Two Augusts ago I moved from Massachusetts to Baltimore, to live with my now fiancé. One of the things we decided to do right away was start watching The X-Files. I had watched it through a couple times, but mostly in the background while I drew. We finished our watch-through about a month ago, and tonight the first episode of the new season, fourteen years after its last, premiered. I bring this up to point out that we’re in the position to see this new season in the context of everything that’s come before.
In that view this episode was a complete indulgence in one of The X-Files’s worst habits, having characters react emotionally in a way that moves the plot along but is in response to something they have no knowledge of. This, not its labyrinthian plot, is the source of much of the confusion one experiences when watching the show. Usually it’s not a big deal. This episode however consisted of almost nothing but. Characters yelling at each other as if what was happening was the most important thing ever, complete trust given suddenly, and withholding of information; all of these things happen for no reason, and the effects can be downright comedic. But they’re required to move the episode to its (even still) hasty conclusion.
Like I said. Usually, not a big deal. A lot of the middling reviews I’ve seen for the new X-Files has revolved around the writing, and I rolled my eyes at that. The writing on X-Files has most often been poor. Some exceptions for sure, but it’s never been among the shows strongest offerings. (Which for the record are visuals, performance, and format which, in this episode the former two are non-existent and fine respectively, and the latter has been rendered redundant by The X-Files’s massive influence.) But having now seen the episode I’m no longer rolling my eyes, as it had nothing to offer but The X-Files’s good ol’ dopey writing. Nothing fascinating or weird, no atmosphere, just people talking about something that turned out to be nothing. Decades of history meant to feel like a huge reveal, but is actually a relatively inconsequential thread in the face of the twelve years of history the show previously established.
It might have felt necessary to the creators to catch up old viewers, and introduce new ones, with a hit of pure unfiltered X-Files. But it got lost in X-Filesing so hard that, I would think, it failed both audiences. And anyway, in a couple of years when this is slapped on the end of the previous nine seasons on Netflix none of that will mean shit anyway, and this will look completely ridiculous.
These are problems it stands to reason will not be an issue in the next four episodes, which supposedly will not concern themselves with the overarching plot of The X-Files and focus instead on the done-in-one stories. Those should’t have the pressures to buckle under this one did. I’m looking forward to them. Although I hope they lean off of the CGI.
League of Gentlemen is a show I’ve heard mentioned here and there over the years, most notably a few back when the Kids in the Hall reunited to produce a miniseries that was said to be a weak xerox of it. But that’s selling the Kids in the Hall short, as League of Gentlemen clearly owes much to their original work as well. “If Kids in the Hall made Twin Peaks” is how I’ve been pitching it to people after having made my way through half the series over the last few weeks. As much as it owes to Kids in the Hall (the limited male cast portraying a wide array of characters including cross-dressing for the women, the rapid fire nature of sketch comedy, the off-beat sense of humor) it owes equally to Twin Peaks, with its recurring cast of oddball characters populating a small town, the sagas and mysteries of which continuously spiral forward, often ending up in very dark places. The place where those two distinct flavors, humor and horror, clash is where the show draws much of its power, as you’re often left to wonder, as you’re watching something absolutely ghastly or downright viscerally terrifying unfold, “How is there a laugh track on top of this?” But the loose and dangerous structure of the show, in addition to being an ideal vehicle for the creators’ wild imaginations, showcases intricately structured, and unexpectedly emotionally intelligent, storytelling.
After seeing some of the promo material, I had already decided not to like this show. I can’t handle anything that centers itself around referencing a genre, even if it’s a parody, and I thought the design was too indulgently sophisticated for something that’s ostensibly a parody. Like they were trying to have their cake and eat it too. But one of the central conceits of the episode, a conflation of the words “nigga” and “ninja” repeated ad nauseam, made me laugh every time and won me over (which, for all I know, is a gag that extends to the entire series and the movie it’s based on). The show has a rapid-fire wit that never rests, bolstered greatly by razor sharp pacing and design from the sound department (an area normally of fatal weakness in most animated shows). Overall, the hard work obviously put into this show pays off in a way that feels totally unique. I’m not sure you could do an earnest, animated blaxploitation actioner in 2012 better than this show is, and it’s pretty great that Adult Swim provides a wide enough venue to allow stuff like this to happen.
I think the biggest problem with this show, while often being perfectly amusing and occasionally hilarious, is that it’s not nearly as inventive as you might hope from a show that has David Cross’ name listed so many times in its credits (he created, wrote and stars in the show). It’s a totally linear narrative where we laugh at ridiculous characters, and there’s an inordinately hot, white love interest for the doughy, also white protagonist to pine over. Spike Jonze, in an acting role, is my favorite part of the show. His well observed, nuanced, raw portrayal of a meek, passive agressive office drone looks like an art film next to all the other big shot comedic actors broad performances that leave no room for thought. This show touches on an issue that occasionally bothers me about comedies. The mixing of unrealistic, cartoon characters with mundane personalities. I guess I feel like this has to be consistent- either everyone we see has to be a cartoon character, no one can be a cartoon character, or just the protagonist(s) can be a cartoon character. Burn After Reading got this right. Pineapple Express did not. Seeing it as inconsistent as it is here can make the world it’s happening in seem lightly conceived.
