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The Lone Gunmen – Tango de los Pistoleros (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.

In the late nineteenth century, tango reigned not only in brothels and dance halls, where it served as both simulation and stimulation to entertain the men waiting their turn for commercial sex, but also in dance academies, vacant lots, and barrio streets where improvised dances were performed to the tune of the hurdy-gurdy. It was also played in men-only cafés. In these original settings, tango lyrics were very simple and mainly focused on the joys and pains of the arrabales, where the cult of courage and the skilful use of knives were combined with the workings of local political bosses and the police. The main characters were guapos, or tough guys; prostitutes; pimps; and compadritos, men who imitated the tough style of pimps and guapos yet most of the time worked for a living.

Tango was danced by men and women in pairs but also by men alone as they waited their turn in the brothels. It was, above all, a dance of the margins.

– Diego Armus, The Ailing City

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For better or worse, The Lone Gunmen will always be defined by its relationship to The X-Files. That is true of both Millennium and Harsh Realm, to an extent; however, neither of those shows was a direct spin-off. The three central characters in The Lone Gunmen have been recurring fixtures of The X-Files since the show’s very first season. They exist as part of the fabric of that world, even if they have always existed on the margins. The Lone Gunmen are awkwardly positioned as heroes of their own narrative, existing at the periphery of Mulder’s story.

Over its short thirteen episode run, The Lone Gunmen is haunted by its connection to The X-Files. Although Tango de los Pistoleros is not directly connected to The X-Files, it comes sandwiched between two episodes with strong ties to the parent series. Diagnosis: Jimmy sidelined the three primary characters so that the actors could travel to Los Angeles to guest star in Three Words. The Lone Gunmen were still supporting characters in The X-Files ahead of leads in their own show. The Lying Game will feature Walter Skinner as the first guest star to crossover.

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In its own way, then, the entire thirteen-episode run of The Lone Gunmen seems to exist at the very edge of The X-Files. It could be argued that The Lone Gunmen never escapes the orbit of The X-Files, but that would be disingenuous. The Lone Gunmen never tries to escape the orbit of The X-Files. Unlike Millennium, which worked very hard to defy expectations and to subvert comparisons, The Lone Gunmen is quite content to exist as the geeky younger sibling of the more popular show.

In its own way, The Lone Gunmen seems to exist to flesh out ideas and concepts suggested by The X-Files. Most obviously, the show seems to ask (and answer) the question of what the Lone Gunmen get up to when Mulder is not around. More esoterically, the show intersects and interlocks with The X-Files. The audience discovers why Byers was almost named Bertram in The Pilot, paying off a set-up from Unusual Suspects. The characters arrive at Doggett’s house in Nothing Important Happened Today I fresh from the events of All About Yves.

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The Lone Gunmen seemed unlikely to ever enjoy the popularity of The X-Files. Instead, the show existed on the cusp of its more iconic and influential elder sibling. The trio found themselves cast as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Mulder’s Hamlet. In its own way, The Lone Gunmen plays as something of an extended riff on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, perhaps the ultimate expression of the postmodern tendencies of The X-Files. Few shows would offer a thirteen-episode window into their supporting players.

Like the Lone Gunmen, there is an inherent tragedy to Rosencrantz and Gildenstern. Summarising his own work, Tom Stoppard has reflected that “the play is about two people – who are on stage, naturally – and Shakespeare’s Hamlet goes by them periodically. They’re like a railway station with a train going by.” There is something strangely moving in that image, in the tale of characters whose own narrative is largely subservient to the demands of a more popular and more successful story.

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Stoppard has suggested that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is about Hamlet as seen by two people driving past Elsinore.” It is a familiar world glimpsed from a new perspective, witnessed by passive observers from the sidelines. For from diminishing The Lone Gunmen, this lends the show an incredible sense of power and meaning. So much of The X-Files is dedicated to trying to make sense of a chaotic world through conspiracy theory and investigation. However, Mulder is a hero; Mulder gets to make progress. What must that world look like to the Lone Gunmen?

