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The Lone Gunmen – Maximum Byers (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 Maximum Byers, it seems like The Lone Gunmen has wandered back into the wilderness.

Madam, I’m Adam and Planet of the Frohikes suggested a show that had found its own voice and figured out how best to tell stories featuring theses characters. Those two episodes worked by eschewing the caper-driven hijinks of episodes like Like Water for Octane and Three Men and a Smoking Diaper in favour of character-driven melancholy. Planet of the Frohikes might be the single funniest episode of the show’s short run, but it mostly works because it is underpinned by a sense of genuine tragi-comedy. Its characters felt real; even the talking monkey.

"Thank you very much..."

“Thank you very much…”

Maximum Byers seems to set the clock back to the early first season, sending the Lone Gunmen on a wacky self-aware adventure designed to evoke classic episodic television. It is a model very similar to that employed by scripts like Eine Kleine Frohike or Diagnosis: Jimmy, where the objective is to drop a major character into an unlikely situation and hope that the plot (and the laughs) take care of themselves. After all, “Byers undercover in prison!” seems as compelling as “Frohike undercover as a woman’s long lost son!” or “Jimmy in hospital!”

For most of its runtime, Maximum Byers is fairly bland and inoffensive. It is not particularly memorable or hilarious, but it is not close to the worst episode of the show. Unfortunately, then the ending happens. One of the more frequent criticisms of The Lone Gunmen is that the show had difficulty balancing its tone. While there is an element of truth to this observation, it is never quite as clear as in the final act of Maximum Byers. Then again, it is probably quite tough to do a comedy set on death row.

Critics couldn't wait to (bed)pan the episode...

Critics couldn’t wait to (bed)pan the episode…

The best bit of Maximum Byers is the pre-credit sequence. Featuring the Lone Gunmen embarking upon a quest to track down the real Elvis, it has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the episode. Instead, it plays as something of a short film, with the Lone Gunmen engaged in precisely the sort of crazy hijinks that one might expect when Mulder is not around to babysit them. While Mulder is out thwarting an alien conspiracy to colonise the planet, the Lone Gunmen are busy trying to figure out whether the King (like the truth) is really still out there.

It is a fun high-concept, particularly given the shadow that Elvis casts over late twentieth-century pop culture. Only one in every twenty-five Americans believes that Elvis is still alive, but that has not stopped eager conspiracy theorists from reporting sightings of Elvis at Burger King or curating entire touring museums designed to challenge the official narrative of his death. In Empedocles, the next episode of The X-Files to air after Maximum Byers, Mulder would crack wise about seeing Elvis in a potato chip.

The best investigators out there, bar none...

The best investigators out there, bar none…

The conspiracy theory that Elvis is actually alive would never sustain an entire X-Files episode, but it does feel perfectly tailored to the aesthetic and tone of The Lone Gunmen. Unlike conspiracy theories about the New World Order or alien colonisation, there is something romantic about the belief Elvis is still out there:

If conspiracy theories are a way to impose order on events that can’t be controlled, Elvis sightings are perhaps a way of rejecting mortality, and preserving the American dream he came to represent. After all, it wasn’t just Elvis’ death that challenged his place in American culture, but his actual life. Insisting Elvis never died is also, then, a way of rejecting what he had become.

“It is a kind of romantic idea,” Covach told me. “This idea that maybe Elvis was just tired of the limelight—and he was starting to get old and he was starting to get overweight—and he decided to fake his own death so he could live anonymously without the glare of the photographers. That seemed attractive to people.”

The Lone Gunmen is a very melancholic show in a number of ways, but that melancholy is anchored in a deep sense of romance. The characters in The Lone Gunmen seem so tragic and lonely because they actually believe in a better and more perfect world.

Jailhouse rock...

