I recently began re-watching The X-Files (Dear Netflix Watch Instantly, I love you) and, beyond the severe nostalgia for the mid ’90s that it has given me, I can’t help but notice how much this simple TV show represents a recently deceased era. No, not one of good sci-fi on TV (the genre may struggle on the small screen these days, but there are good shows to be found), but of how exhilarating a good government conspiracy can be.
The best thing about The X-Files, at least in its early seasons, is that series creator Chris Carter didn’t give the show a finite, central mystery that demanded prompt unraveling. The episodes don’t end with incremental plot revelations or viewer-baiting cliff hangers. Carter merely provided an all-encompassing shroud of mystery to the show: the Government is keeping secrets from its citizens and the truth is out there. The majority of the series’ episodes are just puzzle pieces in a greater, conspiratorial mosaic; a portrait of a chess board government where the pieces are moved not by high-profile elected officials, but by average-looking men who spend all of their time smoking cigarettes in dimly lit offices.
Of course, The X-Files was hardly the first show to depict a shadowy government. The films and television programs of the ’70s were rife with stories of loners (be they in groups or by themselves) going up against The Man to blow the lid off of one dastardly plan or another. Stories of such rampant paranoia faded a bit in the ’80s, however, thanks to Generation X’ general disinterest in the government and politics at large. The X-Files, which started in 1993, is kind of the last guard of pop culture that was fascinated with the government’s dirty, albeit supernatural, laundry.
At some point in the late ’90s, the pop culture paranoia more or less abandoned shadow governments all together. Figures like The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man are extinct. In their wake we now find a host of corporate figures making all of the moves. Board members and executives with expensive suits are the new threats. They’re the power players making all of the moves; no one cares about the government anymore.
It’s a perfect reflection of the times, of course. Corporations are the new “big bad” in real life, not just in movies. Wrong or right, most people assume that the government is secretly (or not so secretly, depending on how much of a pessimist you are) run by corporations. Gone are rooms filled with cigarette smoke and whiskey glasses, here are gala events filled with lobbyists and the billionaires they represent.
But I’m not here to talk politics or lament the current state of our political climate, I’m just here to observe a shift in pop culture’s depiction of that climate. And, nostalgia aside, I think it kind of stinks. What was so great about government conspiracies was how much we, as citizens, factored into the equation. There may be cover-ups afoot but it’s also our duty to uncover them; to expose and change them from within. We, at least my generation, grew up thinking that we could do anything – that we could be President if we wanted to.
This we-can-be-the-change-we-want ideology is what makes government conspiracies so electrifying. But once you change things over to corporations, you lose that spark. You isolate the common people, the people who deep down believe they actually do have a better shot at being the President than they do the CEO of a global corporation. That’s why a show like Fringe can’t touch The X-Files. Its stories just aren’t as compelling. Their corporate villains loom so large that a fight against them just seems futile.
And no one likes futility. The X-Files had the formula down perfectly. There were the shadowy figures that moved all of the chess pieces, but it wasn’t just Mulder and Scully versus the world. There were equally shadowy people in the Government that had a vested interest in seeing everyone’s favorite FBI agents pry apart pieces of the puzzle. They had help. There was hope.
No one cares about those kind of stories anymore, though. AMC tried to bridge the gap between government and corporate conspiracies earlier this year with Rubicon, but despite having created an increasingly outstanding television show, it just never found an audience. Fringe has undergone two seasons worth of viewer decline, resulting in Fox shifting it over to the feared Friday Night death slot. Pop culture just don’t care about conspiracies any more. And that’s just no fun.