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The X-Files – Lord of the Flies (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Lord of the Flies is an interesting episode, but not a good one.

After 4-D worked so hard to offer a glimpse of what The X-Files could or should look like in December 2001, Lord of the Flies feels like a step backwards. It is a regression, and not just because it awkwardly transitions Scully back into the role of lead character or because it returns to the comedy stylings largely eschewed by the eighth season. Lord of the Flies feels like a script that could have been written for the show in its third or fourth seasons, returning to the well-tapped reservoir of teen angst that has sustained quite a few episodes at this point.

Flies by...

Flies by…

Only a handful of elements serve to mark Lord of the Flies as a piece twenty-first century television. While Scully gets to play action hero at the climax, Mulder is gone; Doggett and Reyes do a lot of the generic detective work across the hour, even if little of their personalities gets to shine through. More than that, Aaron Paul and Jane Lynch pop up in supporting roles that nod towards the various futures of network television. In particular, Paul appears in a home-made stunt show called “Dumb Ass”, an obvious (and shallow) parody of Jackass.

However, Lord of the Flies is not particularly interested in any of these newer elements. The script very clearly wants to hark backwards, towards a past that is no longer easily accessible.

Somewhere, Scully is jealous...

Somewhere, Scully is jealous…

Lord of the Flies is the first episode of The X-Files to be credited to writer Thomas Schnauz. Schnauz had worked on The Lone Gunmen, and had been ported over to the mothership when the spin-off was prematurely cancelled by Fox. Greg Walker and Steven Maeda had followed the same trajectory, arriving towards the end of the seventh season fresh from Harsh Realm. Schnauz would also script Scary Monsters and Resist or Serve while working on The X-Files.

Schnauz is not a bad writer by any measure. He won two Emmy awards for his work on Breaking Bad, and was nominated for his work on Better Call Saul. His script for Say My Name picked up an Emmy nomination. In fact, Vince Gilligan frequently credits Schnauz with coming up with the basic idea of Breaking Bad by proposing that the two writers could buy an RV and make money by cooking crystal meth together. Schnauz and Gilligan have remained close, with Schnauz describing Gilligan as his “college buddy” and Gilligan identifying Schnauz as his “best friend.”

Talk about an empty skull...

Talk about an empty skull…

In fact, Gilligan and Schnauz’s shared past and future seem to collide in Lord of the Flies, which features future Breaking Bad actor in the role of Johnny Knoxville wannabe “Winky.” Recalling how his experience on The X-Files overlapped with Breaking Bad, Paul was surprised to discover the origins of the character’s name:

And my first meeting for Breaking Bad was with Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, producers Karen Moore and Melissa Bernstein, and our loving casting directors. I had worked with Melissa Bernstein before on this short film called Candy Paint, so we were saying our hi’s and Vince is, like, “So I know that you did X-Files, what episode did you do?” I’m, like, “I did this episode called Lord of the Flies, and I was so stoked. That was one of my favorite shows of all time, and I’m so happy to have been a part of it.” He’s, like, “Wait, you played Sky Commander Winky!” And I’m, like, “Yes.” He’s, like, “That was my nickname in college!” I go, “What, are you serious?” He’s, like, “Yep, my buddy from college, he’s also another writer on the show, and he put that in for me.” I’m, like, “That is so random!” And that really broke the ice with Vince and me. That wasn’t his episode, and he and I had never met, so it really broke the ice. So thank God I did that episode of X-Files, because I really, truly believe that it honestly might have helped me get the role of Jesse Pinkman. Now the real question is, why was Vince Gilligan’s nickname Sky Commander Winky in college? I never got the back story on that.

Much like 4-D seemed to gesture beyond The X-Files towards its spiritual successor in Fringe, it seems like Lord of the Flies is nodding towards Breaking Bad. The ninth season of The X-Files serves to bring together a whole nexus of future television. Michelle MacLaren will make her directorial debut in only a couple of episodes.

Just working out some bugs...

