Friday, October 2, 2015

21 Underrated Monster of the Week Episodes of “The X Files” You Need to Watch Now!

When “The X-Files” returns to FOX on January 24, 2016, what can we expect? A six-episode mythology arc or a half-dozen all-new monsters to make us hide under our FBI-issued trench coats? I’d wager that Chris Carter is going to give us the former, and I will definitely watch it even though my favorite episodes of his investigative sci-fi/horror series were the ones that freaked us out with one-off parasite men, robotic cockroaches, and inbred families. Personally, I’m a Monster of the Week guy.

Classic “X-Files” MOW’s such as “The Host”, “War of the Coprophages”, and “Home” need no introduction to casual “X-Files” fans. They are regularly praised in “Best Episodes Ever!” features in print and online publications such as Empire, Entertainment Weekly, The AV Club, Vanity Fair, and Hollywood Reporter. But what about the less known, less celebrated monsters of the week? Monsters need love to. Didn’t we learn anything from Frankenstein, or more on-topic, the monstrously overrated “Postmodern Prometheus” episode of “The X-Files” that James Whale’s movie inspired? Well, that’s what this post is all about, Spooky!

After eliminating all the shows covered in the aforementioned publications, I came to a few sobering realizations. There aren’t quite 21 “great” underrated Monster-of-the-Week episodes, and there isn’t a single underrated episode written by Darin Morgan. That wasn’t too much of a surprise since Morgan gets my vote for the series’ greatest writer (sorry, Vince!), but I was still hoping to give the man a little love in this piece. So—for the record—I love you, Darin Morgan.

But enough about the love between a lowly blog writer and a wonderfully talented TV writer. Let’s shift our love focus to the “ship” between “I’ll believe anything!” FBI wackadoo Fox Mulder and “It isn’t scientifically plausible! FBI scientist Dana Scully. We’re also going to focus on getting you, dear reader, to fall in love with these 21 Underrated Episodes of “The X-Files” You Need to Watch Now!

1. “Shapes

The chronological nature of this piece means that we must start with one of those “not great” underrated episodes of “The X-Files”. While mythology episodes such as “Deep Throat”, “Fallen Angel”, “E.B.E.”, and “The Erlenmeyer Flask” are among the series’ best, the Monster of the Week shows had a lot of growing to do in the series first season, though a small handful (“Squeeze”, “Ice”, “Beyond the Sea”, “Eve”) are rightfully considered classics. “Shapes” is not one such show, and it is often criticized for being run-of-the-mill. However, there are several very noteworthy pleasures in this underrated show. It’s fun to see the series dabble in traditional monsters. The werewolf in this episode is suitably creepy when it starts threatening our heroes at the end of the show, and the creature’s human identity is a good source of mystery throughout the episode. The Native American characters are also handled well without an excess of the usual superstitious stereotypes, and we even get one great skeptic in Sheriff Tskany. That character is played by Michael Horse, and seeing him interact with his old “Twin Peaks” co-star David Duchovny is another underrated joy of an episode much better than its bad rep suggests.

2. “Tooms
The only reason “Tooms” gets ignored when ranking “The X-Files’” best is because the episode “Squeeze” almost always makes those lists. Both shows feature Eugene Victor Tooms, a mild-mannered dude who emerges from his underground nest every sixty years to munch on human livers and squeeze through tiny spaces. “Tooms” is notable not just for being another effectively creepy appearance by our old liver-loving buddy, but it is also a landmark in “X-Files” history for featuring the first reappearance of a MOW and the first appearance of the beloved Assistant Director Walter Skinner. Tooms’ attempt to frame Mulder indicates a human level of cunning not quite present in “Squeeze”.

3. “Blood

“The X-Files” matured quickly in season two, and its first Monster of the Week episode is the iconic “The Host”. The next one is not quite as well loved as that gross tale of a humanoid fluke worm, but “Blood” is a strong episode that really injects the cuckoo paranoia of the mythology episodes into a MOW. Here we also see that the “M” in MOW isn’t always the lycanthropic or liver-eating kind. In fact, the monster in “Blood” is a chemical the local government is spreading around via pesticides and blood tests. It causes the infected people to see subliminal messages that give direction to their chemically-induced paranoia. The directions include “Kill ‘Em All”, “He’ll rape you,” and my personal favorite, “All done. Bye bye.” The crazy sniper in the clock tower climax has been done to death, but great character actor William Sanderson elevates the cliché with an infectiously tortured performance.