I don’t devotedly follow much serialized fiction the way a lot of people do, but I do have one, and it’s The Venture Brothers. I’m riding this fucker out to the end, even if it ends up spiraling into Family Guy territory. That seems unlikely however, as this show absolutely killed in its fourth season, really hitting it’s stride at around the 2/3 mark. For what it is, this show is inordinately well done. (I’m not alone in thinking this- here it is above The West Wing on The AV Club’s Best Shows of the 00’s list, and a much has been made of it’s stunning mid-century design aesthetic alone alone.) There was nothing added to this season to explain why I like it so much more. I think the creators simply crossed the quality threshold from making a “pretty darn good” show to a “really fucking good” one. They’ve orchestrated character and plot together in a way that gives every episode a satisfying build, best showcased in the episodes “Self Medication” and “Any Which Way But Zeus”.
The Venture Brothers’ evolution has been a precarious one for me. I fell in love with it’s first season, before the series became covered in character development to the point of obscuring its core concept. In the first season, it was a simple matter of “this is the ghost pirate episode” or “this is the Mexican tropes episode”. As the plots became more and more labyrinthian and interconnected, I started to wonder if the show was heading in a direction that couldn’t support its own weight. This is, after all, a show whose main point is riffing on adventure cartoons and comic book superheroes. But this season I think their skill level fully, finally caught up to their ambition. Case in point, the evolution of Doc Venture in this season was both very well done and highly rewarding. For three seasons Doc was a worthless, self-centered failure, incapable of contributing anything positive to any situation. In this season he was forced to stand on his own two feet, as his highly effective bodyguard Brock Samson was replaced with the much more incompetent Sergeant Hatred. Surprisingly, Doc actually rose to the occasion, discovering (along with the audience) that he actually has a resolve and intelligence that can prove valuable to those around him. However, I don’t think this show is as thematically strong as creator Jackson Publick thinks it is. His frequent claims that the entire show revolves around the idea of failure seems like an afterthought to me. There’s certainly a lot of failed characters on the show, but the concept doesn’t seem baked into it’s storytelling, as it is in the similarly themed and genre heavy film The Host. But if that’s the glue that Publick uses to hold the whole thing together, then god bless him. It feels unfair to accuse a show that has a Spider-Man clone who shoots webs out of his ass of not being thematically strong enough. So how are the jokes? There are a couple all time greats this season, namely “After I put herpe in there” and the many definitions of what a “Rusty Venture” is, and Ladyhawk Johnson and Lyndon Bee gets my vote for most gloriously bizarre concept for a superhero ever (a type of gag this show deftly throws at its audience in seemingly endless supply). But I’ve got no doubt that any viewer would be able to provide a completely unique list of highlights that they’d be equally as passionate about.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who hasn’t seen every episode of this show to watch a random one from later in its run. This, combined with the show’s heavily genre based central concept and sophisticatedly underhanded joke delivery method, will most likely prevent it from ever getting the amount of viewers it truly deserves, or simply getting more than it currently has. But that misfortune doesn’t seem to be affecting the fans the show currently does have, as we’re scheduled to get two more seasons of this awesome nonsense.
- Viewers who aren’t as visually attentive as me (which is to say, most people, which is to say, people who rightfully don’t concern themselves with this sort of thing) probably won’t be bothered by this, but the muddy white bits surrounding all the black lineart on the Blu-ray was a major bummer for me. I thought I bought the Blu-ray for superior picture? What makes the Blu-ray even more of a letdown is it’s bare-bones packing, when compared to the awesome DVD packaging.
- The lively and entertaining commentary tracks have a much higher quality of audio this time around, which is nice. (Although some of the unlistenable previous commentaries did have a certain ramshackle charm to them.) Publick’s public (sorry) airing of his writing insecurities was a bit of a downer, but I bet the show’s creators’ workload can be a real emotional roller coaster.
- I really, really wish the home video releases of this show WEREN’T uncensored. A bleeped profanity and a black censor bar is always going to be a hundred times more funny than the uncensored alternative when dealing with material like this. An implication is stronger than a reveal, here.
-This show is pretty cheap looking. That’s a pretty big sin for something this high profile. They overreached. BSG looked great, but they had a very limited number of sets to create within a relatively small scope. These guys tried to create an entire city, and a lot of it looks like it was finger painted.