This is the first in an occasional series about TV series and episodes.
To many critics and fans of “The X-Files,” it’s a forgone conclusion that the best episode is either “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or “Home.” They are both fine episodes, emblematic of the series smartly using some of its best assets. The former tackled our looming mortality in a way that managed to be poignant without being sappy and funny without being flippant. The latter episode, known for its violence and disturbing incest plot, was able to inject humor without being crude. Strong episodes, to be sure.
But a third episode needs to be considered for best episode. At its best, “The X-Files” was simultaneously funny and intelligent while creatively approaching familiar supernatural topics in a fresh, nonlinear way. “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” not only epitomized those strengths, but took more risks and broke more ground than either “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or “Home.”
Before “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,'” which turns 20 this week, most episodes of “The X-Files” followed a linear, chronological trajectory. The cold open would show something creepy and/or sinister, and then for the rest of the episode, Mulder and Scully would investigate the aftermath of whatever happened in that opening scene. But in “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,'” abandoned that formula, choosing instead to tell most of the story in flashbacks. Jose Chung, a writer played brilliantly by Charles Nelson Reilly, interviewed Scully about a case she and Mulder investigated in rural Washington. As Scully told her story, Chung interjected with counterpoints from the subjects he interviewed. In other words, it’s not just a story with flashbacks, but contradictory flashbacks from multiple points of view. And it’s all really, really funny.
Twenty years later, the episode holds up surprisingly well, even if the special effects used to create Lord Kinbote seem awful compared to 2016 standards. Of course, those special effects were awful by 1996 standards. “Independence Day” came out that same year, and blew the visuals in “The X-Files” away. But they were meant to be cheesy and campy, because that matched the tone.
No episode of “The X-Files” had a better ensemble cast of so many great guest stars. Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek delivered great performances as the intimidating Men In Black, serving as the perfect foil to Roky Crikenson, played by a pre-“Sons of Anarchy” William Lucking. As great as Charles Nelson Reilly was as the chatty Chung, he’s not the best part of the episode. Detective Manners, he of “bleeping” fame, and Blaine Faulkner, who “didn’t spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage,” stole every scene in which they appeared. Manners, as many know, was based on series director Kim Manners, who was known to swear. A lot.
The episode was one of a handful of episodes written by Darin Morgan, who also wrote “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” Morgan was a master of writing quirky material without being weird for the sake of being weird. He was funny — hilarious, really — but in a way that wasn’t cheap or forced. Morgan didn’t write for the series in later seasons, but he set the groundwork for the rest of the series. The rules had changed. Not only did “The X-Files” not always have to be gruesome, it could be comedic. Overtly so. And it could play around with perspective, chronology, and tone.
The series would later experiment with flashback episodes in which Scully and Mulder appeared very little, if at all: “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” “Unusual Suspects,” and “Travelers,” just to name a few. And, as the show went on, there were episodes that were more comedic than dramatic, such as “Small Potatoes,” “Bad Blood,” “Dreamland,” and “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas.” All of those episodes owe “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” a debt for setting the stage and prepping viewers for the innovations to come.