Just working out some bugs…

However, as much as the behind the scenes elements of Lord of the Flies seem to hark forward, too much of the episode is spent looking backwards. It is interesting to wonder what might have happened had Thomas Schnauz arrived on The X-Files a few seasons earlier, while the show was younger and at a point where he might have had the time to develop his own unique voice. Lord of the Flies and Scary Monsters feel very much in line with Schnauz’s contributions to The Lone Gunmen, but offer little indication of his writing on Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul.

Lord of the Flies feels like a episode that was recycled from earlier in the show’s run. In terms of visual style and tone, the episode marks a return to the “X-Files Lite” aesthetic of the sixth and seventh seasons. Nothing Important Happened Today I made it clear that the ninth season would not be continuing the darker visual style of the eighth season, but none of the subsequent episodes have managed to quite match the stylised hyper-saturated comic book aesthetic that Kim Manners brought to the premiere.

Hey, kids! It's Jane Lynch...

Hey, kids! It’s Jane Lynch!

Instead, Lord of the Flies just features a lot of exterior sequences shot in California sunlight. Although the climax of the episode takes place at night, many of the key sequences unfold during the daytime. The teaser is film on a street in broad daylight, while the high school setting means that a lot of the detective work takes place while everything is perfectly lit. The eighth season worked very hard to return to the moody and dark Vancouver aesthetic, while the ninth season marks a return to the brightness that marked the production team’s arrival in Los Angeles.

In fact, Lord of the Flies feels like something of a spiritual successor to The Rain King. Although Dylan Lokensgard is a teenager, he seems very similar to Holman Hardt; both are deeply repressed individuals who exert a subconscious (and emotional) influence on the environment around him. Holman Hardt’s ability to control the weather is perhaps a bit more conventional and picturesque, but the themes of the two episodes overlap significantly. Both Holman and Dylan are victims of a more powerful romantic force.

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

“What if it’s more than chemistry and hormones?” Scully speculates as the team attempt to figure out how exactly a teenage boy can control an army of flies. “More than biology?” Reyes effectively picks up on Scully’s theory. “Dylan’s not just attracting these bugs he’s using them to act out,” she proposes. She quickly puts the remaining pieces together. “We saw him talking to a girl.” Ultimately, as Scully’s heavy-handed closing monologue reminds us, this is a love story.

“In the struggle between our desire to determine who and what we will be and the identity which biology defines for us there can only be one outcome,” Scully informs the audience, as if warming up for her monologue in the teaser to Trust No 1. “But even in victory, there are forces biology can not defeat; the stirring of the soul the mysteries of desire the simple truth that the heart wants… what the heart wants.” Heavy-handedness aside, the biggest problem is that Lord of the Flies simply lacks the folksy charm that made The Rain King so special.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

Lord of the Flies is the first comedy episode of the ninth season. The eighth season of the show had largely moved away from comedy, outsourcing humour to The Lone Gunmen as Doggett and Scully dealt with some pretty serious situations. Alone was the closest that the eight season came to doing out-and-out comedy, but that episode still featured a predatory lizard man who liked to blind his victims in his death maze before devouring them as light snacks.

This might be the first comedy episode of the season, but it is far from the last. Even excluding Schnauz’s script to Scary Monsters or the grim finalé to The Lone Gunmen in Jump the Shark, the ninth season also features Improbable and Sunshine Days. Considering that the eighth season did not have a single proper “comedy” episode, the ninth season ups the comedy quotient considerably. This seems like a rather questionable decision, given how well the tone of the eighth season worked.

Bug out.

Bug out.

According to interviews with Chris Carter just before the launch of the ninth season, the idea of getting away from comedy was never intended as a permanent creative decision. He warned the audience:

“Last year we were establishing Robert (Patrick)’s character, so we didn’t do any lighthearted episodes like we’ve been known to do over the previous seven years of the show,” Carter said. “This year, I think you will see a number of those.”

