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The Lone Gunmen – The Lying Game (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.

The Lying Game is perhaps most well known for its central guest star.

The Lying Game is the episode in which the Lone Gunmen find themselves crossing paths with Assistant Director Walter Skinner. It was a pretty big deal, to the point that Skinner’s appearance towards the end of the season was being hyped in the media immediately following the broadcast of The Pilot, almost two months before the episode actually aired. It wasn’t the first crossover between two Ten Thirteen shows, but it was still a pretty big deal. It makes sense that discussion of The Lying Game would focus on its visiting supporting player.

Some hot Skinner-on-Skinner action...

Some hot Skinner-on-Skinner action…

However, The Lying Game is also notable for featuring a significant transgender guest character. Carol Strode is most significant transgender character to appear in a Ten Thirteen production. As one might expect given the production company’s awkward history with the portrayal of homosexual characters, the results are mixed. There is no question that the episode is well-intentioned, but it is also clumsy and occasionally ill-judged. Even the title would suggest as much, albeit more through absent-minded insensitivity than outright malice.

The Lying Game has its heart in the right place, but doesn’t necessarily have its head in gear.

Surviving by the Skin of his teeth...

Surviving by the Skin of his teeth…

To be fair, The Lying Game needs to be considered in its cultural context. The modern debate around transgender rights dates back to the end of the nineteenth century at the latest. Christine Jorgensen underwent the world’s first surgical gender reassignment in 1952. Three years before the Stonewall Riots, San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighbourhood become the site of transgender protests in August 1966. Indeed, certain narratives of the Stonewall Riots have been criticised for omitting or downplaying the transgender element of the upheaval.

However, transgender media representation was still largely uncommon at the turn of the millennium. Hilary Swank won an Oscar in March 2000 for her work in Boys Don’t Cry, Kimberly Peirce’s account of the 1993 murder of Brandon Teena in Nebraska. Television’s first recurring transgender character would not appear until September 2001, when Erica Bettis made her first appearance in the short-lived comedy series The Education of Max Bickford. GLAAD only started tracking television portrayals of transgender characters in 2002.

Matter of record...

Matter of record…

Transgender portrayals in media did become more frequent as the twenty-first century progressed. However, even over a decade after The Lying Game, depictions were frequently negative and stereotypical. In 2012, Herndon Graddick criticised stock depictions of transgender characters in media:

“We hope that representations of transgender people on television evolve to become as diverse, nuanced, and inspiring as the community those images reflect,” said GLAAD President Herndon Graddick.  “Media has a history of telling the world a story that transgender people are always victims or villains, instead of true depictions that show the transgender community as citizens worthy of equality and respect.”

There is some evidence that the situation is improving. In October 2014, Laverne Cox became the first transgender actor to earn an Emmy for her work on Orange is the New Black. In January 2015, Transparent became the first online-only show to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series.

A glass act...

A glass act…

However, it should be noted that both Orange is the New Black and Transparent air outside the structures of regular network television. While shows like GleeUgly Betty and Degrassi have earned praise for their engagement with transgender issues, there is still a long way to go. “What we’ve noticed is that in many ways transgender representation is still 20 years behind where the LGB representation is today,” notes GLAAD’s associate director of entertainment media Matt Kane.

A 2010 study revealed that 70% of transgender individuals find media portrayals of transgender characters to be negative; 78% of transgender individuals find those portrayals to be inaccurate. This is important, because 41% of people who identify of transgender have attempted suicide. More than that, transgender people are still the victims of incredible prejudice and violence. Nearly 80% of transgender people reported experience harrasment at school; 102 acts of violence were reported against transgender people in the first four months of 2014 alone.

Getting his head in the game...

Getting his head in the game…

All of this is to say that transgender representation in media is part of a larger cultural context about transgender rights and acceptance. The mainstream media is still very much behind the curve a decade-and-a-half into the twenty-first century. As a result, it seems almost inevitable that a story centring upon a transgender guest character airing on The Lone Gunmen in May 2001 would be clunky and awkward. It has certainly not aged well, although it is not as if media has moved past many of the problems that plague the episode.

To be fair to The Lying Game, the episode is well-intentioned and its heart is in the right place. Byers spends most of the episode respecting Carol Strode’s gender reassignment and her right to privacy. Byers often represents the conscience of The Lone Gunmen, and it is satisfying to see him tear into Jeff Strode for betraying his sister’s confidence and for refusing to support her transition. Bruce Harwood is great, and it never seems like Byers even has to think twice about any of the issue related to Carol Strode’s gender.