4. “Irresistible

This is the one episode on this list that really shocked me in its absence from any of the “best episodes” lists I perused, and I’m still not quite comfortable rating “Irresistible” as underrated. After all, “death fetishist” Donnie Pfaster is among the honored few MOW’s that return to bother Mulder and (especially) Scully (in season seven’s “Orison”). Nevertheless, I jumped on this one when I saw that it failed to make the grade on those other lists, because it is one of the series’ creepiest hours even though Pfaster is less of a “monster” than anything else on this list. In fact, there is nothing supernatural at all in “Irresistible”, and Pfaster is not even the necrophiliac that Chris Carter originally intended him to be before FOX’s censors said “no he isn’t.” Pfaster just collects the fingernails and hair of dead girls and women, and when he loses his job at the mortuary for indulging in his hobby, he takes a more active approach in building his collection. As Pfaster, Nick Chinlund follows in the eerily calm footsteps of Doug Hutchison’s Eugene Tooms, and if anything, he’s even more unsettling. An often-criticized aspect of this episode is the way it piles suffering on Scully, who only just revived from her the alien-induced coma she experienced in the great “Duanne Barry”/“Ascension”/“One Breath” mythology arc. Nevertheless, Gillian Anderson plays Scully’s barely concealed trauma brilliantly and her embrace with Mulder at the end of the show allows her the catharsis she was never allowed in the arc.

5. “F. Emasculata

“The X-Files” changed network TV in several significant ways, such as really cementing the presence of the supernatural on the small screen that “Twin Peaks” slipped in a few years earlier. Another way it changed TV is that it never flinched from bathing our screens in blood and pus. Really, there had never been an American series as gross as “The X-Files” before, and while some previous episodes such as the classic “Die Hand Die Verletzt” and the less-classic “Fresh Bones” trafficked in nasty images in support of the plot, “F. Emasculata” is more like a show in which the plot supports the nasty images. Carter and Howard Gordon’s script is about a pustule-causing infectious disease that spreads from the Costa Rican rainforest to the U.S. Director Rob Bowman really revels in the explosions of those pulsating pustules, making this one of the most stomach-churning episodes of the series. The horrific nature of the disease also supplies this episode with tremendous, sweaty-palm urgency…but let’s face it, the real charm of “F. Emasculata” is that it’s a great excuse for some good old-fashioned gross outs.

 6. “Our Town

While “F. Emasculata” was explicitly gross, “Our Town” was subtler about its nasty themes, and therefore, more insidious. Mulder and Scully investigate ritualistic murders in Arkansas, which lead them to a chicken factory that turns out to be doing some very funky things with its chickens. Seeing Scully enjoying a bucket of extra-crispy ends up being just as gross as any bursting zit in “F. Emasculata”. While he is not nearly as skin-crawling as Eugene Tooms or Donnie Pfaster, Walter Chaco (of Chaco Chicken) is an effective villain of the “I’d like to punch that guy in the face” variety, and undercurrents of humor and rotten-at-the-core communities make “Our Town” as enjoyable as it is unsettling.

7. “Oubliette

Season three seems like the best season of “The X-Files” for two big reasons: the mythology episodes had the scope of epic Hollywood cinema and Darin Morgan followed up on his delightful season-two debut “Humbug” with his three finest episodes and three of the finest of the series as a whole. A perceived decline after season three may be the result of the fact that Morgan would never return again (at least as writer; he’d be back as the dumpy star of season four’s “Small Potatoes”, a very good episode that clearly has aspirations of capturing Morgan’s inimitably zany and satirical voice). However, when examining all the season’s episodes, it’s clear that there are quite a lot of non-classics, some deserving of that status, and some not. One powerful show is “Oubliette”, which finds the survivor of a terrible childhood abduction experiencing a psychic connection with the latest victim of her former captor. Tracey Ellis is a little too low-key as adult victim Lucy Householder, but Mulder’s intense empathy with the character really heightens the emotions of “Oubliette”. As the new child victim, future “Firefly” star and all-around great person Jewel Staite really throws herself into the panic of her situation. Between Staite and Duchovny’s work, “Oubliette” stands as one of the most emotionally draining episodes of “The X-Files”.