For better or for worse, the comedy episode was back as a fixture of The X-Files. The production team seemed fully committed to the idea.

A Rocky relationship...

A Rocky relationship…

In hindsight, it probably makes sense to ease Doggett and Reyes into their “comedy” episodes rather than confronting them with so many “funny” episodes in such rapid succession. The show took its time embracing comedy as a genre with Mulder and Scully, allowing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson time to find their feet before piling on the humour. The first two seasons of The X-Files gently flirted with comedy, teasing Mulder and Scully with the pitch black comedy of Die Hand Die Vertletzt before jumping in with Humbug.

Of course, the question of easing Doggett and Reyes into “comedy” feels somewhat moot in the case of Lord of the Flies. The ninth season continues to struggle with the character of Scully, clearly uncomfortable with the idea that the headlining actress would be playing a supporting character. So much energy in the first half of the ninth season is spent trying to involve Scully in the plot of a given episode, with the production team unhappy with the idea of treating her as a recurring character or a bit player.

Turning it over in his head...

Turning it over in his head…

After 4-D found a nice way to integrate Scully with the larger ensemble around Doggett and Reyes, Lord of the Flies throws Scully back into the fold. Scully very much feels like the protagonist of Lord of the Flies, rejecting the sleazy advances of Rocky Bronzino and investigating the Lokensgard household at the climax. Only the barest of lip-service is paid to the fact that Scully is a full-time educator with responsibilities at Quantico. Given that this is a recurring feature of the ninth season, one wonders how many of her own lectures Scully actually attends.

The focus on Scully cements the feeling that Lord of the Flies is an awkward attempt at an X-Files throwback. Lord of the Flies feels like a lesser imitation of better episodes. There are several points at which Lord of the Flies feels like it is simply offering an unconvincing reheat of some of the more interesting aspects of War of the Coprophages, only swapping in real killer insects for paranoia about killer insects and teaming Scully up with the flirtatious expert in insect habits rather than Mulder.

Trolley problem...

Trolley problem…

More than that, the story of Dylan Lokensgard feels like a fairly bland rehash of the same teen angst that fuelled shows like D.P.O., Syzygy, Schizogeny, Hungry and Rush. The problem is that Lord of the Flies does not compare favourably to any of those, with the possible exception of Schizogeny. This is hardly a ringing endorsement. Schnauz’s characterisation here is so bland and generic that Dylan quite blatantly feels like a teenager written by a middle-aged writer desperately trying to channel his inner teenager.

Dylan has a fixation on Syd Barrett. Syd Barrett is a great musician, but his inclusion here feels a little heavy-handed due to the complete lack of any other characterisation and because Dylan’s dialogue concerning the founder member of Pink Floyd. “Syd Barrett, he was in the band Pink Floyd,” Dylan tries to explain. “He was, like this brilliant guy that nobody understood.” That is very much stock teenage dialogue. More to the point, it seems a little heavy handed given the cover art of Barrett’s self-titled second-album, designed by Barrett himself at Cambridge.

Caving to peer pressure...

Caving to peer pressure…

In a way, perhaps this is the biggest problem with Lord of the Flies. All of its structural and logical problems, its lack of originality and its strange throwback tone, would be forgiven if the script were actually any good. If Dylan felt like a real character, he might be compared favourably (rather than unfavourably) to other teenage X-Files characters. If Lord of the Flies were actually funny, its somewhat derivative nature might be excused as an affectionate throwback. Like Dæmonicus before it, Lord of the Flies is simply not very good.

In fact, the hour’s best joke comes from a self-aware gag at the expense of the show’s broadcast network. When confronted with the recording of the death of “Cap’n Dare”, Winky demands to know where Doggett and Reyes obtained the tape. “We obtained a copy of a recent e-mail you sent offering to sell the video of your friend’s death to the Fox network,” Reyes explains. It turns out that Reyes has the situation confused. “No, no, no, I wrote all the networks. Fox was the only one who had any interest in it.”

He is become Rocky fly!

