The Inventive X-Files Episode That Paid Homage To Another Trademark Fox Series

"The X-Files" is a trippy show. It tackled everything from government conspiracies and cryptids, all the way up to extraterrestrials and hybrids. In the '90s, if you sat down to watch a new episode, there was no way to know what deep dark rabbit hole you were about to be sucked into, and that's why so many people loved it.

While the storylines were virtually limitless and always evolving, "The X-Files" had a signature style that remained consistent throughout the run of the series. Episodes almost always open with something strange and inexplicable happening, which leads to the arrival of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), who promptly solve the puzzle and save the day. It's a simple story structure that always worked for the show. The series also had a signature cinematic style.

"X-Files" episodes use moving camera shots leading us on a search for some mysterious monster in the dark. The lighting is a blend of light and shadow, that only allows us to see what we are supposed to, that keeps us on our toes prepared to run away at any moment. Regardless of whatever Big Bad the duo were chasing that week, the camera work, story, and lighting usually stayed the same. Except for that one time it didn't. 

In the middle of its seventh season, FBI agents Mulder and Scully dropped their typical style, and became "Cops."

That other Fox show

"Cops," which I've just found out is in its 33rd season, is a reality TV show about, well, cops. The Fox series became a hit in the '90s because, like all reality television, it allowed all of us a glance into someone else's life. Unlike other popular reality shows at the time, instead of spoiled rich kids, "Cops" allowed us to follow police officers on their beats. Potential dangers lurked around every corner in the series and we watched it all unfold in the safety of our homes.

This reality show had its own visual style that was closer to found footage films than "The X-Files." The shot is always shaky and disorienting as the camera person walks, runs, jumps, hides, or whatever the occasion might call for. The cops and crappy shot framing are real. Dialogue and events, supposedly, are authentic and unscripted, complete with the constant bleeping of curse words.

Like me, you probably don't read all that, and think, you know what show would really fit this style, "The X-Files" — but that's why we didn't work on the series and Vince Gilligan did.

According to LAist, Gilligan was a writer/producer on "The X-Files," and had the idea for a reality TV crossover for a long time, but nobody else was interested until 1999. By then, the series was in its seventh season and ratings weren't what they had been, so Gilligan pitched his idea again. Out of ideas and struggling with ratings, the producers finally green-lit it.

The episode, called "X-Cops," premiered on February 20, 2000, and, doggone it, people liked it.

Bad boys, bad boys whatcha gonna do?

In the episode, "The X-Files" fully embraced the camera style of "Cops," complete with shaky footage, dodgy shot framing, and expletive bleeping. The storyline was typical of the kinds of cases Mulder and Scully investigate. It turns out, the two shows blended a lot better than anyone would have guessed.

The combination of reality television with a well-established fictional television show gave Gilligan, who wrote the episode, a lot of room to play with. And he thoroughly explored all that room, which presented fans with a new and fun way to experience an X-File.

Unlike traditional episodes, the monster is never shown, the suspects' faces are blurred, and the camera guy (and the audience) isn't allowed to catch a ride with Mulder and Scully. These things separate us from the two leads and the viewpoints we are so used to following in every episode. It pushed "X-Files" fans out of their comfort zone and forced us to adapt to a totally different style. While all of this made "X-Cops" a different experience for fans, it kept enough of what we liked from traditional episodes to pull it off.

A goof portion of "X-Cops" follows the "Cops" template, but the episode kept the lead characters of "The X-Files," along with their chemistry, and a monster of the week. Like any other case, Mulder and Scully are the lead investigators we are most often shown. Typical of their characters, Mulder is certain they are hunting a paranormal entity that feeds on fear, and Scully thinks this idea is crazy. Throughout the episode, both push and pull each other in an attempt to change their minds, but neither succeeds. We never see the person or thing responsible for murdering people in the street, so we can't be sure whose side we should be on either, but I'm always partial to Mulder's.

Successful strangeness

Despite initial doubts, Gilligan's idea turned out to be a huge success for the series. The humor of the crossover was loved by critics and fans at the time and today is often cited as one of the best episodes in the entire show, which is impressive when you remember it ran for 11 seasons.

There is a lot to like about "The X-Files." The electric chemistry between Mulder and Scully and poetic writing are two of my favorite things about the show, but I also love that the series wasn't afraid to take risks. It was a smart show that often took weirdness to new heights, and this crossover episode shows it wasn't afraid to add a little of that strangeness to its shooting style.

Even with shaky cameras and blurred-out faces, "The X-Files" always made strange good.