Over the course of its one and only season, The Lone Gunmen struggled to find the right tone and vantage point. All too often, the show opted for wacky comedic capers that stretched too few laughs across too long a runtime. Bond, Jimmy Bond, Like Water for Octane and Three Men and a Smoking Diaper suggested that the show aspired towards a tone of “gonzo.” There was a conscious attempt to emulate the light-hearted adventuring that had defined the characters’ second character-focused episode of The X-Files, Three of a Kind.

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Instead, the show’s true heart was to be found in the first episode of The X-Files to be driven by the characters, Unusual Suspects. If The X-Files was about Mulder’s attempts to put his family back together after the loss of Samantha and the divorce of his parents, The Lone Gunmen existed at the very edge of that story. The best episodes offered a unique (and often surreal) glimpse of that same alienation and isolation. At its best, The Lone Gunmen acknowledged a deeper and weird sense of quiet desperation than The X-Files could ever imagine.

At least the opening credits of The X-Files can assure Mulder that the truth is out there; the Lone Gunmen are afforded no such reassurance by their own opening sequence. At least Mulder has the threat of colonisation and the deadline of December 2012 to guide him forward; the Lone Gunmen are dancing in the dark. At least Mulder found Scully through the X-files; all the Lone Gunmen have is each other. Mulder is well aware that he is not alone in the universe; the Lone Gunmen do not have that comfort.

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“The tango, has been described as a mirror of the sadness and the loneliness of the immigrant’s life, but it is not.”

“It is the music of the emigrant, someone who is always leaving and never finds home.”

– Luis Bravo, creator of Forever Tango

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Thomas Schnauz arguably understands The Lone Gunmen better than any of the other writers on staff. Schnauz’s scripts for Madam, I’m Adam and Tango de los Pistoleros represent the series at its very best. Like Vince Gilligan’s script for Planet of the Frohikes, they understand the legacy of Unusual Suspects. At its core, The Lone Gunmen is ultimately a romantic tragedy. It is not necessarily romantic in the sense that it is a love story, although a surprising number of the stronger episodes are ultimately love stories.

It is romantic in the more traditional sense of the word. The Lone Gunmen genuinely believe in their power to make the world a better place, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. Writing for a conspiracy theory newspaper, the Lone Gunmen collect and document the very worst in humanity; they witness and report horrific abuses of power. In spite of all that, the Lone Gunmen continue to hope that they can be a force for good. They might not be the gang from The A-Team or Mission: Impossible, but they’ll still try their damnedest.

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While Mulder has the luxury of taking down a conspiracy against humanity, the Lone Gunmen spend most of their time tilting at windmills. However, it is their enthusiasm – rather than their accomplishments – that mark them as true heroes. It is hard not to feel some measure of sympathy or affection for these three unlikely heroes. No matter how many times that windmill refuses to budge, the Lone Gunmen will get back on their horse and give another run at it. It might not be the most productive form of heroism, but the commitment is endearing.

One of the biggest recurring problems with the first season of The Lone Gunmen is a reluctance to let the characters get knocked off the horse. There are points at which the show seems unwilling to let the characters lose, or to fail to win. In Eine Kleine Frohike, it isn’t enough for Frohike to confirm that Anna Haag is not a Nazi war criminal; the gang has to find the real fugitive from justice. In Maximum Byers, it isn’t enough to discover the team’s been asked to prove the innocence of a guilty man; Byers has to find an innocent man to exonerate.

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The show feels more convincing when the victories are smaller or non-existent. In Madam, I’m Adam, Jimmy manages to convince a man to reunite with the woman he loves; that is a more noble victory than quashing a Chinese spy ring or Russian mobsters. In Planet of the Frohikes, the gang are outwitted by a hyper-intelligent chimpanzee who just wants to be with the woman he loves. In Los Tango de los Pistoleros, Frohike yoinks a vital CD away at an important moment, but Yves ends the episode heartbroken.

