Friday, May 31, 2013

RE-OPENING THE X-FILES - A Look at The X-Files' 20th Anniversary Screening in Hollywood


- The X-Files is one of the defining shows for me, the first TV drama that I became certifiably obsessed with, and one of the early, influential shows for me that made me want to work in television. It's funny to think how the nine-year run of the show spanned such a vast swath of my young adulthood. I started watching it in 1993 as an eleven year old kid who was into aliens and sci-fi. I watched the series finale in May 2002 at the end of my sophomore year of college. At that time, I had officially made the switch to be a Film and TV major at Boston University, and had even taken a "Writing TV Drama" class, in which I wrote an X-Files spec script.

That spec script was a blatant attempt to ape the style of X-Files writer Darin Morgan, who gave the show a new dimension with his unique, auteur style. There was no mistaking a Darin Morgan-penned episode of The X-Files. His "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" is a hilarious, non-linear, surreal, semi-abstract voyage into truth, lies, and the realms in between. It's my favorite episode of TV ever. In my spec script, I included several homages to "Jose Chung" and other Morgan-written episodes, including a cameo from recurring Morgan-created side character The Stupendous Yappi. And a quirky scene set in a small-town diner - a tribute to a favorite scene in Jose Chung in which Fox Mulder questions a bewildered diner-owner about aliens, ordering a slice of pie prior to asking each subsequent query.

While other sci-fi shows have sort-of filled that X-Files gap in my pop-cultural being - Lost, Fringe, etc.- nothing else has ever captured my imagination in quite the same way. Maybe it was because I felt a strange sort of kindred spirit in Fox Mulder. Maybe it's the creepy atmosphere and spooky vibe of the show - perfect for huddling on the couch with the lights out on a Sunday night - that no other show has since matched. Or maybe it's that the show, for all of its myth-arcs and monsters-of-the-week, always strove for something more than your average TV show. It strove to be smarter, deeper, and more thematically complex. Those of us who were into The X-Files - like Mulder - were watching in search of a deeper Truth.

So, flash-forward to a few weeks ago, May 2013, and here I am living in LA and working in TV. Okay, I still have a ways to go before I write the next Jose Chung, but hey, I'm (hopefully) on my way. In any case, one amazing thing about LA is that there is a constant stream of awesome film festivals, screenings, panels, etc. Over the years, between local events and panels I've seen at things like Comic-Con, I've seen and heard some amazing discussions about some of my all time favorite movies and TV shows. But I'd never seen any kind of X-Files screening or panel, until this month, as part of the LA Times' Hero Complex film festival.

The event - a celebration of the show's 20th (!) anniversary, included a screening of three X-Files episodes - the pilot, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," and another fan-favorite (and Emmy-winning!) Darin Morgan-penned ep, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose."

It was very, very cool to watch these episodes with a packed audience, at the famous Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  While there were one or two moments that proved that, yes, a lot of time has passed since these episodes first aired (namely the gigantic cell phones in the pilot episode) ... they still totally hold up. And just like always, despite all the wackiness and absurdity of "Jose Chung", I still got chills during its final sequence, in which Charles Nelson Reilly, as Jose Chung, ruminates on the meaning of humanity's quest for alien life, positing that even if we are not alone in the universe "we are, each in our own way, truly, alone."

But man, the coolest part of the experience was the Q&A. I knew that show creator Chris Carter was booked to appear, but I was surprised (and totally nerding out), when surprise guests James and Darin Morgan took the stage. To hear the three of them talk about the behind-the-scenes workings of the show was really amazing. All three are pretty soft-spoken guys, but there were, nonetheless, some great tidbits that came out of the panel discussion. In particular, I found it fascinating yet frustrating to hear Darin Morgan explain how The X-Files was the only show he's worked on that allowed him to express his own quirky, auteurist vision, without having to strictly conform to the pre-established conventions of the show. What Morgan did was open up the show, deconstruct it, and redefine what types of stories The X-Files could tell. All of a sudden, The X-Files could be quirky, funny, offbeat, and self-referential. As the series went on, other visionary writers - from Chris Carter to Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan - emulated Morgan's approach. It made me think about how few TV dramas today allow for individual writers to put their stamp on an episode. As much as I love shows like Game of Thrones, each episode continues form the last with an almost mechanical precision. The X-Files was a show that made you pay attention to each episode's writing credits. The show created a world and a framework, and then let smart and unique individual voices play within that sandbox. The show even had guest writers like William Gibson and Stephen King pen episodes. How many great dramas today have a framework that would allow for that? Few, if any.

Suffice it to say, I was sitting in my seat at the Chinese Theater, debating stepping forward to ask a question, but realizing that I probably had too much pent-up fanboyism to get out anything coherent. It would have been cool to express how much the show meant to me, and how I probably wouldn't be here in Hollywood if not for its influence. At the same time, it was pretty awesome in and of itself to be in a room with fellow X-Philes on a Sunday night, bringing back a ritual that had, for almost a decade, been an important part of my week.

Chris Carter is interesting. I think he's probably burnt out on The X-Files, and doesn't seem overly enthusiastic about talking about the series' plot points or themes in any great detail. He was similarly elusive about the possibility of a third movie. As a fan, it really does feel like the series needs some proper closure. The end to the journey shouldn't be "I Want to Believe," which was an only-okay film that felt more like a random midseason episode than a fitting finale for one of the all-time great series. While that movie's underwhelming box office performance undoubtedly hurt the chances for a third film, these are strange times we live in. 24 is coming back to TV. Shows are being revived via Kickstarter. New generations are discovering the classics via Netflix and other means. How could  a show like The X-Files *not* come back in some way, shape, or form. Especially when we never got to see a key element of the show's mythology play out on screen - the alien invasion that was supposed to happen in 2012! One bone thrown to fans is that IDW is releasing a new, cannonical comic book this summer, titled "Season 10." It will have input from Carter, and pick up where the second movie left off. Hopefully, this is the first step towards a new movie or TV miniseries. We can only hope. Writer Joe Harris has said that he plans to continue stories from the show, while also bringing The X-Files into 2013 - a world of WikiLeaks, terrorism, drones, etc. Can't wait to read it.

In any case, this screening and Q&A was one of those great events that reminded me why I love this stuff in the first place, and of the type and caliber of content that I aspire to create and be involved with. Yes, TV is a business, and Carter and Morgan's show is a property and a valued franchise of 20th Century Fox. But man, within that framework, they made more than mere product - they made TV that inspired the imagination, that challenged the mind, and that was and is art.

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