Last thing first. At this very moment, Chris Carter sits behind his desk in the Ten Thirteen Production offices, on the 20th Century Fox lot in Studio City, California, finishing the final X-Files episode of this season. The show’s creator has just one scene left to write–the very last–and that is how he will spend the rest of today: figuring out what, for the moment, is to become of Fox Mulder, Dana Scully and newcomer John Doggett. It would be imprudent and particularly geeky to push him for details; this is not a sci-fi convention, and my mail-order Special Agent Fox Mulder Official FBI Badge is at home. Besides, there is but a single question to be asked about the season finale: Is “Existence,” which airs May 20 on Fox-TV, also to be the series’ final episode?
It would seem Carter has wrangled with this issue at the end of the last few seasons; there was some doubt that this season, the show’s eighth, would even exist, after David Duchovny (who plays, of course, Fox Mulder) filed suit against Fox in 1999 claiming the network and Carter bamboozled him out of profits made when the show went into syndication on FX, the Fox-owned cable sibling. Duchovny would ultimately clean up: He appeared in only 11 of this season’s offerings and, reportedly, took home an extra $30 million for his troubles. The show has done well enough without Duchovny: Robert Patrick, as clenched-jaw skeptic Doggett, transcends the definition of “replacement,” and Duchovny’s early-season absence allowed room enough for Gillian Anderson’s Scully to evolve more in one year than she did during the previous seven. Carter even insists he sees the show returning for another season; still, the man who made the phrase “trust no one” a lifestyle is quick to defuse such optimism with a hastily added “but…”
“Right now, there is a lot of ground to cover in getting there for next year,” he says. “Right now, there are certain X factors–if you will–we don’t know. We’re all hopeful. I think everybody wants to come back. I am not sure if David wants to come back or not, but I don’t foresee any real concrete reason why we wouldn’t come back. That said, it is in negotiation.”
In no small part, the fate of The X-Files depends on what Fox decides to do with Carter’s fourth series for the network, The Lone Gunmen, the X-Files spin-off featuring three of the most clever and cunning numskulls in the history of television. Gunmen–starring Dean Haglund (playing the gangly Langley), Tom Braidwood (the stubbly, stumpy Frohike) and Bruce Harwood (the buttoned-up Byers) as publishers of a conspiracy-exposing newspaper–is a rare hybrid in these wearying days of weakest links and conniving survivors. It’s the only hour-long comedy airing on network television, and it’s bereft of laugh track and cynicism; the show’s humor has a heart. If The X-Files, which occasionally sags beneath the weight of its own self-contained mythology about aliens and abductions, has become too dark in recent months, then The Lone Gunmen is the light at the end of that very long and exhausting tunnel–Get Smart, done smarter.
The Lone Gunmen debuted March 4–in The X-Files‘ temporarily abandoned Sunday-night slot–and was seen by about 13.2 million viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings; 9 million tuned in the second week, and the number was half that for the third–a precipitous drop that terrifies any network (smells like the XFL). But when the show moved to its regular Friday-night slot in late March, viewership actually increased: It’s estimated about 6.5 million people tune in each week. That’s nothing compared to a show like E.R., which attracts about 25 million pairs of eyeballs, but it still qualifies The Lone Gunmen as Fox’s most successful Friday-night series since the Chris Carter-created Millennium…which the network killed after its third season.
Of late, Carter’s relationship with Fox has been characterized by some TV insiders as tenuous: He was upset when the network axed Millennium (even now, he says, Fox “killed a hit”) and furious when then-network president Doug Herzog canceled his show Harsh Realm after a mere three episodes in the fall of 1999. One need only look back to the first season of The X-Files, in the fall of 1993, to discover Carter’s always been pushing a boulder uphill at the network: Sandy Grushow, then Fox’s head of programming, said at the time he’d “eat my desk” if The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., which debuted alongside The X-Files, didn’t become a hit. Brisco County lasted as long as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral; Grushow never offered to eat anything if Carter’s new show failed to take off.
So, yes, Carter admits his decision to bring back The X-Files rests, in part, on whether the network decides to bring back The Lone Gunmen for the 2001-2002 season.
“But it’s not how I look at it,” he adds. “Certainly, I want them to treat anything we do with respect here and to support it, because we work hard and do good work. If they didn’t, it would make me upset the place we’ve decided to call home–our partners–are not doing their part. It’s simply that. It’s a matter of Fox believing in the show–Fox the network and Fox the studio–and them not believing they have something on tap that has a better shot. It’s as simple as that, but certainly there are politics involved.”
