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The Lone Gunmen (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 Lone Gunmen seemed destined to be an oddity.

When it arrived in March 2001, it must have felt like a throwback. The production team had consciously modelled the series on the classic episodic spy and adventure shows of the sixties, seventies and eighties. Mission: Impossible and The A-Team served as cultural touchstones, with both The Pilot and Eine Kleine Frohike making visual references to Brian dePalma’s cinematic adaptation of Mission: Impossible while Maximum Byers featured an extended discussion of the pros and cons of Pros and Cons, an early first season episode of The A-Team.

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In terms of structure and tone, The Lone Gunmen seemed to hark back to the golden age of two-knuckled action adventure television shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or MacGyver. Threads rarely carried over from episode to episode. Only one actor who didn’t appear in the opening credits would appear in more than a single episode of the show. There was no hint of a “mythology” and no clear structure from week-to-week beyond “the Lone Gunmen get into wacky adventures and hijinks ensue.”

In many ways, The Lone Gunmen was the kind of show that had quietly shuffled off the air in the early nineties. It felt like it belonged to a generation of television predating The X-Files rather than succeeding it. Even the opening credits to the show were much less abstract and much more traditional than those of The X-Files, playing as something of a highlight reel of the early first season. There is something very aggressively old-school about the aesthetic of The Lone Gunmen.

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The Lone Gunmen would have seemed somewhat outdated had it aired before Homicide: Life on the Streets during the late nineties; it was doubly out of place in the emerging era of reality television. However, there are elements of The Lone Gunmen that feel like they might have played better had the show arrived a few years later. Byers, Langly and Frohike were too eccentric to anchor an hour-long show on a major network, as Fox had already become. They might have fared better on another network after the cable television explosion.

It is easy enough to imagine The Lone Gunmen as an oddity airing on a smaller cable network like HBO or Showtime or AMC. Indeed, the perfect pitch for The Lone Gunmen would seem to land somewhere between Bored to Death and The X-Files. The audience for The Lone Gunmen might have been small in terms of major television networks, but it was devoted. Smaller providers – even on-line providers like Amazon or Netflix – would love to court that sort of fanbase. Had The Lone Gunmen arrived a few years later, it may have had a chance.

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As such, The Lone Gunmen feels like a television show out of time. It is a series that landed at the wrong moment on the wrong channel, and which likely never had a chance. The animators on King of the Hill were incorporating jokes about the inevitable cancellation of The Lone Gunmen before the episode even aired. The viewing figures were far from spectacular, but they were better than the shows that had aired in the same slot in the season prior and the season following. March 2001 was just not the right moment for The Lone Gunmen.

Then again, it feels appropriate that The Lone Gunmen should so perfectly mirror its central character. Heroic, endearing, charming, but also undeniably odd.

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March 2001 seems a very strange time to launch a spin-off from The X-Files. The idea of basing a show around the Lone Gunmen had been mooted for several years, so it seems strange that it should take this long to reach the point where the production team were trying an honest-to-goodness spin-off from The X-Files. After all, Chris Carter had been quite cautious about protecting the brand of The X-Files. When he created Millennium and Harsh Realm, both shows consciously stood apart from his critical and commercial smash.

There is a sense that Fox wanted another show closely tied to The X-Files for quite some time, dating back to the point where The X-Files really took off as a cultural phenomenon in its third and fourth season. There is some suggestion that Fox had hoped to launch a spin-off as early as the second season. It seems likely Fox wanted Millennium to be a spin-off so as to increase synergy in their broadcast line-up. However, Carter largely ignored those impulses. The X-Files and Millennium would only properly crossover after Millennium had been cancelled.

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It seems like the perfect time to lauch The Lone Gunmen might have been several years earlier. The fourth or fifth season of The X-Files seem like the most obvious choices, as The X-Files built towards its cultural zenith. In practical terms, it might have made sense to launch The Lone Gunmen during the sixth season following the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future; it would have kept the Vancouver production team together and helped to secure a future for the franchise as David Duchovny had signalled his intent to leave at the end of the seventh season.

Of course, it is very easy to play Monday morning quarterback.  However, it is debatable whether The X-Files was in any condition to support a spin-off during its eighth season. David Duchovny had left, leaving Robert Patrick to fill in for him. The production team had to figure out how to tell stories without Mulder. Although Gillian Anderson had renewed her contract for a ninth season, it was quite clear that she was planning to depart as well. The eighth season of The X-Files found the show in a state of turmoil. Launching a spin-off seemed incredibly risky.

