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The X-Files at 30: How the show created a new model for TV storytelling

After striking the perfect balance between monster of the week and mythology, the groundbreaking series unfortunately buckled under its own weight

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files. (Photos: Getty Images)
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files. (Photos: Getty Images)

It’s been 30 years since The X-Files premiered on Fox, and for true fans that can only mean one thing: Eugene Tooms is due to come out of hibernation and start collecting livers again. Time to seal up those windows, chimneys, and vents, people. Now that we’ve got your attention, it’s also a good time to reflect on the show’s long shadow and decades-spanning legacy. After nine consecutive seasons, two movies, two revival seasons, books, comics, games, countless fan works, and many imitators, it’s not an overstatement to say that The X-Files not only fundamentally changed television but the ways in which we watch and interact with it too. The show also set up expectations it couldn’t possibly live up to and left many viewers feeling trapped in a sprawling maze of mysteries with no satisfying conclusions. We’ll get to that later, but let’s not skip too far ahead.

To appreciate where The X-Files ended up, we need to go back to the start. When the show began on September 10, 1993, the TV landscape looked a lot different than it does today, and we’re not just talking about the outdated fashions and clunky technology. There were no streaming services, cable wasn’t a threat to the big broadcast networks, and Fox had only just expanded to seven nights of programming per week. Primetime shows tended to follow either a serialized format (nighttime soaps and melodramas) or an episodic one (mainly sitcoms and procedurals). Plot-lines were either self-contained and resolved in a single episode or they continued on from week to week. But when The X-Files came along, it refused to limit itself to one or the other. Creator Chris Carter set out to prove that a series could do both things equally well. And he did—for a while.

The X-Files Trailer (HD)

From ratings disappointment to appointment viewing

Carter wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea of a show that could be both serialized and episodic, but he popularized the model that a new generation of showrunners would eventually adopt. Now we’ve become used to season-long continuity arcs broken up by one-off episodes with little or no connection to the larger story, especially in genre shows and franchises like the Whedonverse and the Arrowverse. But there was a time when that seemed like a novel approach. It was certainly effective: The X-Files went from scraping the bottom of the TV ratings to appointment television in just a few seasons and turned Friday nights, formerly a ratings dead zone, into a viable time slot.


Did some of that have to do with the charisma and undeniable chemistry of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in the lead roles? Sure. Could it also have been a matter of coinciding with the rise of internet culture? Undoubtedly. But at least some of it had to do with the way the show was built. It kept its audience rapt with self-contained “monster of the week” (or MOTW) episodes that could vary wildly in tone, from bone-chilling horror to lighthearted comedy. Then it rewarded their patience with epic, multi-part “myth-arc” storylines. There were far more of the former produced each season, but the latter took on greater importance because the major milestone episodes (premieres, finales, mid-season cliffhangers) were devoted to them.

It was a tricky balancing act that had to be constantly calibrated. The paranormal cases had to be solved, or at least resolved, within a single episode, and they had to have an interesting hook. Otherwise, they could feel like filler and risk the audience losing interest before the next major development brought the alien conspiracy back to the forefront. Plenty of them missed the mark (with 218 episodes across 11 seasons, there’s bound to be some clunkers), but on the whole, these standalone stories proved to be some of the best, most beloved, and most talked-about episodes of the series. Episodes like “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” “Bad Blood,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and the infamous “Home” all hold up today. Even when the show was revived in 2016, and again in 2018, the highlights were the MOTW episodes “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat” (both penned by Emmy-winner Darin Morgan, a longtime writer for the show). You could sit down and still enjoy any of these tonight without having seen a single minute of The X-Files. The MOTW episodes were never the problem. It was the convoluted mythology that eventually disrupted the balance and wound up turning viewers off.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files 
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files 
Photo: Shane Harvey (Fox)

The original victim of The Chris Carter Effect

Carter became so notorious for losing the thread of The X-Files’ vast conspiracy plot that this common narrative trap is now named after him. Carter himself has admitted that he didn’t completely plan out the main story arc at the beginning of the series. Once it progressed beyond what he had initially sketched out, he and the writers had to make it up as they went along. This led to complex side plots, changing motivations, and dangling threads without any satisfactory resolution. Other factors, like Anderson’s pregnancy while filming season one, took the story in directions the writers hadn’t previously imagined. They got away with it for a while, but by the time they started working on a feature film with plans to release it in theaters between seasons five and six, the mythology had become unwieldy.

The MOTW episodes were originally meant to tide viewers over until the next big event brought the threat of alien invasion closer. In those early seasons, we would tune in hoping to get a glimpse of the Cigarette Smoking Man, or the infectious black oil, or a shape-shifting alien, or a peek inside the world of the shadowy Syndicate. We longed for satisfactory explanations of Mulder’s sister’s disappearance, Scully’s abduction, and all the weird medical experiments. Instead of answers, though, we just had more questions and the sneaking suspicion that even the writers didn’t know where it was all going (a suspicion that turned out to be correct). It should have been the first sign that the story had gone on for too long. Other signs would follow, like Duchovny leaving the show and Anderson stepping back to let new agents, played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, take over. The show never quite managed to regain its equilibrium after that. Eventually, it was the standalone episodes that became the meat and potatoes (or sometimes just “Small Potatoes”) bringing viewers back week after week, until a lot of them stopped coming back altogether.

Whatever happened with The X-Files in its later seasons, its influence on everything that came after can’t be denied. Before it got weighed down with too much plot, it perfected the cocktail that so many other shows now regularly serve up. If The X-Files hadn’t become a surprise hit we might not have gotten hybrid series like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Lost, Fringe, Supernatural, or even Breaking Bad (from X-Files alum Vince Gilligan). Like the urban myths that inspired many of its episodes, the show has become a part of pop-culture lore.