Jailhouse rock…

The teaser to Maximum Byers could easily sustain an entire episode. There are certainly more clever gags in that single sequence than in the rest of the episode. Sneaking around on board a cruise liner in the Pacific Ocean, the Lone Gunmen speculate that they might have discovered the real Elvis posing as an impersonator. However, after knocking the suspect out, they quickly determine that the impersonator is actually an African-American con man and that Jimmy has wandered into a trap set by those wronged by the impersonator.

That said, it does seem like the teaser was heavily inspired by Joe R. Lonsdale’s novella Bubba Ho-Tep. Lonsdale’s novella told a story about a retired Elvis who had swapped places with an impersonator, encountering an old African-American man who claimed to be John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The story was actually adapted from director Don Coscarelli at the turn of the millennium. It premiered at CineVegas in June 2002, touring the festival circuit before earning a limited release in September 2003.

Made-up for Elvis...

Made-up for Elvis…

Even if the teaser was inspired by Bubba Ho-Tep, it has enough energy to sustain itself. There’s even a nice old-fashioned mirror gag. The idea that Elvis might be alive and living his life as an Elvis impersonator is perfectly in keeping with the tone of The Lone Gunmen as a whole; it is a little funny, a little sad. “Same birthday,” Frohike reports. “Same birthplace. Same height and blood type. It could have been him. Hiding in plain sight, doing what he does best.” Langly responds, “You know, call me crazy, but I’m starting to think that maybe Elvis is really dead.”

Of course, there is something strangely heartwarming about all this. After all, Elvis Presley is more than likely dead. There is no credible evidence to support the idea that he faked his death. Even if he did fake his death, he would be pushing seventy by the time the episode aired. Even if he did fake his death and was still alive, it seems highly unlikely that the Lone Gunmen will ever actually manage to find him. However, that won’t stop them from trying. Even Langly’s frustration seems temporary and qualified; a moment of doubt on the path towards enlightenment.

The King is alive...

The King is alive…

That is perhaps a great Lone Gunmen moment; they are pursuing something crazy and impossible that exists well beyond their reach. However, they will not allow themselves to be deterred by its impossibility. One of the big tonal issues of the first season of The Lone Gunmen is in deciding at what level the characters are playing. The Lone Gunmen are meant to be pathetic screw-ups, crazy paranoid loners who exist to make Mulder look sane. As such, having them thwart government conspiracies or Nazi war criminals seems to undercut that small scale.

Instead, it feels more appropriate to allow the Lone Gunmen smaller victories and greater comfort in defeat. In Madam, I’m Adam, the Lone Gunmen manage to solve an existential mystery and reunited a loving couple. In Planet of the Frohikes, the Lone Gunmen are outwitted by a hyper-intelligent monkey. In Los Tango de los Pistoleros, Frohike just about manages to snatch a compact disc out of a character’s hand at the right moment. Having the Lone Gunmen fail to find Elvis, but decide to continue on anyway feels heroic on its own terms.

Present and correct(ional)...

Present and correct(ional)…

As with the opening scene to Bond, Jimmy Bond, it feels almost like the teaser to Maximum Byers arrived ahead of its time. In the context of twenty-first century television, these mini adventures would play well as on-line webisodes or digital extras. They could serve to build hype between seasons of The X-Files, or even during extended gaps within the season. The teasers are among the best parts of those episodes, and seem quite similar to the approach that Steven Moffat adopted towards Doctor Who during his tenure as producer.

It is, perhaps, another example of how The Lone Gunmen seemed to arrive either too early or too late. Too early, in that it arrived at a point before the explosion in television networks had made smaller odder shows like this viable and before television had really embraced the franchising opportunities of new media to which The Lone Gunmen would be particularly suited. To late, in that The Lone Gunmen missed the popular peak of The X-Files and is very clearly structured like a television throwback.

Screening his calls...

Screening his calls…

Maximum Byers plays like television script written during the sixties or the seventies, with two of our heroes forced to go undercover in order to infiltrated a United States prison. As writer and producer Frank Spotnitz reflected of the episode:

OK, every TV series ever made does their “undercover in prison” episode. But that was part of the fun of it. This episode was one of my favourites, containing some nice plot twists and giving each of the series’ stars some terrific moments.

