Shoot Straight

Chris Carter considers the futures of X-Files and Lone Gunmen

Carter's partner Frank Spotnitz, co-creator of The Lone Gunmen and X-Files writer-executive producer, puts it even more simply: "I hope The Lone Gunmen stands or falls on its own merits. It deserves to."

In some respects, it's surprising The Lone Gunmen exists at all, given Carter's recent history with Fox and the current TV landscape, which looks more like a junkyard than a gold mine. Long gone are the days when network executives like Brandon Tartikoff and Grant Tinker would launch and coddle intelligent, interesting shows (such as Hill Street Blues or Seinfeld) and stand by them, even if that meant camping out with them in the ratings basement for a season. Because viewership is down for all of the major networks--during the week of April 16-22, NBC drew a daily average of 11 million viewers, 6 million fewer than it had during the same period in 1997--network programmers have become as disposable as Survivor contestants. To save their asses, they'll kill a good show with low numbers because there's always a British game show waiting at customs.

Or perhaps Carter looked around in recent months and saw a fertile landscape that looked remarkably similar to the one that nurtured The X-Files in 1993. Eight years ago, reality television was nearly as ever-present as it has become these days: Shows such as Cops, Rescue 911 and America's Most Wanted provided endless hours of entertainment for the wife-beater T-shirt demographic, and you couldn't tell the comedies from the dramas without the laugh track (cf. The Mommies and Coach). Only five non-news-related or reality-based series from the 1993-1994 season remain on the air: The X-Files; Law & Order, which undergoes a radical cast change during every other commercial break; The Simpsons and Frasier, which have become so awful they're barely recognizable; and Walker, Texas Ranger, which ends its run this spring.

Three men and a maybe, from left: Tom Braidwood, Bruce Harwood and Dean Haglund are The Lone Gunmen.
Three men and a maybe, from left: Tom Braidwood, Bruce Harwood and Dean Haglund are The Lone Gunmen.

"People are still looking for hits," Carter says. "That's the long and short of it, and if all of the sudden Temptation Island hits or Survivor hits, you're going to get lots more of those things, and it's going to crowd out more conventional storytelling, like what we do--or unconventional storytelling, like what we do." He chuckles.

Ironically, The Lone Gunmen was poorly received by the very people who should have embraced it: TV critics, whose reviews of the first two episodes were usually accompanied by headlines such as "The Lone Gunmen shoot blanks" and "The goof is out there." Spotnitz says even he didn't think the first two episodes were entirely successful: The pilot felt too much like The X-Files, he says, while the second show leaned too far toward the "wacky," down to the scenes featuring a blind football team. "Now, we've found the right tone," Spotnitz says, "which is funny and sweet and comedic, but it also has some reality and some heart to it."

Carter also believes critics weren't writing about the show as much as they were gunning for him; they wanted another X-Files, and he gave them a witty, charming amalgam of Mission: Impossible, The Wild, Wild West and Man from U.N.C.L.E. Carter felt as though critics were taking out their frustrations with The X-Files--the is-Mulder-dead-or-alive plot proved most grating for some--on The Lone Gunmen, and after the disaster of Harsh Realm, he felt he'd become a slow-moving target--the showrunner standing still.

"I think what happened is that now, people are reviewing this so-called powerful person, and they're not reviewing the show," he says. "They're reviewing the circumstances surrounding the show, and that's disappointing to me. I don't think about power, to be honest. I think about doing a good job and the treatment you get when you produce something that's good and deserves a chance. If it's not given its fair shake, then I get irritated, but I'm not asking for anything more than that, nor do I think anyone should ask for more than that, because you'd keep too much crap on TV if it was just a power play."

But The Lone Gunmen deserves another shot: It's a television show for television fetishists, an homage to and parody of '60s cops-and-thrillers series, only populated by dorks instead of hunks. And it's charming, a quality lacking from all but the best commercials these days: Last week's episode took place almost entirely on the dance floor, as arms traffickers made deals during a tango competition. The X-Files turned to comedy during its second season as a relief from the oppressive conspiracies and as an opportunity to prove just how elastic the series could be. The Lone Gunmen, quite simply, is the most consistently amusing and amiable show on TV--the hour-long smile, a reminder of how much fun TV can be when it's made by people who genuinely love the medium.

"I'll tell you what one of the best things is about doing this show," Carter says. "Sitting in these audiences every day now, I will hear peals of laughter coming from down the hall, because they're watching dailies, and it's such a nice thing." He laughs. "The X-Files is what it is, and to have something like this come along, it builds on something that has been wonderful and produced for me a wonderful amount of success and opportunity. The Lone Gunmen is the lucky product of that. I look at so much comedy on television, and I'm thinking to myself, 'Well, we're funnier than that.' I just wish people would tune in and watch it."

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