Thursday, January 27, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #5

The X-Files - Season 2 - After quietly debuting on Friday nights (the least-watched TV night of the week) in 1993, The X-Files grew into an unlikely smash hit.  Here was a show starring two relatively unknown actors that was filmed in Canada on a low budget, using a guest cast culled from the local pool of talent, and it focused on the adventures of two FBI agents who travel around the United States chasing after aliens and monsters.  It sounds pretty terrible on paper, but creator Chris Carter and his small writing staff turned the potential weaknesses into strengths.  David Duchovny occasionally underplayed the role of Fox Mulder to the point of near-catatonia, but this is exactly what the role called for: dry humor and the ability to rattle off details about supernatural phenomena ad nauseum with a straight face.  And Gillian Anderson, who was only 26 when the pilot was shot, came out of nowhere to deliver a remarkably assured performance as Mulder's skeptical partner Dana Scully.  She was intelligent and strong, but occasionally displayed a tender vulnerability that gave the show its heart.  The Vancouver locations that doubled as anywhere from Florida to Montana were fantastic because it meant that every episode was cast in a perpetual gray dampness, enhancing the atmosphere of the show, as though a cloud of danger was constantly following our heroes.  Even the Friday night time slot (where The X-Files was relegated until the fourth season when the series moved to Sunday nights and became the the first series on the Fox network to ever crack the top 20 in the Nielsen ratings) was a perfect fit for a science-fiction show about two socially inept people working outside the mainstream and under the radar.  Like most quality shows that gain a following, The X-Files lasted about four or five seasons too long, but the three Friday-night seasons were were like a dark and original hidden gem well worth staying home for.  Season 2 especially found the pistons firing on all cylinders, prompted by the writers being forced to work around the surprise pregnancy of Gillian Anderson.  Agent Scully is abducted and our protagonists are separated, giving the season a continuity that deepened the characters and the mythology while solidifying the series as one of the best ever to air on TV.

Key Episodes:

The Host - The X-files have been shut down.  Mulder has been reassigned to wiretap surveillance, and Scully is banished to Quantico teaching medical students at the FBI training academy.  An unidentifiable body is discovered in the sewers of Newark, and Mulder's boss Skinner (the always reliable Mitch Pileggi) sends the downtrodden agent to investigate.  Mulder thinks the unpleasant assignment is punishment, but case becomes much more interesting when it turns out that the suspect is a mutant worm-man born out of Chernobyl sewage.  This is the quintessential X-file.  A supernatural monster is on the loose with Mulder in hot pursuit while Scully works the medical angle performing an autopsy on the victim.  The episode is bathed in shadows, never allowing us to get a good look at the killer, which helps ratchet up the suspense as well as turning "him" into the series' most memorable villain.  Creepy scenes abound including an awesomely disgusting sequence in which a man taking a shower coughs up a gigantic worm that slithers down the drain.  Throw in a touch of humor and a bit of paranoia and you have one of the most purely fun episodes of television ever made.

One Breath - One of the pleasures of The X-Files was how different the show could be from week to week.  Some episodes fall into the horror genre, some are conspiracy thrillers, some are comedies, and still others are straight drama.  The conclusion of the most important arc in X-Files mythology, "One Breath," marked the first time the series attempted an entry in the latter category.  The episode begins with Mulder at what appears to be the lowest point in his life.  He is home alone in the dark lying on his couch (he doesn't own a bed) watching porn with utter dispassion when he receives a call informing him that Scully has been found comatose in a hospital following her abduction two episodes prior.  Mulder attempts to find some answers and hopefully a cure for his partner, but ultimately realizes that the only way he can truly express how much he cares for Scully is to take a seat by her bedside.  The episode hinges on a series of beautifully written quiet scenes featuring the three main supporting characters of season 2.  Mulder's new contact Mr. X (Stephen Williams, making us forget Jerry Hardin, who was excellent as Mulder's previous informant) confronts him in the hospital parking garage in a sweaty, intense showdown.  Mulder then tracks down his nemesis, Cancer Man (the sublime William B. Davis), to his home and threatens him at gunpoint only to back down when the chain-smoker calmly explains that the government keeps secrets for the public's own good.  Finally, Skinner delivers a monologue about his near-death experience in Vietnam in an effort to convince Mulder not to resign.  There is more character development in this episode than during the entire first season and it never turns maudlin thanks to David Duchovny, who turns in his best performance to date.  "One Breath" expanded The X-Files universe while taking the show to a new level of greatness.

Humbug - This is the first episode that took a completely comedic angle and it works in unexpected and magical ways.  I would posit, however, that the success of "Humbug" ultimately led The X-Files down the wrong path.  During the later seasons, the series drifted away from the dark tone that made it unique, but early on, episodes like this one were rare delights.  The writer here is Darin Morgan, who wrote four of the show's most wonderful episodes only to slip back into obscurity following the third season.  (Interestingly enough, he also acted in the series, first under heavy makeup as the aforementioned fluke-man in "The Host" and then in the fourth season's overrated romp "Small Potatoes."  Morgan remains the only X-Files writer ever to win an Emmy, grabbing one for the show's finest hour, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose.")  "Humbug" finds Mulder and Scully investigating a death in a Florida town populated by retired circus performers.  From the opening scene it is clear that Morgan is familiar with X-Files conventions and intends to affectionately turn them on their head.  A creature stalks two boys in a swimming pool at night, but it turns out that the "creature" is the boys' father who is inflicted with ichthyosis (he tours the country with a freak show as "The Alligator Man") and he is playing a game.  Then, the Alligator Man is stalked himself by a real creature and torn to shreds.  This is funny stuff, and scene after scene delights in toying with expectations.  Yet it retains the darkness and intelligence that we expect from an X-File.  Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny keep the show grounded by remaining true to their characters and let the colorful supporting cast of both actors such as Vincent Schiavelli and Michael J. Anderson as well as real circus performers like Jim Rose and The Enigma (pictured above) add a layer of quirkiness.  This episode is also a wonderful showcase for the music of Mark Snow, who is often called the third star of the show.  "Humbug" has something to say about being the importance of respecting differences in people, a theme the series would return to again and again, which seems appropriate for a show about the uncool among us who have nothing better to do than watch TV on Friday nights.

The List So Far:

10. Twin Peaks - Season 1
9. Northern Exposure - Season 4
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 2
7. Deadwood - Season 1
6. The Office (U.K.) - Season 2
5. The X-Files - Season 2


  1. Season 2? Really? Well, I think your list is great so far, but 2nd season of X-Files is not the right choice in my opinion. Season 3 or 5 would be much, much better here.
    I think that we're waiting here for:
    - 1st season of Sopranos
    - 2nd season of West Wing
    - 4th season of The Wire
    - 2nd/5th season of Six Feet Under
    - 5th season of The Shield
    - 4th season of Seinfeld
    - 4th season of Simpsons

  2. Season 3 was also fantastic, but I prefer the dark opening to season 2 with the agents separated. I had a lot of problems with season 5, but I loved "Mind's Eye," "Kill Switch" and all of the mythology episodes.