He is become Rocky fly!

It is a good joke, albeit one that does feel reminiscent of better gags from the show’s own history. In fact, the third season made a number of not-so-affectionate jabs at Fox’s decision to broadcast Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction in August 1995. Nisei revealed that even Mulder was dismissive of the footage, while Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” featured Mulder and Scully producing their own alien autopsy footage to be hosted by the Stupendous Yappi. Between this and The Simpsons, it seemed that making fun of Fox was a regular pastime.

Arguably, the most notable aspect of Lord of the Flies is the inclusion of teenage stunt show “Dumb Ass”, with Winky and Cap’n Dare staging elaborate and ridiculous stunts while filming them on home video. This is a very obvious reference to Jackass, the show that had launched on MTV in October 2000. Jackass featured an ensemble led by Johnny Knoxville who engaged in extremely risk behaviour for the amusement of audience at home. It was a breakout hit for MTV, spawning a wealth of imitators and even assuring Knoxville his own film and television career.

Daddy's home...

Daddy’s home…

As crass as Jackass might have been, it seems churlish to deny the influence of the series. In 2007, Entertainment Weekly identified the show as one of the “new classics.” As recently as 2015, the Watch and Listen global television critics poll cited Jackass as the best television show ever. It only lasted for three seasons, but it had a massive impact on the modern television landscape – although pundits will inevitably argue whether that influence was ultimately for good or for ill.

In a way, Jackass reflected the changing trends in television during the early years of the twenty-first century. At the turn of the millennium, the influence held by the “big three” networks was being gradually eroded. This was perhaps most obvious in the ascent of Fox as the long-threatened fourth network during the nineties, a revolution which The X-Files witnessed first-hand. However, it was also reflected in the diversification of contemporary television, which The X-Files also witnessed as its audience (and prestige) seemed to diffuse in its later seasons.

Stunt casting...

Stunt casting…

The Sopranos is the most obvious example of a show outside the standard network structure beginning to eat away at The X-Files. The show was a critical darling and a new classic, one airing on HBO on Sunday nights like The X-Files and supplanting The X-Files in the Emmy Outstanding Drama Series category. However, while prestige television dominates these sorts of discussions, it was not the only example. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer could not have survived on Fox, but it could on the WB or UPN.

Jackass was another example of a show that could never have existed in the classic three-network era. As much as Winky might joke about the interest shown by Fox, the antics of Johnny Knoxville and his compatriots would have been too much for even the fourth network to broadcast. Jackass was never a show that was going to appeal to young professionals or middle-aged viewers; it was not a television series that aimed for a broad audience. However, it was pitched specifically to the kind of audience which MTV so desperately sought.

Quite a lot of buzz around it...

Quite a lot of buzz around it…

So the idea of “The X-Files does Jackass” sounds interesting on paper, because it represents the collision of old and new television in a very interesting way. To be fair, Jackass was closer to the end of its run than to the beginning, but it was still an example of the future of television. While X-Cops had allowed Mulder and Scully to preemptively intrude on reality television, the prospect of crossing over into Jackass would allow the show to engage with the contemporary television landscape in a way that could be insightful.

Indeed, it feels like an appropriate time for The X-Files to reengage with the idea of “reality” television. Much like the seventh season, the ninth season is fascinated by the idea of “reality”; in particularly the boundaries that exist between reality and unreality. The ninth season seems to be constantly reminding its audience that The X-Files is a television show, whether through the constant tinkering with the opening credits or the casting of the show’s biggest guest star or the subtle mirroring of the teaser to 4-D.

A tangled web...