8. “Syzygy

OK, so there are better episodes of “The X-Files”, but I’m not sure I enjoy any more than this very underappreciated third-season one. In the previous episode, Darin Morgan’s “War of the Coprophages”, we really started seeing Mulder and Scully’s uncertain feelings about each other boiling to the surface—or at least, Scully’s feelings for Mulder as she becomes jealous of a sexy etymologist named Bambi. In “Syzygy”, a strange cosmic convergence makes those feelings go totally haywire. Scully is once again wallowing in jealousy as Mulder flirts with a pretty cop. She takes to chain smoking. He starts guzzling screwdrivers and attempting to solve “the mystery of the horny beast.” That beast is actually a horned beast that seems to appear burned into the body of a dead teenager in a small community similarly going cosmically crazy. The actual X-file in “Syzygy”, which is a sort of riff on Heathers, isn’t as interesting as Mulder and Scully’s sparring, which makes this show a total delight for “shippers” who aren’t quite ready for their favorite G-man and G-woman to actually get together.

9. “Quagmire

The usual rap about “Quagmire” is that it’s an overall weak episode that contains one all-time classic scene. That episode is the story of a Loch Ness Monster from Georgia that is allegedly eating the locals. That scene finds Mulder and Scully stranded on a rock in the middle of allegedly monster-infested waters and having a disarming heart-to-heart about Mulder’s motivations and Moby Dick. It’s a great scene that allows the characters to just talk for a bit, and it’s one that the show would not always be totally successful in recapturing (see the similar moment in “Detour”, which is fun, but much, much sillier). However, I think the whole episode is a lot of fun, though that might stem from my personal fascination with sea monsters (and please don’t read “fascination with” as “belief in”). This is one of the more lighthearted episodes that can’t quite be categorized as a “funny one,” though there’s true tragedy in the death of the series’ single most beloved character: Queequeg, the little dog Scully inherited from Clyde Bruckman.

10. “Unruhe

Season four continued the strong streak of “The X-Files”, though a touch of the freshness was gone. Often, the season made up for that with more outrageous and gross stories (yes, Johnny Mathis fans, this is the season with “Home”). Vince Gilligan’s “Unruhe” has a villain who does some gross stuff with an awl, though we fortunately never see this graphically. The staleness is apparent when perpetual victim Dana Scully ends up in the creep’s dentist chair. However, Gillian Anderson’s tremendous work once again causes us to fail to consider the sexist implications of her plight while it’s happening, as does Pruitt Taylor Vince’s simmering intensity as Gerry Schnauz, one of the more underrated human MOW’s. Schnauz is capable of doing something rather inhuman, though, as he snaps Polaroids that portray their subjects as screaming, demon-encircled victims. The nightmarish photographs are among the scariest visuals in “The X-Files’” fairly deep well of them.

11. “Sanguinarium

For graphic gore, “Sanguinarium” is unmatched in “X-Files” history. Vivian and Valerie Mayhew’s traumatizing critique of cosmetic surgery is often difficult to watch, from its violent liposuction, to its nauseating chemical peel, to the more mundane image of a witch puking up needles. As such, “Sanguinarium” gets the job done as a piece of visceral horror, even if the script is a bit dodgy. I’ll admit that my affection for this episode probably also has to do with the presence of another “Twin Peaks” alumnus: Richard Beymer.

12. “Paper Hearts

A few episodes after the dumb thrills of “Sanguinarium”, “The X-Files” delivered a much deeper story with “Paper Hearts”, in which Mulder begins having dreams that give him clues to a child murderer he once captured. Don’t bust your brains trying to grasp the logic of that—Vince Gilligan sure didn’t—because it will distract you from the riveting interplay between David Duchovny  and Tom Noonan as this week’s human monster. Noonan’s smirking performance makes him seem more relatably human than a Tooms or Pfaster, and therefore, more immoral and repulsive. He doesn’t seem like some “crazy guy.” He seems like a sane guy who simply enjoys destroying children and tormenting Mulder by suggesting that Mulder’s long lost sister, Samantha, was one of his victims. 