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From a purely selfish perspective, launching The Lone Gunmen meant dividing attention away from a show that needed a lot of tender love and care. Vince Gilligan was so focused on The Lone Gunmen that he was only able to write one episode for the eighth season of The X-Files, Roadrunners. John Shiban was so busy working on The Lone Gunmen that his script for Badlaa ended up a disjointed mess. However, Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter would manage to contribute to both shows across that single season of television.

As with Harsh Realm, any discussion about the quality of The Lone Gunmen must acknowledge that the show was cancelled after only half a season had aired. Millennium and The X-Files took longer to find their voices; it is interesting to wonder how those shows would have been perceived if Fox had dropped the axe so early in their runs. The Lone Gunmen had some very serious problems, but the first season of any show is largely about trial and error as the production team tries to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

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Quite simply, The Lone Gunmen is not funny enough to support the expectations of a forty-five minute comedy. The weakest episodes of the thirteen-episode run – Like Water for Octane and Three Men and a Smoking Diaper – are the episodes that commit most wholeheartedly to the idea of The Lone Gunmen as a comedy series. The production team have a set list of jokes that they return to time and again to help pad out episodes: somebody falls down! Langly looks like a girl! two men having sex would be hilarious! bodily fluids! private parts!

Sustaining laughs across twenty-odd minutes for a half-hour comedy is tough enough. Maintaining that level of humour across forty-five minutes seems impossible. The X-Files could manage comedy episodes, but it frequently ran into problems when it tried to position too many comedy episodes too close together. trying to produce thirteen forty-five minute comedies over the course of a single season is undeniably ambitious, but it does lead to some rather grating results.

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It doesn’t help matters that the show feels somewhat crowded, with the Lone Gunmen feeling a little squeezed within their own show. The Lone Gunmen has three characters inherited from The X-Files, but it adds two new characters to the ensemble. There is something very cynical about the addition of Yves Adele Harlow and Stephen Snedden to the mix; they are two very conventionally attractive characters who diminish the joy of a show based around three weird loners.

The Lone Gunmen seems reluctant to integrate the cast. All too often, episodes are divided between the original three characters and the two new arrivals; Eine Kleine Frohike, Diagnosis: Jimmy and The “Cap’n Toby” Show all count. In those cases, it feels like the episodes are trying to do too much. The time spent with Jimmy and Yves could be better used to flesh out the plot featuring the three characters who gave the show its name.  On top of that, shows like Tango de los Pistoleros and All About Yves suggest a romance between the two newcomers.

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It is too much to suggest that the Lone Gunmen are being squeezed out of their own show, but the inclusion of Jimmy and Yves feels like pandering. It seems like The Lone Gunmen is a little reluctant to embrace the surreality of its premise, and is trying to hedge its bets. Actors Zuleikha Robinson and Stephen Snedden do very good work with the material, but the first season never seems entirely sure what to do with them. The characters might have worked better as recurring cast members rather than as constant fixtures.

The Lone Gunmen worked best when it was willing to let its freak flag fly, when it embraced the full range of possibilities suggested by “an even stranger and weirder version of The X-Files.” Conventional sit-com premises like “what if three guys end up caring for a baby?” or “what if the quirky comic relief is in a hospital for an episode?” simply weren’t going to cut it. The Lone Gunmen was a show that could do episodes about existential crises of identity, hyper-intelligent animal assassins, and arms deals at tango competitions.

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The show thrived when it was willing to tackle ideas that would seem rather odd on The X-Files. The best episodes sound strange when offered one-line summaries. Madam, I’m Adam features Stephen Tobolowki as a man who claims that his life has been stolen. Planet of the Frohikes features the voice of Edward Woodward as a romantic chimpanzee. Tango de los Pistoleros finds our heroes infiltrating a dance competition in Miami to halt the sale of state secrets. All About Yves opens with the low-budget staged abduction of Michael McKean.

However, those episodes are more than just strange or surreal. The best Lone Gunmen episodes are underscored by a sense of wistful melancholy. The best comedy in The Lone Gunmen exists in contrast to heartbreaking tragedy. The Lone Gunmen is a much smaller show than The X-Files, with a much keener emphasis on human stories. The oddness on display in The Lone Gunmen has nothing to do with aliens or colonisation, it is simply a reflection of the oddness of the human condition.