The production team had stressed the idea that The Lone Gunmen was essentially Mission: Impossible with geeks”, and that meant that the scripts had a certain nostalgic tone to them. Indeed, Mission: Impossible did a number of “prison episodes” over its run – such as Operation Rogosh, Trial by Fury or The Glass Cage.

Walk-on Texas Ranger...

Walk-on Texas Ranger…

Maximum Byers is decidedly self-aware when it comes to the basic concept of the episode. When Jimmy suggests infiltrating death row to crack a case, the band point out how crazy it is. “Jimmy, I’m not confident you’re aware of this, but you can’t just walk into a penitentiary,” Frohike explains. Jimmy offers a simple response. “The A-Team did,” he explains. “The A-Team snuck into this prison dressed up like inmates and then busted the guy out who was wrongfully accused. I mean, yeah, I know it’s a TV show, but the theory is sound.”

That would seem to be the entire basis of Maximum Byers, with writers Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan wanting to pay homage to the illustrious “prison episode” as codified by the (admittedly cleverly titled) A-Team episode Pros and Cons. It is a decision that very clearly marks The Lone Gunmen as a television throwback, a show that is very much cast in the mould of classic episodic television where the heroes have bold new adventures each and every week. The Lone Gunmen would seem old-fashioned airing in the nineties, let alone the new millennium.

Prison break(ing news)...

Prison break(ing news)…

The Lone Gunmen was embracing this very traditional and rigid television structure at a time when the eighth season of The X-Files was embracing a more bold and experimental serialisation model. In many cases, the eighth season of The X-Files and the first season of The Lone Gunmen play as something of a contrast. The Lone Gunmen embraces comedy at a point where The X-Files has rejected it. The colour on The Lone Gunmen is hypersaturated at a point where the darkness is amplified on The X-Files. The Lone Gunmen is episodic when The X-Files is serialised.

In some respects, The Lone Gunmen does not feel like a spin-off from The X-Files so much as a storage locker. It seems to have served as a reservoir into which the eighth season might discharge all of the aspects that it wanted to downplay or ignore while David Duchovny was gone. Instead of producing a comedy episode, it feels like the eighth season of The X-Files spawned a comedy series that could be kept separate and distinct. While the eighth season played with long-form storytelling, The Lone Gunmen adopted a more formulaic “case of the week” structure.

"We've got this comedy thing locked down..."

“We’ve got this comedy thing locked down…”

Maximum Byers is almost painfully self-aware of its status as the obligatory “prison episode”, making any number of winks and nods at the audience along the way as if attempting to get them to buy into the premise. “Jimmy, every half-baked TV series that runs out of ideas in the fourth or fifth season does their ‘sneak into prison dressed as an inmate’ show,” Langly complains at one point. “And what does that have to do with what we’re talking about here?” Naturally, it leads to the inevitable “sneak into prison dressed as an inmate” show.

It goes without saying that none of this feels original, and that pointing out the lack of originality can only buy so much good will. When Yves discovers the plan hatched by the Lone Gunmen, she observes, “Did it even occur to any of you to pose as prison guards or attorneys or official visitors from the Governor’s office?” That would arguably make for a much smarter and clever episode, subverting and playing with expectations. Langly offers a half-hearted response, “That’s not how they did it on The A Team.”

On a rock'n'roll...

On a rock’n’roll…

The episode has a reasonable amount of fun with the stock clichés and archetypes associated with this sort of story. Reflecting on his experience on death row, Jimmy narrates, “It’s not like on TV.” Of course, this is immediately followed by a fairly blatant homage to The Green Mile in which an African American inmate seems to resurrect a small prison animal that had been brutally hurt by a more sinister inmate. Of course, in The Green Mile, Mister Jingles was a mouse. In Maximum Byers, it turns out that “Jiminy Cricket” is a cockroach.

