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The X-Files – Jump the Shark (Review)

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

As The X-Files trundles towards its finalé, there is a sense that the production team do not understand “closure.”

There is, of course, a cheap gag to be made here. Long-time fans of the show might joke that the show never understood the concept of “closure”, as demonstrated by the fact that the show’s mythology frequently resembled a precariously-balanced tower of Jenga bricks gently swaying in a light breeze. This is perhaps a bit unfair; episodes like Requiem and Existence had done a good job of bringing the television show to a point where it might end, only for the show to be picked up for another season.

Shot down in their prime... time slot.

Shot down in their prime… time slot.

The end of the ninth season differs from the ends of the seventh or eighth because the production team know that the show is going to end. There will be no last-minute reprieve, no green-light give mere days before the last episode is actually broadcast. This is, in many ways, the end of The X-Files. With that in mind, the final episodes of the ninth season begin tidying away dangling plot threads and narrative loose ends in the hopes of satisfying the audience. The show seems to be running through a checklist. Lone Gunmen now. William next. Luke Doggett after that.

The problem, of course, is that none of these concepts are really calling for definitive “closure.” There is no reason for the show to draw a line under these supporting characters or plot arcs. It is possible for fans to imagine life beyond a television show for many characters without engaging in ruthless pruning. The Lone Gunmen do not need an epic send-off. In fact, the idea of an epic send-off seems to represent a misunderstanding of the characters themselves.

"Chris Carter said we're invited to the wrap party..."

“Chris Carter said we’re invited to the wrap party…”

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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.

lonegunmen-pilot14a

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.

lonegunmen-likewaterforoctane2

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.

lonegunmen-planetofthefrohikes13

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.

lonegunmen-diagnosisjimmy19

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The Lone Gunmen – Pilot (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.

It is meant to be a joke.

It is an episode known as The Pilot, because it is a proof of concept for a new series that can be shown to executives in the hopes that they might green-light it and give the production team a series order. That is, after all, what a television pilot is. It is the first episode of a television show to be filmed, usually with considerable space between it and the rest of the first season. There is time for network notes and feedback, to determine what works and what doesn’t. There is space for recasting and reshooting, which becomes more problematic on a weekly schedule.

Rocket man.

Rocket man.

However, the fact that the first episode of The Lone Gunmen is called The Pilot is also a rather wry punchline. It is a self-aware reminder that the show takes itself considerably less seriously than Millennium or Harsh Realm. After all, even if this weren’t the very first episode of a new television show, it might be called The Pilot. Based purely on the plot, the episode might have been called The Pilot. It is an episode about a sinister plot to hijack planes using advanced technology. So calling the episode The Pilot is a cheesy and goofy bit of wordplay.

Of course, there is very little funny about it in hindsight.

Don't leave us hanging...

Don’t leave us hanging…

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The X-Files – Three of a Kind (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Unusual Suspects is perhaps an underrated episode.

The third episode broadcast of the fifth season is a light adventure that offers viewers an origin story of the Lone Gunman. Byers, Langley and Frohike have been around since E.B.E. towards the end of the first season, and have become an integral part of the show’s ensemble cast. Unusual Suspects is frequently written off as a piece of fluff designed to work around the limited availability of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson due to on-going production work on The X-Files: Fight the Future.

Viva Las Vegas...

Viva Las Vegas…

This seems dismissive of Vince Gilligan’s paranoid origin story, which is one of the few times that Gilligan engages directly with the themes that underpin the sprawling mythology at the heart of the show. Unusual Suspects is not a “mythology episode” in the way that gets episodes repackaged on DVD collections, but it does explore the idea of conspiracy and paranoia as a personal narrative. Unusual Suspects is a very sweet story about a lost and heartbroken man who builds a conspiracy mythology around himself because he has nothing else to do.

Three of a Kind is very much a sequel episode to Unusual Suspects, focusing again on the Lone Gunmen and bringing back Susanne Modeski. However, it is a much lighter and more disposable story. Barring the beautifully crafted prologue, Three of a Kind is an entirely disposable episode of television. It feels like filler. It is neither a beginning nor an end to the story of Byers or the Lone Gunmen. It is just a long middle, with the characters ending up back where they began. In a way, this makes it feel very much like a standard sixth season episode.

