“Believe whatever you want to believe,” a mystery man tells Fox Mulder. “That’s all anyone does nowadays.”
This bit of depressing wisdom comes late in “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” the fourth episode of the newest revival of The X-Files. Written and directed by the famously gifted but elusive Darin Morgan, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is, unsurprisingly, by far the best episode of the new season, which debuts tomorrow night at 8 on Fox. (I’ve seen the first five episodes.) It is, like most of Morgan’s classic episodes (“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” “Humbug”), a potent mix of comedy and tragedy, simultaneously spoofing the series’ most iconic elements while offering a genuinely melancholy spin on both the series and the larger state of the world.
It’s also, however, an argument that The X-Files — the special division of the FBI that Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) used to investigate reports of the paranormal — has long since outlived its usefulness. In the age of “Fake News,” shameless conspiracy theories being turned into political cudgels, and public figures committing brazen crimes in plain sight without feeling the need to cover up or apologize for them, what purpose is there for a team of investigators who specialize in uncovering secrets that figures of power have worked so hard to keep hidden?
More surprisingly, though, these new episodes make a successful argument for the continued life of The X-Files as a TV series.
The 2016 revival season was mostly a mess. The one great episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” was essentially Morgan dusting off an unproduced script (for the short-lived The Night Stalker remake) he’d kept in a drawer for a decade. Two other episodes (one each by series vets Glen Morgan and James Wong) were decent but mostly unmemorable, and the three by series creator Chris Carter were creative disasters: a pair of bookend “mythology” episodes that were both outright gibberish and unintentionally played more like a parody than anything Darin Morgan ever wrote for the show, and an ill-conceived comedy episode about terrorism committed by Muslim extremists.
More than most of the recent wave of TV revivals, those new X-Files episodes illustrated the way that great TV shows are a product of a specific time in the lives of the characters, the people making them, and the audience watching them. The world was too different, Carter was too far removed from the daily grind of making a TV show (and Duchovny was too often content to mail in his performance in the role that made him famous), and Mulder and Scully themselves felt weirdly trapped in amber. Even the one episode that worked entirely was an artifact from an earlier period, largely written only a few years after the original show ended. The finale was so dire, it seemed that the only way to justify an additional season — other than the nostalgic murmuring in the hearts of every mythology expert and Mulder/Scully ‘shipper — would be if Carter was willing to step back and let someone else take control of his creation.
Instead, the creative roster is basically the same for these first five episodes (out of ten): two from Carter (albeit with the second one directed by TV veteran Kevin Hooks, in his first spin at this franchise), one from Wong, and one each from the Morgan brothers.
Things do not get off to a promising start with “My Struggle III,” a continuation of the new, “everything you thought you understood was wrong” mythology that Carter introduced in the 2016 episodes. It is both stilted and incoherent, and the only reason I might advise against skipping it is that the new season is slightly more serialized than The X-Files used to be, with the conspiracy bleeding into several of the largely-standalone Monster of the Week outings(*).