The title gives the game away. The name “Familiar” refers to the shape-shifting demon who appears multiple times throughout the hour, a mysterious beast as comfortable in the clothes of (seriously creepy) kid show staples as it is in the skin of an ex-lover. But it’s also an accurate description of the episode as a whole. We’ve been here before, more or less. Mysterious deaths, a seemingly normal small town hiding monstrous secrets, and Mulder and Scully, bumbling about doing what they do—which in this case is trail just five steps behind what’s going on until the eventual and inevitable collapse.

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It’s the sort of entry I struggled to write about back when I was co-reviewing the original series. Not because it’s bad, necessarily (although it’s not great), but because it’s such a meat-and-potatoes type deal that serious efforts to unpack it just end with a lot of empty luggage. Those times when the episode does strive to make some sort of point, namely the way Americans rush to judgment in times of great stress and horror, don’t really work, because they’re so clearly forced. Characters behave more like props than actual people, extensions of a theme that doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to make an hour’s worth of meal.

Yet I kind of liked it? I mean, there’s more to criticize, and we’ll get to that, but up until the last five minutes or so, I enjoyed “Familiar,” in no small part thanks to the predictable but deeply creepy set-pieces. Repurposing supposedly friendly figures from children’s entertainment into just-a-little-bit-off monsters isn’t a new trick (I mean, that’s how we got Pennywise), but just because something’s old doesn’t always mean it’s not effective.

Mr. Chuckleteeth, the grinning avatar who pops up multiple times, isn’t exactly plausible as a legitimate kid show staple; and the Bibbletickles, basement-bin knock-offs of Teletubbies that look like grey aliens stuffed into neon-hued bear suits, are so clearly menacing as to border on self-parody. Yet even recognizing the obvious manipulation at play didn’t make me any less susceptible to it, and up until the final “explanation,” I found myself giving the episode more and more benefit of the doubt if only because ole Chuckleteeth made such a memorable impression. He feels like he might have stepped whole cloth out of a James Wan movie, and I say that as a compliment.

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“Familiar” also gains ground off the simple fact that it’s 2018, and standard MotW Mulder/Scully episodes aren’t getting made anymore. I praised “Kitten” a few weeks ago for proving the show could still turn out competent, if not exactly breathtaking, entries, and while this one lacks that earlier entry’s emotional core, it’s shares the same nostalgic novelty. I can quibble over the belabored nature of the Mulder/Scully conversations, but I can’t deny there’s considerable charm in seeing both actors put through these particular paces. Which, of course, is why revivals like this exist in the first place; but just because I recognize the mercenary nature of the enterprise doesn’t always make me immune to its appeal.

Still, that affection can only do so much. While the scary scenes work, the bits between range from competent to disappointing, without much cumulative effect. Early in the episode, Mulder mentions a woman on trial for witchcraft who burst into flames a few hundred years ago, and the script makes a strained effort to connect witch hunts with the rush to mob justice we see later in the hour. It’s a weird diversion that has a grief-stricken police officer shooting a potential suspect because he fits Scully’s profile of a potential killer; it’s all too schematic for its own good, and even having Mulder point that out doesn’t help much. Before he’s shot, the suspect, a registered sex offender who failed to announce himself to police when he moved into town, shouts, “It was statutory! I never hurt anybody!” It reeks of someone trying to create a challenging moral dilemma without really understanding how or why people do anything.

That carries over into the deflating finale, which reveals that the whole mess was caused by a scorned wife trying to get revenge on the woman who slept with her husband. It’s the weakest possible conclusion, pinning the chaos (and surprisingly high body count) on characters we know very little about. The actors do their best with the material, but it’s the sort of twist that was tired even before the original X-Files hit the screen. After all, when that show turned its hand to devil worship, it at least had the decency to implicate an entire town.

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So, on the whole, a good start that loses steam as it goes, before ending with little more than shrug. I’m rating it probably higher than it deserves, if only because I had a lot of fun watching the Chuckleteeth bits. But even so, I can’t help wishing they’d managed to come up with something a little more interesting than this spot-the-cliche plotting.

Stray observations

  • The episode’s efforts to make Melvin Peters (the doomed suspect) a martyr would’ve worked a lot better if we’d had any sense of who he was at all. The shots of him with smiling kids are so blatantly troll-ish that it’s almost funny. That, plus the reveal of the Chuckleteeth mask in his closet (and also a monkey?) made me briefly wonder if he’d been conjured up by whomever was really responsible to throw the cops off the scent, but there was no real twist.

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