5 Reasons Conspiracy Shows Don't Work Today
By now, we've all heard that the X-Files is coming back for a bunch of new episodes. And while everyone is intrigued to see whether David Duchovny will look as sexy without his floppy '90s hair and high-waisted business suits, not everyone is excited about the reboot itself. We've already told you the specific reasons this show probably won't work anymore, but there are even deeper issues at play here, namely that the show belongs in a completely different era. And not just because smoking is no longer allowed in federal buildings, so these days the Cigarette Smoking Man would at best be able to get away with vaping.
He is known by the ominous scent of his homemade raspberry-cinnamon e-juice.
See, while the X-Files is great for '90s-era nostalgia, it and shows like it just plain don't work when you set them in the present day. It was a show born within a completely different societal era. You only need to hop on Netflix and watch a few old episodes, perhaps while sipping Crystal Pepsi and sucking on a Push Pop, to see that...
The Sexual Tension Is Just Weird
When I first saw an episode of the X-Files, I was far too young to truly appreciate the famed sexual tension between its two leads. To me, it was all just filler between the scary monsters and the exciting shots of adults who could make their own phone calls without having to boot their older siblings off the Internet first.
The '90s were a dark time.
So when I rewatched Season 1 on Netflix recently, I looked forward to a new, adult appreciation of the long-praised, nuanced relationship between Mulder and Scully. And, well, I ended up as disappointed as Eugene Tooms in a hepatitis ward. The relationship, which the world remembers as steamy enough to get mainstream audiences interested in a show featuring extraterrestrial Amish sex-killers, mostly just comes off as awkward. Mulder knocks on Scully's motel door late at night to invite her out running, calls her in the middle of the night for personal reasons, constantly gets in her personal space, and actually reaches out and grabs a necklace that's resting between her boobs because she's trying to turn away and he's not done talking.
OK, so from the viewpoint of the X-Files' creators, this is understandable: They had to show a distractible television audience that their leads were into each other, even though they're not hooking up just yet. From within the context of the show's universe, though, Mulder comes off like a guy who wouldn't be able to investigate a single alien before he was brought in by Assistant Director Skinner to discuss a dozen different sexual-harassment lawsuits.
So why is this behavior so much more obvious now? I think partially because TV shows have gotten so much better at the "sexual tension" thing. Before 1993, shows with male-female leads who weren't doing it were relatively rare. Then the X-Files format took off, and now you can't flip on the TV without seeing a whole lineup of Sexy Opposite-Sex Partners Who Fight Crime But Who Aren't Partners In That Way, Just So You Know. Shows like Bones and Castle are traveling through familiar territory and know how to build slow-burn sex-tension naturally. After a decade or two of that, it's no wonder Mulder now seems like the type of co-worker you would cross FBI headquarters to avoid talking to.
But that's just the start. There's also the fact that ...
The Attitudes Toward The Military Are From A Different Era
It wouldn't be an X-Files season without at least one episode about a military conspiracy. Usually, these involve at least one fighter pilot who sees an alien and goes insane, catches an alien virus and goes insane, has sex with an alien and goes insane, has sex with an alien virus and goes insane, or gives a virus to an alien fighter pilot, who then goes insane.
It's even worse for them because Xenu doesn't approve of anti-psychotics.
Inevitably, this fighter pilot is killed off by his superiors, and Mulder and Scully's attempts to find the truth are cockblocked by hard-faced officials. The overall message was clear: The military is a dark ocean of mistrust and lies. So how would that work out for a reboot in 2015?
As I've pointed out before, Americans now trust the military more than they do religious leaders, doctors, or teachers. Whether you think that's fair or a result of media brainwashing, the fact remains that repeatedly involving the military in a dark television conspiracy today would be about as popular with audiences as aliens disguised as and played by cute kittens that needed to be slaughtered at the end of every episode.
Another issue is believability. The X-Files first aired in 1993, right around the time when military bases were being closed by the dozen across America. Back then, the average American simply didn't interact very much with active-duty servicepeople. Today, it's much more likely that the average person knows enough military members to realize that they are mostly pretty normal humans with jobs, not brainwashed kill-robots who would shoot their own co-workers if ordered to. Even the fighter pilots.
"But surely there are plenty of other conspiracy theories around!" you protest. Well, there are. The problem is that ...
Conspiracy Theorists Aren't Interesting Anymore
Back in 1993, the options for telling people about your clever new conspiracy theory were limited. You could self-publish a zine, run a pirate radio station, maybe talk on a message board or two. In any case, your audience would probably be numbered in the dozens. Back then, conspiracy theorists were the little guy, shouting truth to power against all the odds. So when they popped up in an X-Files episode spouting off valuable exposition about the government's latest plot to poison the nation's Slushies with frog DNA so that we'd all turn into dinosaurs and the elite could hunt us down for sport, we were inclined to listen to them, if only out of pity. But then this happened:
For those of you too blessedly young to remember, Loose Change was a horrendously popular documentary series that sparked the 9/11 "truther" movement. For a few years, you couldn't frequent an Internet forum without at least one dude wandering in "just asking questions" about whether 9/11 was an inside job and whether the passengers on Flight 93 had been kidnapped by NASA. It spread into real life as well, with countless uncles ruining family gatherings wondering out loud whether jet fuel could melt steel beams while everyone else was just trying to enjoy the baby shower. It was the first conspiracy to become a genuine social movement, and it was also completely stupid.
