The original “X-Files” was a game-changing hit when it premiered in 1993. Not only did it help establish then-fledgling Fox as a network — it redefined, with mix serialized and procedural storytelling and darker take on genre themes, television drama.
But would it have worked today?
The current revival of the Chris Carter series sees the return of former FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), but in a much more tightly-wrapped packaged than the original — a six-episode miniseries compared to a first season of 24 episodes.
In the 2015-16 TV season, when the new “X-Files” was greenlighted, 24-episode seasons were hard to come by.
The season’s breakout drama hits, NBC’s “Blindspot” and CBS’ “Limitless,” were originally picked up for 13 episodes, and only earned their back nine episodes after they proved they had an audience. “Empire,” the biggest broadcast hit in recent years, and also a Fox show, aired only 12 episodes in its first season. A larger Season 2 is only slated for 18 episodes
Other recent shows with intricate central mythologies proved too much for audiences, who didn’t bother to tune in. Fox’s “Almost Human” and “Minority Report” and ABC’s “The Whispers” were all recent victims of quick cancellations and perhaps too-convoluted mythologies.
But in a way, it’s hard to quantify how the original “X-Files” might have fared in today’s TV landscape since the show itself was such an influence on what succeeds today.
“It’s kind of hard to imagine a current landscape without having ‘The X-Files’ in the past,” writer and producer Glen Mazzara told TheWrap. “I think ‘The X-Files’ is the most influential show of the past 20 years on TV developments. ‘X-Files’ introduced an interesting mythology that got teased out over the course of the entire series and yet still had an episodic nature to it.” A procedural with an overarching mythology was “the holy grail” of TV development at the time. “How do you keep fans engaged and yet make sure it’s not too serialized? It’s really the forerunner of a lot of shows.”
Mazzarra is currently in production on “Damien” for A&E, which will run 10 episodes its first season. It was originally conceived as a six-episode event series for Lifetime, A&E’s sister network.
“I see a lot of that model,” said Mazzara. “That comes from AMC’s launch of ‘The Walking Dead’ Season 1. That was six episodes, it was attention-grabbing and then the order was expanded to 13 for the second season.”
The quickened pacing of TV shows over the years isn’t lost on those who create it.
“When I did [‘Law & Order: SVU’] in 2000, there would be a scene with characters talking about a case, and then it would cut to another scene with several pages of dialogue, but when I left 11 years later, it was all intercut and much faster, people were finishing each other’s lines in the next scene,” writer and producer Neal Baer told TheWrap.
The trick now is to hook an audience as soon as possible, and the new “X-Files” certainly did that, both by nature of it having a large built-in audience and by laying out a huge mythology arc right in the first episode.
The structure of “The X-Files” reboot hasn’t changed much. The revival series, which just premiered on Fox, will feature book-ending first and last episodes that delve heavily into the show’s central alien mythology, but the middle four episodes are stand-alone monster of the week stories.
Season 1 of “The X-Files” consisted of five mythology episodes and 19 stand-alone case episodes.
Of course, twenty-four new episodes of “The X-Files” in 2016 was never on the table.
“Originally we were supposed to do eight and that got scaled back to six because of schedules,” said Carter at the Television Critics Association winter press tour earlier this month. “Eight was doable, six was very doable. Six actually works. You actually get a variety of episodes, with two strong mythology episodes, which I thought were the spine of the show. So I do think six work but eight would have worked too.”
Six episodes not only allowed Carter, Duchovny and Anderson all to return, even with their busy schedules otherwise, but it’s also in keeping with the shorter, tighter season model, which is proving to be successful.
The onset of streaming platforms has also affected how audiences watch TV. A slower-moving show like the original Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” or “House of Cards” can afford to move slowly, if the 13 or 24 episode season can be consumed all at once over one weekend, instead of being fed to the audience one hour a week.
“The fact that everything is available in bulk now, has trained us to watch TV in a different way,” said Baer. “‘The Wire’ unfolded pretty slowly each season, but that was the first show where I heard people say, ‘I’m going to watch it all at Christmas.’ Now, we’re just used to it.”
Cable and streaming also tend to cater to a different audience than broadcast networks do.
“If ‘The X-Files’ was being developed today, I think it would have to play on cable,” said Mazzara. “The show really introduced a cinematic quality to TV storytelling… On cable streaming, people sit down, they invest. They will go with a slower tone, they expect a cinematic quality and they want to know a story will pay out down the road, they don’t need the immediate gratification.”
Carter hasn’t specified how many episodes he would like to do if Fox ordered a second serving of the “X-Files” revival, but it’s probably safe to say it won’t be anywhere near 24 episodes.
“The X-Files” airs Mondays at 8/7 c on Fox.