TV has to take itself seriously in the age of “hyperdrama.” We’re a more “sophisticated” audience who cannot stand nuance or irony. A show must be either suspenseful or dramatic or absurdly comedic. There is no middle ground. But the X-Files has a history of nuance and irony. Take “Hollywood A.D.” for example. “Hollywood” is meta-episode about an actor who plays Mulder in a film based on The X-Files. The man follows Mulder and Scully on an X-Files case investigating the murder of a priest. The episode, a monster of the week, plays on stereotypes and pokes fun at Hollywood. And the actors who play Mulder and Scully in the meta-film are completely over-the-top representations of each. From a Cops parody to an episode that breaks the fourth wall, the X-Files knows how to ease the tension and make us think at the same time. And the tradition continues in Season 11.
The Mandela Effect, Bernstein Bears, and Dr. They
A few years ago the internet went stir-crazy with a theory. The books a whole generation grew up reading weren’t spelled correctly. A whole host of people remember the Berenstein Bears and yet every available record tells us it’s the Berenstain Bears (it was Berenstein, btw; I remember). The theory to explain this collective memory lapse is called the Mandela Effect. The Mandela Effect originated when a group of comic convention speakers all found out they remembered Nelson Mandela had died in prison in 2009. But according to news sources, he died in 2013. The answer? That all the people in that conversation had somehow skipped to an alternate universe.
It’s a fun mind game that throws out Occam’s Razor entirely. And the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” (S11Ep4) pokes fun at anyone who believes in the Mandela Effect. At multiple points in the episode, both Mulder and Scully say that the alternate universe theory is silly. And Scully herself brings up Occam’s Razor.
But the episode delves deeper as an apparent crazy conspiracy theorist, Reggie, tries to convince Mulder and Scully that a Dr. They has been using mind control tricks to change people’s collective memories. Mulder later meets with Dr. They as he’s met with countless shadow men over the course of the show. Only this time, instead of meeting in front of some ominous government building in D.C., Mulder meets They beneath a group of quizzical statues.
Mulder is there to get information, as usual, to find out the “Truth,” and Dr. They turns Mulder’s expectations on their heads. He tells Mulder that he doesn’t need to manipulate memories in an age when conspiracies and cover-ups are irrelevant. He calls it the “Poco” age when all you need is a laptop to manipulate people’s memories.
The point being? Objective Truth doesn’t matter to a culture that swallows every pill of information packaged in entertainment bites. That even if you uncovered an actual conspiracy, nobody would care. Or if they did, they’d outrage for a day until the next news cycle arrived or you had to pay your bills. The scene ends with an exasperated Fox Mulder standing beneath one of the statues, the bronze statue frozen in laughter, eyes shut, mouth open wide and hands apart as if to say, “who cares?”
Near the end of the episode, we find out that Reggie is actually crazy. He worked for various government agencies until he was sent to an insane asylum. We actually get to see him hauled away in an old hearse a la Ghostbusters. But his fantasy of having been the third partner in the X-Files team is a hilarious ode to the series and ends with a fun scene where the aliens declare they’re building a wall outside our system (overt Trump reference).
Where the writers in Season 10 failed to connect with audiences in a political fashion, the irony in S11Ep4 is spot on. The humor fits and doesn’t detract from the show’s overarching themes. We’re left both entertained and duly warned with something to chew on after.
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