A tangled web…

As noted back in X-Cops, one of the defining features of “reality” television is its heightened sense of unreality – the blurring of the boundaries between fiction and real life. However, Jackass suggested another aspect of the “reality” television experience, the idea that pain and humiliation are perhaps the most quintessential ingredients. As Derek Kompare argues in Extraordinarily Ordinary:

Indeed, MTV series like The Real World, Road Rules, and Jackass are premised on directly placing their subjects in potentially humiliating or even physically dangerous situations. “Reality” in each series is conveyed as a series of explicit encounters between people, or between people and circumstances, generating an engrossing spectacle of explicit encounters between people, or between people and circumstances, generating an engrossing spectacle of actions and reactions. Importantly, while the people and events in these programs need to be demonstrably “real” – not acting – to satisfy generic requirements, they are cast and planned as carefully as in any fiction: the effect of the actualities is amplified if the subjects are more “telegenic”: that is, closer to the normative codes of televisual appearance and behaviour.

Examined in that light, shows like Jackass can seem like a rather grim reflection on human nature – perhaps reflecting an inherent cruelty to the human condition or implying that pain and humiliation somehow trump happiness and celebration. While Jackass is perhaps the most obvious example, one need only look at the pleasure reality television takes in the “voting off” ritual.

Action Scully!

Action Scully!

There is perhaps an interesting comment to be made about Jackass within that context, the sense that it really just candid about these tendencies within reality television – that it places the idea of humiliation and defeat front and centre, instead of burying it behind the barbs of Simon Cowell or the scheming of Nasty Nick. Unfortunately, Lord of the Flies does not seem particularly engaged with the material. While X-Cops was written and produced with a solid understanding of Cops, it seems like Thomas Schnauz had only the most passing familiarity with Jackass.

While it was on the air, Jackass caused no shortage of moral panics. In February 2001, a thirteen-year-old in Connecticut set his legs on fire in a stunt that he claimed was inspired by the show. In April 2001, a twelve-year old in Orlando set his hands on fire in a stunt he claimed was inspired by the show. Of course, any in-depth examination of the cases suggests that there were more complicated issues at work, but this did not stop over-eager moral guardians from jumping on the bandwagon to condemn the series for corrupting innocent youths.

"Am I starting to bug you?"

“Am I starting to bug you?”

Of course, Jackass was just the latest target. In 1993, Beavis and Butthead had been blamed for an accident in which a five-year-old setting himself on fire. Self-appointed crusader for moral decency Joe Lieberman launched a campaign in an effort to force MTV to “clean up” the show. It does not matter that Lieberman’s criticisms of the stunt in question suggested that he had not actually watched the show. Although MTV denied liability, they did respond by offering a more concrete warning and moving the show to a later time slot.

It is a shame to see The X-Files jumping on this particular band wagon, particularly given the controversy that the broadcast of Home generated and the fact that a significant portion of the eighth and ninth seasons came with viewer discretion warnings. There is something very reactionary in the way that Lord of the Flies incorporates Jackass, right down to having Doctor Fountain allude to it as “the dumb ass show”, which is “a cable TV show where the kids act like, well, dumb asses; they videotape themselves doing stupid stunts.”

Wish you were here...

Wish you were here…

It is perhaps a sign of how The X-Files transitioned from a hungry young show to a part of the conservative television establishment that it has gone from having Mulder and Scully appear on The Simpsons to having Doggett complain about the stupid kids on their stupid shows. “I think I just solved this case,” he boasts. “This kid had crap for brains and the flies couldn’t resist.” He clarifies, “This isn’t just stupid, this is glorification of stupid. These kids take enormous pride in being sub-mental.” Get off his lawn, MTV.

(There is also something quite mean-spirited about Doctor Fountain’s complaints about the litigious nature of the dead kid’s family. “They’re suing everyone,” he complains. “They’re suing the county for making the street too steep, the supermarket he stole the shopping cart from, the company that made the helmet he was wearing.” It is a very shallow critique of compensation culture, but one that feel quite callous given there is actually a dead kid involved and hypocritical given how long the show will spend shaking its fist at Jackass.)

Not exactly climbing to new heights...

Not exactly climbing to new heights…

Lord of the Flies is a mess of an episode, suggesting that 4-D was not so much the start of something new and exciting as it was a strange aberration in the season to this point.

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