Friday, July 12, 2013

Kevin Is Right!: A Beginner's Guide to The X-Files

If you were to ask me how I met my first true love, I would tell you a story about a gruesome baby corpse unearthed in a baseball field, riddled with every genetic mutation known to man, and the legless, armless, toothless mother, strapped to one of those rollerboards that mechanics use to look under cars, who birthed it.  Although, appealing as this particular woman sounds, she is not, as you might have guessed, the first girl I ever kissed, but, instead, merely the subject of an investigation performed by the object of my teenage affections: 

Recently, as I mentioned in this article, one of the most cherished intellectual properties from the 90s has made a bit of a resurgence, in the world of comicbooks: The X-Files.  Based on the success of our Beginner's Guide to Star Trek, and working up a well of enthusiasm brimming with a teenage hormonal cocktail, the likes of which have not been seen since 1998, I wanted to provide a similar missive to help you figure out if The X-Files is the nostalgic 90s franchise for you.  I, for one, want to believe it is.  And as we all know....

So now we set about our task of curating a television show which, inevitably as a consequence of its age, carries with it some sour notes along with the sweetness.  And thus, we must squeeze the juice and distill into a potent cocktail, enjoyed like a finely aged whiskey.  

The X-Files, amongst the pioneers of truly serialized television, has episodes which can be easily categorized into one of two narrative buckets.  The first are called "Mythology" episodes, which constitute the bones of the overall plot arc of the show.  They are strong, sturdy episodes, possibly incomprehensible taken away from their skeletal context, but possessive of a sweet marrow. There are about 5 mythology episodes in a typical 23ish episode season. 

Then, there are the episodes which constitute the meat of the X-Files; affectionately dubbed "The Monster of the Week."  Thoroughly episodic in nature, and thus able to stand on their own, they not only comprise the majority of all X-Files episodes, but allow a new viewer a peek into the world without the need for a history class on X-Files lore.  (Available from LoadedDiceCorp For $150).  They will also be the only type of episode appearing on this list, as they have the added benefit of avoiding spoilers, (critical for enjoyment once I have convinced you that a Netflix X-Files Binge Marathon is something that is critical to self actualization and realizing your full potential as a human being).  The Mythology episodes will be what you look forward to once you finish this list.  They are among the best episodes the series has to offer.  But for now, without any further adieu, I present to you a guided, curated viewing litmus test:  How to get into the X-Files.

1:  Home   X-Files Season 4 Episode 2  4x02

This was the first episode of X-Files I ever saw.  It is amazing how lucky I was.  Having watched through all 202 episodes of the series three times, it would be impossible to pick a better introductory episode.  It may be the best single episode of X-Files of all time.  This. Episode. Is. Horrifying.  Everything within represents the distillation of X-Files genius.  There is surrealism.  There is existential horror.  There is commentary about American life, modernization, and the illusion of the American Dream.  There is buckets of charm in between moments of brutal tension.  All packed in a shockingly clever 45 minute package, that was banned from TV after first airing.  Watch this one.  You'll never forget it.  If you can handle it, you'll be hooked.

2:  Bad Blood  X-Files Season 5 Episode 12 5x12

Here we turn the horror on its head.  As disturbing as Home is, Bad Blood is just as charming, clever and, at times, hilarious.  This episode demonstrates the flexibility of the X-Files as a storytelling vehicle.  On its face, this is an episode about vampires.  However, this is really an episode about perspective, humor, self-identification, and how goddamn charming David Duchovny is.  As we watch Scully and Mulder recount the events of the case from their own perspective,  we are able to catch all the discrepancies, and differed perceptions, and therein gain insights into the characters and their relationship. Additionally, this episode features Luke Wilson in a prominent role as Sheriff Hartwell.  Further, as well written as this episode is, the writer of this episode went on to create some more Bad television.  Maybe you've heard of the show Breaking Bad?  Well, Vince Gilligan, show creator, penned this masterpiece first.

