The X-Files: "Hollywood A.D." / "Fight Club"
B+

The X-Files: "Hollywood A.D." / "Fight Club"

“Hollywood A.D.” (season 7, episode 19; originally aired 4/30/2000)
In which Garry Shandling makes out with Tea Leoni.

“My sniper zombies are everywhere!” -The Cigarette-Smoking Pontiff

As an episode of television designed to tell a cohesive story with understandable character behavior, a thrilling plot, and a basic grasp of cause and effect, “Hollywood A.D.” is a failure on a fundamental level. I imagine if you dug deep enough, you might be able to work out how a former ‘60s revolutionary selling forged religious documents to a doubt-struck priest connects to a doofy screenwriter, a movie about Mulder and Scully’s adventures, and Skinner in a bubble bath. I don’t doubt that Duchovny was trying for something both wondrous and strange, but the end result (again, judged by the strictest and most unimaginative of standards) is an inconclusive mess. Like “all things” before it, the pretensions are frequent and airy, although given this is a show with occasional monologues written by Chris Carter, it’s not like this is new. Still, this is muddled and frequently so in love with just being weird for weird’s sake that everybody forgets we need at least a little justification to pull everything together in the end.

But it’s a hard episode not to love, frankly. I have no idea what Duchovny was trying to say—something about fiction and recorded ideas helping us to achieve a kind of loopy immortality, even if it does star Garry Shandling—but that doesn’t stop the funny parts from being funny, and the sweet parts from being sweet. This has to be one of the most flat out adorable X-Files entries I’ve ever seen, like Duchovny re-watched “The Post-Modern Prometheus” and decided, “Yeah, I can top that.” (Both episodes even end in strange fantasy dance numbers.) It ends with the murder-suicide of two characters supposedly integral to the plot, yet the Hoffman and Cardinal O’Fallon both die off screen, their demise reported by Mulder in a line so quick you’d be forgiven if you missed it. Because anything of real consequence can’t happen here in “Hollywood A.D.” Even a dude so hell-bent on method forgery that he actually comes to believe he is Jesus Christ barely gets more than a scene. The depth never matters, but there’s so much generous goofiness throughout that it’s hard to care much.

That goofiness starts with a character who by all rights should be utterly insufferable: Wayne Federman (Wayne Federman), a screenwriter and old college buddy of Skinner’s who the assistant director basically assigns to Mulder for a case, to let Federman get a feel for what FBI work is really like. Admittedly, Mulder and FBI work have about as much in common as Indiana Jones and archaeology, but Federman is looking for the weird stuff, and that fits ole Spooky to a T. Federman should be awful, and he sort of is, constantly throwing out bad puns and getting cell phone calls in the middle of crime scenes, but the actor/comedian has a low key presence that keeps the gags from being shrill even when they don’t land. Even more surprisingly, some of them do land, more than I would’ve expected (Re: Mulder, “He’s like a Jehovah’s Witness meets Harrison Ford’s Witness.”). The key, I think, is that the character is never a complete moron, or a completely selfish asshole. He’s spacey and self-absorbed, but he also makes some good observations about the crazy way Mulder and Scully do business. And while he’s got that overstated smarm going on, there’s nothing overtly mean about either the real Federman’s performance, or the way Duchovny portrays him or anyone else in the episode.

It’s the difference between parody and satire; parody has genuine affection for its target, while satire is going for blood, affection be damned. The beyond silly scenes of Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni running around a fake cemetery fighting the Vegan dead could be seen as a riff off the entertainment industry’s excess, but really, they’re just there because this is stuff Duchovny knows, and he wants to get some laughs. And that’s great, really. Garry Shandling telling Mulder he builds character out of wardrobe is great. Tea Leoni getting running-in-heels listens from Scully, also great. (Just the shot of her running back and forth in the background while Mulder chats with Shandling is maybe the funniest thing I’ve seen on this show all season.) There’s nothing particularly insightful about any of it, not even when Shandling and Leoni (in character) get rolled into a coffin together and start making out—it’s a nod to the Mulder/Scully chemistry, but it seems like every episode of the show does that now, and Leoni-Scully’s confession of love for Skinner doesn’t take the saga in a new direction. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just fun, and it’s pretty amazing that Duchovny and the rest of the crew are able to take this much pleasure in the entry without ever becoming too smug or in on their own joke.

