Remember When ‘The X-Files’ Became the Best Episode of ‘Cops’?
‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“What is it, Scully?”
“What is it? Mulder, have you noticed that we’re on television?”
“I don’t think it’s LIVE television, Scully. She just said *bleep*.”
The X-Files is a series that went out of its way to show how different it was and what a challenge it could be to the medium of serialized television and storytelling. When a series has been on for so long, and developed such a formula and rhetoric, a lot of the ensuing fun can be driven from exploiting and perverting the very same formula you’ve been relying on for so long. It’s not difficult to write a basic X-Files episode. There’s a freaky incident. Mulder and Scully investigate. Scully meets Mulder’s fanaticism with her skepticism and somewhere along the way we get to a monster.
That doesn’t mean that this basic approach can’t be pushed to new extremes or find a new life, and it’s precisely because of this tendency for the writers to get bored and want to play with their toys, that the series would end up producing episodes like a black-and-white monster movie pastiche, a “single-shot” episode taking place on a Nazi submarine in the past, or a comedic take on Rashomon involving vampires. All of these experiments would happen in the latter half of the series’ run, and while a lot of these exercises were seen as disposable episodes to many viewers, others saw them as the standout installments. As The X-Files would continue to loosen up through the years, with these deviations from the norm acting as precedent for why risks were worth taking, it would allow something as ridiculous as a crossover (or mash-up, or fever dream — whatever you want to call it) between The X-Files and Cops to take place.
The X-Files was capable of being a very funny show when it wanted to be, and while it might not be a comedy by design, its fluid nature and tendency to so often buck the norm would lead to it accumulating a fair collection of humorous installments. There’s even a demarcation line drawn between the two extremes of episodes, with many “Best Of” lists splitting the two between the series’ dramatic and comedic endeavors, just like it would with their important “myth-arc” episodes and the throwaway “Monster-of-the-Week” ones. “X-Cops” written by the series’ always-reliable (and scribe of some of the series’ funniest episodes) Vince Gilligan, and directed by Michael Watkins, manages to simultaneously be one of funniest and scariest episodes the series has ever done. With the pivotal series marking its return to television after a 13-year hiatus, the opportunity to feature the series here seems particularly appropriate.
There are a lot of places to jump in with this ambitious episode, but my favorite thing about it all is that it’s more concerned with presenting the DNA of an episode of Cops than it is The X-Files. The Cops theme song and intro kick off the episode, and even the series’ trademark flashing police light bumper shots were mashed together with The X-Files title card when going into commercial breaks. In fact, this very much feels like you’re just watching an episode of Cops, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Wait a second, is that Mulder and Scully assisting that LAPD officer?” It’s an idea that you never knew that you wanted — and by all means shouldn’t work — but as you’re watching it you’re just angry that you didn’t get this craziness sooner.
Admittedly, this episode was very much a pet project of Vince Gilligan. It was a script that he had been pushing since the show’s fourth season (much to the other writers’ chagrin) and when it finally was looking like the series would be closing up shop at the end of the seventh season (it didn’t), they gave Gilligan the greenlight to have fun with this one. What was the harm if the series was going to be ending anyway? Granted, a lot of the reasons that “X-Cops” works is because of Gilligan’s obvious admiration for small-town Americana and the very reality show that he’s lampooining. He’s also a fricking genius, which helps, too. In another writer’s hands, yes, this episode could have been a disaster, but Gilligan and Watkins’ dedication, truly committing to the anomalistic structure, is why this episode is such a fun, surprising success.
I suppose it’s first necessary to explain how these bizarre worlds end up colliding in the first place. The episode sees Mulder and Scully getting thrown into this Cops universe while they’re out during the night on a suspected werewolf chase. The chaos they’re chasing intersects with the Cops episode and it’s not long until Mulder and Scully are on camera, continuing their investigation, with the television crew in tow. Gilligan’s script is also very smart to not break any of the cardinal rules of Cops, or have this turn into an episode of Cops that wouldn’t be able to air on television. Sure, this would be one of the more batshit insane episodes of the series, but “X-Cops” works very hard to never show you the monster on camera, hinting at its nature instead.
As the episode progresses, Mulder and Scully figure out that their monster isn’t a werewolf, but rather some sort of creature that feeds on fear, presenting everyone with varied representations that cut them to their core (like a werewolf, for instance). This idea dovetails very nicely with the trappings of reality television and the public images that we create while on camera as defense mechanisms. It’s a little surprising that this episode manages to be surprisingly deep, saying much on this topic, that of post-modernism and the gaze of the spectator, all while using one of the most trailer trash-y, lowbrow programs to do so.
Gilligan using Cops as a soapbox is pretty wonderful, but it’s the technical aspects that are what really make this episode exceptional. The X-Files secured the complete cooperation of John Langley, a producer on Cops, which allowed incredible facilitation to take place (Gilligan even got to accompany the team during the filming of an episode). Several Cops cast and crew members were lent to the series for the episode, most notably, Bertram van Munster, a cameraman from Cops, allowing the episode to have the right look to its filming. Sound men and editors (responsible for that trademark “blurred” look on civilians’ faces) were also brought in to bridge gaps and further the authenticity of it all. Actual LAPD officers are in use as extras, with those moments of them just chatting casually, like cops off the job, ringing so true because of who Watkins assembled. The episode goes as far as having real SWAT team members in use for the raid at the crack house.
