Monday, January 18, 2016

Bah, Humbug

or Why Darin Morgan was the Best and the Worst Thing that ever Happened to The X-Files

All the way back in season 2 of this series, Darin Morgan - staff writer Glen's brother - wrote his first full script for an episode titled Humbug. It was the first comedy episode in the series' history. Now, The X-Files had always had a certain sense of humor - a wry, cynical sense of humor that most frequently came out in Mulder's personality. But Humbug was different. It was jokey. I hated it. At that point in my rewatch, I was becoming aware of the significance of the show's different writers to a point that I had never been before. And you know what, it kinda bugged me that so many fans were saying that Darin Morgan was the best thing that ever happened to The X-Files, and that no other writer could compare. Not Glen Morgan & James Wong. Not Vince Gilligan. Not Chris Carter himself. It bothered me partly because Darin Morgan's episodes have the tendency to lean towards humor, in a series that I enjoy more when it's being serious. But it also bothered me because this guy came on the show and wrote a whopping four episodes before disappearing off the face of the planet. And yet, all four of those episodes are often touted by fans as all-time series highlights.

To me, it didn't seem fair to the writers who slaved over scripts week-in and week-out for years to make the series what it was. Morgan & Wong earned writing credits on 15 episodes (and they left before the series got huge). Vince Gilligan - another fan-favorite writer who went on to create the hit series Breaking Bad - earned 30 writing credits over the course of the show's run. Chris Carter, the man who dreamed up The X-Files, earned writing credits on as many as 69 of the show's 200+ episodes. His partner-in-crime for steering the mythology, Frank Spotnitz, himself earned 48 credits. Other important writers include John Shiban, who earned 24 credits, and Howard Gordon, a backbone of the series' first four seasons, who earned 20 writing credits. So, who is this Darin Morgan guy who only ever wrote four episodes for the show, and why is he so important?

Lest you get the wrong idea, the point of this post is not to burn Darin Morgan in effigy. The honest truth is that he's a brilliant genius. I didn't like his comedic take on the series, but I won't deny that he did it exceedingly well. And, the cold, hard fact is that he wrote my favorite non-mythology episode in the entire series, plus another one that's pretty damn good. I'm not a Darin Morgan fanboy (or girl), so I'm not afraid to say that I think his other two episodes are not as good, and definitely not some of the best episodes in the whole series. But what's so great about Darin Morgan is that he didn't just write pure humor. It was an intelligent humor. A cynical humor. A depressing, misanthropic view of life and human relationships, which I can respect far more than goofball comedy. In other words, there was substance underneath the surface. And if Darin Morgan happens to be a so-called "tortured genius", who could only be troubled to write so many episodes before his inspiration sent him in another direction, then so be it. The quality of the work stands for itself.

And that's why even I would agree that Darin Morgan is one of the best things that ever happened to The X-Files. Without him, there'd be no Jose Chung, or Clyde Bruckman. (And I'm eagerly anticipating his new episode for the revival)! But what of his legacy? I know that this is not the fault of the man himself, but Darin Morgan left a humongous shadow over the series when he left. He was the first one to write The X-Files as a comedy, but not the last. Once he had envisioned a way to successfully tell a funny story in the language of this paranormal scientific investigation series, everybody and their mother wanted to try their hand at it, too. Some people will tell you that this was a good thing, that led to lots of funny episodes, and a less stringently self-serious tone to the series. I am not one of those people. There is no single problem that led to the series' long and gradual decline in its second half, but certain factors may be isolated as significant contributors:

1) The production's move from Vancouver to LA. While they made the most of their scenery change, and told some great stories out in the desert, it can't be denied that the atmosphere of the series transformed significantly when they left the rainy woods of Canada.

2) Fatigue. This was inevitable (although it could have been avoided by ending the series earlier, as was originally planned), but everyone involved began to get tired by the fifth, sixth, and especially the seventh seasons. (Robert Patrick brought new energy to the show in its eighth season, but by the ninth, they were running on fumes).

3) The convoluted mythology began to finally collapse under its own weight, forcing Chris Carter to rush a sloppy end to most of the important story threads. Meanwhile, three years of not knowing whether the show was ending or not (or whether David Duchovny would be back the next year) led to a hastily constructed new mythology that relied on old themes resurrected piecemeal.

4) The series forsook its original mission statement (to tell scary stories), in order to shift the tone of the show from dark and gritty sci-fi/horror, to a self-conscious, humor-laced parody of its premise, all too often bogged down by the hint of romance caused by the natural chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, which - due to no fault of their own - undermined with absolute effectiveness (and with shameless encouragement from the fanbase) Chris Carter's early, adamant refusal that Mulder and Scully would ever be romantically involved (with each other).

Now, Darin Morgan isn't single-handedly responsible for that last one - especially not the romance - but I believe it was his legacy, and the efforts of the writers who followed him on the show to recapture the lightning that shot so effortlessly from his fingers, that contributed to the ultimately near-total shift in tone from the serious series I fell in love with, to the goofball parody that it became.

