“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(*).
(*) X-Files is one of the shows most directly responsible for the serialization boom in TV drama, yet the series always had a clear separation of church (the mythology) and state (Monster of the Week), with the black oil, the bees, Mulder’s sister, etc., rarely being mentioned in the episodes where Mulder and Scully were traveling the country and looking for a flukeman or a pyrokinetic. (The mythology stories got all the buzz back in the day, but the Monster ones hold up much better now.) Carter and company tried sticking to that structure in the 2016 season, but an audience conditioned by cable and streaming to expect continuity even in standalone episodes grew impatient with the conspiracy being ignored for weeks on end. Given how awful all the new mythology episodes are, the series would be better off abandoning that altogether, but this season at least feels more of a piece, even if it’s a bit harder to cherrypick the good episodes from the terrible ones.
But things perk up instantly with the Glen Morgan-written/directed second episode, “This,” a rollicking action-thriller hour where our heroes investigate a mysterious message left for them by the late Ringo Langly (Dean Haglund), one of the members of the Lone Gunmen. The Carter/Hooks collaboration “Plus One,” where people are haunted by their own doppelgangers, is solid meat-and-potatoes Monster of the Week stuff, bringing back Karin Konoval in a couple of new roles after she previously appeared in both “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and the original series’ most infamous installment, the incest horror story “Home.” And Wong takes over for the fifth episode, “Ghouli,” which seems like it’ll be one kind of X-Files story before taking a sharp and clever turn into being another.
None are classics compared to the best of the original run, but all three are improvements over last season, owing as much to Duchovny seeming more engaged as to the writing. There’s an inescapable sense that these are a bunch of greatest hits from a bygone era — despite near-constant references to tensions between our current presidential administration and the FBI — and that the series’ many successors have built on its foundation and do this kind of thing better now. But there are also advantages to being an oldie-but-goodie. “This” turns out to involve the kind of idea that Black Mirror could tell with more flare and a more unsettling tone, but Duchovny and Anderson’s chemistry(*) is enough to compensate.
(*) One drag: a few different episodes (“Ghouli” in particular) involve our two heroes pondering long and lonely futures as singletons, even though there’s no good reason presented for why they wouldn’t get back together again personally, as well as professionally. It’s like Carter thinks it’s still 1995 and the show will somehow fall apart if he pairs them off. The two seem so comfortable together, it’s distracting each time there’s a reference to them not being a couple, because that’s the opposite of what Duchovny and Anderson seem to be playing.
And “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is special, as much a loving tribute to The Twilight Zone as an examination of where this series belongs, or doesn’t, in Trump’s America. (Mulder admits at one point that he’s lost his giddiness about conspiracy theories, “especially after all this birther stuff.”) Two years ago, I considered “Were-Monster” enough to justify the existence of the entire season, even though large chunks of the rest of it were unwatchable. “Forehead Sweat” is better than “Were-Monster,” and this season as a whole so far is much better than the last one.
It’s not peak, season three X-Files, because too much time has passed, too many stories have been told, and the world is too different from the one in which Mulder and Scully first partnered. But, the mythology episode aside, it’s much better than it has any business being, particularly given what we got two years ago.
“I want to remember how it was,” Scully says late in Darin Morgan’s episode. “I want to remember how it all was.”
These new episodes will make you remember fondly how it all was, in a way I never would have expected given how the previous batch turned out.
(I won’t be recapping the new episodes every week — I have nothing more to say about the premiere than what’s written above — but will check in as often as I can.)