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The Lone Gunmen – Diagnosis: Jimmy (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.

Diagnosis: Jimmy is another formulaic piece of episodic television.

To be entirely fair, this is a logical part of any first season. While the production team is trying to figure out the identity of a young show, it makes sense to apply templates that have worked in the past. It was an approach that The X-Files adopted in its early seasons, with episodes drawing from popular and successful films. This worked out quite well in some cases, with Ice offering a skilled take on The Thing while Beyond the Sea played with The Silence of the Lambs to great effect.

A lotta lolly...

A lotta lolly…

With that in mind, it seems perfectly reasonable for The Lone Gunmen to attempt something similar. Writer John Shiban compared Eine Kleine Frohike to The Ladykillers. The characters within Maximum Byers all but acknowledged that it was the obligatory “prison episode.” If the writers don’t have to worry about the basic story ideas and beats, there is more room to develop character and flavour. With that in mind, Diagnosis: Jimmy positions itself as a twofer. It is both the standard “hospital” episode and a gigantic homage to Rear Window.

Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly inspired piece of television.

Fox has got the show in their sights...

Fox has got the show in their sights…

Diagnosis: Jimmy is the first episode of The Lone Gunmen to really focus on Jimmy Bond as a character. Bond, Jimmy Bond might drop his name into the title, but he did not appear until almost the half-way mark. Jimmy is the narrator of both Like Water for Octane and The Lying Game, but is positioned more as a spectator to those stories than a driving force. Jimmy is a major part of the primary plots of both Three Men and a Smoking Diaper and Maximum Byers, but he does not carry the episodes in the same way that he carries Diagnosis: Jimmy.

Diagnosis: Jimmy adopts the same structure that John Shiban used in Eine Kleine Frohike, splitting the cast in half for the purpose of efficiency. As with Eine Kleine Frohike, the original trio are engaged on their own case while Jimmy and Yves team up to deal with their own problem. The biggest difference between Eine Kleine Frohike and Diagnosis: Jimmy is the priority assigned to the divided cast. In Eine Kleine Frohike, Jimmy and Yves were exploring a subplot while the leading trio handled the primary case. Diagnosis: Jimmy reverses that dynamic.

Happy hunting...

Happy hunting…

While Diagnosis: Jimmy opens with the Lone Gunmen investigating a poacher working out of Washington State. However, Jimmy is injured over the course of the teaser. This places Jimmy in hospital, while the Lone Gunmen continue their investigation into Walter Stukas. Diagnosis: Jimmy follows the Lone Gunmen’s pursuit of Walter Stukas to its logical conclusion, but it also splits off to cover Jimmy’s recovery in hospital. The episode might begin with the investigation into poaching, but the focus shifts into Jimmy’s hospital investigations.

This marks the first time that Jimmy and Yves have been pushed into the foreground while the original Lone Gunmen are shunted off into a disconnected subplot. The episode does allow the leading trio their own wacky adventure, but it is very much tangential. The bulk of the episode is given over to the two newest cast members. Indeed, the climax of the episode finds Yves forced to choose which particular plot she wishes to follow; she opts to stay with Jimmy and leave the Lone Gunmen to take care of themselves.

 No escape-skiis...

No escape-skiis…

It seems likely that the decision to split the Lone Gunmen off into their own subplot was a logistical decision. One of the more interesting aspects of The Lone Gunmen is the fact that it existed in parallel with The X-Files. Although the Lone Gunmen were now leading characters on their own spin-off show, they were also still recurring characters on the eighth season of The X-Files. Despite the fact that The Lone Gunmen was in production across the back half of the eighth season, the Lone Gunmen found time to appear in The Gift, Three Words and Existence.

That is a decidedly ambitious creative decision. After all, the actors are all very busy working on their own weekly show. Network television deadlines are notoriously tight, particularly for shows with full season orders. Although The Lone Gunmen only got half of a full season order, it ran in parallel with the second half of eighth season. The logistical difficulties were compounded by the fact that The X-Files had moved to Los Angeles between its fifth and sixth seasons, while The Lone Gunmen was shooting in Vancouver.

Nothing gets By(ers) him...

Nothing gets By(ers) him…

The close production ties between the eighth season of The X-Files and the first season of The Lone Gunmen are remarkable. The fact that Dean Haglund, Bruce Harwood and Tom Braidwood were still available to appear in episodes of The X-Files was just one example. While Vince Gilligan was able to (mostly) divorce himself from the day-to-day production of the eighth season of The X-Files to focus on The Lone Gunmen, a lot of the writing staff pulled double duty across both series.

