Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Truth Is Out There...And It May Need To Be Killed!

A model compare/contrast essay for the kids of Comp I....

In 1993, the earth was visited by one of the greatest genre TV shows of all time:  The X-Files.  Over the years, the show has had many imitators:  Lost, Eureka, and Fringe are just three of the successful imitators, and there have been many more failures.  The best show creatively and ratings-wise (at least by the CW network’s standards) which owes a debt to The X-Files would have to be Supernatural.  Both shows depict a duo investigating paranormal phenomenon around the country and employ a potent combination of creepiness, humor, and multi-episode arcs to keep eyeballs on TV screens.  A look at the pilot episodes of these shows in the categories of characters, special effects, and dialogue will give us a clear indication of which ultimately turned out to be the better show. 
In a way, we might think of these science fiction and fantasy dramas as the TV equivalent of a buddy cop movie.  There must always be conflict between the two characters, which will contribute to both the tension and the humor of each episode.  Ultimately, though, the heroes must unite to defeat some bad guy—be it an alien or a demon.  With The X-Files, the conflict between F.B.I. agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully is built into their characters in an almost allegorical fashion.  In interviews  creator Chris Carter has often referred to them as “the skeptic  and the believer.”   Unfortunately, in order to make interesting television, the believer has to be right 99% of the time, and that’s what happens in the pilot episode:  the agents are investigating alien abductions in a small town, and the show certainly suggests that the abductions are real.  Furthermore, while the viewer might become frustrated over many seasons as Scully maintains her skepticism, we understand that this is a conceit of the show.  Also, she is a smart, tough law enforcement officer and not your typical TV show bimbo.   She has a PhD and even tried in her ambitious dissertation, as Mulder points out, to “rewrite Einstein.”  Mulder, meanwhile, is no slouch in the brains department himself, but he also has a stand up comedian’s rapid-fire wit.  For example, when the agents exhume the body of Ray Soames, a former abductee, and find a corpse that looks like an alien with anorexia, Mulder says, “It's probably a safe bet Ray Soames never made the varsity basketball team.”  Thus we find in the pilot episode two smart F.B.I. agents who use humor, belief, skepticism, and a respectful partnership to investigate the paranormal, and these elements make for very interesting TV.
The initial partnership of the characters on Supernatural, on the other hand, is a bit more predictable.  Sam and Dean Winchester are brothers, so we might expect there to be some simmering tensions about past arguments, and that’s exactly what we get.  Their father taught them both at a young age how to hunt and kill demons, vampires, and any other things that go bump in the night.  However, as the pilot establishes, Sam has left the hunting game some time ago to attend college.  Dean is established in the first show as a daddy’s boy (this would change later in the series), so he thinks that Sam has been selfish in pursuing a normal life when they should be, as Dean says, “Saving people...hunting things.”  As with The X-Files, we wouldn't have a compelling show if the true believer didn't convince the skeptic to join him in his quest, so by the end of the pilot Sam has abandoned his college dreams and agreed to become a hunter again (it helps that his girlfriend has been killed by a demon and he wants revenge).  Unfortunately, the conflicts between Sam and Dean over the years sometimes seem a little arbitrary—to the point where online fans often joke about the idea that they have latent homosexual feelings for one another.   Luckily, though, like Fox Mulder, Sam and Dean each has a healthy sense of humor.  In the pilot episode, in fact, they introduce themselves as “Agents Mulder and Scully” when they impersonate F.B.I. agents to get information at a crime scene. 