Maximum Byers practically revels in its old-school television aesthetic. The climax of the episode features an honest-to-goodness spinning newspaper, the type of visual shorthand that had become cliché during the thirties and which was impossible to execute in anything resembling a serious manner. However, Maximum Byers tries to pull it off with a straight face. It is very disconcerting. Maximum Byers would seem like an old-fashioned television script had it been produced in the late sixties.

Lawyer up!

Lawyer up!

Indeed, the episode even seems to nod towards The X-Files‘ own “prison episode”, with a central moral that builds on the ideas that Chris Carter proposed in The List. When Jimmy finds Spike cradling a cockroach, he wonders whether it is the same bug that was squashed earlier in the episode. “That’s if you believe things really die,” Spike reflects. “I don’t. I think we just take a trip and come back. Maybe we learn something and move on, maybe we don’t. Old Jiminy here, he don’t learn a damn thing. Maybe next time.”

It seems like a tipping of the hat towards the reincarnation subtext of The List, a notoriously obtuse episode summarised by Chris Carter as a story “about a man who was reincarnated as a fly.” With its death row setting, Maximum Byers touches upon similar themes of resurrection and rebirth. Of course, it all feels rather clumsy, but it is an interesting connection to the parent series. (It is not the only connection. While in Texas, the Lone Gunmen hold up at the “Sam Houston Motor Lodge” from Bad Blood. Although it may not be the same one.)

Jimmy's buying his Google glasses by instalments...

Jimmy’s buying his Google glasses by instalments…

These clichés and references are quite grating on their own terms. Maximum Byers often feels like an episode of television written by a pair of writers constructing a gigantic and elaborate reference to a television template they love rather than crafting an interesting story in their own right. However, the use of these clichés becomes a bit more uncomfortable as the episode moves along towards its conclusion. Like a lot of Lone Gunmen episodes, Maximum Byers offers a number of twists and turns, but those don’t necessarily lead to a satisfying conclusion.

Most of Maximum Byers is set up as a wacky affectionate tribute to the classic “prison episode” template, which makes the final twist somewhat ill-advised. In the standard “prison episode”, our heroes go undercover in order to expose corruption or to save an innocent man. If the episode is structured as a “fish out of water” adventure, then it stands to reason that the episode will remain fairly light on its feet. In most cases, the good guys will get their “happy ever after ending”, because that is a staple of the genre.

Taking the old clichés for a spin...

Taking the old clichés for a spin…

Given the tone of the episode, it seems like Jimmy and Byers’ mission to prove the innocence of Douglas Pfeiffer will be successful. At the very least, it seems highly unlikely that the episode will commit to the execution of Douglas Pfeiffer. However, the script makes a number of sharp turns that are very clever from a storytelling point of view, but lead to a whole heap of tonal dissonance. First, it reveals that Douglas Pfeiffer is actually guilty. More than that, his murder was premeditated contract killing. Jimmy and Byers are trying to spring a guilty man.

It is a very sharp twist, one that feels very bold in the context of the episode around it. It is an excellent subversion of audience expectations, and one that should push Maximum Byers in a bold direction. After all, it is very easy to tell a story set on death row that centres upon an innocent man. It is mort compelling to tell a story set on death row that features a guilty man. There is a lot of room to toy with the conventions of this sort of story, and Maximum Byers makes a few small gestures. Even after Douglas Pfeiffer confesses, he is not pardoned or exonerated.

The most vicious killer in here, bar none.

The most vicious killer in here, bar none.

The problem is two-fold. The biggest problem is the tonal whiplash created by the reveal. Up until the reveal that Douglas Pfeiffer is a contract killer, Maximum Byers plays as a cliché wacky adventure. The problem is that it continues to play as a cliché wacky adventure even after the revelation. There is a powerful scene at the end where Pfeiffer’s mother slaps Byers across the face, but there is still time for Byers to improvise some self-defence with a bedpan or for the show to crack jokes about Spike’s cockroach obsession.