The Lone Gunmen were never going to be the most conventional of protagonists. Even the existence of The Lone Gunmen as a television show seemed unlikely. Bruce Harwood, Tom Braidwood and Dean Haglund are a great ensemble, but they are hardly the most typical of television leading men. It seemed unlikely that Fox (or audiences) would embrace this trio of hackers. Indeed, the addition of more conventionally attractive performers like Stephen Snedden or Zuleikha Robinson seemed to acknowledge as much.

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In a hyper-competitive prime-time television market place, The Lone Gunmen seemed just as tragically romantic as its protagonists. A forty-five minute comedy was always going to be a tough sell, particularly at a point where ratings for scripted television were in decline and the reality television boom was kicking in. Even allowing for that, deciding to model a forty-five minute comedy with three unconventional leads on shows like The A-Team and Mission: Impossible seemed woefully out of touch in early 2001.

The odds were against The Lone Gunmen long before The Pilot was even broadcast. In a way, the show perfectly mirrored its central characters. It was odd, eccentric, dysfunctional. It was also completely unapologetic. Even when The Lone Gunmen doesn’t quite work – which is quite frequently, as it would be for most shows in the first half of their first season – there is an endearing derring-do to the whole enterprise. The production team want to make a show on their terms, and they won’t let anything stop them.

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At its best, The Lone Gunmen plays like a tribute to the weirdos and the loners, the eccentrics and the freaks. The Lone Gunmen taps into the same primal loneliness and ennui that defined The X-Files, but strips away the epic scale to offer a unique take on the same existential crisis. Thomas Schnauz and Vicne Gilligan are the two staff writers who seem to understand this at the most basic of levels, explaining why their solo scripts seem to find the voice of the show better than any of their colleagues or compatriots.

Tango de los Pistoleros captures this tragi-comedy vibe beautifully. On the surface of it, the plot is absurd. The Lone Gunmen find themselves drawn into a web of intrigue surrounding a tango competition in Miami. It turns out that the competition is to be the site of a hand-off for the sale of vital and confidential information that might undermine the United States. As such, a dance floor becomes a crazy intersection of hackers, arms dealers, arms buyers and a former member of “a death squad that was part of Argentina’s military junta.”

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(Once again, the show’s rather earnest patriotism shines through. The episode’s macguffin of choice is “a new composite that can absorb electromagnetic transmissions – as in, it’s completely invisible to radar.” Jimmy greets this news with an enthusiastic, “Wow! Way to go America.” The only real problem is that the technology could fall into the wrong hands. “If the bad guys get their hands on it we’re talking Romulan Cloaking Device,” Kimmy notes. Once again, it seems the real enemies lie outside the power structures of the American government.)

Like Madam, I’m Adam and Planet of the Frohikes, it helps that Tango de los Pistoleros is actually very funny on its own terms. The recurring gag about Frohike’s long-standing relationship with the Miami tango scene is hilarious, playing as an affectionate riff on Byers’ altogether more earnest long-standing affection for grizzly bears in Diagnosis: Jimmy. Braidwood is probably the strongest performer of the trio, and he pitches Frohike’s discomfort at just the right level to keep the episode funny without over-egging it.

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In the opening scene, Frohike is grumpy about having to venture down to Florida. “You’d better know it’s important if it got me to set foot here in Miami,” he complains. Later on, he insists, “I, for one, am getting the hell out of Miami.” (His plans to take the handsome reward money and stop at Red Lobster along the way serve as icing on the proverbial cake.) The inevitable revelation that Frohike was once a championship dancer on the Miami tango circuit is both hilarious and perfectly in-character.

The Lone Gunmen have always seemed like an eccentric bunch, drawn together by chance rather than fate. Frohike is the oldest of the bunch. Most of his characterisation on The X-Files painted him as a chivalrous pervert, the kind of character who would hit on Scully but still show up to her hospital bed wearing a tuxedo and carrying flowers. Frohike has also been portrayed as the oldest of the group. Via Negativa and Like Water for Octane tied him to sixties counterculture. The Pilot suggested he was a father figure to Byers.

