'The X-Files' Revival Review: The Quality Is Out There...Somewhere

Once upon a time, The X-Files was my thing.

Years before Lost and Battlestar Galactica, I had FBI Agents Mulder and Scully and their increasingly bizarre caseload full of aliens and monsters and supernatural occurrences. This is one of the the great genre shows of my life, a vital cornerstone in my taste that sits right alongside the likes of Star Trek. And I have not been shy about my excitement for the new revival season, which began its six episode run with a two-night premiere this week.

And the results were... mixed. I have complicated feelings on these first two episodes, which run the gamut of quality in a pretty extreme way. My scattered thoughts, and my attempt to bandage a few wounds, follow.

The Nostalgia Element

When it comes to any beloved old show or movie getting a second chance, you have to face your nostalgia, grapple with it, and subdue it like the dangerous, poisonous foe that it is. Nostalgia is nice – it's warm and it's comforting and it feels real good around the brain space – but it is also the enemy of actually appreciating what you're watching. Knowing when to shelve nostalgia allows you to know when these kinds of reboots are actually good and when they're just leaning on the fact that you used to love something. It's how you differentiate between Jurassic World and Creed.

If you're an older fan, it's impossible to not feel those nostalgic flare-ups when you watch the new episodes of The X-Files. It's genuinely bizarre to see those original opening credits resurface essentially untouched, but it's also a hoot to see them again at all. I was expecting updated credits, with slightly remixed theme music, but series creator Chris Carter and Fox and everyone else involved in making those decisions know exactly which buttons they're pushing here. I have to wonder how a younger viewer, someone who is brand new to The X-Files, will react to these admittedly pandering elements. After the season premiere's stinker of an opening scene (more on that in a bit), would these antiquated, bizarre credits cause a younger millennial viewer to turn and flee? I can't help but think the answer is yes.

Interestingly, nostalgia stopped playing a factor awfully quick in the first episode. The thrill of seeing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson quickly dissipated when they stopped acting like the characters I used to love and started engaging in a stilted and dull plot that didn't capture any of the flavor that made the original series such a delight. But before you accuse me of getting too negative, I did find myself grinning like a loon during the second episode, which is far better at capturing what made the series special. But we'll get there.

The Mulder/Scully Dynamic

The true strength of The X-Files never lay in its labyrinthine plotting, creepy monsters, and confounding conspiracies. That was always just window dressing for the relationship between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, whose combative partnership blossomed into a friendship and, eventually, something a little more than that. Whether they were struggling through a mythology episode or tackling a "monster of the week," these two had one of the best "buddy cop" dynamics in television history. Mulder, the nose-to-the-ground gumshoe who so desperately wants to believe in the fantastic, and Scully, the scientist who leads with reason and skepticism, were a compelling duo. Even when they fell into familiar patterns (Mulder says aliens did it! Scully looks for another explanation!), Duchovny and Anderson found ways to make their dynamic fascinating and often playful. They never represented an unstoppable force and an immovable object, as so many parodies painted them, but rather two human beings who operated under different but complementary world views.

And while the first new episode doesn't quite capture this relationship, the second goes a long way toward recreating that old magic. You could argue that the icy distance separating Mulder and Scully when we first see them again is intentional, the result of years of pent-up, complicated feelings. But the show does nothing with that. These two are thrust together again and they end up standing around as things just happen around them. If you don't have any nostalgia pre-installed in your mind, it would be difficult to discern what these two have in common, why they're working together, and how they're any different from one another. Scully eventually tells Mulder that his latest conspiracy theory is a load of crap and it's one of the few stand-up-and-cheer moments in the entire episode – for once, she's acting like her old self again. Mulder doesn't even get an equivalent moment in the debut. TV's great searcher for truth has become impossibly passive, which doesn't make for particularly compelling television.

Once again: the second episode moves things in the right direction, but that first one still burns.

x-files revival review

"My Struggle"

Surely Chris Carter is aware that the name of the first episode of the new season translates to Mein Kampf. Is this his clever way of shooting down the lunatic right-wing conspiracy theorist who pulls Mulder back into the game? Or am I giving him too much credit?

In fact, let's start with Tad O'Malley, that television personality whose theories about a government conspiracy to utilize alien technology to take over the nation and rule its people with an iron first drag Mulder out of complacency. He's not a bad character by any means (he's the exact kind of colorful nutjob who would have previously reared his head on this show), but he's the one and only driving force in the first episode. He brings Mulder and Scully together, he cracks their previous work wide open, he uncovers secrets that our heroes spent a decade searching for... and he does it all offscreen. Most of "My Struggle" is this guy taking our heroes from place to place, showing them crazy things and showcasing how everything we thought we knew was wrong.