Indeed, Maximum Byers is not even willing to acknowledge any sorrow at the passing of Douglas Pfeiffer; it makes his redemption seem trite and trivial. When Byers is (understandably) sullen after getting slapped across the face, Jimmy offers a bunch of feel-good nonsense to ensure the audience isn’t too depressed by the fact that a woman’s son is now dead. “I know how you feel, but I got to figure it’s like Spike and his cockroaches,” Jimmy explains. “Maybe we don’t so much die, as learn something and then move on.”

For bugs that catch bugs...

For bugs that catch bugs…

Jimmy is positioned as a font of knowledge and wisdom here, a character who might be (very) book-dumb who is gifted with unique insight into the spiritual condition. To be fair to The Lone Gunmen, this approach can work well. Jimmy’s earnestness drives the climax of Madam, I’m Adam and he is the only character able to understand Simon’s motivations in Planet of the Frohikes. However, his closing dialogue in Maximum Byers feels like it was lifted from an after-school special, inserted at the last minute to prevent the episode from ending on too low a note.

The other problem with the reveal that Douglas Pfeiffer is guilty comes in the script’s refusal to commit to the characters’ failures. This is a recurring plotting issue on the show; it popped up in Eine Kleine Frohike and it will resurface in Diagnosis: Jimmy. Quite simply, The Lone Gunmen is unwilling to let a story end on the possibility that the Lone Gunmen have made a mistake. The show insists on making a follow-up revelation that tidies up everything in a neat bow.

Executive decision...

Executive decision…

Anna Haag is not “the Poisoner of Alsace” in Eine Kleine Frohike, but her neighbour is. Doctor Bromberg is not the murderous doctor in Diagnosis: Jimmy, but somebody else on staff is. Douglas Pfeiffer is not innocent in Maximum Byers, but somebody else on death row is. In revealing that Spike is an innocent man, the script to Maximum Byers immediately undercuts the weight of the revelation about Pfeiffer. Despite that fairly game-changing revelation, Maximum Byers is still a wacky and upbeat adventure about the Lone Gunmen freeing an innocent man.

It is a very lazy twist, one that chips away at any of the power of the episode. Byers cannot save Pfeiffer, but that’s not such a big deal; not only can he save Pfeiffer’s soul, he can also save Spike. Maximum Byers allows itself the luxury of a happy ending that dulls the impact of those clever twists and turns. It is a cop-out, and a cop-out that actually clouds out the rest of the script. The contrivance of proving Pfeiffer guilty and Spike innocent at the same time pushes the suspension of disbelief more than any of the stuff about Byers and Jimmy infiltrating prison.

I don't bel-Yves it...

I don’t bel-Yves it…

This is to say nothing of the difficulty that the show is still having with the character of Yves. The writers are still struggling to integrate Yves into the framework of the show. With Maximum Byers, it feels like Yves is the unofficial fifth member of the team, but the script still has to waste time and energy to explain exactly how she is involved in this particular plot. How often does she run into the Lone Gunmen? Does Yves ever manage to do anything on her own terms before her path crosses theirs once again?

It doesn’t help matters that Maximum Byers feels incredibly juvenile in its treatment of Yves. One of the issues with Yves across the show’s thirteen episode run is the recurring sense that Yves has been designed with a very teenage sexuality; lots of cat suits, lots of cleavage, with an obligatory sexy British accent. This is not a slight on Zuleikha Robinson, who does the best that she can with the material, but the sequences of Yves going “undercover” as Jimmy’s wife are more pervy than funny; it is hard not to cringe.

It blue him away...

It blue him away…

After two strong episodes, Maximum Byers feels like a step backwards for The Lone Gunmen. There is a sense that the production team have learned very little from the two strongest episodes of the season to date, and are still aiming to capture the tone set by Bond, Jimmy Bond. The result is disappointing, with a sense that the show might be trapped in its own cell on the way to death row.

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