While special effects play a crucial part in each show, they are not the main reason I watch.   I accept the reality that TV shows don’t have the budgets that Hollywood movies do.  At least with The X-Files, though, there is a very plausible reason why viewers are not treated to an F/X extravaganza: if we—and the characters—got to see aliens and their ships clearly from the beginning, Scully could not remain a believable skeptic.  So, the pilot gives us standard low budget U.F.O. scenes:  "strange lights in the sky" (to borrow a line from Steve Vai) and a beam of light (like an alien tractor beam, I suppose) shining down on potential abductees.  However, the depiction of the alien body is done well.  It looks creepy with its extra thin limbs and big head, but it doesn't have a third eye or tentacles shooting out of it, so Scully can still plausibly theorize that it’s a monkey skeleton.  If the special effects are underwhelming on the whole, though, it serves the show’s purpose of keeping us guessing.  We’ll see more spectacular sights later in the series, and the first X-Files film gives us “the full Spielberg” (as director Kevin Smith once called awesome special effects).
By 2005, when Supernatural debuted, special effects had come a long way.  Therefore, the ghostly appearances in the pilot are more visually interesting than lights in the sky.  Of course, horror can sometimes be about what viewers do not see, so there is still a subtlety to the use of special effects on the show; also, again, this is the CW network, so I’m assuming that creator Eric Kripke had a limited budget.  As in later episodes, a ghost’s appearance is telegraphed by sudden bursts of cold—so simple CGI cold breath is used in the pilot to show this.  However, like most Supernatural episodes, this first one has both a splashy teaser and an explosive finale due to the fine use of special effects, thus making it more gripping than The X-Files for those who need visual stimulation.  In the opening teaser, we have a flashback to when Sam and Dean were children.  By the end of the teaser, a demon has apparently attacked (off screen), and the boys’ mother is suddenly, shockingly, revealed to be pinned to the roof of Sam’s room by an unseen force.  Then she bursts into flame and we quickly realize that we’re dealing with a horror show indeed.   The end of the episode also has compelling special effects as the “Woman in White” ghost freaks out and explodes into a blue ball of light with various morphing, monstrous shapes inside of it.  While not all ghost "killings" over the years on Supernatural would be that impressive, the show clearly brings the “full Spielberg” more than The X-Files in the pilot.
I've mentioned the humor in both shows, but the dialogue really deserves its own focus.  Most of what viewers actually see is the two lead actors conversing as they investigate each case, so they had better be saying some interesting things.  Of course, if we were falling off our couches laughing at every scene in every episode, we probably wouldn't be very scared.  Often, then, clever rather than guffaw-inducing dialogue is required.  So, for example, when Scully first knocks on the door of Mulder’s basement office, he says, “Nobody down here but the F.B.I.'s most unwanted.”  The tension between the two characters is also well established in this scene when Scully says she is “looking forward to working with [Mulder]” and he replies, “Oh really?  I was under the impression that you were sent to spy on me.”   They have a little debate about belief versus skepticism, and Scully makes the point that sometimes things are labeled supernatural or otherworldy simply because science hasn't yet provided a credible explanation for the phenomenon.  She concludes by saying, “The answers are just have to know where to look.”  Mulder quips, “That’s why they put the ‘I’ in F.B.I.”  Such philosophical debates continue throughout the series, and I always found them more interesting than some doctor blathering on about a disease—or some other doctor she wants to boink—in  a medical drama.
The larger theme explored through dialogue on Supernatural is family.  In the pilot, Sam describes the freakish nature of their upbringing:  “When I told [Dad] I was scared of the thing in my closet, he gave me a .45!”  There are lighter moments exploring the family concept, too, such as when Sam says that Dean's music collection is outdated and Dean says, “Maybe I should put on some Spin Doctors.”  Sam says, “I was eleven.  You’re never gonna let me live that down, are you?” and Dean delivers the final zinger:  “Hey, you bought the album, Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.”  This exchange is obviously funny, but it also establishes the shared history of the brothers. 
In the end, though, The X-Files pilot—and the ensuing nine years of the series—accomplished more than Supernatural has so far.  It immediately established itself as a show that would explore big ideas by telling ripping good yarns. While Supernatural found its own "voice" later in the series by developing a biblical and pagan cosmology (angels, demons, leviathans ...oh my!), it did come onto a paranormal TV show scene revived by The X-Files...and has never surpassed it.


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