A man alone...

A man alone…

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The X-Files – Unusual Suspects (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

On the surface, Unusual Suspects looks like quite a clean little episode.

It is an obvious production save – a story thrown together when it became clear that David Duchnovny and Gillian Anderson’s commitments to The X-Files: Fight the Future meant that they would not be available to film even the shortened order of twenty episodes in the fifth season. Although Unusual Suspects aired as the third episode of the season, it was actually the first produced. With limited availability to David Duchovny, Unusual Suspects was constructed as an episode that could be built around a member (or members) of the supporting cast.

Hero shot!

Hero shot!

Five seasons in, this is not a radical concept. While Mulder and Scully are still very much the heart of the show, the supporting cast has been developed to the point where the show can turn over an episode to somebody who isn’t Mulder or Scully. The fourth season offered a glimpse of the (possible) secret history of the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and allowed Walter Skinner to act out his own morality play in Zero Sum. After these two characters, the Lone Gunmen were likely candidates for their own episode.

As such, Unusual Suspects also works quite well as “ground zero” for the eventual development of The Lone Gunmen during the eighth season of The X-Files. It is the episode that demonstrated that the trio could carry their own story with their eccentric little dynamic, while still being engaging and exciting. Given how The Lone Gunmen turned out, a particularly cynical commentator might suggest that Unusual Suspects very much over-sold the appeal. Nevertheless, Unusual Suspects is a logical and clear step forward in the evolution of the Lone Gunman.

Peering through the curtain...

Peering through the curtain…

And yet, for all that these are the aspects of Unusual Suspects that generate discussion and debate, they are not the heart of the episode. What is most interesting about Unusual Suspects is the way that it allows writer Vince Gilligan to brush up against the show’s central mythology, albeit only fleetingly. Gilligan is fond of arguing that Memento Mori was his only credit on a mythology episode, but that sells Unusual Suspects rather short. Although it does not dabble directly with “black oil” or “alien bounty hunters”, it does allow Gilligan to play with the show’s big central story thread.

Unusual Suspects is not just positioned by Gilligan as the “secret origin” of the Lone Gunmen. The episode is decidedly more ambitious than all that. Without directly acknowledging it, and without explicitly coming out and saying it, Unusual Suspects presents itself as the roots of the show itself. Although nowhere near as boldly and triumphantly subversive as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, the episode allows Gilligan to offer his own sly (and slightly stinging) commentary on the show’s central mythology.

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1989.

Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1989.

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The X-Files – E.B.E. (Review)

While the show was on the air, it seemed like the series’ “mythology arc” – the on-going recurring story arc concerning the government and the Syndicate and the aliens and the colonists and Samantha Mulder – was the best part of the show. Given how The Truth bungled tying up all the loose ends generated over nine years of mythology, hindsight has been somewhat harsh to these episodes. It’s a lot harder to get caught up in Mulder’s cat-and-mouse game against the government when you know the show won’t bother to offer a satisfying conclusion.

And yet, perhaps that isn’t the appeal of these conspiracy episodes. Perhaps these over-arching mythology episodes didn’t grab our attention because they promised long-form storytelling with set-up and pay-off. Certainly, there’s little direct connective tissue between The Pilot, Deep Throat, Fallen Angel and E.B.E., barring the appearance of Deep Throat, who has also guested in shows like Eve or Ghost in the Machine or Young at Heart. At this point in the run, there’s no hint of Mulder’s convoluted familial ties this stretched secret conspiracy, no suggestion the government was complicit in the abduction of Mulder’s sister.

Instead, E.B.E. offers another clever and interesting suggestion about why this government conspiracy plot line appeals to us. It’s nothing to do with a developing story arc, at least not in this place. It’s just a wonderful channel through which we may express our mistrust of authority, the most direct way to focus our well-honed paranoia against those in government, the most straight-forward expression of post Cold War anxiety.

The truth was in here...

The truth was in here…

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