“The X-Files” left the air, ignominiously, in 2002, following nine seasons. After a few years of expertly gauged paranoia and the slow building of an epic puzzle about aliens and the US government, the series became TV’s most infamous letdown in the years before “Lost,” a mess of fuzzy revelations and failed promises.
You kept feeling as if, once and for all, The Truth was going to materialize amid all the noir lighting and po-faced delivery, as if series creator Chris Carter was truly going to hand you the entire magnificently mysterious flower right down to its finely wrought root system. But disappointment was the only constant when it came to “The X-Files,” as it withheld satisfaction until many of us no longer cared. The bait-and-switches, aggravated by Fox commercials promising full disclosure, became self-parodic. Ultimately, as Fox and Carter stretched the premise out to fuel more seasons, the mythology became too elaborate to tie up neatly; there was no there there.
With “The X-Files” returning for six new episodes on Sunday at 10, only you know if you’re willing to get back onto the train to nowhere. But remember: They — the hard-working people who hammer out phrases in the cliché factory — say that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Watching the premiere, I felt both excited at seeing David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully reunited, and instantly weary from all the renewed conspiracy theory cant. I will watch, mostly to see Anderson, who has blossomed as an actress since she left the show; but I will watch with low expectations.
The premiere feels a bit like an old episode. It quickly brings together Mulder and Scully for a new twist in the Major Conspiracy That Is Behind Everything and I Mean Everything. Scully is a doctor in D.C., while Mulder is still consumed with the paranormal and looking pretty rough (his stubble, I believe, is not meant to be fashionable). But their old boss, Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), wants them to rejoin and meet with a conspiracy-obsessed TV anchor, Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), who introduces them to new twists in the old game. O’Malley leads them to a young woman named Sveta (Annet Mahendru from “The Americans”) who says aliens have been removing her unborn fetuses.
The vibe of the show remains much the same as it was in the 1990s, from the opening credits to the speechifying by Mulder that’s really there as plot explication. It’s a bit of primetime nostalgia, something that has been gaining momentum with new episodes of “Arrested Development” and “24” and the forthcoming returns of “Gilmore Girls” and “Twin Peaks.” Executives know they can make more money from a particular brand name, and viewers often crave leftovers. But I’d rather watch old episodes than watch any once-beloved series do a cover version of its former self. The look of the new “X-Files” may be familiar, but as a whole, it feels rote and unintentionally dreary. If there was a creative reason to bring the show back, and not merely a financial one, I couldn’t find it anywhere in the premiere.
Also weakening the “X-Files” revival are all the historical changes of the last decade-plus. In a way, the Edward Snowden affair was the best post-2002 episode of “The X-Files” imaginable, and the fallout from the Patriot Act, too, has been pretty dramatic. Add to those the prevalence of video cameras and hacking scandals, and you’ve got a whole new definition of paranoia. All of the surveillance and government conspiracy that the show posited made it a perfect fit for the 1990s; now, we know all about being spied on. We know that the government is indeed watching us, and that there are officials working to withhold that information. Compared with the whole alien thing, that feels more pressing and scarier. The paranoia in the new “X-Files” seems almost quaint, as Sveta shows us the holes in her belly where the extraterrestrials have scooped out melon balls of flesh.
I’m betting that someone at Fox is already contemplating yet another new version of “The X-Files,” with a different set of younger FBI characters. That’s what the network is doing with “24: Legacy,” which will retain the original show’s real-time gimmick and counterterrorism setting but feature a hero other than Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. Duchovny and Anderson are both busy and in demand, particularly with “Aquarius” and “The Fall,” respectively, and if the ratings for the new “X-Files” are solid, then perhaps a new pair will be hired to look out there for the truth.
Let’s hope that if something like “The X-Files: Younger and Hotter” does come to pass, Carter and company don’t try to re-create the Mulder-Scully dynamic. Duchovny and Anderson made that study in opposites one of the best things about the original series. In the pre-“Bones” world, they developed a gender bender of sorts. Mulder was the believer, most of the time, who operated on intuition, qualities stereotypically attributed to women. And Scully was the skeptic, the cool, fact-based partner, the typical male TV detective. The two actors nailed that one, and it deserves to be untrampled on.
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, Joel McHale, Annet Mahendru. On Fox, Sunday night, 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.