Academic journal article Independent Review

This Is Not Your Father's FBI: The X-Files and the Delegitimation of the Nation-State. (Culture Watch)

Academic journal article Independent Review

This Is Not Your Father's FBI: The X-Files and the Delegitimation of the Nation-State. (Culture Watch)

Article excerpt

I think The X-Files is very nineties, because everything is left in doubt. There's no closure, no answers.... Obviously it's tapping in to something the nation wants. I think it has to do with religious stirrings--a sort of New Age yearning for an alternate reality and the search for some kind of extrasensory god. Couple that with a cynical, jaded, dispossessed feeling of having been lied to by the government, and you've got a pretty powerful combination for a TV show. Either that, or the Fox network has an amazing marketing department.

--David Duchovny


Imagine a television program that takes UFOs and other extraterrestrial phenomena seriously. Moreover, it assumes not only that aliens have actually visited our planet, but also that the U.S. government is actively involved in a vast conspiracy to hide that fact from the American people in a plot that reaches up to the highest levels in the chain of command. The series goes on to link that cabal to other subjects beloved of conspiracy theorists--Watergate, for example, or the Kennedy and King assassinations. The series furthermore connects all these conspiracies to the international military-industrial complex and views the history of the United States since World War II as one huge exercise in militarism, beginning with a deal with its former Nazi enemies and including Nazi-like atrocities during the Vietnam War. With such a dark view of the U.S. government and its role in world politics, would such a series ever be permitted on the air by network TV executives? If programmed, could it possibly last a whole season? Would not the American public at some point wake up to the subversive character of the series and hoot it off the air?

I am of course not making up this series but simply describing the Fox Network's flagship program The X-Files. Contrary to all normal TV rules, a show with such a controversial view of U.S. history has been a solid success, completing seven seasons on the air and still going, receiving high ratings consistently, being widely syndicated in reruns already, and gathering fans all around the world as well as a cult following in America. The remarkable and unpredictable success of The X-Files has to tell us something about the United States in the 1990s; it has to reflect a fundamental shift of mood in the country. (1) To be sure, the show did not reveal its deepest secrets all at once, and one might argue that it initially hooked its viewers with intriguing science-fiction plots and only gradually hit them with its shocking claims about the U.S. government. But even in its pilot episode, The X-Files was already suggesting that the federal government is hiding something, and the dominant mood of the show has always been distrust of authority. Though not inconceivable, it is difficult to believe that a show with such dark content could have achieved equivalent success in the 1970s or 1980s. Try to imagine a network in the 1970s casting James Garner as the hero in a series called Jim Garrison: DA or Mark Lane hosting a PBS series called Great Performances: The Assassinations.

The success of The X-Files in the 1990s would seem to reflect a growing cynicism in the American people about their government--a distrust of their leaders and a new disposition to believe the worst about them, no doubt fueled by the seemingly endless series of political scandals that emanated out of Washington in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Accounts of the genesis of the show reveal that when Fox executives were concerned about its political content, they were reassured by audience surveys:

   Strangely enough, little mention was made at first of the show's politics,
   considering that the pilot and subsequent hours begin with the premise that
   the government is behind widespread, covert activity to prevent the public
   from learning about the existence of UFOs. [Fox executive Sandy] Grushow
   does remember Jon Neswig, the head of Fox's sales department, raising the
   issue when the show was first screened, resulting in "some sparks flying in
   the room. … 
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