A face to remember...

A face to remember…

“She came to you in confidence when she was thinking about doing… what she did,” Byers states. “You told everybody.” When Jeff tries to defend himself from these accusations, Byers is having none of it. “You made it that much harder for her to go through with it. You made her have to explain things before she was ready. No wonder she wants nothing to do with you.” It is worth noting that Byers respects Carol’s privacy in introducing her to the rest of the gang.

In fact, Byers is endearingly energetic in his refusal to apologise for keeping Carol’s secret from his friends and co-workers. “I take it back, I don’t apologise for not telling you,” Byers assures Langly. “Everybody deserves his privacy.” There are some clunky elements of Byers’ rant – he possibly misgenders Carol at the very end and refers to gender reassignment with the nebulous “what she did” rather than just calling what it is – but his heart is in the right place and nobody watching the episode could think otherwise.

Close for comfort...

Close for comfort…

This feels very much in keeping with the ethos of the Lone Gunmen. The Lone Gunmen consider themselves allies of the downtrodden and the dispossessed, willing to listen to those readily ignored by those in positions of authority. The Lone Gunmen is all about sticking up for the little guy, and it is great to see Byers get so impassioned about defending Carol’s rights. That would be enough on its own terms to earn the show a gold star for its portrayal of a transgender character; making a strong statement about their right to their identity and moving on.

Even more than that, it is nice that Jimmy and Yves simply don’t care about the fact that Carol Strode was born a man. At the end of the episode, Jimmy reveals that he always recognised Carol as a transgender woman; it simply didn’t matter to him. “Tell me what?” he wonders. “That she used to be a man? I knew that the first time I saw her, so did Yves. So what?” In many ways, this is an even better response than Byer’s aggressive defense of Carol; Jimmy is willing to accept Carol for who she is rather than for who she was.

Dog's body work...

Dog’s body work…

However, there are no shortage of problems with The Lying Game. Some of those problems are simply poor story-telling choices, like allowing Jimmy to narrate the episode with all the earnest sincerity of an afternoon special. “I think that everyone goes through life wearing this, like, invisible football helmet,” he reflects. “We need it to protect ourselves, but that means that other people never really see our true face.” Ignoring the fact that Carol Strode is letting other people see her true face, it is also incredibly clunky.

This is not a problem unique to The Lying Game. Earlier in the season, Like Water for Octane faced similar problems. Jimmy is always a character who has fit somewhat awkwardly on the show. He works best as the most emotionally astute of the cast, his emotional intelligence easily surpassing his other intellectual capabilities to ironically make him the most sensitive and insightful of the team. He makes an awkward fit as the team’s sage, just as the show feels clumsy when it employs him as a convenient exposition machine.

Lost in it all...

Lost in it all…

Other problems with The Lying Game are more specifically attuned to its portrayal of Carol Strode. The title feels particularly ill-judged. It is a jokey riff on Neil Jordan’s Academy-Award-winning The Crying Game, the story of an IRA fugitive who falls for a transgender performer in London. Ignoring the fact that it suggests that Carol Strode’s gender identity is the focus of the script (it is a tangential issue at best), the decision to substitute “Lying” for “Crying” feels particularly ill-judged.

To be fair, the title The Lying Game could easily be read as a reference to all the double-crossing and deception that plays out in the primary plot. The Lone Gunmen think Skinner is corrupt. Carol thinks Jeff is dead. Larry Rose is lying to his business partners and his wife. This is a reasonable observation, but it becomes uncomfortable when the episode ties it all together with a title that puns on perhaps the most iconic and influential portrayal of a transgender film in the nineties.

Mouthing off...

Mouthing off…

In Whipping Girl, author Julia Serano discusses the popular stereotype of “the deceptive transexual” who exists to “trick” heterosexual men:

In a tactic that emphasises their “true” maleness, “deceivers” are most often used as pawns to provoke male homophobia in other characters, as well as in the audience itself. This phenomenon is especially evident in TV talk shows like Jerry Springer, which regularly runs episodes with titles like “My Girlfriend’s a Guy” and “I’m Really a Man!” that feature trans women coming out to their straight boyfriends. On a recent British reality TV show called There’s Something About Miriam, six heterosexual men court an attractive woman who, unbeknownst to them, is transsexual. The broadcast of the show was delayed for several months because the men threatened to sue the show’s producers, alleging that they had been the victims of defamation, personal injury, and conspiracy to commit sexual assault. The affair was eventually settled out of court, with each man coming away with a reported 125,000 British pountds (over 200,000 U.S. dollars at the time).

