On TV: Invasion of the Plot Snatchers | Essay | Chicago Reader

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On TV: Invasion of the Plot Snatchers

The X-Files is suffering from the ever-growing problem of premise confusion.

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Last season my two favorite shows were The X-Files and Homicide: Life on the Street--safe favorites, I thought, because nobody else ever watched them. I could go on and on about how great they were without anybody snickering at me. But now I feel betrayed: neither show was canceled. They've both somehow managed to claw their way onto the fall schedule, and both look the same as they did last year--same casts, same plots, same styles--but to me, they've been taken over by the pod people. The nuances have vanished, and I can't pretend I don't see the difference.

Not only have both shows turned into grotesque self-parodies, I have to picture my friends sitting down to watch them for the first time--grimacing and groaning and whispering to each other, "You know who likes this?"

To be fair to The X-Files, I may have been watching it last season under false pretenses. Certain aspects of the initial premise, I now understand, didn't register with me--not surprisingly, because my powers of comprehension are seriously eroded. In my own defense, though, premise confusion is becoming a major TV problem. The dullest shows have routinely grown ever more farfetched and chaotic, and the most fanciful improbabilities are presented as casual givens. There's a show on around midnight on Saturdays, for instance, called Forever Knight, about a cop who is secretly a vampire: and not one episode I've seen makes even the feeblest gesture at explaining how a vampire might have gotten through the police academy (night school? correspondence course?) managed to have himself permanently assigned the night shift. Those questions aren't raised even as comic relief. I mean, my God, I Dream of Jeannie managed to explain how an astronaut and a genie ended up occupying the same half hour; but the premise of a show like Forever Knight is as remote and mysterious as a Calvin Klein commercial.

So even though I didn't get The X-Files, out of some mistaken, retrograde commitment to plausibility, I worked out a rationale on my own. It held up pretty well--until this season, anyway. What I thought was happening was this: in a neglected room in the bowels of FBI headquarters, the bureaucracy dumped all the fringe cases they couldn't be bothered to investigate--cases involving the occult, or flying saucers, or the weird and inexplicable in general. Two agents, one a believer and one a skeptic, were stuck with the job of closing the files. So they ran around the country investigating UFO sightings, and murder cases that looked like the work of werewolves, and rumors of mutant killer fish in sewer systems. Sometimes they found rational explanations, sometimes they weren't sure; but even when they unearthed what looked like unequivocal proof of the existence of the supernatural, their superiors stepped in, thanked them for their good work, and buried the evidence again, this time permanently.

I still think this is a great idea for a show. It has some of the same junky poetry as the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark--where the mystical ark of the covenant, after all those ridiculous adventures, ends up in a dusty box in some warehouse, uncatalogued and forgotten. I can easily imagine that happening. Anything at all might end up lost in the government's files--the exact location of the Holy Grail, a message from another planet--not through conspiracy, but through sheer bureaucratic inertia. People quit, their superiors are skeptical or oblivious, nobody ever follows up, and the great secrets of the world go permanently undisclosed: The X-Files was the most realistic show about government I've ever seen.

But now it turns out that the producers had a different show in mind. The upper echelons of the FBI, it has become inescapably obvious this season, aren't dismissive of the X-Files at all. In fact they're involved in some kind of vast conspiracy to keep the truth contained within them from coming out. The first several shows this season, our heroes are suddenly deep in paranoid melodrama. They know too much; their bosses have decided to kill them; and only through the shadowy backing of an assortment of occult-minded Deep Throats (who pass on information in parking garages and at federal monuments), have they stayed alive to turn out new episodes. In other words, The X-Files has become Oliver Stone's Ghostbusters.

Conspiracy fantasies aren't good drama. They never make any sense; they never lead anywhere interesting; and to keep the story moving, they force you to accept an ascending curve of stupidity. Whether it's JFK or the Bacon-wrote-Shakespeare conspiracy (an ancient fairytale that Frontline once gravely offered as a shocking and subversive new discovery), the conspiracy is always staffed by the same dreary and incomprehensible crew. Fantastically sophisticated and suicidally careless, they can erase mountains of evidence, silence innumerable witnesses, buy off or intimidate every cop, doctor, and scientist in America; and yet they are somehow magically unable or unwilling to snuff out our heroes. They have their tendrils everywhere --and yet their goals are so vague, and their tactics so floridly indirect, that you wonder how they ever attracted a single recruit. Worst of all, the conspiracy always wins. This supposedly makes for some kind of serious statement about politics or history or democracy, but I've always suspected it's really just the writers' cowardice; that way, they can evade having to write a scene where the defeated conspirators are actually forced to explain their weird and self-contradictory behavior in some kind of sequential way.

The conspiracy in The X-Files is larkier than most, but still somehow typical: the inner circle appears to believe that the whole existence of the federal government depends on the American people never learning the truth about werewolves. Maybe so--but if that's the case, why not bring them out of the shadows so they can explain why? At the least it would be a pleasant break from the eternal round of defeat the heroes are condemned to. And what does this track record say about their basic FBI-agent skills, anyway? Every week they lose the irrefutable evidence they risked their lives to obtain. Whether it's a microchip left by aliens or werewolf droppings, it always disappears the moment their backs are turned.