And it's not just that all conspiracy theorists have been tainted by the behavior of truthers. Thanks to the rise of the Internet and social media in general, they've also lost their "little guy" status. Long gone are the hunted underdogs of Mulder's era: Today, absolutely any douchebag with an opinion can spout their shit on Twitter or YouTube and attract a wide audience.
Unrelated picture of an X-Files character.
And this is ironic, because ...
The Conspiracies Are All Real Now
In between hunting monsters of the week, Mulder and Scully would take some time off to don some brown trenchcoats and investigate a complicated government conspiracy. Inevitably, these would have a shocking reveal: The government had discovered aliens, only to shoot them for no reason. The government was injecting children with alien DNA. The government was running an education program to make squirrels even better at figuring out how to get into our bird feeders. Inevitably, after he discovered what was going on, Mulder would always wear his flabbergasted face.
Dammit, government. You have flabbered the hell out of his gast.
This was odd, because while there has never been a time when the U.S. government's actions were 100 percent peachy, the '90s was definitely a low point for shady government activity. Now, compare this to today. In the last 10 years, we've learned that the government has gone to war for no particular reason, tortured innocent people in secret prisons, and repeatedly executed American citizens without trial. In theory, this should give the new X-Files some great plot fuel, maybe even enough fuel to melt steel, I don't know, the truth is still out there about that. In reality, though, I think it works the opposite way. After the last 10 years or so, the mind-blowing conspiracy theories we saw revealed on the X-Files seem kind of ... quaint, like a kid finding out for the first time why their parents share a bed.
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."
Put it this way: Say it came out tomorrow that the U.S. government once shot an alien, as was revealed in the first-season episode "E.B.E." Would we really be that shocked? Sure, we'd be freaked out about the existence of the alien, but would anyone truly be surprised and disappointed at the government's reaction? Most people would be amazed that they'd only shot the damn thing, and didn't waterboard it and then misplace its mutilated corpse in a kindergarten.
And this has the potential to ruin everything about the new X-Files, because ...
It's Only Fun When You're Pretend Scared
Do you remember when that CIA torture report came out in 2014 and nobody really cared? If you're like me, you had friends on your social media blaming "superficial" Americans for paying more attention to celebrities and kitten videos than to their country torturing people. And that might be a part of it, but I think it's also just plain fatigue. The government's shady dealings during the war on terror have been going on for over a decade now, and everyone's just kind of tired. The first time your crazy aunt starts rubbing mashed potatoes into her hair at Thanksgiving dinner and yelling, "Get out of my swamp!" the family is horrified. The 20th Thanksgiving she does it, you all just pretend not to notice.
"I really like how the cranberry sauce brings out the blood frothing from her mouth this year."
And that's the ultimate reason the X-Files only works as a look into the past and nothing more. Unearthing terrible conspiracy theories is only fun when real conspiracy theories aren't in the news. It's like if your whole family was killed by wizards: Under those circumstances, would it really be fun to keep playing Dungeons & Dragons? I guess only if you hated your family and the wizards were also super cool and sexy, but that's unlikely.
For a good example of this cultural shift, take a look at the present-day equivalent to the X-Files: CW's long-running horror series Supernatural. The show has featured a bunch of X-Files alumni, from producer Kim Manners to actors like Mitch Pileggi. It's never been anywhere near as popular as the X-Files, either because its show format seems to be dying or because it just isn't halfway as good, but it does retain a lot of the X-Files' trademarks: horror elements, a spooky British Columbia filming location, a tendency for self-parodying meta episodes. But anything resembling the "government conspiracy" angle? As absent as Mulder's poor sister. When an evil government or military person does appear, they inevitably turn out to be possessed by a monster or something else comfortingly fictional.
Like you've never wondered if things would be simpler if we could just exorcise Congress.
This is because the X-Files was ultimately based on pretend fear, and pretend fear is what most TV viewers had of the government in 1993, and they don't have that anymore. It's one reason why, for the last 10 years, most movies about government and military conspiracies have sunk like a stone, while audiences flocked to movies about superheroes and fictional possessed corpses. So unless the X-Files reboots itself with the main bad guys as super cool sexy wizards, we just won't want to see it.
For more from C. Coville, check out 5 Insane Ways We're Not Letting Celebrities Die and 4 Reasons Being a Tall Woman Can Be Worse Than a Short Man.
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