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It feels entirely appropriate for Frohike to have lived some past life as a champion tango dancer, cementing the feeling that the Lone Gunmen are all lost souls who wandered through the world before finding one another at the very start of the nineties. Braidwood does some wonderful work selling this idea, with highlights including his soap-opera-esque reunion with former partner Mikita Moldinaro and his second retirement. “The sexual energy burned during this dance took two years off my life. That’s why I quit in the first place.”

It is a funny little subplot, but it is also quite sad in its own way. As with a lot Tango de los Pistoleros (and the best bits of The Lone Gunmen in general) it works so well because it is both funny and sad. The episode suggests that the tango is transient; that the dance brings together lonely souls for the most fleeting of moments before releasing them once again into loneliness and uncertainty. The tango is but a momentary reprieve from the isolation and disconnect of the modern world, a substitute for a spiritual connection for which so many search while so few find.

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While most dances are created to celebrate life, tango serves a different purpose. It is created by the less fortunate to shelter their sorrows. They do not come to the milonga to play peacocks, but to expose their vulnerability and seek comfort, to dance the loneliness, homesickness, nostalgia, and grief in them, to find a shoulder to rely on, to take refuge for their wounds, to quench their thirst for love, and to touch and be touched by another human being. These are the ordinary people, poor people, immigrants, construction workers, waiters, waitresses, shop assistants, maids, and taxi drivers. They may not be splendid in their appearance, but you feel it when you dance with them – their embrace is warm and affectionate, their heart is sensitive and sympathetic, their feeling is deep and sincere, their movement is raw and infectious, and their dance is passionate and sentimental. Tango is their refuge. The intimate, soulful, sensual and comforting nature of tango reflects and serves their deep, inward, human needs. This is the tango still danced in the milongas of less affluent societies, such as Argentina and Uruguay.

– Paul Yang, Why People Dance Tango

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It was Frank Spotnitz who came up with the idea of setting the episode at a tango competition. According to the audio commentary, writer Thomas Schnauz had originally pitched the episode to feature disco dancing, but Spotnitz suggested that the tango would suit the episode (and the show) better:

I first went to – I think – Frank, saying I wanted to do some kind of dance episode. I think originally it was going to be disco or something. It was Frank’s idea to do tango, which… thank God! They were going to go undercover at a disco or something.

It was a very good call. The use of the tango as metaphor for isolation and loneliness elevates an already strong script, lending a surprising poignancy to a goofy premise.

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“There is danger here, because what appears to be love, is only sadness, a lie,” Yves explains in an expressionistic teaser, as a brutal attack on Langly is juxtaposed with the dance of the other major characters against a sparse black background. “The Tango is a dance of loneliness, of isolation. The dancers move their lower bodies, remaining stiff from the waist up, eyes intense, but distant.” Yves is paraphrasing the observations of Argentine philosopher Ricardo Gomez, but it doesn’t matter. It sets the tone for the next forty-five minutes.

After all, the big question hanging over Tango de los Pistoleros is “why a tango competition?” Why would an arms deal take place at a tango competition? It affords suitable cover for the trade, but there are dozens of other less elaborate ways to organise a covert hand-off of top-secret information. The tango competition seems like a strange place for a simple deal. Indeed, the simplicity of the deal is emphasised when Frohike just grabs the disc out of the hands of the buyer at the climax.

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The obvious justification for setting the hand-off at a tango competition is that it is incongruous enough to be funny. It is very much like a cheesy, low rent version of Casino Royale or any other spy movie plot that requires our heroes to infiltrate an exclusive event in the hopes of thwarting a nefarious evildoer. A tango competition in Miami is an unlikely enough setting that it is funny in and of itself, but it leads to nice gags like the Lone Gunmen’s unsuccessful auditions to enter the competition.