But what makes the conspiracy such bad entertainment value is that it's so complicated. You really have to pay attention to the plots this season, and that's more than a show so inherently frivolous should ask. Two or three episodes in, I am already hopelessly confused about whether the agents have or have not been fired, which shadowy superior is or is not on their side, and whether we are or aren't supposed to notice the advanced pregnancy of the lead actress. Every time the flying saucers show up, I feel a weary doubt: are these the same aliens who were abducting people last year and were those the same aliens whose flying-saucer crashed--the ones who may or may not have been stashed in a freezer that (needless to say) turned up empty when our heroes led a midnight raid? I'm sure the show will explain it, but I'm not sure I want to know: it might be more poetically appropriate if outer space turns out to be just as crowded with confused infighting as the federal government.

The whole key to a successful show is this: how seriously are we supposed to take the premise? There's a strange balancing act a show has to perform, between the languid contempt for plausibility in the average prime-time show, and the fervent overcommitment in a would-be cult show like The X-Files. Too little seriousness, and you have a turkey like SeaQuest DSV, where all the expensive sets and effects turn out to be in aid of dumb little allegories that would have been considered lame on the original Star Trek. Too much, and you have The X-Files--or, to take another show that I almost recommended to people last year, Babylon 5: a low-budget knockoff of Deep Space Nine that's turned out to have a more complicated back story than The Lord of the Rings. Individual episodes are incomprehensible, because the writers are setting up a master plot that won't be revealed for another five or ten years. Evidently they're going to blow up the universe--but the show is so cheaply done, if they ever get to that episode, I'm betting it consists of actors staring earnestly offscreen and describing the shots the effects crew failed to deliver.

Last season's show with the worst case of ingrown self-consciousness about its premise, though, wasn't one of these Star Trek clones at all: it was Homicide. You had to pay fanatical attention, and the more attention you paid, the more frazzled you became. Why they thought this was a high-ratings approach, I can't imagine, but I did kind of admire them for their misguided integrity; and I found myself watching it obsessively and even getting disappointed whenever it wasn't exasperating.

The idea was (and this time I was sure I had it right) to show what the work of a homicide unit was actually like. That is, the cases were closed or not closed with no particular logic or predictability. Some murders were solved on the spot; some were forgotten about until a lucky break revealed the murderer; and some, no matter how much or little time the detectives put in, were never solved. This last aspect they insisted upon with a kind of fanatical devotion to verisimilitude. Most of the season was taken up with a single case and after endless scenes of police sweeps for overlooked evidence, and an entire interminable episode set in an interrogation room (like some kind of nightmarish tribute to bad 50s realism)--after all that, the case was finally abandoned as unsolvable.

It was obvious the show was out to cut its own throat with that move. TV's idea of cop-show verisimilitude is NYPD Blue--where every case is solved inside an hour, with a set up, two plot twists, and an ironic surprise ending. The height of its commitment to naturalism has been the cliff-hanging love life of the working-class hero, Detective Kelly, who ended up last season having to choose between two stunningly beautiful women who were desperately in love with him. One, a fellow officer, had gunned down a couple of low-life mobsters who were mumbling about putting a contract out on him; the other, a widow, hadn't actually committed murder on his behalf (unless I missed that episode), but she had just inherited several billion dollars. We've all been faced with this dilemma, of course, and can appreciate the frankness and realism of Kelly's response to it--which was to be somber and agonized, and speak every line in an ever-softer monotone, presumably to keep from cackling with glee. Thank God he and his girlfriends were written out of the show before the three of them set up house together.

Meanwhile, Homicide, after several near-cancellations, managed to get itself temporarily out of programming limbo--and the season premiere began with some mean and unfunny jokes about its competitor. You could see why: it must have been galling, to see such a transparent fantasy as NYPD Blue somehow collect so many reviews calling it the best cop show of the year, while they were the ones who'd taken the real chances. NYPD Blue's silly flashes of nudity might look controversial, but a cop show actually leaving a mystery unresolved--that's the sort of outrage against the rules of TV that gets people to switch off permanently.

The jokes could not have been more unfortunate, though, given what has followed these last few weeks. Homicide's producers, it turned out, had cut a deal to get their show back on the schedule: one of those old-time deals with the devil--air time in exchange for their integrity--that I didn't think people bothered to make any longer. The market researchers and the focus groups have been consulted; new producers and cast members have been brought in; and--well, you can imagine the result. A blandly ridiculous new show about a feisty female lieutenant in charge of a rowdy homicide squad (hoked up out of Prime Suspect) has been ineptly grafted onto the feeble, twitching remnants of the old show.

It's grotesque and misshapen, and will no doubt be put to sleep by the time you read this. But it does add up to a kind of tribute to the strength of the original idea. With The X-Files, I always knew that what I liked about it was some incidental, half-garbled nuance that would be shrugged off the moment the producers noticed it was there. But NBC really had to put some overtime in to wreck Homicide so thoroughly. It gives me a kind of backwards hope. Maybe my next favorite will be strong enough to keep the vandals out for longer than a summer vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Konstantin Valov.

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