It was only a coincidence that President Barack Obama's big address last week on his Syrian policy, a curious affair all around, took place on the 20th anniversary of the premiere of The X-Files. But it was no coincidence that it took place at a time of grave suspicion of the government and its policies, in the wake of the Snowden revelations about massively pervasive, essentially global, surveillance and in the midst of a sudden run-up to a war that few Americans outside some elite groupings had any interest in pursuing.
In many ways, The X-Files, launched with no stars and the most muted of fanfare on Sept. 10, 1993, on Fox, was the mother of all conspiracy shows. By which I don't mean it was the progenitor. For that it followed in some of the fashion of the classic '70s conspiracy thrillers -- such as Chinatown, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man and of course the films of the great yet forgotten Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men, Klute, The Parallax View) -- with their spooky atmosphere ratcheted up even further by the lushly alienating ambience of Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest. It's that it combined so many of the tropes of conspiracy and paranoia -- fear of technology, fear of the government, fear of big private institutions, fears of nature, our neighbors, ourselves, the unknown -- in such compelling ways.
"The truth is out there," literally in The X-Files view of the world, bigger and stranger than you think, a world in which the most important thing to keep in mind is the uplifting notion: "Trust no one."
In order to pull all that off, of course, The X-Files had to offer more than stylish conspiracy and paranoia, because lots of shows can offer downbeat and outlandish plots. And that it did, with heart and telling humor to go along with its outrageous notions and icy intellectuality.
It's not at all a coincidence that some of the people behind the very best shows of today's Golden Age of television are products of X-Files creator Chris Carter's creative exacting ideas factory and writers room. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, developed and flourished on XF, as did Homeland masterminds Howard Gordon (the longtime 24 showrunner) and Alex Gansa. And I would argue that there were other X-Files writer/producers who were at least their equal during XF's heyday, not least of them Carter himself.
But for all the irreverent intelligence floating around the show, it never would have worked so well without its somewhat off-beat leads, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and the rest of a colorful cast. Duchovny was closer to a studio ideal of a TV series lead than Anderson, who wasn't as conventionally pretty or glamorous as studios and networks liked in the early '90s, but there was something off-putting about his handsomeness. And his diffidently smart-ass Ivy League-via-Oxford manner as maverick FBI Agent Fox Mulder certainly wasn't standard TV fare, then or now.
As Agent, and medical doctor/scientist, Dana Scully, assigned by an oppressive federal security bureaucracy to Mulder in order to debunk his against-the-grain work which so frequently ran up against a mysteriously motivated status quo, Anderson was a more familiar type. But it's a type that has only become familiar because Anderson presented it so memorably.
In their odd-couple partnership, it was the man, Mulder, who was the intuitive, not infrequently emotional, hunch player, with Scully as the insistent rationalist. But absent the intelligent empathy and humanity Anderson brought to the role, helped by as luminously laser-like a pair of blue eyes as I can recall on network television, Scully could have been just another humorless careerist.
Also very helpful in putting across XF's outlandish storylines were a set of colorful supporting characters. There was the Wikileaks of the day in the form of the Lone Gunmen newspaper publishers, a trio far more amusing than the wintry Mr. Assange, who provided useful techno-geekery and intel assistance to Mulder and an increasingly less skeptical Scully. (Lone Gunmen, of course, being an ironic reference to the JFK assassination.) Then there were Mulder's insider informants, in the tragic forms of veteran agents "Deep Throat" and "X" and the more ambiguous form of fan non-fave Marita Covarrubias, a polished UN official reminiscent of one of my oldest friends. And of course there was the quietly omnipresent Cigarette Smoking Man, a shadowy Pentagon intelligence operative of some sort continually manipulating things, making our heroes never quite sure whether what they were encountering was really an alien conspiracy or just our own military industrial complex going overboard. Sometimes, far, far, far overboard indeed.
As I think happens with each and every one of the serialized shows which attempt an ongoing mythology -- X-Files had many memorable stand-alone episodes as well, frequently elevating the oddity/monster of the week well beyond the norm -- from Twin Peaks to Lost and beyond, the show became increasingly convoluted. At a then record-setting for an American scifi series nine seasons, The X-Files went on a bit too long. And the brilliantly eerie atmospherics of its first five seasons had already proved far more dependent on its location shooting in British Columbia than many supposed when the show relocated to the hollower brightness of Los Angeles.