John Shiban was credited on the scripts to six episodes of The Lone Gunmen and one episode of the second half of the eighth season of The X-Files. Frank Spotnitz was credited on five episodes of The Lone Gunmen and an impressive eight episodes of the eighth season of The X-Files. Chris Carter oversaw the production of the eighth season of The X-Files and was credited on nine of the season’s twenty-one episodes; he still found time to earn two writing credits on The Lone Gunmen. That is an impressive division of labour.

Bear with me...

Bear with me…

With regards to the logistical challenges of featuring the lead actors in a Vancouver-based show as recurring performers in a Los-Angeles-based shows, the production team were quite savvy in how they chose to use the characters. The Gift was the first appearance of the characters on The X-Files after The Lone Gunmen went to series, and their scenes were shot in Vancouver. “The scene with the Lone Gunmen talking via Internet videophone to Doggett and Skinner was actually shot on the set of the spinoff series, with Bryan Spicer directing,” notes Spotnitz.

Their appearance in Existence was relatively minor, a single scene towards the end of the episode shot on a standing set in Scully’s apartment. According to Kim Manners’ commentary on Existence, the final scene of the episode was actually the last scene shot during the eighth season. It is entirely feasible that production would have already wrapped on All About Yves by that point and that the three lead actors from The Lone Gunmen could be flown down to Los Angeles to make a brief (but entirely appropriate) appearance.

Funky poaching...

Snipe hunt…

That just leaves the appearance of the trio in Three Words. This would be a bit more difficult to manage than their appearance-via-video-phone in The Gift or their last-minute visit in Existence. The Lone Gunman played a fairly significant role in Three Words, appearing in Scully’s apartment and later assisting Mulder in his efforts to break into a government facility so as to expose yet another conspiracy against the American people. It was hardly the largest role the trio had ever played in The X-Files, but it was important that they appear.

In the context of Three Words, the Lone Gunmen serve as an emotional tether for Mulder. They are a link to the way that things used to be, before everything changed; before David Duchovny left the show, but also before the Lone Gunmen secured their own spin-off. Their involvement in Mulder’s wacky adventures in Three Words were very much intended as an attempt by Mulder to create a situation “just like old times”, to recall his adventuring with the gang in episodes like Apocrypha or Memento Mori.

Funky poaching...

Funky poaching…

This was not something that could be done easily. It would require great coordination and skill. Tom Braidwood, Bruce Harwood and Dean Haglund would have to be flown down to Los Angles for their scenes with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and so they could be directed by Tony Wharmby. Finding the time for the trio to travel down from Vancouver meant that certain script accomodations would have to be made. Diagnosis: Jimmy finds that time by putting the trio into a subplot quite removed from the main plot that could be shot quite quickly and in isolation.

Diagnosis: Jimmy makes a number of veiled in-jokes to the production realities that are forcing the title characters into the background. It seems entirely appropriate that the three are conspiring to bring down an illegal poacher, given that the actors are going to travel to Los Angeles to engage in what Mulder described as “funky poaching” in Memento Mori. It is also a nice gag that the trio’s pursuit of Walter Stukas leads them away from the primary plot and into Vancouver; the characters are as inaccessible to Jimmy as the actors are to the X-Files production team.

White out!

White out!

To be fair to John Shiban’s script, it does try not to minimise the Lone Gunmen’s involvement. The trio still get a comedy sequence where Frohike infiltrates Stukas’ cabin and Langly pinches his secret letter. That said, the attempt to give Byers an emotional investment in the case feels somewhat forced, particularly when Langly repeatedly draws awareness to it. “Byers, we want to get the guy too,” Langly observes. “But what is with you and this story? Why are you taking it so personally?” Later, he repeats, “Come on, why are you taking this so personally?”

Inevitably, Byers has a sad story from his childhood about a formative experience with a great brown bear that left a massive impression upon him, despite the fact that he never mentioned it before. Byers recalls a childhood fondness for Gentle Ben and an up-close-and-personal encounter with a rogue Grizzly that had to be put down. “Afterwards,” Byers reflects, “I remember looking at him lying there and I realized, once he was gone there would be no more like him.” It is a sweet sentiment, and Bruce Harwood tries to sell it, but it is not convincing.