Additional efforts were taken by not having the cameras in use during the rehearsal of scenes. This would provide a more unscripted and looser look to the episode, which was typical of Cops’ style. Watkins even said that shooting “X-Cops” felt more like doing theater where entire acts were being done at once, rather than the disjointed nature that shooting can so often have. The crew were also only doing one or two takes of a scene with this episode, versus the copious amounts that they would usually do. The show was almost re-teaching itself how to produce an episode due to the efforts it was taking.
“X-Cops” would also go as far as insisting that the episode be shot on videotape, rather than their usual film, which meant less freedom with cutting and editing, which is where a lot of the series’ scares come from. This is much more of a Rube Goldberg machine of events happening where the payoff needs to happen on camera, rather than manipulating the medium to get to it. This is significantly more challenging, but their ability to pull it off adds further authenticity to everything. Also as a result of the videotape constraints, the episode plays out in real time, and each act is more or less a continuous shot (for comparison sake, a usual X-Files episode has around 1,000 cuts in it, whereas “X-Cops” has a mere 45). It’s also a prime example of the show using found footage creatively and reasonably ahead of the game. There are a lot of specific nods to The Blair Witch Project too, in terms of how the horror is constructed. Mark Snow’s signature soundtrack to the show is also absent. The episode is bereft of music (other than the theme song), again reflecting the construction of a typical Cops episode. Music would pull you out of this realism. Cops’ trademark filthy language, where a barrage of curse words are bleeped out, is another exceptional touch that’s so much fun to see meshing with the often dour X-Files universe. You could still execute this episode premise without these nitpicky touches, but their inclusion shows how seriously this new structure is being taken.
One of the reasons that “X-Cops” is such a successful episode is that it knows when to not take any of this seriously. A lot of this episode’s humor stems from the fact that Mulder and Scully are aware that they’re being seen on national television. The episode combines their disparate personalities with the episode’s new form perfectly by having Mulder constantly mugging to the cameras, while Scully desperately tries to avoid them. Mulder looking at the camera dead-on, trying to deliver catchphrases, and totally playing up himself is pretty inspired stuff. Watching Scully become actively pissed off with the camera crew, hiding her face, and lashing out through gritted teeth is just as satisfying, too. You get to see two new fresh angles on these characters (a feat, seven seasons in) that’s practically only possible through the lens it’s taken on this episode.
In this sense too, the episode wisely uses the “national television” construct with the strengths of the episode. Mulder is always hungry to discover the truth, but doing so on national television would validate him in ways that he’s never known. Suddenly this random monster hunt becomes much more important. At the same time, as this monster continues to reflect everyone’s worst fears, is Mulder’s not being proven to be wrong in front of the largest audience possible? As Mulder and Scully continue to see scorn and derision through the episode, their witnesses are also all people with questionable stories, motives, and even identities. The episode works very hard to present a narrative full of people who cannot be trusted in order to emphasize the point that the camera is the only one who can be trusted. It has complete control, and so to see it dictating the story so much makes a lot of sense. And this level of insightful commentary is all being dressed up in a Cops episode!
In spite of how all of this thoroughness is part of the reason this episode works so well, Gilligan still had an uphill battle with FOX. Gilligan didn’t want any X-Files signifiers at all, especially the series’ opening credits, insisting it would remove you from the experience and break the illusion that this was all a Cops episode. Obviously FOX was interested in people knowing that this was the X-Files rather than a scheduling error or pre-emption snafu, but honestly, stumbling upon the episode in that mindset makes it all the more magical. The compromise reached is that the Cops theme would still open the episode, but the X-Files theme would still follow after the cold open. In spite of this, FOX was still insistent on the episode having a disclaimer before it, explaining what was going on. And in spite of Gilligan getting to feature Cops’ aforementioned signature commercial break shots featuring flashing lights and background police dialogue, they still had to be given an X-Files veneer to get the go ahead. None of these concessions really take away from the episode too greatly, or destroy the idea that Gilligan is trying to cultivate, it’s just an interesting example of how many hoops need to be jumped through when you attempt something of this scale. It’s why so many people churn out regular episodes of their series continually. It’s infinitely easier.
Even after this point in the series, The X-Files would continue experimenting with form, and dipping into the humor well more and more (“Hollywood A.D.” and “Improbably” are must-sees, if only for the craziness factor). “X-Cops” would remain a standout installment of the series, which has gained an even deeper appreciation by the community through the years (it’s the favorite episode of the terrific writer/director Max Landis, too). I wouldn’t expect one of the upcoming X-Files episodes to be a deviation of this nature, but I’m sure the humor will still be flowing in tandem with the horror.