(It is also nice to see the production team attempting to convincingly double Vancouver as Miami. Although the production team (as ever) make a valiant effort to recreate the south-eastern United States in British Columbia, there are certain practical limitations on a television production like this. At certain points in the episode, the characters’ breath is clearly visible during the exterior night time scenes. Indeed, there are points at which it feels like Santavos’ mansion and Cuchillo’s shirt do a lot of the heavy lifting.)

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Nevertheless, the episode offers a compelling thematic reason for choosing a tango competition. The dance is ultimately an expression of Santavos’ loneliness and isolation. John Vargas does a wonderful job with the character of Santavos, creating a tragic figure from the tango-obsessed arms dealer. Santavos feels surprisingly fully-formed, with his fascination with the tango serving as an informative character detail rather than a contrived plot point. As with Adam Burgess, Tom Schnauz creates one of the show’s stand-out guest characters.

At one point, after Cuchillo (correctly) accuses Yves of being a spy, she pretends to leave. Santavos begs her to stay. “Vera, a man in my position must be very careful,” he advises her. “I have many enemies. All I want is for you to stay and dance with me.” There is something very innocent in that request, something naked and honest. Santavos seems genuinely romantic, as if he would trade all his wealth and power to have somebody with whom he could tango. There is something powerful and heartbreaking in his simple desire to dance with Yves.

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Santavos finds a mirror in Yves’ loneliness – with Schnauz’s script holding a literal mirror up at one point allowing the two characters to stand on opposite sides. When Cuchillo points out that Santovas has no reason to trust Yves, Santavos suggests that he sees something familiar in her. “I see something in her that’s special,” he explains. “I feel like I can see in her.” Later on, he appeals to her, “You hide it well. You hide your loneliness. You would rather be lonely and alone than to be hurt again. I understand those feelings. I know them all too well.”

It is, perhaps, a very generic statement. It seems almost a cliché to suggest that a hyper-competent international super-spy with trust issues could be lonely. At the same time, the simplicity works. As its metaphorical opening scene suggests, Tango de los Pistoleros plays best as an extended allegory on the human condition rather than a plot-driven caper. The central themes of the episode might be fairly standard, but they are expressed in a very elegant and engaging manner. Tango de los Pistoleros might have a basic point, but it makes that point well.

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Tango de los Pistoleros is perhaps the season’s strongest Yves-centric episode, and marks the one of only two times that she works as a character. (The other time is in All About Yves, the last episode of the season.) All too often, it seems like The Lone Gunmen has no idea what to do with Yves beyond treating her as the show’s resident female character and/or sex appeal. Three Men and a Smoking Diaper is perhaps the best example of the former; Maximum Byers is perhaps the best example of the latter.

The suggestion that Yves is actually quite lonely underneath it all might not be the most radical piece of character development, but it remains the most significant piece of character development that Yves receives across the entire season. Zuleikha Robinson does great work in the role, sharing a wonderful and powerful chemistry with John Vargas. Quite simply, the final scene would not work without that strong connection between the two characters, and the actors do tremendous work to bring it to life.

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The tango is known as a music of passionate love. It is not. It is actually the music of loneliness and lust. Look closely at the dancers and you’ll see the relationship between prostitutes and her client. The dance is intricate, legs intertwine, but all the movement is from the waist down.

– Ricardo Gomez

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As with any great dance, a lot of the charm of Tango de los Pistoleros comes from the choreography. The episode is constructed remarkably well. The performances are fantastic. The script is tight. The direction is superb. Tango de los Pistoleros is very much The Lone Gunmen operating at peak efficiency. It is a reminder of just how skilled this production team is, with many staffers having worked on The X-Files while it was filming in Vancouver during its first five seasons.

Thomas Schnauz’s script is exceptionally well-constructed. The teaser is evocative without being too abstract. All the best gags and plot developments are effectively set up before they are dutifully paid off. For example, Cuchillo’s attempted assassination of Yves by throwing knife is properly foreshadowed through his use of a throwing knife against Langly only a few scenes earlier. The revelation that Frohike is a championship tango dancer is very meticulously foreshadowed before it is explicitly revealed.