Chris Carter didn't start writing humor until Syzygy, which aired following War of the Coprophages - the third of Darin Morgan's four episodes for the show. I know that senses of humor are notoriously subjective, and that should be kept in mind, but Chris Carter's funny scripts represent many of my absolute least-favorite episodes in the entire series. Their worst crime - like Darin's first episode, Humbug - is that they don't feel right in tone for The X-Files. That's forgivable coming from another writer, but Chris Carter should know better. The truth is, he took advantage of the flexibility of the premise, which Darin Morgan was the first to demonstrate. Many critics consider this one of the series' greatest strengths. Personally, I felt that it was this flexibility that ultimately broke the show.

Vince Gilligan came into his own as a writer for the series in the fourth season, in which he wrote his own first comedy episode - Small Potatoes. Truth be told, Vince Gilligan was, in my (and many fans') opinion, the most successful comedy writer to follow in Darin Morgan's footsteps. His fifth season episode, Bad Blood, is another humor highlight of the series. Knowing that Gilligan created Breaking Bad, I came into this rewatch of The X-Files expecting gritty episodes like Pusher, Paper Hearts, Roadrunners, and John Doe. What I didn't expect was his sense of humor, and his dedication to the Mulder-Scully romance.

This crystallized in the form of his partnership with John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz - forming the portmanteau John Gilnitz. Ironically, some of their first writing credits together were for some pretty gritty episodes - Leonard Betts, Memento Mori, Christmas Carol/Emily. But then came Dreamland, which made Area 51 the butt of a joke whose head was actor Michael McKean. From there, they eventually went on to helm a spinoff series starring The Lone Gunmen, which - if The X-Files episode Jump The Shark is any indication - prioritized the wacky hijinks of the lovable goofball trio over the conspiracies and tech geekery that originally birthed them from the minds of Glen Morgan and James Wong.

But in addition to the jokes, I believe that the infiltration of lighthearted humor, whose way had been paved by Darin Morgan's albeit darker approach to comedy, led to an all-around softening of the edges, which may have partly been responsible for the series' increasingly more receptive approach to the Mulder-Scully romance. There had always been emotion on the show, but in its final years, it tended toward a wistful nostalgia that only further eroded the original, darker tone of the series. The culmination of this trend is, perhaps, Vince Gilligan's last episode for the series, Sunshine Days, which took a psychokinetic freak-of-the-week and turned him into a lonely teddy bear that just wanted to live inside his memories of watching The Brady Bunch, dagnabbit. It's hard to mourn the ending of a series that barely resembles the series you had, once upon a time, become a fan of.

And that's why I feel that Darin Morgan was not only the best thing that ever happened to The X-Files, but he was the worst thing that ever happened to The X-Files, too.


  1. I have to just say that this article is gorgeously wrought. The first time in lord only knows how long that I actually enjoyed a non-fiction article for aesthetic reasons. Lines like "It was an intelligent humor. A cynical humor. A depressing, misanthropic view of life and human relationships, which I can respect far more than goofball comedy" and "Darin Morgan left a humongous shadow over the series when he left. He was the first one to write The X-Files as a comedy, but not the last" carry a lot of weight.

    As for the content, it's hard for me to weigh in on something I'm barely acquainted with. I can definitely say Jose Chung will probably always be my favorite X-Files episode. But that always seemed to me like a one-time deviation. It felt to me like the Daria holiday special or like The West Wing's 9/11 episode (um, follow me here) in that it didn't seem connected to the actual canon & continuity of the series, it was just a brief and glorious acid trip (although the Daria special sucked). I wouldn't want the show to have a lot of episodes like that.

    It's hard to think of any show that doesn't decline in its later years... or at least evolve. For example Breaking Bad, I consider the last two seasons to be the best. But they definitely feel different from the early seasons. Not unlike X-Files, Breaking Bad's early episodes felt a lot more subdued. So I think every show evolves. But there's a way to evolve gracefully, and there's a way to deteriorate.

  2. Thank you! It was an unusual combination of being spontaneous - I wrote it up all in a flash today while working on a separate piece - and planned, since I had tried vocalizing my ambivalent feelings toward Darin Morgan's contributions to the series (and reputation) all the way back when I was in the midst of watching the third season, before I ultimately scrapped it because it wasn't much good. But this time around, I feel like it clicked. That's probably when the best writing happens - when you're inspired and in the moment, but you've turned the concepts over in your mind enough to really know them backwards and forwards.

    I always felt that I didn't mind there being funny episodes in this series. I'm not so egomaniacal as to believe that if I don't like it, it shouldn't exist. I just didn't like it when the whole show started to be funny, and seemed to forget that it was supposed to be dark and scary. Because that's the show I fell in love with.

    I really think a lot of what destroyed The X-Files in the end is just that all those involved worked themselves to the bone and wore themselves out. Maybe they could have kept the quality up better if they'd taken a break, or longer vacations, or - as in my dream alternate reality - they had quit the series after five years, and opted to continue the story in the form of periodic theatrical features, instead.