millennia, but it has become particularly common in an increasingly digital age.

Well, when she said she wanted a ring...

Well, when she said she wanted a ring…

During the late nineties, the growth of the internet led to an increase in instances of identity theft. In May 1998, the Federal Trade Commission addressed the United States Senate on the risks. In June 1998, it was reported that many people had started shredding important documents before throwing them out. Only a week after Madam, I’m Adam was broadcast, The New York Times reported:

While identity theft is hardly new — con men have been doing it for ages — law enforcement officials and consumer advocates say the Internet is making identity theft one of the signature crimes of the digital era. Any visitor to cyberspace can find Web sites selling all sorts of personal information and, with that information in hand, thieves can acquire credit, make purchases and even secure residences in someone else’s name.

The Social Security Administration said it had received more than 30,000 complaints about the misuse of Social Security numbers last year, most of which had to do with identity theft. That was up from about 11,000 complaints in 1998 and 7,868 complaints in 1997. The Social Security Administration attributes the rise to the ease with which Social Security data can be collected on the Internet.

The internet had changed everything. Although “virtual reality” never quite materialised in the way that episodes like Kill Switch or First Person Shooter had proposed, the internet created a virtual world that allowed easy of access and freedom of movement that was previously unimagined. It was very much a virtual space, to the point where even the other people may be virtual. As The New Yorker joked, on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.

A lot at steak...

A lot at steak…

The evolution of cyberspace’s anonymous frontier only enhanced a creeping sense of unreality at the turn of the millennium. That feeling of unreality bleeds into Madam, I’m Adam, with writer Tom Schnauz finding another way of playing with familiar themes in a rather novel manner. The seventh and ninth seasons of The X-Files are absolutely intrigued by the nature of reality, inviting viewers to wonder about the world around them. (This was also a theme of Harsh Realm, which ran roughly parallel with the seventh season.)

Madam, I’m Adam plays with this idea of virtual reality in a number of ways, suggesting multiple recursive realities. Adam himself is ultimately a fiction, an idealised version of Charlie created when all the rough edges are removed. Adam might exist within a virtual world, but it is debatable whether he is any more real than that fantasy he occupies. The world fed in through the electrical port on the back of Adam’s neck is clearly a simulation, but does Adam have any greater claim on reality because he happens to be flesh and blood?

I'm blue... dabba dee dabba da...

I’m blue… dabba dee dabba da…

At one point, the Lone Gunmen discover what looks like a USB port on the back of Adam’s neck. In an obvious shout-out to The Matrix, which already proved a major influence on both Harsh Realm and the teaser to Bond, Jimmy Bond. More than that, it plays into the same body horror themes that reverberate through the eighth season of The X-Files. The presence of a USB port on the back of Adam’s neck suggests that the human body is nothing but a machine made of meat that can easily be wired into more mechanical systems.

The virtual reality is only one example of the unreality of Adam’s situation. It is revealed that the simulation is not even original or unique; instead, the images are being streamed in Adam’s subconscious through camera lenses. “You thinking that Adam never actually lived here but instead he watched the house on TV?” Jimmy asks at one point. “Through hidden cameras,” Byers replies. “Maybe somehow the images were fed through the input wiring in the back of his neck.” His fantasy was reality filtered through a hidden camera.

"You wouldn't like me when I'm angry..."

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…”

However, even when Adam finds a way to escape the virtual world, he discovers that the outside world is no more real or tangible. Sneaking into the building that he considers to be his home, Adam discovers that it is occupied by strangers. Everything else is exactly as he remembers it, but Adam has found himself displaced in his own life. Madam, I’m Adam suggests that reality and unreality are not always clearly delineated, that what is real can be unreal and what is unreal might possibly be real.

At the climax, the Lone Gunmen try desperately to convince Adam to relinquish his idealised romantic fantasy in favour of something more real and tangible. “Listen, seriously, there’s no pressure here,” Adam insists. “I’m happy, life is good. I don’t have to make any big decisions – it’s a perfect life. It’s designed to be.” He seems to understand that he is living in a fantasy, but argues that it does not matter. “Pretty soon I’ll forget who I even am. Just like before. Maybe I’ll forget this isn’t real. It’ll be even better.”

Port o' call...

