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USA, 1993–2002

The X-Files, the beloved sci-fi seres incarnated in seven seasons on television, two spinoffs, and two feature films, reached its 20th anniversary in 2013. The milestone was observed perhaps most accordingly in a discussion between the show's two leads, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovney, at The Paley Center for Media in New York in October, and more mildly by yours truly, who watched it for the first time after many years' worth of disinterest.

Any formal appraisal of a program comparable in length to The X-Files pronounces a certain bias, for to consume such an extent of media - over 150 hours' worth of content - one must entertain a preference for the material. In the case of this show, this preference tends towards conspiratorial secrets, corrupt government, and the more straightforward business of tried-and-true monsters who lurk about in sewers, closets, ventilation systems, and trailer parks. It's, in short, the business of lending serious credence to the tabloid headlines that propagandize a grocery checkout aisle.

Episodes of The X-Files are delineated into roughly two types: the mythology ones, which detail agents Mulder and Scully's strife with their superiors and their gradual comprehension of a larger governmental conspiracy to which their work on X-files is a threat; and the "Monsters of the Week," which employ the same narrative shorthand as The Twilight Zone. The best episodes aren't so neatly delineated into one of these types, however, and forward a meta-commentary on on the show's inherent tension: that the monsters, or the government's suppression of their existence, is less defensible than the indefatigable belief people can harbor for such improbability. Agent Mulder is the exemplar of this idea, and the show is at its best whenever he is close to the truth, and at its most punishing when he finds it is infinitesimally out of reach.

I watched only a fraction of the show in total and none of its franchise offspring, and admittedly this write-up would confide greater authority a year from now. Nevertheless, as with any media that reaches anything near this bulk, there is much to recommend in a cursory attempt to isolate the grain apart from the chaff. I'll conclude with what is - by my own standard (and others) - one of The X-Files most ingenious hours: "Jose Chung's From Outer Space", Season 3, Episode 20. It begins with a teaser in which two promiscuous teens are abducted by a pair of aliens, an action interrupted by a third, much larger and menacing being. All three aliens regard each other questioningly, and then the title credits begin.

What ensues is remarkably less the straightforward procedural that describes most other episodes than a fairy tale-like rendition of the investigation from someone's exploitative memory--that is, the titular Jose Chung, a mass-market paperback fiction author reportedly based on Whitley Strieber (whose specious nonfiction alien abduction tale, Communion, was a bestseller in 1987). Chung, no doubt eager for another bestseller, is listening to Scully's recollection of the investigation, and reenactments are staged from his imagination. As he collates and expresses Scully's description, the episode is rendered a sort of seriocomic reenactment in which the account of the abduction becomes increasingly unreliable.

At its end, we're only marginally closer to comprehending whether or not an abduction took place, or if the government is manipulating the facts in order to obscure certain and potentially revelatory facts. "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" posits a rather sobering thought: that truth is unknowable. Yet the desire to believe is sometimes fanatically entertaining.