As such, even the association with a transgender character and deception feels ill-judged, playing into crass cultural stereotypes.

"You know, this really isn't that covert..."

“You know, this really isn’t that covert…”

There are even some jokes about that squeezed into The Lying Game. For all that Byers and Jimmy might have their hearts in the right place, The Lying Game cannot resist some “wouldn’t it be hilarious if straight guys were attracted to a transgender woman?” gags. When Carol Strode arrives at the office, Langly and Frohike immediately start making goo-goo eyes at her. When she tells them that her brother has been murdered, Frohike offers, “I’m really sorry to hear it.” Langly responds, “Yeah, I’m even sorrier.”

This immediately seems odd. After all, Langly and Frohike have had attractive women in the office before. Frohike is implied to be quite the ladies’ man. Neither is head-over-heels attracted to Yves, for example. Neither gets tongue-tied around Agent Blythe in The “Cap’n Toby Show. Even Frohike’s long-standing attraction to Scully is played more subtly. It turns out that this is all set-up for the reveal that Carol Strode used to be a man, suggesting the audience is meant to laugh at Frohike and Langly’s attraction.

Obviously the Lone Gunmen don't have an in-house legal team...

Obviously the Lone Gunmen don’t have an in-house legal team…

Then again, it might be a bit much to expect nuance and care from a show that considers the sight of a dog humping Langly’s leg to be hilarious. The Lone Gunmen has a long and illustrious history of aiming towards the lowest common denominator and casually throwing in homophobic humour. It would be too much to hope for The Lying Game to pass without one stock transphobic gag. (The “Cap’n Toby” Show even closes with a joke about how Langly’s hair makes him look like a girl.)

Still, Carol Strode is not the reason that most fans are familiar with The Lying Game. Despite the fact that it features the most significant appearance of a transgender character before The X-Files: I Want to Believe, the episode is best known for its other guest star. The Lying Game is essentially the show’s big X-Files crossover episode, with the Lone Gunmen drawn into a case that just happens to involve Assistant Director Walter Skinner. Much like the truth, the synergy is out there.

Game on...

Game on…

Up until The Lone Gunmen, the Ten Thirteen shows had existed quite apart from one another. When Millennium and Harsh Realm launched, they were kept quite separate from The X-Files. At several points, it has been suggested that the world of Ten Thirteen is recursive, that their shows exist nested inside each other like Russian dolls. Human Essence suggested that The X-Files was a television show in the world of Millennium, and Sein und Zeit suggested Harsh Realm was a television show in the world of The X-Files.

Although David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s stand-ins can be glimpsed in the background of Lamentation, the first season of Millenium kept its continuity quite separate from that of The X-Files. When Glen Morgan and James Wong took over, the second season of Millennium enjoyed a more playful relationship with its sibling; Jose Chung popped up in Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” and the show implied that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was a member of the Millennium Group in The Time is Now. Still, there was a distance.

Listen up!

Listen up!

As Frank Spotnitz explained in The Making of the Lone Gunmen, the production team were quite eager to exploit the opportunity for crossovers and cross-pollination between The Lone Gunmen and The X-Files:

At Ten Thirteen, we’d always been against crossovers. We’d resisted them throughout the run of Millennium, where they’d been suggested many times. We never did one. Only after Millennium ended did we bring over Lance Henriksen to The X-Files. But with The Lone Gunmen, our feelings were completely different. We thought crossovers would be fun, because it’s a comedy. It’s a completely different genre.

Indeed, it could be argued that The Lying Game was not the first crossover between the shows. The Lone Gunmen had already appeared in Three Words. it certainly would not be the last crossover, with both Morris Fletcher and Fox Mulder popping up in All About Yves.

Mouthing off.

Mouthing off.

From a cynical perspective, this could be seen as an attempt to bolster The Lone Gunmen by firmly tethering it to The X-Files. After all, Chris Carter had never managed to replicate the success of The X-Files with any of his other projects, so it makes sense that the production team might make a conscious effort to tie the newest show to that long-running popular television show. This was not a bad approach to the show, particularly at a point where it seemed like the audience for scripted television was only shrinking.