3.  Small Potatoes X-Files Season 4 Episode 10 4x10

Vince Gilligan is at his best here in another lighthearted mystery that shows why the X-Files shines in genre television.  Luke Skywalker has been impregnating everyone in Martinsburg, West Virginia.  And the babies are born with tails.  Amongst the most approachable episodes the X-Files has ever offered, Small Potatoes is a fan favorite for a reason.  Certain key words keep popping up when talking about the X-Files: charm, wit, and cleverness, which are all on display here.  And yet, this episode, in many ways, is as much about the absence of them, and our collective aspirations to embody them.  It is so easy to enjoy this episode because it is filled with great character moments, strong performances, and great dialogue.  Yet, what makes The X-Files stand the test of time is, like the great pillars of Science Fiction, it does as much teaching us about ourselves as entertaining.  Oh, and also, Scully is a total smoke show, in case I haven't made that clear.

4.  Jose Chung's From Outerspace X-Files Season 3 Episode 20 3x20

You may be asking yourself, isn't the X-Files about aliens?  Yes, yes it is.  There's a reason it's called Monster of the week, however, but in this instance, we're able to bring in aliens outside of the Mythology episodes which involve them almost exclusively.  This episode, like Bad Blood utilizes the unreliable narrator device, but it is much more than that.  So much of the X-Files is about Mulder's quest for Truth, which we are assured is out there, when it comes to aliens.  This episode really functions as a meta-commentary on the entire series, and the various narrative sleight of hands, unreliable evidence, and contradictory agendas.  How much of what Mulder is doing is pursuing the Truth, and how much is it simply that he, like many of the characters in this episode, wants to believe?  Wrap that in a burrito of clever writing, and top with a sprinkling of a Jesse Ventura/Alex Trebek MiB cameo, and you have yourself a very good early episode of the X-Files.

5.  Dreamland I & II X-Files Season 6 Episodes 4 and 5  6x04, 6x05

Another huge fan favorite, not just because it presents a great Science Fiction story, but allows for some incredible performances from David Duchovny, both as Mulder and....not Mulder.  And hey!  Aliens!  Or at least Area 51.  In this episode The X-Files takes a stab at the "Trading Places" trope with great results, and you're left with a memorable episode.  With the best of the X-Files, the themes don't change as much as some other shows.  Once again, we learn about the characters through how they interact, or don't interact, with each other.  Michael McKeen has a guest starring role in this episode that will go down in history as the actual best.  Of anything.  Ever.  The real genius of this episode is that, despite it dealing with area 51, and secret government alien spacecraft, and top-secret agents, it's really about the drudgery of just being you.

6.  Field Trip  X-Files Season 6 Episode 21  6x21

"Kevin," you may be saying.  "Sure, those episodes are wonderful, but you've shown me four lighthearted episodes in a row.  Isn't the X-Files supposed to be serious?  This is nothing like Home!  Where are the dead babies???"  Well, here we are, back in serious town, you joyless bastards.  As I mentioned, a lot of the best X-Files riffs on similar themes in different ways.  In Bad Blood we had shifts of perception and unreliable narrators with hilarious results.  Now we take the same idea and bring it to the damp, dark, underground, for an episode that is thought provoking, challenging, and seriously presented.  The change in themes is marked, as we are now truly forced to examine what is going on in the characters' heads (as well as, perhaps, our own) and what horrors might be trapped therein.  The level of quality, however, has not changed at all.  When you talk about The X-Files, oftentimes it comes down to how it captures your imagination.  Sometimes it is about flights of fancy, and sometimes it is about making you question everything you know.  This is the latter, and boy is it a nice one to bite off.  

Well, at this point, you either know you like the X-Files or you don't.  If you don't, that's cool, just go hop out of the gene pool, and nobody will think much less of you.  If you do, now's about the time you should start from the beginning.  Get into that mythology.  Get all revved up about David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, depending on your preference.  (Truth be told, I'm partial to both).  There's plenty more where this came from, and just think:  You don't even know the story!  

Once you watch this, please comment.  Think of it just like this:

I dunno, alien stuff, I guess....

No comments:

Post a Comment