13. “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas

After a pretty strong fourth season, “The X-Files” entered its fifth one looking pretty fatigued. The mythology just seemed to be jogging in circles. The MOW episodes were pretty nondescript even when heavy weights like Stephen King and Lili Taylor were brought aboard to write or act. The series got a revitalization shot between its fifth and sixth seasons with a feature film that was everything so much of season five wasn’t: exciting, focused, and scary. The X-Files: Fight the Future was also a big hit, likely drawing some new fans to their TVs on Sunday nights. Interestingly, though, season six made few attempts to recapture the film’s scope and drama. Rather, the new season seemed more intent on recapturing the most popular episodes of the previous dud season: an entertaining marriage of Salem’s Lot and Rashomon called “Bad Blood” and an unwatchable marriage of Frankenstein, Cher, and the biggest pile of garbage at the city dump called “The Post-Modern Prometheus”. Both episodes pushed the series into goofier territory than it had ever tread before. Season six followed suit with an unprecedented number of “funny ones”, and the first was an unprecedented two-part “funny one” that used timpani thumps to punctuate jokes like a “Three Stooges” short. This made season six one of the series' frothiest seasons…but it also made it a consistently fun one, and “The X-Files” had always doled out fun in pretty judicious portions in the past. One of the frothiest episodes was a holiday jaunt called “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”, a weird ghost story in which Mulder and Scully are trapped in a house with deceased couple Lili Tomlin and Ed Asner, who are trying to force the now totally-in-love FBI team to recreate their own murder-suicide folly. I cannot confirm that any of this makes sense, but Tomlin and Asner are a delight to watch, as is the ingeniously and puzzlingly choreographed set. But, just so we know where we stand with the series now, Mulder makes a fart joke. At least they gave the timpani player the night off.

14. “Terms of Endearment

Much more serious than “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”, yet still too goofy to really feel like the same show we saw in the first five seasons, “Terms of Endearment” is another underrated entertainment. Once again, there’s a guest star worth mentioning, though Bruce Campbell is not quite the household name Ed Asner or Lili Tomlin is… at least not in homes where the homeowner doesn't proudly self-identify as “geek.” Campbell, as any geek reading this site surely knows, is the star of the crazy Evil Dead movies and such terrific TV cult items as “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” In “Terms of Endearment”, he’s a dad whose children tend to be born looking like the devil on a box of Red Hots (see what I mean? Goofy). This time, Mulder’s harassment of a potential monster is less creepy and more jocular, very much in keeping with the show’s shifting tone. The twist is a good one.

15. “Tithonus

Now this feels more like “The X-Files” we’ve come to love, though its themes of weird photographs, Scully skirting death, and middle-aged weirdos facing death are all things the show has done before. What sets “Tithonus” apart is the usual fine writing of Vince Gilligan, a particularly aggressive Scully (Mulder sits most of this one out), and the explanation of one of Clyde Bruckman’s strangest comments in that other episode about a middle-aged weirdo facing death. That latter factor provides an element of transcendence that really makes “Tithonus” an underrated episode worth seeking out.

16. “Monday

TV show’s such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Angel”, “Lost”,  “Xena”, and even “Sesame Street” have tried the old “Groundhog’s Day Loop” gimmick, but “The X-Files” was one of the first (however, if you wanted the real first, you’d have to go all the way back to 1961 when “Shadow Play” aired on “The Twilight Zone”). As it so often did, “The X-Files” did its gimmick with style, keeping with the season sixth’s goofiness by having Mulder repeatedly wake up on the water bed he acquired in the ridiculous “Dreamland” two-parter, but also getting dead serious by having him repeatedly attempt to stop an explosive bank heist that keeps ending with him or Scully dead. It’s funny and tense and absorbing despite the repetitiousness. Once again, we can thank the skills of Vince Gilligan (and the very able John Shiban, whom Vince would put to work on “Breaking Bad” years later). A big bonus is the opportunity to see former “Northern Exposure” star Darren Burroughs on the screen again.