After all, the show did star three characters who had first appeared on The X-Files during its first season. More than that, The Lone Gunmen had cleverly debuted in the five-week gap between This is Not Happening and DeadAlive. Although the show was shifted to Fridays when The X-Files returned, The Lone Gunmen had even debuted in that “Sundays at 9pm” slot most associated with The X-Files. There was a clear and conscious effort to court fans of The X-Files to help grow the audience of The Lone Gunmen.

Smilin' Skinner!

Smilin’ Skinner!

It is, of course, highly debatable whether this approach actually worked. Certainly, The Lone Gunmen never set the ratings on fire. The show did quite respectably in its slots, outperforming Harsh Realm and holding reasonably steady around the ratings that Millennium enjoyed during its final season. As John Shiban has argued, the show performed at least as well as the first season of The X-Files. However, Fox did not have the same patience or luxuries in May 2001 as it had enjoyed in May 1994.

Still, bringing in outside characters to cross over into The Lone Gunmen is not a bad idea. All About Yves makes the most of its two central guest stars, both of whom originated on The X-Files. When it came time to draft in a supporting player from The X-Files, Skinner was the logical choice. Gillian Anderson and Robert Patrick were busy headlining the eighth season, while David Duchovny had only made himself available for a limited amount of time. Mitch Pileggi is perhaps the most prominent recurring character left on the show.

Fox has a very short memory.

Fox has a very short memory.

Even outside of practical limitations on the choice of crossover character, Skinner has the perfect “straight man” persona to play off the goofy antics of the Lone Gunmen. (Indeed, Vince Gilligan’s comedy scripts for The X-Files often get a great deal of mileage out of positioning Skinner as the unlikely straight man for small scenes – see Small Potatoes, Bad Blood and Je Souhaite.) For much of The X-Files, Assistant Director Skinner is positioned as a stern father figure. Given that the Lone Gunmen are unruly kids, the crossover writes itself.

Indeed, it is almost a shame that Mitch Pileggi does not get too much to actually do as Skinner. Some of the funnier moments in The Lying Game come from juxtaposing the Lone Gunmen’s happy-go-lucky school of crime-fighting with Skinner’s by-the-book professional demeanour. After watching the Lone Gunmen spend an entire season outwitting foreign spy agencies and arresting former war criminals, it is nice to have a guest character firmly keep them in line. Pileggi’s matter-of-fact delivery of “don’t call me Walt” and the cast’s intimidated response is just perfect.

Skinner's very angry.

Skinner’s very angry.

At the same time, it is easy to see why The Lying Game opts to have a bit of fun with the Skinner persona. Mitch Pileggi plays Skinner sow ell that it is easy to forget that the actor has wonderful comic chops. Bringing Skinner over to The Lone Gunmen would seem to be the perfect opportunity to give Mitch Pileggi some lighter material to play. In order to give Pileggi some funny material without undermining the character, the production team allowing Jimmy to don one of the masks from Eine Kleine Frohike letting Pileggi play Jimmy-as-Skinner.

The result scene is great fun, even if the logic used to justify it feels a little flimsy. Pileggi is really great, adopting quite a few of Snedden’s mannerisms in order to give the impression that this really is Jimmy Bond posing (badly) as Walter Skinner instead of a more generically goofy take on the Assistant Director. In many ways, it is a reminder of just how good Mitch Pileggi is, even if The X-Files rarely afforded the actor the same range of material that he gets here. Skinner and Pileggi make fine additions, even if they are somewhat underused.

An off-Mitch Skinner impression...

An off-Mitch Skinner impression…

The plot of the episode finds the Lone Gunmen tied up in an FBI sting operation designed to prevent the sale of classified military technology to shady Russian gangsters. When Frohike asks what Jeff Strode was investigating, the blackmailer responds, “Plutonium, can you believe it? Post Cold War ICBM salvage.” Introducing the Russian gangster, Yves remarks, “Frumin has half the Moscow police force on his payroll. Could be he’s done just as well for himself here as in the states.”

Barring the episode’s (admittedly questionable) inclusion of a major transgender supporting character, The Lying Game continues to reinforce the feeling that The Lone Gunmen is something of a hangover from the long nineties that arrived several years too late. Indeed, the guest appearance from Walter Skinner only draws attention to the fact that The Lone Gunmen would have been a much bigger deal had it launched around the fifth season, at a point where The X-Files was a ubiquitous part of American pop culture.

Bush whacked...

Bush whacked…

Still, if The Lying Game suggests that The Lone Gunmen is a show out of time, All About Yves seems to suggest that the show has simply run out of time.

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