If you can accept the screenplay’s messiness (and really, the faux-profundity isn’t that much saner than the ideas Gillian Anderson threw out in “all things”; the big difference is that “Hollywood A.D.” has a sense of humor about itself which the other episode couldn’t manage), there are plenty of delights to be had. The film set visit (and the resultant movie screening) are great, but I’m also partial to Scully’s anecdote explaining the idea of the Lazarus Bowl, a mystical piece of pottery that just happens to have a recording of Jesus Christ ordering a man to rise from the dead. If I take nothing else from this season, Mulder and Scully’s laid-back, “Well, we’ve deconstructed our relationship a dozen times now, so whatever” pleasantness will be enough to keep me from completely hating it, and both actors are at their most charming throughout. Scully smiles a lot. It’s infectious.

And how can she not smile. Bones dance to the music of the ages. A corpse jumps up off the autopsy room table and asks for his heart back. Ghosts rise from the dead and boogey down on an extremely fake looking cemetery set. Which reminds me: this is also the episode in which we learn that Mulder has seen Plan 9 From Outer Space42 times. (Scully: “Doesn’t that make you sad? It makes me sad.” Actors tend to work well with other actors when they direct, but it’s still impressive just how much life Duchovny manages to bring out of Anderson in their scenes together. Scully has been warm and funny before, but she’s practically glowing here. It makes you want the show to run forever, just so you can spend more time with these two, sitting on the couch, watching bad movies.) If “Hollywood A.D.” has anything approaching a skeleton key, I think it’s here. Mulder explains to Scully that the absurd awfulness of Plan 9 helps him achieve a kind of Zen state of consciousness, allowing him to making connections and deductive leaps he wouldn’t normally be able to grasp. Which is cute, but you check out the cemetery set in Plan 9, and the set we see in Hollywood, and it’s not that much different. For all the talk about Jesus, about faith and meaning and the power of film to recreate history, I think Duchovny’s real heart is with Ed Wood, and all those paper-plate flying saucers and plywood sets. If there’s any serious message to be dug up from all this chaos, it’s that we have stupid minds, stupid! And Duchovny loves us anyway.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • As mentioned, Scully is delightful, but when’s the last time Mulder was this charming? He plays the straight man throughout, which gives him a chance to be amused and occasionally irked by events in a way that really suits the actor.
  • Lots of cameos of famous people. That shot of Minnie Driver surprised the hell out of me. Remember Minnie Driver? I miss her.
  • Skinner in a bubble bath. It should be over the top, and it is, and yet, I laughed. Mitch Pileggi does a great job balancing Serious Skinner with Giddy Schoolboy Skinner throughout; you can almost feel his relief at getting to lighten up for a change.
  • “I like the way you guys work—no warrants, no permissions, no research.” -Wayne’s a pain.
  • The Tea Leoni jokes were cute when the episode aired. They’re just sad now.

“Fight Club” (season 7, episode 20; originally aired 5/7/2000)
In which there are two Kathy Griffins, and little else...

This is dire stuff. It has a few flashes of wit, some bright colors, a premise that theoretically could’ve been interesting; and yet everything just sits there on the screen, forcing you to watch it, going through the motions with the least effort possible until the credits role and we can pretend none of this ever happened. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the episode went wrong. Kathy Griffin’s casting is dire, to be sure, but the script is lazy and repetitive, and music score irritatingly overbearing. Mulder and Scully spend most of the time apart from each other, and while that could be some kind of clever reference to the twins at the heart of the story who cause havoc whenever they’re in close proximity, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. Which means we’re robbed of their chemistry, and in exchange we get endless scenes of Kathy Griffin wandering into places, hanging around, and then another Kathy Griffin showing up and all hell breaking loose. There’s a plot, sort of, but it’s just so fucking lazy it hurts to think about. Like the season finished up an episode short, and they just grabbed a random spec script off the slush pile and crossed their fingers.

I’m not a big fan of Griffin as a comedian; I find her shrill and unappealing, although I think that’s kind of the point, which doesn’t help. And she’s terrible here in the dual roles of Betty Templeton and Lulu Pfeiffer, identical sisters who don’t realize they’re sisters because they came from different mothers; their father, who, as Scully sees firsthand, is an angry, angry man, donated some sperm to a sperm bank, and Betty and Lulu’s moms made withdrawals, and viola. Betty is supposed to be the chipper one, Lulu the edgier, angrier one, but there’s no difference between them. Griffin is incapable of making the two distinct from one another—her Betty is “chipper, dumb” and her Lulu is “angry, dumb,” and it all amounts to the same two notes. Either she’s smiling, or she’s yelling, and neither tack is particularly interesting to watch. There are few moments when the twins seem to realize the existential nightmare they’re trapped in, doomed to repeat the endless cycle of flight and return, and Griffin looks kind of confused and irritated and you can sort of see it working. Generally, though, once you get past the joke of her being cast (and it has to be a joke, right? There was definitely a period in our culture when casting Kathy Griffin was supposed to be a punchline, and not necessarily a mean-spirited one), she’s dead weight.

