TV Article

Thinking Outside of the Idiot Box

Will there ever be another ''X-Files''? Sure, reality TV is huge -- but that doesn't mean there's no room for quirky, scripted fare on network TV, argues Ken Tucker

Mitch Pileggi, David Duchovny, ... | QUITE A MYSTERY Would ''X-Files'' have thrived abiding by today's rules for hour-long dramas?
Image credit: The X-Files: Fox
QUITE A MYSTERY Would ''X-Files'' have thrived abiding by today's rules for hour-long dramas?

Will there ever be another ''X-Files''?

With viewers' attention spans decreasing at an alarming rate, and ''reality'' taking over the small screen, will we ever see the likes of ''The X-Files,'' ''Twin Peaks,'' and ''Northern Exposure'' again? -- Brian Rose

Good, knotty question. First, I do think reality shows like ''Survivor'' and ''The Amazing Race'' sometimes challenge attention spans as well as any dramas do. But I know what you mean about such programming crowding out quirkier scripted fare. Indeed, I'd bet that if David Lynch wanted to do ''Twin Peaks'' today, he'd shop it to HBO before ABC. But the industry wisdom right now for hour-long shows -- that they should be self-contained hours -- would actually favor ''The X-Files''' best episodes, which I always thought were the stand-alone, non-''mythology'' ones. And hey, Joss Whedon may have gotten a raw deal with the quickly killed ''Firefly,'' but ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer'' had a good, long run until just last year. So don't despair. J.J. Abrams' ''Alias'' is as much an auteur showcase for exciting drama as ''The X-Files'' was, and dig ''The Practice'' these days? James Spader alone is providing as much eccentricity as ''Northern Exposure'' did in its entire run.

My question is about big-name stars in crappy shows. Seeing how Bette Midler, Geena Davis, etc., failed miserably, why do the networks build shows around them?

You're right: The industry always thinks plugging a movie star into a series will guarantee a big tune-in, and it often does -- the first week. But television works best when it creates its own stars, not when it imports them from the big screen or the theater. Heck, even James Stewart couldn't make a go of it as a sitcom star on ''The Jimmy Stewart Show'' (1971-72). Sometimes a star whose feature-film career is fading can jump-start a new life on TV (Cybill Shepherd and Candice Bergen come to mind immediately). But Lord knows that nice Brooke Shields wasn't really cut out for wacky sitcom antics on ''Suddenly Susan,'' even if the series did last four years. Frequently the star's chosen format is an ill fit (Geena Davis as a Manhattan exec-turned-suburban mom? It could have been called ''No Sex and No City''...). That said, the move occasionally works. James Caan fits in nicely with his buff costars as the casino boss on ''Las Vegas,'' and I doubt we'll ever be able to ship Whoopi Goldberg back to film full-time; between sitcoms, game shows, and commercials, she seems here to stay. Sigh...

Why do so many sitcoms insult the audience with a laugh track? Some of my favorite shows (''Arrested Development,'' ''Curb Your Enthusiasm'') don't use it. Do TV execs think we're dumb?

Short answer? Yes, they do. But fight the power! Tell the nets you don't need their stinkin' laugh-prodding devices! Tell them canned laughter curbs your enthusiasm!

(Got a TV-related question for Ken Tucker? Post it here.)

Originally posted Apr 02, 2004 Published in issue #758 Apr 02, 2004 Order article reprints