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Review

'The X-Files' returns with that Mulder and Scully magic (mostly)

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

When you put the band back together, there are always risks. The weight of history gives you momentum, but it can also crush you. The audience wants the reunion and fears it; your fans will judge you harshly even as they cut you slack. They will attack your new stuff for sounding too much like the old hits, or not enough like them.

Sunday brings the return to television, after nearly 14 years and two theatrical features, of "The X-Files," Chris Carter's groundbreaking paranormal procedural, with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson back in their roles as FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Duchovny and Anderson have not been out of the public eye. He spent many seasons starring in "Californication," and "Aquarius," in which he plays a 1960 L.A. police detective, has been renewed; she is currently appearing in the A&E/History/Lifetime miniseries "War and Peace," was recently a regular on "Hannibal" and has led two seasons of the fine British procedural "The Fall." And yet it is odd, at first, to see them back in their old clothes, which like everyone's old clothes, fit a little differently now.

The new, six-episode season on Fox — Season 10, if we're counting — is being accounted a "miniseries." And though it does promise some long-arc business (the first and last episodes are titled "My Struggle," Parts 1 and 2), two of the three episodes offered for review are self-contained monster-of-the-week stories, always the series' strongest suit.

It isn't surprising that much of the business of the new episodes addresses the passage of time. There are references to Google, Uber, Edward Snowden and the NSA to make it clear that we're not in the '90s anymore. Mulder has been questioning whether he's wasted his life chasing chimera: "I'm a middle-aged man, Scully. I'm thinking maybe it's time to put away childish things, the sasquatches and moth men and jackalopes."

The revival is steeped in a kind of historical consciousness of the show itself, to the point that Mulder's ring tone is Mark Snow's "X-Files" theme. Having been out of each other's orbit, as they were absent from ours, the characters, too, seem at times to regard each as characters. "Yeah, this is how I like my Mulder," Scully says at one point, having listened to his pitch that what seems to be a monster really is a monster.

The first episode, written and directed by Carter, is a Big Conspiracy story, with guest Joel McHale as a kind of super-successful, Internet-famous, right-wing turn on the Lone Gunmen. It starts well enough, with effects-filled flashbacks to Roswell 1947 and a call from Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that brings the old team back together — Scully in her scrubs helping put ears on earless children, and Mulder an Internet-perusing recluse who dresses himself from the Travis Bickle Catalog for Men. But it collapses into poorly motivated, out-of-nowhere speechifying, accompanied by stock footage of old puzzling phenomena.

Fortunately the other two episodes push the right buttons; the second, though it continues some of the themes of the first — that old alien DNA, stolen children — is a typical science-gone-too-far episode, with a classic "X-Files" type at its center: the character supernaturally, or science-fictionally blessed and cursed. As in the great horror films of old, the antagonists are also protagonists; Mulder and Scully are, in the best way, witnesses.

Written and directed by Darin Morgan, who wrote the old series' highly regarded "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" and "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," the third episode, "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster" — its title an echo of the old Abbott and Costello monster comedies — is the best of the new lot so far, and one I'd rank high in the series as a whole. With comedians Rhys Darby and Kumail Nanjiani in the main guest roles, it's both delightful and disturbing, if it is not always quite sensible. ("I'm just looking for some kind of internal logic," Mulder asks at one point, only to be told, "Why? There isn't any external logic to any of it.") But its plot twists and ideas about animal and human consciousness and self-consciousness are surprising and satisfying. Perhaps most important, it's full of jokes that work.

If this is the sort of gift horse you can't help looking in the mouth, the point of that old saw is, after all: Don't. Reunion albums are rarely among a band's best work, but they can have their moments. There is a deep pleasure just in hearing Anderson say a line like, "Mulder, what are you talking about?" and to see them yoked together again, trading lines with that special kind of shared sleepiness that can make anywhere seem a boudoir.

And to some not inconsiderable degree, it's not about us, anyway, but them — the writers and the actors, doing it for themselves. There's money to be had, sure, but sometimes there is just a story to continue or conclude, a desire to get back to where you once belonged, to put on the suits, pick up the flashlights and follow the monster, wherever that leads.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'The X-Files'

Where: Fox

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 23, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "That old conspiracy magic is back at work - REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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