Yet it’s hard to blame her too much. Sure, she’s not much of an actress, but the script doesn’t give her a damn thing to do. We don’t know anything more about Betty or Lulu at the end of the episode than we did at the start, and that’s a shame because there’s a germ of a real idea in their plight, something fascinating and cruel about the fundamental underpinnings of our biology; these two women are desperate to avoid each other, each convinced the other is ruining her life, and yet no matter what they do, no matter how many jobs they quit or wherever they move, their other somehow winds up down the street, or at the same job across town, or staring at them in the doorway. The implacable inevitability of that could have been fascinating. It could have been tragic. But Lulu and Betty both complain about their situation, we never get the sense that their grasp of the danger goes more than skin deep. So either they’re morons, or they’re horribly written. Both, really. It’s hard to care about idiots with only the barest idea of the damage they inflict on the lives of others, which means there’s no emotional center to the story at all.

The closest we get to someone beyond Mulder and Scully (who, again, are barely around) to care about is Bert Zupanic, the washed-up wrestler who inadvertently catches the eye of both women, and gets into a kind of circular sex farce in which no one laughs and you kind of want to die. Randall Cobb gives a decent performance (and allows us to briefly pretend we’re watching Raising Arizona), but he’s never much deeper than an archetype, and we’re never given more than the broadest idea of what he’s trying to do. He stole some money in order to buy his way into a prize fight, and he’s determined to get that money to the fight promoter, but he keeps running into Lulu and/or Betty, and then Betty and/or Lulu will show up and kapow. The same bar gets demolished twice, and that might be some kind of joke about the bartender’s bad luck, except it really just plays like Chris Carter (who wrote the script, and should probably be on trial for war crimes against comedy) didn’t have enough to fill a full episode, so he kept re-using the same unfunny gags. There’s weird padding all over the place, including a quirky detour with a pair of FBI agents who look somewhat, but not exactly, like our two heroes. (Duchovny and Anderson dubbed the voices; the agents are played by Steve Kiziak, Duchovny’s stunt double, and Arlene Pileggi, Mitch Pileggi’s wife.) There’s no point to it whatsoever—ostensibly the joke is that “everyone has a lookalike somewhere,” only these two agents don’t look exactly like Fox and Scully, while Betty, Lulu, Bert, and Bert’s twin brother, are both identical pairs.

There’s something rancid about forced quirk; it’s rotten and smug, like a dead clown left in the sun too long. “Fight Club” is full of that stink, and it’s one of the few episodes of season 7 that makes me wonder if the show really is out of ideas. I haven’t seen the legendarily wretched season 9 (or most of season 8; this is a fun journey for me), so I don’t want to go full F, just in case. Besides, I did laugh once or twice. But man. The big twist of the story is that Scully finds Bert’s twin while she’s investigating Betty and Lulu’s biological dad (the Other Bert just happens to be in jail in the cell next to Mr. Mean, which you could call “fate,” ie “lazy writing”), and she decides the only way to resolve the ongoing catastrophe that is Betty and Lulu’s intertwined existence is to get Other Bert out of jail and bring everyone together to see Bert’s big wrestling match. This is an immensely stupid plan, and after a brief moment when it looks like everything might work out okay, it falls apart. And that is pretty much the end. Nothing is resolved, nothing changes, Betty and Lulu are still out there screwing everything up, with no real explanation or theory or point.

I’m not sure that’s the worst part of the episode, but it’s definitely a kick while we’re already lying on the ground, hands over our eyes, pleading for the awfulness to end while we still know the taste of joy. Not only do we get a bland, unamusing, ill-focused flop of a monster, it would've been just as effective if none of this had ever happened. The last joke of the hour is the camera panning over to show first Scully, and then Mulder, with severe face lacerations and bruises. Mulder apparently had some dental work done. Because, ha-ha, there was this huge fight, and they got involved (which is their job), and... I dunno. Like nearly everything else, there’s no real joke, just the illusion of some space where a joke could theoretically exist. Also, it’s ugly to look at, and makes me feel bad for everyone involved. Let’s not talk about “Fight Club” anymore, okay? Let's make that a rule.

Grade: D-

Stray observations:

  • The relentless self-awareness isn’t amusing anymore. If Carter was so smart to point out the show’s tropes, he should’ve been smart enough to write a better damn script.
  • For the record, the only part that made me laugh: Mulder’s “Oh crap,” when he realized he was stuck between the two sisters. (But then he gets sucked into the sewers because why, exactly? Ah well. There’s so much suck in this one I should be surprised some of it found a way into the plot.)

Next week: Todd finishes out the season with “Je Souhaite” and “Requiem.”  

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