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At its best, The Lone Gunmen seems to evoke the spirit of Darin Morgan. The show seems to suggest that the pursuit of truth is not everything it is cracked up to be. The Lone Gunmen are not driven in the same way that Mulder is; there is no overarching mythology to the show, no mystery to be resolved. Instead, The Lone Gunmen focuses time and time again on the importance of the connection between two people. As much as the Lone Gunmen might claim to be crusaders for truth and justice, the truth is that the show tends to focus on stories of loneliness and isolation.

Then again, The Lone Gunmen is a spin-off from The X-Files. It makes sense that there would be some thematic overlap. The X-Files is largely a show about Mulder’s attempts to make sense of the world around him, and to repair the trauma caused by the destruction of his family. That is why the closing image of the eighth season is such a perfect place to leave Mulder; in reuniting with Scully and William, Mulder has finally managed to restore the family that was shattered with Samantha’s abduction.

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Of course, there are some key differences between The Lone Gunmen and The X-Files. The most obvious difference is the sheer scale. Mulder and Scully are uncovering secrets that would shake the world to its foundation. The Lone Gunmen face smaller-scale threats. Morris Fletcher was a nuisance to Mulder and Scully in Dreamland I and Dreamland II; he proves a perfectly credible threat to the Lone Gunmen in All About Yves. More than that, there is a sense that Mulder might actually accomplish something; the Lone Gunmen seem more quixotic.

However, there is a very clear difference in tone between The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen. In many ways, The X-Files is firmly rooted in the cynicism and paranoia of the seventies; the show’s formative traumas are the Vietnam War or the Watergate Scandal. In contrast, The Lone Gunmen yearns for a return to the utopianism of the sixties; the characters’ formative trauma is the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the end of Camelot, right down to Byers’ birthday and first names.

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This allows The Lone Gunmen to feels more optimistic and hopeful than The X-Files. The show repeatedly emphasises that the Lone Gunmen are patriots. In episodes as diverse as Bond, Jimmy Bond, Tango de los Pistoleros, The Lying Game and The “Cap’n Toby” Show, the Lone Gunmen conspire to protect the United States from foreign threats. When they do uncover a government plot in The Pilot, Bertram Byers is very quick to clarify that not all government officials are corrupt or evil.

The Lone Gunmen is positively patriotic. The theme music opens with an electric guitar strumming The Star-Spangled Banner. Red, white and blue saturate the show, from the opening scene of Like Water for Octane through to the tango competition in Tango de los Pistoleros. When the Lone Gunmen uncover a bunch of shady secrets about a prominent politician in Three Men and a Smoking Diaper, their faith in the democratic process still manages to endure. The X-Files was never this overtly patriotic.

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That said, The Lone Gunmen is running parallel to the eighth season of The X-Files. Reinventing the mythology, Chris Carter steered the show away from government conspiracies and towards exclusively alien plots. During the eighth and ninth seasons, The X-Files was no longer the story of how power inherently corrupts; it was the story about how the structures of government had been infiltrated and perverted by sinister alien forces. As such, the patriotism of The Lone Gunmen is not as much of a contrast as it might originally seem.

The Lone Gunmen was not a perfect show by any measure, but few show emerge fully formed. In many ways, it feels like a strange divergence running alongside the eighth season of The X-Files. It is a parallel track, unto which the production team have conveniently shunted all the quirky comedy that fans had come to expect from the show in its later years. It is a spin-off, a series that exists primarily in the context of what came before. The show is informed and coloured by The X-Files well beyond the influence that The X-Files had exerted on Millennium or Harsh Realm.

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Although the show only ran for thirteen episodes, it managed to draw in no less than three guest appearances from characters who originated on The X-Files and its only recurring guest star was playing the twin of a character who had appeared on The X-Files. It is not unreasonable to treat The Lone Gunmen as a supplement of The X-Files in a way that Millennium or Harsh Realm simply were not. The show actively invites this reading, revelling in its status as a spin-off and having great fun with the idea that this is what the Lone Gunmen do when Mulder’s not around.

The Lone Gunmen is very much an oddity, but its three central characters would not have that any other way.

You might be interested in our reviews of The Lone Gunmen:

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3 Responses

  1. Interesting take on the show. I hope I can see it one day.

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