The X-Files

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: The X-Files

Why it’s daunting: Jumping into a long-running television series can be overwhelming. With undeniable classics like The Wire or The Sopranos, it’s easy enough to start from the beginning; critical consensus has both shows coming out of the gate strong from their very first season. Perhaps more importantly, both these shows (and others like them) are heavily serialized, meaning that new viewers will only get the full weight of that series’ accomplishments if they’re willing to commit themselves to the full experience. But this kind of show is rare. There’s a ton of great television that doesn’t require audiences to connect every dot between episodes—most sitcoms have a history to them, but the writing is designed to appeal to new audiences as well as old fans. 

The trick in those cases, then, is finding the best place to get on the ride. The beginning is still an option, and a tempting one for completists; but the fact is, a lot of absolutely stellar shows have average first episodes, or even whole first seasons, as writers and actors work to figure out their roles and relationships before finally settling into the groove that makes them so successful. Watching an acclaimed series’ pilot can be a disorienting, even discouraging experience, as characters who should be iconic appear half-formed and stumbling. Later episodes seem like a better plan for a newbie eager to test the waters, but most every long-running show in history has managed to overstay its welcome by at least a season or two.

Such is the case with The X-Files, one of the most popular sci-fi shows in the history of TV, and one whose inability to arrive at a satisfying conclusion has long been infamous among genre fans. Premièring in 1993, the show ran for nine seasons, spawning two feature films (the second released in 2008, six years after the series officially went off the air) as well as any number of spin-off novels, comic books, and video games. Many of these are god-awful. Attractive FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) remain iconic figures on the pop-cultural landscape, and the show’s synthesis of anthologized storytelling (a la The Twilight Zone) and ongoing mysteries (a la Twin Peaks) established a template that’s still influential even today. But the show also provided a cautionary tale, as creator Chris Carter’s unwillingness (or possible inability) to resolve the government-alien-conspiracy mythology that was a large part of The X-Files’ popularity buried an initially strong lead under increasingly elaborate and nonsensical twists. Then Duchovny left the show as a regular in the eighth season, and while his replacement, Robert Patrick, did the best he could with the material he was given, the already stumbling series lost what little remaining integrity it had left, stumbling to an uninspired conclusion in 2002.

Possible gateway: “Pusher,” written by Vince Gilligan, directed by Rob Bowman

Why: Season three’s “Pusher” follows a typical X-Files Monster-Of-The-Week plot. (X-Files episodes are either mythology focused, dealing with government lies, green-blooded aliens, and Mulder’s abducted sister, or MotW eps that, while part of overall continuity, are standalone and don’t require nearly as much previous knowledge of the show.) It focuses on a man named Robert Patrick Modell who can bend people to his will via a form of psychic influence. He uses this ability to kill, and when the story begins, he’s already done enough work as a soldier for hire that the government tries to pick him up at the local supermarket. Except they don’t know about his little trick, and he manages to escape by convincing the driver of the car bringing him in to drive into an oncoming 18-wheeler. The driver dies, Modell flees, and Mulder and Scully are called in to aid the FBI manhunt.

At first glance, “Pusher” may not seem like the ideal gateway. After all, there are no aliens involved, no monsters, no cigarette-smoking men lurking in doorways ready to crush anyone’s search for the truth. In some ways, “Pusher” could almost be mistaken for a typical police procedural: There’s a bad guy, and the good guys have to track him down with a combination of clever detective work, psychological profiling, and good old-fashioned luck. That’s one of the episode’s strengths, though. The writing is sharp (Gilligan would go on to contribute a number of other episodes to the show, including the sixth-season episode “Drive,” featuring Bryan Cranston, star of Gilligan’s current series, Breaking Bad), Mulder and Scully’s relationship is strong, and Modell (Robert Wisden) is a great villain: nasty, human, and understandable without being sympathetic.

What makes “Pusher” an excellent starting point for the curious is that it’s essentially The X-Files in its purest form. This isn’t the show’s best episode, or its most moving, and Modell, while well-drawn and compelling, isn’t as memorably original as, say, Eugene Tooms or all those squirming little gray men. But it’s definitely up there in the series’ top 10 list. So much of the best of this show is about commenting on what has come before or deconstructing well-worn archetypes that it makes sense to start with something that’s essentially the ideal expression of the X-Files format: Mulder and Scully are assigned to an unusual case, Mulder has crazy theories that mostly prove to be exactly right, Scully is skeptical but supports her partner; there are two or three memorable death scenes, a final confrontation in which our heroes are only able to survive through teamwork, and then a denouement in which the monster is defeated, but may someday rise again. “Pusher” gives a clear picture of a series when it’s using the tools at hand in the best way possible. 

Next steps: The third season overall is one of the show’s strongest, with the conspiracy arc still keeping tension high instead of just vamping for time. By this point, the sometimes awkward effects work of the early years is gone, and the overall direction is highly polished, giving even the season’s weakest entries a cinematic feel. Most importantly, the third season has The X-Files’ two greatest hours, the Darin Morgan-penned “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” Both episodes are brilliant studies of the concerns that lie at the heart of the show: the quest for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, the ludicrous emptiness of conspiracy, the strange accumulations of detail that make up an individual life, and the personal connections we make that can’t save us from death, but might at least make the trip there not entirely miserable. “Repose” and “Jose” are top-notch television; the only reason neither of them would work as Gateway is that, in their brilliance, they aren’t really accurate expressions of the rest of the series, and anyone expecting the show to live up to that standard might walk away needlessly disappointed.

As for the rest of it, well, those interested in the mythology storyline would do well to get in at the ground floor. The first season of the show is uneven (feel free to skip “Space” entirely), and often clumsy, but it provides important information about Mulder’s missing sister, his connections to the conspiracy, and that mystery cigarette-smoking man who would serve as one of the show’s best known (and entirely human) monsters. It’s widely accepted at this point that The X-Files was better at doing MotW episodes than myth ones, but the first season shows how false that idea is. While it’s true that the serialized elements would eventually prove too convoluted to be worth the effort it took to maintain them, in those first two seasons, the aliens and their motives were important factors that helped cohere the series as it struggled to find its footing. Taken on their own, and with a willingness to accept that it’s all about the ride and not the destination, “Deep Throat” and its ilk make for a hell of a ride.  

Where not to start: The X-Files: Fight The Future, the series’ first big-screen outing, is pretty good. The X-Files: I Want To Believe, its second, is a boring, disappointingly irrelevant mess. Don’t bother.