Port o’ call…

The best episodes of The Lone Gunmen evoke the themes of Darin Morgan. They capture characters living lives of loneliness and desperation while adopting a postmodern approach to the concept of “truth.” Indeed, the question of reality and unreality in Madam, I’m Adam is evoked once again at the climax of Planet of the Frohikes. Much like Charlie Muckle, Simon White-Thatch Potentloins finds himself forced to choose between harsh reality and romantic fantasy. Both Charlie and Simon arrive at opposite – but equally valid – assessments of their situations.

Much like Darin Morgan’s scripts, there is a grain of romance and optimism to be found beneath the cynical meditations on the human condition. The climaxes of both Madam, I’m Adam and Planet of the Frohikes find the guest character trapped in a cage. In Madam, I’m Adam, the cage is a virtual world; in Planet of the Frohikes, the cage is a literal cage. Ultimately, however, the cage itself does not matter. It seems that there is always a bigger cage. The question is where Adam and Simon might possibly find love. That determines their reaction.

Where's his head at?

Where’s his head at?

In keeping with the episode’s themes of reality and unreality, Madam, I’m Adam also manages a surprisingly affecting metafictional finalé. After Charlie decides to undergo the procedure to re-write his personality, Jimmy is far from happy. Writing up the story for the newspaper, Jimmy muses, “I don’t like how the story ends.” It is not quite as overt as Mulder’s “I want to speak to the writer” from The Post-Modern Prometheus, but it gets there. “How would you end the story?” Yves asks Jimmy. Taking the prompting, Jimmy decides to effectively rewrite the ending.

Implicit in this is the suggestion that the Lone Gunmen are not merely reporters, they are writers. The Lone Gunmen do not exist to document the weird and the wonderful, they have an obligation to make the world a better place. There is a rejection of the nonsense that made the ending of Like Water for Octane such a damp squib. “You’re a journalist,” Frohike tries to convince Jimmy. “You report the news, good or bad, you don’t change the news, you don’t affect its outcome.” Luckily, Jimmy sees through this nonsense.

Letters of note...

Letters of note…

Madam, I’m Adam is also notable as an example of “The Lone Gunmen do [x]” style of storytelling, reflecting the cinematic tastes of the production team. Eine Kleine Frohike was John Shiban’s excuse to riff on The Ladykillers. Diagnosis: Jimmy plays on Rear Window. According to The Making of the Lone Gunmen, Tom Schnauz had his own inspiration in mind when writing Madam, I’m Adam:

I pitched this idea about a man being reprogrammed. He’s a bad guy, he’s troubled. Is it right for society to reprogramme a person to make society safer or do you let the misfits run wild? It was a take-off on A Clockwork Orange, somebody who was being reprogrammed.

Indeed, the character of Adam Burgess seems to be named in homage to author Anthony Burgess. Given the thematic overlap between A Clockwork Orange and The X-Files – conformity, brainwashing, state power – it seems strange that it took the production team so long to riff on the idea. Madam, I’m Adam never over-emphasises its inspiration, but instead uses it as a springboard to tell a unique and eccentric tale.

Frame of ref-erence...

Frame of ref-erence…

Of course, it helps that Madam, I’m Adam is simply a well-produced piece of television. Tom Schnauz’s script is the funniest script that the show has enjoyed to this point. It is structured very cleverly. Realising that it is difficult to sustain comedy across forty-five minutes, Schnauz opts to create a compelling mystery instead. The question of what exactly has happened to Adam Burgess is intriguing enough to drive the entire episode, with the teleplay taking a number of very clever twists and turns along the way.

It helps that Bryan Spicer really understands the show. Madam, I’m Adam manages to maintain a delightful slapstick atmosphere, even with all the plot twists and character beats. The teaser is very much in the style of old-school comedy, relying on perfect timing and improbable synchronisation for some solid laughs. The sequence in which the front falls off Adam’s house is one of the most hilarious moments in the show’s thirteen-episode run. The sequence of the trio appealing to Adam to abandon his fantasy world is very effectively shot.

Three in the bed...

Three in the bed…

The casting of Stephen Tobolowsky also elevates the episode. Tobolowsky is a massively underrated performer, an actor with great comic timing but incredible dramatic chops. Adam Burgess is very much a pathetic and tragic figure, and Tobolowsky manages to land just about every joke while still creating a compelling and multi-faceted character. Madam, I’m Adam could easily get lost in plot twists and philosophical meandering, but Tobolowsky manages to present an absurd humanity that anchors the script.

Madam, I’m Adam is a standout episode of the first season. It suggests that The Lone Gunmen might just be finding its feet. Not a moment too soon.

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