Television is better now than it was in 1993, when The X-Files premiered to an audience that was still bewildered by its lead-in (and canceled-too-soon) show, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Those are two great series, and the Big Four networks were overflowing with even more quality programming, like Roseanne, Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, The Simpsons, The Critic, and most importantly, Saved by the Bell: The College Years. That’s a stronger lineup than anything network television can offer today, but it leaves out FX, Comedy Central, IFC, HBO, Showtime, AMC, Netflix, and all the other cable networks and streaming services that have helped usher in the Golden Age of TV. And let good shows with minuscule viewership stick around.
Because 20 years ago, they didn’t survive. Brisco County only made it one season before Fox said no more; The Critic was greeted with a resounding “it stinks” from network executives; and Saved by the Bell: The College Years was kicked out of school after 19 episodes. Now, shows are given more time to find an audience, which has helped the perennially low-rated, but critically admired Jane the Virgin, You’re the Worst, and Halt and Catch Fire thrive.
A part of that has to do with the accessibility options that are now available to cord-cutters. But there’s another reason: The slow-but-steady embrace of non-traditional ways of measuring a show’s viewership. Just this week, the New York Times reported that Nielsen “would partner with Facebook and Twitter to include social-media mentions of specific television programs in their viewership measurements.” This is good news for series like Bob’s Burgers or The Americans; they’re big and beloved online, but if you asked the average CBS viewer to describe Fargo, they’d respond, “The wood chipper movie?”
It’s an overdue acknowledgment that Internet culture matters, that “Liking” a little-watched show like Playing House, or tweeting your support for Review through hashtags, matters. And it can largely be traced back to The X-Files.
The Internet was obviously around when The X-Files was in its heyday, but it didn’t have the same overwhelming presence that it does today, for better or worse. Those who “surfed the net,” before that became an ironically dismissive term, were seen as nerds who lived in their moms’ basements — y’know, the same insult bloggers still hear daily. You weren’t on the Internet because there was nothing else to do; you were there because you wanted to be (or because you wanted to watch porn… some things never change). And a not-insignificant chunk of people were there to talk about The X-Files.
Not just talk about it, actually, but break an episode apart and put it back together. It was a co-dependent relationship. Jerry’s Mac was a mere set decoration on Seinfeld, but The X-Files was tackling sentient operating systems seven episodes into season one. This embrace of technology wasn’t something you saw depicted on the average episode of Home Improvement, and X-Philes, as fans of the show called themselves, quickly spread the word. The Times concluded, “This may have been the first show to find its audience growth tied to the growth of the Internet,” but that’s not exactly correct.
It might be the other way around.
The X-Files was preoccupied with the idea of “the truth,” that it’s worth questioning everyone and everything, including (especially?) the distrustful government. You could say the same thing about the Internet, with its millions of conspiracy theories, another topic The X-Files regularly covered. The Lone Gunmen spoke to every future-Edward Snowden admirer. Paranoia is a powerful tool, and few have handled it better than Chris Carter.
Meanwhile, Mulder and Scully’s will they/won’t they relationship was oft-depicted in various states of animated and textual undress. “The term ‘shipper’ is now a standard word across modern-day fandoms,” Gizmodo recently wrote, “but the term really first caught on among X-Philes.” Message boards like Alt.tv.xfiles were a safe space for anyone who cared about, in this case, Mulder and Scully (or, um, Skinner and Cigarette Smoking Man), but felt embarrassed to discuss it in real life. Nerdom still had years to go before it dominated pop culture, but it was already commanding the Internet.
Even websites like Uproxx and the AV Club owe a debt of gratitude to The X-Files. In the 1990s, TV wasn’t the same addiction that it is today. It didn’t deserve to be. That’s a slight generalization, of course, but dissecting Murder, She Wrote, the highest rated drama of the 1993-94 season, didn’t hold the same allure as it does now for shows like Better Call Saul, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead. Think of it this way: You can say “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “Drive” and “The Post-Modern Prometheus” in casual conversation, and people will know what you’re talking about (and identify the now-famous writer). Can you name a single episode of Dallas, or Miami Vice, or Hill Street Blues, all dramas that defined the 1980s? Probably not. Meanwhile, it’s all but expected that if you watch Game of Thrones, you should know the difference between “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” and “The Lion and the Rose.”
X-Philes were one of the first, if not the first, to analyze every episode the way Scully would cadavers, or we do cool details and crazy theories. Recap culture — where a writer considers what does and doesn’t work with an episode, and commenters break it down even further, with in-jokes and quote threads — exploded with Lost, but exists because of The X-Files. Carter would drop clues across multiple episodes, or “myth arcs,” a term The X-Files‘ writers coined, but is now considered commonplace. Standalone episodes aren’t fun to inspect; a threat is introduced in act one, and it’s solved in act three, with little week-to-week consequences. Meanwhile, on The X-Files, the abduction of Mulder’s sister Samantha was a dense, sprawling mystery for multiple seasons.
Putting the clues together turned you into Charlie yelling “CAROL.”
Of course, just like in real life, sometimes the mythology gets too convoluted, which is what happened in the later seasons. But that’s a small price to pay for all the good The X-Files has done. It needed the Internet to survive, and the Internet became an essential part of our lives partially because of people like the show’s fans, who found a like-minded community online. An obsession with The Truth became an addiction to the Internet (guilty). The X-Files may not be the best show of the 1990s, but it was one of the most important.