Writer-executive producer Chris Carter, the man who created both The X-Files and Millennium, is the sort of popular artist who's always trying to transcend the pop culture that inspires him. Too often, such ambition dulls the obstreperous energy that makes the best mass entertainment vital. But like Ross Macdonald with his moody private-eye novels and Philip K. Dick with his grandly paranoiac science-fiction tales, Carter has found a way to make dark-minded self-consciousness help rather than hinder his work. Using junky forms like TV sci-fi and the modern horror novel as jumping-off points, he's given us two series that stand out as unpredictable, original visions.
None of which means that Carter is infallible. Indeed, The X-Files' fourth season, which concludes on May 18, has been very uneven, with a few superb episodes propping up weak ones. Here's a checklist of what's right and wrong with this show, along with a few presumptuous suggestions on how to improve it.
Figure out the scares-vs.-laughs ratio. On the downside, too many plots were variations on previous years' reliance upon genetically mutated killers. On the upside, an interesting development: Aside from a single standout shocker the episode ''Home,'' which centered on a murderous, incestuous backwoods clan the best Files tended to be more light-headed, such as the recent, hilarious ''Small Potatoes,'' in which a shape-shifter (played by Darin Morgan, writer of such classic Files as ''Humbug'' and ''Jose Chung's From Outer Space'') becomes Mulder, offering David Duchovny his best acting opportunities to date.
These change-of-pace shows are super-fine as respites from the frightening, disturbing episodes that hooked us on X-Files in the first place, and this subtle shift in tone may be Carter's solution to sustaining the show's momentum. I buy it.
But let's move the mythology along, shall we? For three years, all the government-conspiracy hugger-mugger in the so-called mythology episodes was wonderfully intricate, gleefully paranoid. These days, info is doled out in tiny dribbles, and the monotonous evil of Cancer Man (William B. Davis) to take one wheezing example has become actively annoying. On the other hand, Mulder's new Deep Throat, Marita Covarrubias, is satisfyingly inscrutable, and the deadly-bee angle of the recent ''Zero-Sum'' is a logical development in the too-long-dropped cloning story line. Request: more conspiracy specifics, more quickly.
Cool it on the Mulder-Scully coziness. This season's increase in teasing coyness about the partners' fondness for each other (Mulder surprising Gillian Anderson's Scully with a cupcake topped by a birthday candle how cuuute) is, at this point in the show's history, a time waster.
I'll end with a logical disclaimer: If X-Files weren't so good, I wouldn't bother to pick on it. Oh, and Chris, could you get wardrobe to give Henriksen something other than that lousy pea green storm jacket to wear? B+