Conspiracy theories are mainstream now — can the new ‘X-Files’ stand out?

Conspiracy theories are mainstream now — can the new ‘X-Files’ stand out?

The rebooted, six-episode version of “The X-Files” (premiering Sunday on Fox) wastes no time acknowledging the obvious: As a people, Americans are a crazier bunch and more prone to conspiracy theories than we were back when FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully closed up their clandestine paranormal investigations unit in 2002.

The motto of “The X-Files,” “the truth is out there,” first sounded like a clarion call to skeptics, scientists and kooks alike, who, it was assumed, could agree to disagree, so long as the result was the unearthing of fact. Today, in a world of birthers and truthers and other conspiracy wackos who find remarkable amplitude with the Internet, “the truth is out there” sounds like a taunt to a people who can no longer agree on what to disagree about. Everyone is spooked by the very real notion that the most outlandish possibilities and rumors could very well be true.

So that’s how we’ve been doing.

How are Mulder and Scully doing?

Not bad, it seems, although their love was long ago case-closed. Their son, who possibly has alien DNA, was given up for adoption in his infancy and would now be a teenager.

This was all covered in those “X-Files” episodes watched only by the die-hardest fans who saw the series through to its lowly rated end. One thing lost in all the hype leading up to the show’s return is the inconvenient truth that so many of us peeled off from “The X-Files” in the latter years, after the 1998 release of an inscrutably convoluted theatrical movie, when the stories began to sag like alien skin and co-star David Duchovny was MIA. In one of the new episodes, with what seems like rather obvious acts of foreshadowing, Mulder and Scully separately and wistfully wonder about their son.

Still, the two remain distant friends. Scully (played by the always luminescent Gillian Anderson) has gone back to medicine at a Washington hospital, performing reconstructive surgeries on children born without ears (a rare defect that has left them looking decidedly alien-esque).

Mulder (Duchovny) is a contemplative recluse who lives in a farmhouse far outside the Beltway; the dry wit, Duchovny’s trademark touch, hasn’t changed.

Summoned by their former FBI boss, Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), the two are asked to meet with Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale of “Community” and “The Soup”), a cable-news blowhard who hosts a popular show that spreads the latest anti-government conspiracy theories (a la Alex Jones).

The O’Malley character, an easy jump-shot for McHale, is the clearest proof that creator Chris Carter has given more than just a passing thought to what a show called “The X-Files” might look like in 2016. Namely it has to make sense in a thoroughly wired world. Today, no UFO could escape the attention of 300 million smartphones, therefore the most menacing sort of monster in “X-Files” is a guy with his own cable news show.

O’Malley has stumbled into Mulder and Scully’s unfinished business. The show’s previous central conspiracy theory (that the government is secretly in cahoots with an alien race) turned out to be wrong, according to O’Malley. The new theory is more sinister and homegrown, alleging that a secret cabal of humans intends to use (and has used) an alien invasion and alien technology as a distraction, a means to usurp the U.S. government and its laws and install a new ruling order. Their first step is already complete, which was to turn Americans into docile constant consumers.

Or something like that. The new theory is catnip to Mulder, who can only feign so much disinterest before he’s looking into O’Malley’s leads and discovering fresh horrors. As Mulder and O’Malley fill in the blanks in the outlandish narrative, Scully, God bless her, must still carry the banner of common sense. Arms folded, she delivers a beautiful scolding to the two men. Her words drip with an exasperation that Anderson turns into sheer, topical poetry — vintage “X-Files” stuff — and, if you listen with a certain ear, she could easily be speaking to the unhinged farce of present-day politics:

“You can’t say these things,” she insists. “It’s fear-mongering, claptrap, isolationist techno-paranoia — so bogus and dangerous and stupid that it borders on treason. Saying these things would be incredibly irresponsible.”

Unfortunately that’s also the first episode’s lone moment of emotive brilliance

After a skittery and slightly tedious start, which is heavy on Carter’s need to keep infusing Mulder and Scully’s world with a convoluted master theory, “The X-Files” settles in and starts to relocate some of its creepy vibe and playfulness. Mulder and Scully reopen their office in that drab Brutalist beauty on Pennsylvania Avenue known as the J. Edgar Hoover Building (she claims the iconic “I Want to Believe” poster with the flying saucer on it is hers) and the sleuthing begins anew on a smattering of procedural cases.

“The X-Files” cannot possibly hope to make sense of the mess we’ve made of the real world, but when two FBI agents we’ve loved and admired chase a man-sized reptile into a port-a-potty, one is struck by how much has changed — and how much has not.

 

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