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Bryan Spicer’s direction is superb. Spicer had only directed a single episode of The X-Files before he was drafted over to work on The Lone Gunmen. Working on Bond, Jimmy Bond, Spicer quickly became the show’s director of choice. He helmed six of the show’s thirteen episodes. Although Rob Bowman directed The Pilot, it was largely Bryan Spicer who set the look and tone of the series. Although Spicer did not always get the best material to work with, he was always game for whatever the show threw at him.

In keeping with its tango theme, Tango de los Pistoleros includes a number of sequences in which acts of violence are juxtaposed with the intimacy of the dance. Spicer weaves these moments together beautifully, capturing an impressive collection of footage on a television budget and schedule. Of particular note is the introductory sequence wherein the “murder” of Langly is contrasted against a metaphorical tango featuring the rest of the cast and a sequence where Cuchillo murders Morales as Santavos dances.

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It should also be noted that Tango de los Pistoleros si a very lean piece of television. While many Lone Gunmen episodes can feel like a half-hour premise padded out to forty-five minutes, Tango de los Pistoleros manages to cram an a lot into its runtime. As Thomas Schnauz note on the commentary:

The director’s cut is actually really good. It’s fifteen minutes too long, but a lot of things got clipped and shortened, which… when I watch it now, I see the things that should be in there.

It is a shame that The Lone Gunmen never became a hit, because it might be interesting to see all the material that was cut out, including more foreshadowing of Frohike’s time in Miami and more development of the relationship between Yves and Santavos.

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Nevertheless, it is hard to feel too bad about the cuts that had to be made to the episode. Tango de los Pistoleros has the body of a dancer; it is mostly muscle with no real fat to be found. Most of the first season of The Lone Gunmen could do with a similar tightening, cutting out a lot of the tired bodily function or falling down gags in favour of a more emotional story. Schnauz and Spicer deserve a great deal of credit for getting the show into its final form, which never feels incomplete on its own terms.

Los Tango de los Pistoleros might just be the best episode of the show’s short life, a dance of loneliness and longing that perfect captures the spirit of the series around it.

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4 Responses

  1. “At least the opening credits of The X-Files can assure Mulder that the truth is out there; the Lone Gunmen are afforded no such reassurance…”

    I would be interested in a drama (or dramedy) about a group of conspiracy theorists who are wildly off-base, yet very influential, to the point of stopping the US in its tracks and spawning a political movement.

    Let’s face it, the only reason anyone looks back on TLG with nostalgia is because it ‘called’ the 9-11 attacks. This is an SNL movie stretched into thirteen episodes about a group of man-children who have imagined a host of conspiracies that do not exist. Today, we know a lot of conspiracy nuts are misguided, but an even greater number of them are businessmen: they have a product to sell, and it’s fear.

    • I also wonder if Vince Gilligan also plays a part in the nostalgia for the show. It was his first experience as (co-)showrunner, and he turned out to be quite the beloved cult figure.

      That said, I genuinely think there are three (maybe four) legitimately good Lone Gunmen episodes, but they are the episodes that tend to focus on how disconnected and lonely the guys actually are rather than treating them as generic comedy heroes who have wacky adventures.

      • Yeah, I imagine Chris Carter was feeling burned after Millennium and wanted to lighten things up. His name and reputation was on the line.

      • It’s funny; there are some quotes (I think I put them in the finalé review) where you get a sense that Carter is very defensive in dealing with the press; an argument that his critics were reviewing him and not the show. I think Carter’s truly one of the better producers in the history of television, and massively underrated, but I’m not sure his style would have ever lent itself to Moffat/Shondaland style “producer” franchising. (I’d argue his work is perhaps too artisan in that respect, in that The X-Files often feels like Carter’s vision half-compromised for the audience while Millennium feels a lot more like “uncut” Carter. And while I really like Millennium, it was never going to be a monster hit.)

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