17. “Arcadia

Much like “Syzygy”, “Arcadia” isn’t much in the X-file department (the dictatorial president of a planned community’s homeowner association employs a golem to off any resident who breaks the community rules) but it's pure gold in the Mulder and Scully department. They pose as “Rob and Laura Petrie” (oh, season six…there you go again) to investigate the deaths, and every shipper’s dream comes true as they play house. Well, maybe every shipper wasn’t exactly dreaming about Scully smearing on a mud mask and banishing Mulder to the sofa, but it is enormous fun to watch them trade pet names (Scully christens Mulder “Poopy Head”), snuggle awkwardly, and so on. Mulder is also great when executing blatant violations of the community rules by installing a pink flamingo or a reflecting pool in his front yard. Perhaps this isn’t season six at its silliest (“Dreamland” or “Rain King”, take your pick) or most sublime (“Triangle”), but it’s probably the favorite episode of a lot of fans of a certain swooning stripe. More should acknowledge how good it is though.

18. “Three of a Kind   

Three paranoid nerds who call themselves the Lone Gunmen are apparently Mulder’s only friends before he meets Scully (and he probably wouldn’t consider eating cheese steaks and picking apart the Zapruder footage with her). We first meet them in season one’s “E.B.E.” and learn their backstory in season five’s “Unusual Suspects”, an episode that should be funnier and more substantial. I won’t necessarily say that the follow-up episode, “Three of a Kind”, is more substantial, but it is funnier, especially when Scully gets a dose of brainwashing serum and the real Gillian Anderson (a lovable goof) starts to giggle through her character’s icy façade. As for the real stars of the show, Byers gets to reunite with the girl of his dreams, and they have a much more satisfying farewell than the one in “Unusual Suspects”, Langly plays Dungeons & Dragons, and Frohike gets to hear the words he never would when Scully isn’t doped: “Hi, cutie!”

19. “The Amazing Maleeni

By its seventh season, the wind had really gone out of “The X-Files”. Duchovny and Anderson were clearly ready to move on, and attempts to keep them interested by allowing them to write and direct episodes resulted in his so-so shot at season six-style silliness (“Hollywood A.D.”) and her pseudo-spiritual gobbledygook that might win the worst-episode-ever booby prize (“all things”). There were still some good moments here and there, such as the twisty magician’s caper “The Amazing Maleeni”, which showcased real-life magician extraordinaire Ricky Jay. Introducing magic in its showiest sense to “The X-Files” was a pretty fresh idea, and the script by dream-team Gilligan, Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz displays deft slight-of-hand. As always, some choice Mulder and Scully playfulness really increases the fun. 

20. “Je Southaite

Season seven scaled back the constant comedy of the previous season, though two of the most overt examples—“Hollywood A.D.” and the found-footage spoof “X-Cops”—were probably the season’s most beloved episodes. My vote for the best “funny one” of the last season with Duchovny working (basically) full time has him meeting a cynical genie (or jinniyah to be accurate) that a yahoo finds in a storage space. The antics of that yahoo and his brother are tiresome, but Jenn the jinniyah is a wonderful character as played by Paula Sorge, who somehow didn’t become a star after this. Mulder’s attempt to use her to make the world a better place goes absurdly wrong, but his final wish provides one of the series’ loveliest moments.

21. “Alone

All done! Bye, bye, Mulder! Bye, bye great show called “The X-Files” too! When David Duchovny basically left the series after season seven, Robert Patrick came in to replace him, and though he’s an excellent character actor and the dynamic shift between partners was a nice development (now Scully is the believer and her partner is the skeptic), there simply weren’t very many good episodes anymore. Toward the end of the season, Mulder came back from his alien-induced limbo, and we remembered what the show was missing: him. Seeing him work on a standard MOW with Doggett also makes the new guy a more interesting character, as he feels on the outside of Mulder and Scully’s relationship seasoned after seven seasons of TV. Doggett is also saddled with a new partner as Scully goes off to have her space baby. The partner is actually one of the fun things about “Alone”, as she plays the role of “X-Files” superfan by being an X-files superfan who'd read all of Mulder and Scully’s reports, knows every case, and wants to be an ace paranormal crime fighter just like her heroes. She ends up getting more of that than she can handle when she ends up in the pantry of a lizard man. This episode feels like a final gift to Monster of the Week fans with its fan-substitute character and constant references to classic episodes, very few of which appear on this list. After all, how many viewers would get references to a roster of such underrated episodes?

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