Hey, Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who engage in this American holiday.
I’m not really big on the holidays (as in Thanksgiving-Christmas), as some of you know, but I do enjoy the bit of time off I can take to catch up on my chillaxin’.
So I took yesterday off and basically freebased over half of Season 1 of the X-Files. I’m up to episode 15 (there are 24). It’s been years since I’ve watched the series, and though the costumes, hairstyles (and shut up, but I’m trying to bring back Mulder’s look), cars, and technology are dated (season 1 premiered in 1993), the writing and characters remain strong. Not every episode, mind you. There were some episodes that just didn’t work (like this one; sorry Chris Carter. Just. . .no.), but for the most part, it remains a strong show with episodes that still creep me out.
source (re-sized here)
Basically, if you want to write a series — any series — and keep it going for a long time, use the X-Files as a potential model. Not in terms of what actually the show is about, but rather how its infrastructure is put together.
Continue on for my ode to the X-Files. . .
That’s good writing, people. Even when it’s two decades past, the plotlines are strong, the characters still grab you, and you’re not only interested in the story, but in the subplots the characters have to deal with. Twenty years later, and the chemistry on the show between Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) still works. The dialogue is still pretty good, and the investigative techniques work within the rubric in which the writers placed them.
What I really enjoy is how the overarching themes interacted with the ongoing subplots brought by the characters (again, not all episodes worked).
One overarching theme: The Truth Is Out There (and weird stuff exists). Two, the flipside of that: The government is trying to cover it up. Three, subplots: Mulder’s obsessive need to find his sister, who he’s convinced was abducted by aliens when they were kids. That’s one of the primary things that drives him in his quest for “The Truth”. The other thing that drives him is his issue with authority. Funny, since he works for the FBI. But perhaps he feels that maybe being on the inside will allow him to uncover more than if he didn’t work in the Bureau. And, as the seasons wind on, another thing that drives him is his attachment and loyalty to Scully and probably some guilt because of all the things he’s gotten her into over the years and his volatility. Tied up with those two overarching themes are how each episode plays into it and also pushes the subplots along. Weaving all those threads together as effectively as The X-Files did over 10 years is, I think, a testament to the writing core.
Scully’s subplots include her by-the-book approach, which invariably clashes with Mulder’s, but makes the partnership work that much better. She keeps him grounded, and handles a lot of the bureaucratic BS. He pushes her to explore things outside her rigid control-freak boxes of inquiry. He’s never judgmental of her, and never assumes she can’t do something because she’s a woman and their verbal sparring and humor make some of the best moments of the series. Perhaps Mulder finds in Scully aspects of a sister he lost. He draws her out in ways she may not have expected in her life, given her wound-tight background and scientific rigidity. She deals with wondering if her father ever managed to get over the fact that he was disappointed when she decided not to use her medical degree as a doctor, but went into the FBI instead. Her father dies in season 1, so that’s some baggage she has to carry. Was he proud of her after all? Did she live up to his expectations? That’s part of why she’s so driven to be the best, to dot every i, to cross every t. The root of her perfectionist streak, I think, lies in the relationship she had with her father. And Scully can be FIERCE. She takes knocks on the head, gets bashed around, shoots at people, and gets in the faces of high-ranking officials to stand up for what she perceives is right, and to go to bat for Mulder when she thinks he deserves it.
Both characters are thus loners and misfits in different ways. Both have “complicated” relationships within their family dynamics (and things got a little freaky by seasons 7-9 with Mulder’s situation). Both are accomplished in their fields, both are also confident in their abilities without feeling the need for egotism. Which is why their chemistry is so intriguing and why it works so well. They’re similar in core ways, but different enough that they provide a nice balance to each other. This is the stuff of great investigative teams. A partnership that works like this has the potential to carry a series through as many episodes and years as the show did. And that fact that they almost never agree on anything, though it doesn’t get in the way of a great partnership, just adds fuel to the plotlines.
So, it seems to me, the ingredients of a great and long-lasting series hinges, first, on 1-2 overarching themes that will serve as a driving background force. Sometimes, in some episodes, elements of the overarching themes will really stick out (like the UFO episodes) and in others, not so much (like the episode with the serial killer Toombs).
Second, you need strong subplots that you attach to your main characters. You don’t necessarily need to hammer the subplots every episode. You can drop hints in some episodes, or really bring them out in others. You want a balance that keeps people coming back.
Third, you need effective primary and secondary characters and characters that people like. If they’re bad guy characters, make them interesting enough that people want to know what’s going to happen with them. X-Files introduced secondary characters (the “deep throat” aspect that ties into the overarching themes) that you weren’t sure whether to trust or hate or what, but that was good because they were always interesting and added information to ongoing investigations. Another thing to do is re-visit some of the creeps and freaks from older episodes. That, too, is a good technique for staying power. An audience will think, “Oh, YEAH! THAT guy! From that episode a couple seasons ago!” And add a recurring bad guy figure, to increase the anxiety levels of viewers. “Oh, HELL, no! Krycek again! WTF is UP with this guy?”
There you go. Some different kind of food for thought over T-Day. Happy reading, happy writing. And remember.
THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.
[NOTE: Thanks to alert reader Subbie, I have removed references to Scully’s lack of siblings (which was incorrect…DURRRRRRRRRR). Thanks for the correction!]