A cold reception...

A cold reception…

The problem is not that the sentiment comes out of nowhere without any foreshadowing. This is the first season of a new television show, so it is inevitable that the writers will add details to the histories and back stories of their characters as the plot demands. The first season of The X-Files was populated with one-shot guest stars who had long histories with Mulder and Scully, whether old flames or former partners. It is not the most elegant way to flesh out a cast, and most shows outgrow it as the characters solidify.

(Of course, even contemporary episodes of The X-Files has a tendency to indulge in that sort of “deeply personal origin story for something that doesn’t need an origin story.” For example, Orison features an extended sequence where Scully recounts a traumatic story from her own childhood; she argues that this experience marked the moment at which she became aware of the existence of true evil. While Gillian Anderson works hard to sell the moment, it still feels like the teleplay is trying a little too hard.)

Picture imperfect...

Picture imperfect…

Byer’s story about the bear feels like it is trying too hard, particularly in the context of a subplot designed primarily to isolate the trio from the primary plot of the episode. As Langly points out, decent people don’t need an excuse to hate poachers. Anybody with an ounce of conscience can recognise that Walter Stukas is “scum” for the fact that he “kills these magnificent animals for their gall bladders.” There is no lazy rationalisation or motivation required. It is enough for Byers to want to stop Stukas because Stukas is doing terrible things.

After all, this is only the subplot of the episode. The primary plot follows Jimmy after he breaks his leg in a skiing accident during the teaser. While recovering in hospital, Jimmy comes to suspect that his surgeon might actually be a serial killer on the run from the authorities. Without the Lone Gunmen to support him, Jimmy is forced to team up with Yves to prove his theory correct. As a result, Diagnosis: Jimmy becomes the first (and only) episode of the show to be carried by the final addition to the cast.

Shadowplay...

Shadowplay…

While The Lone Gunmen has frequently struggled with the characters of Jimmy and Yves, actors Steven Snedden and Zuleikha Robinson do good work. In fact, Steven Snedden interprets Diagnosis: Jimmy as a gesture of trust and faith on the part of the writing staff:

I felt honored when I read Diagnosis, Jimmy. As the series progressed, the writers could have easily kept Jimmy on the sidelines. I guess I was always surprised that they trusted me!

One of the more endearing facets of The Lone Gunmen is the sense that the cast were always good-natured and game. Indeed, listening to the writers and actors on the episode commentaries, it seems like everybody involved in the show’s production loved working on the series.

You snooze, you lose...

You snooze, you lose…

That said, the production team never quite figured out what they were planning to do with Jimmy Bond or Yves Adele Harlow. Yves could often feel like two-dimensional fanservice, as demonstrated by the way she was presented in Maximum Byers. Jimmy was used alternately as an exposition machine and as comedy relief, which seems rather strange given that the Lone Gunmen themselves were originally introduced as comic relief. More than that, Jimmy’s role as the group’s conscience seems to take away from Byer’s dynamic within the trio.

The show does not help matters when it insists upon pairing Jimmy and Yves. The two characters are the most conventionally attractive characters on the show, and suggesting a romantic attraction between Jimmy and Yves is perhaps the most predictable direction that the show could take. The Lone Gunmen tends to follow the path of least resistance, whether in terms of comedy or plotting, so it seems inevitable that the pair will develop a somewhat forced “will they?”/“won’t they?” dynamic.

Lights out...

Lights out…

Diagnosis: Jimmy is the first time that the show suggests the possibility, pairing Jimmy and Yves for the first time since they were introduced to one another in Eine Kleine Frohike. Coupled with their last dance together in Los Tango de los Pistoleros and their final scenes in All About Yves, it seems like The Lone Gunmen has committed to pairing off its two newest (and perhaps most photogenic) characters. As with the dynamic between Doggett and Reyes in the ninth season of The X-Files, Jimmy and Yves demonstrate chemistry cannot be forced.

Steven Snedden and Zuleikha Robinson work well together, but their chemistry is not sexual or romantic. Indeed, Snedden’s wonderfully simplistic performance suggests a child-like innocence to Jimmy that does not natural compliment the way that the scripts tend to hyper-sexualise Robinson. It might be possible for chemistry to develop over time, playing those contrasts off one another, but the thirteen episodes of The Lone Gunmen simply do not offer that depth or range to the characters.