But during those first five or six seasons of its heyday, which coincided with a good feature film shot in the midst of it all, The X-Files largely succeeded in putting across its very involved plot about what turned out to be an alien conspiracy to take over the world and the highly placed and hugely resourced human power players who worked to help make it happen.
Not because tens of millions of viewers believed that extraterrestrials were here and out to do us in, any more than '70s movie-goers believed that there really was a Parallax Corporation training assassins and just waiting for Warren Beatty's cocky fool of a reporter to try to infiltrate it in order to carry out one of its biggest hits yet.
No, The X-Files, like the conspiracy thrillers of the '70s, worked because there was a general atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust engendered by real-world events. (One of the amusing little touches of XF was having Bill Clinton's presidential portrait omnipresent in all the government offices. No fictional president here, or fictional attorney general, either, as the show had then real AG Janet Reno, whose portrait was also featured, closing down the X-Files unit at the behest of the conspirators. Still more amusing? The coterie of real world top Clinton aides who loved The X-Files.)
Ironically, Clinton didn't really provide a plethora of conspiracy-oriented material, he just seemed like someone who might. Slick Willie, baby, 'cause remember, it all depends on what the meaning of "is" is. Not that the Clintons, who made notable use of investigative firms in their campaigns, and were adept at floating some vicious nonsense, could be accused of being especially nice, but let's not digress.
Still more ironically, it is Obama, who launched his career on the national stage as a sort of anti-Clinton with his epic 2004 Democratic national convention keynote before prosecuting his anti-Clinton credentials to the max in the very hard-fought 2008 presidential primary campaign, who is coming up with the material to stoke the present fires of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering.
Readers who've been following my pieces since the election know what I'm getting at. But I'll let Politico, that tribune of not infrequently congealed Beltway insiderdom, make the point, as it finally just did, well, yesterday:
"'Obama has lost some serious altitude: In the world, with the Congress, and most importantly with the American people,' (veteran Time columnist Joe) Klein told POLITICO. Increasingly, the skepticism is coming from the center and even from the left - from White House reporters, progressive editorial boards, foreign policy experts and MSNBC hosts. To hear the press tell it, his handling of the Syria crisis has been confusing and contradictory at best ... Chuck Todd, the NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent, credited the change in tone to public sentiment. 'I think it is the public and the press reflects the public. The NSA started it and he hasn't recovered."
The NSA? You mean that stuff that official Washington and its media component said didn't matter? No story here, move along. Then it was, treason! Then it was Obama defensively telling Charlie Rose that there really was "transparency" with the secret programs because of the FISA court. Which of course is top secret, more akin to a star chamber than anything a civics class would call a court, and as it turns out probably doesn't know the half of what's been going on.
Finally, Todd and the others realize that all the expansive surveillance stuff has engendered massive distrust not only of the surveillance itself but of those who have been its purveyors, in government, politics, and the media. (The X-Files viewed the media as untrustworthy at worst, usually useless at best.)
So, too, with the suddenly and rather strangely spun-up planned U.S. attacks on Syria. Many acted as though they would just naturally happen, even though there was very little public support and the arguments for them were strategically shaky, because, well, just because they would.
Then the British Parliament shocking the world by voting against its own prime minister on a military operation for the first time since 1782 put paid to that remarkably rote notion.
What should be obvious now is that we live in a culture in which a show like The X-Files would flourish once again. It's not a coincidence that the crafty filmmakers at Marvel, clearly conscious of public sentiments as they guide a multi-billion dollar film franchise in the various Avengers, are acting accordingly.
Iron Man 3, which will easily be this year's biggest film, not to mention one of the five biggest of all-time, featured a delicious twist calling into question the entire notion of a war on terror. And next year's Captain America sequel will do, in the words of its makers, a superhero take on the '70s conspiracy thriller. It seems that straight-shooting Captain America, one of the ultimate patriotic icons, has trouble determining who the good guys really are. And '70s conspiracy thriller star Robert Redford might not be one of them.
Just as in The X-Files, whose moment has come round again.
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