The Buzz: ‘The X-Files’ Makes a Thrilling Return to Form

There was a time in my teen years when my viewing schedule consisted almost exclusively of The X-Files. I was, regrettably, too young to catch the beloved show during its initial run, but I quickly made up for lost time through VHS and DVD, watching every bizarre case that FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) were subjected to over nine seasons. Who cares if “The Truth” was never really out there? The joys that came with getting lost in the mythology and the chemistry of its actors is something that few shows-- past or present-- have been able to match.

Needless to say, I’ve maintained a soft spot for The X-Files into adulthood; one that has not only led to me revisiting my favorite episodes, but has also made me increasingly leery of the misguided reboots that have surfaced over the past decade. There was the 2008 film I Want to Believe, a sobering lark that seemingly confused a chilling narrative with chilly weather. There was the 2016 revival that saw the show return for a tenth season; one that delivered a single great episode (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”) and a handful of bad ideas that were cobbled together and passed off as additional “episodes.” Season eleven, announced shortly after the critical mauling of its predecessor, seemed as though it would continue to dismantle the show I once held so dear.

Mercifully, that isn’t the case. The latest season of The X-Files is, in many ways, a return to form that integrates what fans of the original show have been missing. That’s not to say all the narrative liberties taken by series creator Chris Carter go over, but at least they feel fresh and narratively progressive rather than a tired rehash of what came before. In fact, judging from the pair of episodes that have already aired, one could go as far as to say The X-Files are looking more appealing than they have in decades.

The season premiere, “My Struggle III”, quickly establishes a tone of thwarted expectations, with story elements that promptly shift the overall direction of the series. I’ll refrain from spoilers, but I will say that what was previously believed to be true in season ten has turned out to be a premonition of what could be true, with enough twists, dramatic reveals, and alien conspiracies (because what is The X-Files without aliens?) to supplant its own standalone series. Some fans have complained that Carter has given us a narrative mess here, and while true to some extent, the burst of energy provided cannot be overstated, and goes a long way in controlling the lackluster aftertaste of the previous season. One part retcon, one part homage (there are numerous references to past episodes), and one part teaser of what’s to come, “My Struggle III” is a bold, if inconsistent opening that reminds us why we fell in love with Mulder and Scully in the first place.

Carter was wise to give us more of the main stars than in season ten, for their chemistry has aged like fine wine. Duchovny and Anderson are pros when it comes to rattling off conspiracy jargon and making ludicrous claims sound plausible, but the more notable (and delightful) treasures to be found thus far are scenes in which they’re simply interacting. They’ve forged one of the least conventional love stories on television over the past two decades, and they’ve reached a point where the little things-- the playful ribbing, the sparse displays of affection-- are as sumptuous and thrilling as the cases at hand. It’s a genuine pleasure to see these two working in sync again.

The second episode, “This”, is an even bigger surprise, as writer-director Darin Morgan delivers a fantastic standalone outing that doubles as a black comedy. Mulder and Scully are contacted by the virtual consciousness of Richard Langly (Dean Haglund), better known as a deceased member of The Lone Gunmen, who tells them to look into a deadly NSA program involving brainwashing. The whole thing has a cheesy allure to it, what with the “return” of a beloved character like Langly, but Morgan, the man behind some of the show’s most acclaimed episodes (“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” ), manages to toe the line between fan service and engaging mystery. The result is one of the liveliest standalones in recent memory.

If Morgan and Carter can snowball the momentum of “This” into the remaining eight episodes of the season, we may actually be treated to the curtain closer that we deserve (the season nine finale always feel a little undercooked). It may not be flawless, or on par with the show’s heyday, but the inventive stories and increased screentime for its leads have rejuvenated something I thought to be long past its expiration date. I’m excited to watch The X-Files again, and that is a bigger surprise than any alien or government conspiracy could ever be.

Episodes of The X-Files will air on Fox on Wednesdays at Fox at 8/7.