Carter’s partner Frank Spotnitz, co-creator of The Lone Gunmen and X-Files writer-executive producer, puts it even more simply: “I hope The Lone Gunmen stands or falls on its own merits. It deserves to.”
In some respects, it’s surprising The Lone Gunmen exists at all, given Carter’s recent history with Fox and the current TV landscape, which looks more like a junkyard than a gold mine. Long gone are the days when network executives like Brandon Tartikoff and Grant Tinker would launch and coddle intelligent, interesting shows (such as Hill Street Blues or Seinfeld) and stand by them, even if that meant camping out with them in the ratings basement for a season. Because viewership is down for all of the major networks–during the week of April 16-22, NBC drew a daily average of 11 million viewers, 6 million fewer than it had during the same period in 1997–network programmers have become as disposable as Survivor contestants. To save their asses, they’ll kill a good show with low numbers because there’s always a British game show waiting at customs.
Or perhaps Carter looked around in recent months and saw a fertile landscape that looked remarkably similar to the one that nurtured The X-Files in 1993. Eight years ago, reality television was nearly as ever-present as it has become these days: Shows such as Cops, Rescue 911 and America’s Most Wanted provided endless hours of entertainment for the wife-beater T-shirt demographic, and you couldn’t tell the comedies from the dramas without the laugh track (cf. The Mommies and Coach). Only five non-news-related or reality-based series from the 1993-1994 season remain on the air: The X-Files; Law & Order, which undergoes a radical cast change during every other commercial break; The Simpsons and Frasier, which have become so awful they’re barely recognizable; and Walker, Texas Ranger, which ends its run this spring.
“People are still looking for hits,” Carter says. “That’s the long and short of it, and if all of the sudden Temptation Island hits or Survivor hits, you’re going to get lots more of those things, and it’s going to crowd out more conventional storytelling, like what we do–or unconventional storytelling, like what we do.” He chuckles.
Ironically, The Lone Gunmen was poorly received by the very people who should have embraced it: TV critics, whose reviews of the first two episodes were usually accompanied by headlines such as “The Lone Gunmen shoot blanks” and “The goof is out there.” Spotnitz says even he didn’t think the first two episodes were entirely successful: The pilot felt too much like The X-Files, he says, while the second show leaned too far toward the “wacky,” down to the scenes featuring a blind football team. “Now, we’ve found the right tone,” Spotnitz says, “which is funny and sweet and comedic, but it also has some reality and some heart to it.”
Carter also believes critics weren’t writing about the show as much as they were gunning for him; they wanted another X-Files, and he gave them a witty, charming amalgam of Mission: Impossible, The Wild, Wild West and Man from U.N.C.L.E. Carter felt as though critics were taking out their frustrations with The X-Files–the is-Mulder-dead-or-alive plot proved most grating for some–on The Lone Gunmen, and after the disaster of Harsh Realm, he felt he’d become a slow-moving target–the showrunner standing still.
“I think what happened is that now, people are reviewing this so-called powerful person, and they’re not reviewing the show,” he says. “They’re reviewing the circumstances surrounding the show, and that’s disappointing to me. I don’t think about power, to be honest. I think about doing a good job and the treatment you get when you produce something that’s good and deserves a chance. If it’s not given its fair shake, then I get irritated, but I’m not asking for anything more than that, nor do I think anyone should ask for more than that, because you’d keep too much crap on TV if it was just a power play.”
But The Lone Gunmen deserves another shot: It’s a television show for television fetishists, an homage to and parody of ’60s cops-and-thrillers series, only populated by dorks instead of hunks. And it’s charming, a quality lacking from all but the best commercials these days: Last week’s episode took place almost entirely on the dance floor, as arms traffickers made deals during a tango competition. The X-Files turned to comedy during its second season as a relief from the oppressive conspiracies and as an opportunity to prove just how elastic the series could be. The Lone Gunmen, quite simply, is the most consistently amusing and amiable show on TV–the hour-long smile, a reminder of how much fun TV can be when it’s made by people who genuinely love the medium.
“I’ll tell you what one of the best things is about doing this show,” Carter says. “Sitting in these audiences every day now, I will hear peals of laughter coming from down the hall, because they’re watching dailies, and it’s such a nice thing.” He laughs. “The X-Files is what it is, and to have something like this come along, it builds on something that has been wonderful and produced for me a wonderful amount of success and opportunity. The Lone Gunmen is the lucky product of that. I look at so much comedy on television, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, we’re funnier than that.’ I just wish people would tune in and watch it.”