Ignore what the poster says. It was probably done before all the deals were hammered out. There will be six — not eight — episodes in the new X-Files cycle.
I was never really an X-Files fan — in fact, I rarely watched it — but the headline on this piece isn’t at all sarcastic.
I mean it — a six-episode mini-season X-Files reboot is a Good Thing.
Why? Because limited television series, occasional television series, “event” television (as the new X-Files is labelled) are all good things — good for the quality of the production, good for the actors and writers and production crews, good for the audience, good for everyone concerned.
The old concept of 20-26 episodes per season for a normal North American TV series is just a killer grind that has the sole virtue of putting a labelled product on the schedule at the same time on the same night week after week for roughly half a year and then repeating itself.
A typical grind-’em-out TV series is thin-but-regular fare and dependable mediocrity, and that’s about it. Most shows — after their initial burst of creativity and enthusiasm (see Heroes as a prime example) — have all the excitement and flavour and emotional nourishment of a loaf of mass-produced chemical sponge-bread.
(The only shows I can think of that broke the pattern over the long haul are The Mary Tyler Moore Show decades ago and, more recently, The Big Bang Theory — largely due to Jim Parsons’ brilliance, the wonderful supporting ensemble and consistently terrific writing. But half-hour sitcoms — especially ones with a largish, emotionally complex cast — are easier to pull off on an ongoing basis than hour-long dramas.)
It’s not anyone’s fault, really, that meat-grinder TV quickly falls into ho-hum routine (except for the greed of everyone involved, I guess). It’s more a case of habit and expectation — “Tradition!” as Tevye would shout.
We’ve been seeing those old walls and conventions break down more and more over the past decade, of course.
It started in the 1990s when pay-TV cable channels like HBO began producing original programming such as Oz and The Sopranos in 13-episode season packages. With less-demanding production schedules and a higher commitment to quality, television viewing expectations began to change.
And, as The Sopranos became the cornerstone of HBO’s success, the show was even able to take off an entire year from time to time to let participants play catch-up, to recharge batteries, to take on other projects and to give the writing staff time and space to produce truly remarkable scripts.
Nowadays we have Game of Thrones, House of Cards and so on, all with the shorter 10-to-13-episode seasons.
Then, of course, came the tidal change of online, on-demand viewing with “the big dump” of entire Netflix series seasons at one time — and the subsequent binge watching.
So it’s not really such a big deal that the resurrected X-Files would come in a smaller, more intensely crafted and more elite six-episode package.
I’m hoping all of this evolves even further into a format that’s been going great guns in Europe for decades — anthology series that are on air at the same time of the week year-round, but with constantly revolving (and evolving) components.
My favourite of these is the vastly popular German-language police procedural series called Tatort (“Crime Scene”) that’s been running on Germany’s public broadcasting network, ARD, since 1970.
Really, since 1970. And (for the most part) it’s as fresh and entertaining today as it would have been 45 years ago. Because it’s constantly evolving and because the casts and crews and writers and production companies (and locations, of course) are constantly changing and shifting, never being burned out and drained of creativity.
Each week, Tatort features a different team of police detectives solving crimes in a different city or region in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. One week it might be plain, dumpy Hauptkommissar Frank Thiel and haughty forensic doctor Prof. Karl-Friedrich Boerne in Münster; the following week it’s Frau Hauptkommissarin Klara Blum (looking and sounding a bit like Harvey Fierstein in drag at times) and hapless subordinate Kai Perlmann down on the shores of Lake Constance (the Bodensee, as it is known by Germans).
Above, the Münster team headed by Hauptkommissar Frank Thiel ( actor Axel Prahl, centre) and Prof. Karl-Friedrich Boerne (Jan Josef Liefers, right). Liefers, by the way, grows the goatee anew for each Tatort production, then shaves it off for everything else he does.
Below, Hauptkommissarin Klara Blum (Eva Mattes, centre) and Kai Perlmann (Sebastian Bezzel) at work on the streets of Konstanz. Mattes was one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s go-to actors in the ’70s and early ’80s. Later she was in a number of Werner Herzog films. Herzog is the father of her daughter, Hanna. Mattes has been playing Klara Blum since 2002.
Each of the nine regional public broadcasters in Germany plus the public broadcasters in Austria and Switzerland produces its own homegrown Tatort component (complete with regional accents, customs, culture, social conventions, cityscapes and countryside, foibles and stereotypes) which are then slotted into the full Tatort schedule by the national ARD programmers.
Of course, some of the teams (both characters and production) are stronger — and more popular — than others. But there are enough really good teams that you never go more than a week or two without hitting the jackpot.
It’s almost as if every CSI and NCIS series that ever existed on North American TV were all combined in one 90-minute-per-episode time slot and each particular group’s cast, crew, writers and directors only had to turn out two or three really brilliant, well-developed, satisfying “event” episodes each year.
(Did I mention Tatort episodes are all 90 minutes, as is much German TV drama? That allows the writers and production teams — not under the killer pressure of a weekly schedule — to make much more complex, developed movie-like shows. In fact, many 90-minute European TV productions are marketed elsewhere as DVD movies.)
In the German-language Tatort series, no one investigative team is ever featured more than three or (at the very most) four times in a single season, but some of the teams have been part of the Tatort cycle for 15 or 20 years. These long-time television teams and their audience have grown up and (in some cases) grown old together — but their shows never grow stale.
Characters sometimes die (usually because the actor who’s played that role for years has actually died) or retire, children grow up, spouses leave or die or fall apart, hair grows greyer and thinner, bellies grow paunchier… and relationships become richer and deeper and often more surprising.
And all because the writers and casts and production units for each team are usually only doing one, two or three episodes of their particular Tatort each year.
Sometimes young actors become huge stars in the German-speaking world because they’ve joined a Tatort team. But very, very rarely does a star abandon the show that made him or her famous. Because they don’t have to: There’s plenty of time away from Tatort to make movies, do theatre work for two or three months at a stretch or otherwise expand their horizons and wallets. But their Tatort characters remain part of them and the writing is usually so good and complex and satisfying and the ensemble casts are usually of such high calibre that none of the stars would even consider letting go of that plum assignment.
Axel Milberg with Sibel Kekilli, his crime-fighting partner on the Kiel Tatort team. You probably know Kekilli better as Shae, the character she played on Game of Thrones (before dying at the end of Season 4, of course).
Axel Milberg, one of Germany’s finest actors, for example, has been playing obsessive-compulsive Kiel detective Klaus Borowski once or twice a year since 2003 with no intention of stopping any time soon. And some big stars like Til Schweiger have only assumed an ongoing Tatort role after already becoming established as film headliners. They just want to be part of the Tatort experience.
Life On Mars
There are a few long-running anthology shows like Tatort in Europe. And then there are the intentionally time-limited series that the BBC and other British broadcasters do so well, like Sherlock and Life On Mars and so on. Cast and crew sign up for a defined quality project, much like a film, not for the endlessly repeating rote and downward death spiral that a successful, long-running North American television series can become.
Above, the young Mulder and Scully. Below, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny nowadays.
So that’s why I’m very happy to see X-Files coming back as an six-episode “event” one-off.
The six episodes will have good story arc, the work will be of the highest quality, and everyone participating will have the satisfaction of working on something special, something in which it’s worth investing their time and effort — and ours.
Of course, there are more cynical explanations for why Fox is bankrolling this six-episode “event.” But I’m really not too concern by all that.
Sometimes good things happen for sketchy reasons. I Want To Believe that, at least.
Although maybe I should have said The Truth Is Out There.
Or even (shudder) Trust No One. We’ll see.