It’s currently fashionable to say that we’re living in a new golden age of television, but this assumes that the first golden age — commonly considered the late ’50s and early ’60s — contained a lot of great, enduring stuff. I’m not so sure. Certainly, a lot of supposedly great old dramas, seen now, look like predictable moral tracts. The best sitcoms of the period hold up better, as both knockabout entertainment and social time capsules. There is one area of television programming about which I have no doubt: The golden age of the supernatural genre was not then but is right now, and glows most brightly on The X-Files. Well into its third season, X-Files shows no sign of flagging inspiration; its ability to find paranoia in the paranormal appears to be limitless.
This season, the show’s creator, Chris Carter, has decided to vary tone and content in an exhilarating way; he’s made it his business to keep viewers constantly off balance. Week after week, Carter sends our furrowed-brow heroes, FBI agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), off on cases that have included everything from a surly slacker who can control lightning to a bitter quadruple amputee who can send out able-bodied images of himself to commit murder. These are isolated oddballs, however, compared with the other sort of story line Carter is fond of: grand governmental conspiracy, in which Scully and Mulder must confront their own superiors with evidence that the leaders of our country are involved in cover-ups, lies, and worse.
There’s also been some gratifying fine-tuning done to Scully (who’s had a few terrific, tough-as-nails scenes recently, telling off condescending men) and Mulder (who isn’t nearly as much of a dour lump as he used to be). In an episode about vampires, a doctor looks imploringly at the X-Files duo and says, ”You are really upsetting me — on several levels.” Yes: It’s the varied peculiarities of The X-Files that make it so entrancing.
For further proof that the first golden age of TV wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I submit for your disapproval Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval, an American Masters documentary about the writer best known as the creator of The Twilight Zone, which originally aired from 1959 to 1965. The documentary is filled with interesting interviews with people who performed Serling’s scripts (Jack Klugman, Jack Palance, Cliff Robertson) and rarely seen footage of the writer’s live-television dramas (Patterns, The Comedian, and, most famously, Requiem for a Heavyweight). But Submitted for Your Approval is crucially marred by a stupid dramatic device — having what the American Masters press release calls a ”Serling soundalike” narrate much of the show. The voice is so patently not Serling’s that it ends up being a distraction.
Much of Submitted is given over to The Twilight Zone, Serling’s greatest success and a nightly staple of — what else? — cable’s Sci-Fi Channel. Unlike The X-Files, which feels free to allow its unnerving occurrences to waft away without explanation, the many Twilight Zones written by Serling most often were, as one interviewee notes here, ”parables” and ”morality tales” intent on pushing Serling’s liberal-humanist-middlebrow agenda. There’s a smug quote from the man himself: ”On The Twilight Zone, I knew that I could get away with having Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.” This was Serling’s excuse for never penning the great political drama he always intended to write.
But it’s also why, viewed now by anyone not blinded by the myth of a golden age, The Twilight Zone seems quaint, even corny. Will The X-Files strike future viewers the same way a few decades from now? Maybe, but I doubt it. Its ability to upset on several levels gives it a deeper thrill. B