"And you were there, and you were there, and you were there..."

“And you were there, and you were there, and you were there…”

According to The Making of the Lone Gunmen, writer and producer John Shiban drew from his own love of cinema in crafting the show’s Jimmy-centric episode:

It’s always a challenge when you have a character who’s immobile. I kept – again – going to back to what inspires me. I kept watching Rear Window. And I kept thinking, how do you solve this problem? A lot of it is what the character sees and reacts to, even though he can’t move.

Doing Rear Window is not a bad choice. After all, there are worse influences to drawn upon. More than that, the film fits with the aesthetic of the show. The Lone Gunmen is heavily nostalgic in its influences, harking back to the sixties and beyond. An Alfred Hitchcock classic is perfect.

Nursing him back to health...

Nursing him back to health…

(This is not the only example of Diagnosis: Jimmy acknowledging John Shiban’s cinematic influences. When placed in hospital, Jimmy finds himself assigned a bed next to a cantankerous old man named “Mister Dimsdale.” This seems like an homage to classic blacklisted screenwriter Howard Dimsdale. John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz had named a character in honour of the screenwriter in Travelers, with “Arthur Dales” serving as Dimsdale’s pseudonym during the McCarthy era.)

However, Diagnosis: Jimmy suffers from the same issues that plagued John Shiban’s script for Eine Kleine Frohike earlier in the season. Most notably, it is very difficult to construct a comedy mystery with five regular characters who are split into two groups. Much like Eine Kleine Frohike finds the Lone Gunmen on the trail of “The Poisoner of Alsace”, Diagnosis: Jimmy finds Jimmy Bond convinced that his surgeon is a actually a serial murderer who evaded justice and just so happened to be featured on America’s Most Wanted.

Slippery slope...

Slippery slope…

One of the biggest structural issues with Eine Kleine Frohike was the episode’s insistence on both demonstrating that Anna Haag was not “the Poisoner of Alsace” and identifying the real culprit, who turned out to be Anna Haag’s nosey neighbour. It felt like a contrived development in an over-stuffed episode, even with all five members of the primary cast investigating the case in their own way. It turns out that the leading trio were following a red herring while Jimmy and Yves had a fix on a thread that would lead to the real criminal.

Diagnosis: Jimmy tries to do something similar while shoehorning in a subplot that is completely unrelated to the mystery, at least once the episode gets past the teaser. It turns out that Jimmy is wrong in his suspicions about that particular doctor, but it is okay because the murderer happens to be another doctor at the same hospital. Looking at it purely as a mystery, this feels like a rather unsatisfying conclusion. After all, it is not as though there are enough suspects. Only two doctors have speaking roles, and one is the obvious red herring.

Inject a little drama...

Inject a little drama…

This is not the most satisfying structure for a mystery, even if these are limitations imposed by the form. The fact that the script’s attention is split across two separate stories compounds the issue further. Although the bulk of the episode is spent on Jimmy’s adventure, it ultimately ends up resolved off-screen with Byers offering a convenient exposition dump. When Jimmy asks where the killer surgeon is, Byers responds, “In custody. Facing murder charges in two states.” And that’s the end of that story.

As with Eine Kleine Frohike, it might have been easier not to actually solve the case. After all, there is a considerable amount of contrivance involved. At least in Eine Kleine Frohike, the Lone Gunmen were actually pointed to the case. In Diagnosis: Jimmy, Jimmy just happens to be watching television at the right time while staying in the right hospital while assigned to a doctor who is just mysterious enough to serve as a red herring while the real killer is also at the same hospital and in the same surgical unit. It is very contrived.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

Again, there is a sense that The Lone Gunmen is a very conservative show that is afraid of ambiguity or loose ends. Just like the ending of Maximum Byers would be more effective if both Douglas Pfeiffer and Spiker were guilty, Diagnosis: Jimmy might work better if it were willing to suggest that Jimmy is being paranoid. After all, he has spent the past few months hanging around with a trio of conspiracy theorists. Does Jimmy even have a life outside the Lone Gunmen anymore? Did he have a life outside blind football before the Lone Gunmen?

These are all interesting (or at least semi-interesting) possibilities. Sadly, Diagnosis: Jimmy is not interested in exploring any of them. Diagnosis: Jimmy is not a bad episode, but it is certainly not a great one.

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