Even before The X-Files ended its nine-year run, Chris Carter was dismissed as a one-hit wonder. It’s easy to see why. His subsequent efforts — the occult-themed Millennium, the virtual reality-centered Harsh Realm, even The X-Files‘ goofy nerd brother The Lone Gunmen, which was co-created by Vince Gilligan — found few fans. Harsh Realm lasted only three episodes.
Twenty years after The X-Files suggested (but didn’t show) its first UFO, news came that Carter was ready to give TV-creating another try. After revolutionizing the television landscape with The X-Files‘ pioneering direction, cinematography, and unique will-they-or-won’t-they coupling, Carter is poised to enjoy the fruits of his labors: a cottage industry of prestige cable dramas that look closer to cinema than television and a new media setting where sci-fi/fantasy reigns supreme. In his sights are an AMC drama about anti-government paranoia (sound familiar?) and a hour-long thriller on Amazon called The After that begins with the apocalypse.
The AMC project is the much more promising of the two. Carter has stated that the show would be “treading on some of this interesting ground that Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange have uncovered for us” — that is, the dangerous work of exposing government secrets. He said, “After 9/11, everything changed. That’s curiously when [The X-Files] went off the air, when basically we wanted authority figures to protect us; we wanted a strong government and wanted to place our trust in them. In the ensuing years, that’s not only changed back, but I would say our mistrust has been amplified — and for many good reasons.”
That is, the Bush administration being caught completely off-guard — not to mention President Bush’s dumbfounded reaction to the news of a terrorist attack on domestic soil — destroyed the credibility of an all-knowing, all-seeing Big Brother. As Glenn Beck’s 9/12 phenom showed, Americans came together after the Twin Towers fell and chose to believe in the government. (Or went off the deep end and became Truthers.)
But the recent revelations that the NSA and the DEA, in collusion with Big Telecom, have been tracking Americans’ communications makes the AMC drama not just timely, but necessary. We’re supposed to feel paranoid, but about what? Hopefully the show will have the opportunity to answer the question journalists and pundits have thus far been unable to explain adequately: What does all this surveillance mean? (Even The X-Files, with its messy mythology, had an answer to that — to create an alien-human hybrid!)
Righteous transparency fetishists like Snowden and Assange remind us that “the truth is out there” — and thanks to hackers and bumbling bureaucracies, that truth is more accessible than ever before. Transparency was Mulder’s goal. Politically speaking, it may not be the most popular ideal today, because of the truth Mulder never realized: transparency doesn’t placate our paranoia, but heightens it.
If the AMC series will play up one of Carter’s strengths, though, The After will demand that he work on one of his greatest flaws, at least as evidenced by his past work. World-building — that is, the creation of a cohesive universe with its own logic and priorities — was the Achilles’ heel that crippled all four of Carter’s shows. The X-Files and Millennium suggested and hinted at and intimated a shadowy group struggling for control and for survival, but those Illuminati-wannabes never made any damn sense. (Also, in The X-Files‘ America, aliens existed alongside vampires and shape-shifting janitors and toilet monsters mutated from Chernobylized worms and shadows that went around incinerating people. What did it think it was, True Blood?)
That’s forgivable for a nineties procedural, but in a post-Lost world, TV audiences have been burned one time too many. In fact, prestige cable dramas tend to boast not only impeccably detailed universes, but pride themselves in expanding them season by season (e.g., Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and of course the ne plus ultra of this virtue, The Wire). Some shows, like FX’s The Bridge, coast by on their superb world-building alone. Carter hasn’t yet proved to the world that he can create a coherent universe, but I hope he’ll do so one day (and that day may come soon).