And oh boy, this is frustrating. The X-Files is no stranger to grand twists that turned the show's mythology inside out, but those previous left turns seemed to arrive organically through the show's machinations. Mulder and Scully dig too deep, discover too much, learn that what the previously knew was wrong, struggle with what they know and don't know, and so on. This new episode, the first in over a decade, essentially opens with this schmuck reinventing the mythology of the entire series. He is a plot device, only here to replace the actual investigation and adventure that these two used to actually do on screen. With him here, most of "My Struggle" is Mulder and Scully standing around, waiting for blood tests to get finished and listening as other people fill them in on important information. Mythology complaints aside, this is a bad episode of television because our leads barely contribute the action. Even the final scene, when the X-Files are re-opened, doesn't involve them at all. They simply answer a phone call.

Plus, the grand revelation of the episode, that there is no real alien invasion and that everything that has occurred has been the result of the government using alien tech recovered after the Roswell UFO crash to prepare for something sinister, isn't anything new. Previous seasons have played with similar ideas, which makes Mulder's shock and dismay over this revelation feel peculiar and unearned. He should have seen this coming. This is not fresh territory for TV's greatest conspiracy theorist.

"Founder's Mutation"

This is more like it. "Founder's Mutation" isn't a great episode of The X-Files, but it is a pretty good episode, which puts it head and shoulders above the premiere. In the show's best seasons, this would feel like a stop-gap between better episodes, but it feels like an oasis after "My Struggle."

This episode leaps right into action, which ends up being a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's great to see Mulder and Scully back to wearing suits and waving badges and knocking on doors and directly investigating the supernatural. This is what the show needs to be – this worked before and it still works now. But it's weird to see Mulder and Scully back in this familiar rhythm after the huge (albeit mishandled) revelations of the first episode. The shortened season means there's no time for an episode where these two get back into the swing of things and recover from their lives being completely and totally upended. Still, this episode, a "monster of the week" with some connections to the main mythology, feels totally disconnected from what came before it.

But maybe that's a good thing because what's here is rock-solid (if unremarkable) genre television. Much of the credit probably needs to go to writer/director James Wong, a veteran of the series and and the man behind some of the best original episodes ("Squeeze," "Home," "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" and so on). From its grisly cold open to its chilling finale, "Founder's Mutation" is a nice mixture of what makes The X-Files so special: it's a procedural where our heroes actually put their noses to the ground and do the hard work to solve a mystery, only the mystery just so happens to involve mutant children, murder, and psychic powers. Wong also provides superior direction, finding fresh and unique ways to shoot expository scenes and dredging up some genuine horror when necessary.

The X-Files was always at its best when it told one-off stories, when it just gave Mulder and Scully a case and let them try to solve it. "Founder's Mutation" is unremarkable, but it's entertaining. It's good. It's proof that this show can actually continue to function in 2016.x-files posters

Supporting Actors and Familiar Faces

Although my opinions on the new X-Files remain mixed at the moment, I will say this much – the show's casting game is still very much on point. The original series had exceptional taste in actors, filling out the guest star ranks with beloved performers, noteworthy character actors, and even a few people who would go on to great things (Bryan Cranston, anyone?). In two episodes, The X-Files has kept this tradition alive.

I may not like the character of Tad O'Malley and think he's a lousy device instead of a proper character, but I love seeing Joel McHale in a part like this, where he's allowed to showcase a new side of his onscreen persona. I was also pleased to see Annet Mahendru, who is so fantastic on The Americans, play a key role. And like anyone with good taste, I cheer a little whenever a Hannibal veteran shows up in just about anything, so Kacey Rohl popping up for a few key scenes in "Founder's Mutation" was a real treat. With the wonderful Kumail Nanjiani (a noted X-Files enthusiast) set to guest star next week, this trend looks to continue. 

However, I truly hope the show eventually finds something for Mitch Pileggi's Walter Skinner to do. He may have begun the series as the grumpy ol' boss, but he eventually evolved into a far more valuable supporting player who deserves more than a single scene each week. And as happy as I am to see William B. Davis back as the (somehow alive) Smoking Man, there better be a damn good reason why he's still drawing breath.

Looking Ahead

And this is where I look to the future. We're already one third of the way through the new season and one episode has been downright rotten and the other pretty good. Average that together and you have a fairly disappointing start. Advance buzz suggests that next week's episode is genuinely strong and a big improvement over what has come before, but it's still easy to feel a little bummed out. When you have so few hours, every single episode counts.

Thankfully, the next few episodes appear to be additional "monster of the week" one-offs, which is where this show was always at its best. In this free-form space, The X-Files could be funny and experimental. It could try new things, playing with structure and form to deliver genuinely unique hours of television. Before the age of "proper" serialization, The X-Files reveled in the chance to break from its main story and have a good time.

With only a handful of episodes remaining, will the show even have time to get a little silly and break the mold? That's my biggest concern moving forward, especially since we'll be back in "mythology" territory soon enough. Since this revival has been so keen on throwing out past mythology and continuity at every turn, these episodes fill me with dread. These are the hours that do not matter. These episodes are the disposable ones, not the one-offs. The X-Files was a great show because it so frequently diverged from its main mythology.