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‘The X-Files’ in the Post-Conspiracy Age of Trump

After a nearly two-year hiatus, ‘The X-Files’ returns for its 11th season, and while the paranormal program is as uneven as ever, it’s consistently focused on a new looming threat: the conditions that created our real-life president

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Like a puddle of Purity colonizing a new host, The X-Files oozes back to TV on Wednesday with the first installment of a 10-episode season, the franchise’s 11th overall and its first since a six-episode revival that broke ratings records for Fox almost two years ago. At a time when networks are making ’90s do-overs cornerstones of their schedule, banking on the big audiences that imprinted on those shows before the fragmentation of culture, the nearly 25-year-old series about the FBI’s paranormal and extraterrestrial unit seems almost as immortal as Agent Scully may or may not be.

Scully actress Gillian Anderson says she won’t be back for another turn as the skeptical foil for David Duchovny’s Agent Mulder, but time and money might change her mind. Even if she walks after Season 11 — which supposedly ends on a cliffhanger — the show could carry on in some form; it does have a history of temporarily forging on without one of its leads. Based on the first half of this season, though, the series sees the most immediate threat to its own survival as the political and cultural climate that has produced the most immediate threat to ours, Donald Trump. Amid their familiar mix of monsters and mythology, The X-Files’ latest episodes repeatedly wrestle with one core question: why we should care about one man who wants to believe at a time when far-fetched beliefs are an American epidemic.

Both in structure and in quality, The X-Files remains as uneven as ever. Following the example set by the last batch of episodes, Season 11 starts with a disjointed mess of mythology from series creator Chris Carter, “My Struggle III.” Like the equally convoluted and tiresome “My Struggle” and “My Struggle II,” which bookended the brief Season 10, the third part of the too-many-episode arc concerns the Cigarette Smoking Man, an alien virus, and Scully’s and (maybe?) Mulder’s son William, whose story line was difficult to follow 15 years ago and hasn’t become comprehensible with age. For better and (often) for worse, the series is stuck with Carter, who has served as both its animating force and the enabler of its worst impulses. His exposition-plagued premieres and finales, whose roots extend to the series’ weakest seasons, are the best arguments against The X-Files’ continued existence, completely impenetrable to new viewers and only moderately intelligible to veterans.

Mercifully, the aptly named “My Struggle” saga is just a toll that has to be paid to get to the good stuff. The rest of the five episodes provided to the press in advance of the premiere, all of them penned by returning writers and either devoid of or light on laborious mythology, come closer to vintage form, thriving on the flirtatious tenderness between the two longtime partners who anchor each hour. The half-season highlight is, predictably, the fourth episode, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which was written by the legendary Darin Morgan, author of some of the series’ most memorable entries, including Season 10 standout “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” Morgan’s silly, self-referential, and poignant episodes are so strong that one wishes Fox could build the whole reboot out of Morgan’s material. He’s not prolific enough to meet that demand, and his fourth-wall-testing tendencies play up as a change of pace from the series’ standard offerings, but I’d struggle through any amount of “My Struggle” for 40-something more minutes with Morgan.

In an era when many audience members curate their TV viewing rather than accepting whatever channel-surfing serves up, The X-Files’ unevenness is almost a virtue. Most modern shows are stylistically consistent and either staunchly serialized or staunchly unserialized; The X-Files, meanwhile, is a Whitman’s sampler of one-offs and larger lore that blends Black Mirror–esque horror and lighthearted humor. The occasional Carter coconut episode only enhances the audience’s appreciation for the creamy milk monsters of the week. (Your chocolate preferences may vary, although coconut-candy consumers are the real monsters.)

Throughout the season’s ups and downs and zigs and zags, there’s one shadowy, powerful figure who binds the first five episodes together, and it’s not the Cigarette Smoking Man. It’s Trump, who appears in a montage seconds into the premiere and pops up again and again, either obliquely or explicitly, in subsequent installments.

When the series returned from its 13-plus-year layoff in 2016 (not counting a 2008 movie that most X-Files fans would prefer to forget), Jason Concepcion and I discussed the ways in which the internet’s creeping ubiquity had spread conspiracies to the masses during the years when the show was away, dating some older episodes and making the show’s pre-smartphone procedural structure harder to replicate. Season 10 alluded to that technological leap, making Mulder fumble with his camera phone, and it nodded in the direction of recent political trends, casting Joel McHale as a far-right Alex Jones analog with his own knock-off Infowars. But McHale’s Tad O’Malley was a fringy figure conceived before “fake news” became a buzzword and a conspiracy theorist became president. Season 11, which arrives in the first days of the new year, is steeped in 2017, when once-disreputable and easily dismissed movements monopolized mainstream attention and staged a cultural (and Constitutional) coup.

“The world was so dangerous and complex then,” Mulder says in Season 11’s second episode, “This,” reminiscing about his 1990s activities. “Who’d have thought we’d look back with nostalgia and say that was a simpler time, Scully? Everything we feared came to pass. How the hell did that happen?”

The X-Files might have gotten away with burying its head in apolitical ’90s nostalgia. Instead, it takes every opportunity to engage with a world in which the non-fictional president is enmeshed in a scandal exacerbated by his firing of the FBI director (and ensuing critiques of the agency). As Mulder says in Episode 3, “Plus One” (a face-saving standalone effort from Carter), “The world is going to hell, Scully — the president working to bring down the FBI along with it.”

That topicality — an undercurrent in the season’s first few episodes — comes to a head in “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which imagines the “Mandela Effect” as an artifact of sinister psychological tampering. “It’s true, Scully, I’ve lost the plot,” Mulder says in Morgan’s slightly playful, satirical tone, staring at a whiteboard that refuses to form a coherent timeline. “I can’t find the hidden connections between things anymore. The world has become too crazy for even my conspiratorial powers.” Scully’s response is even bleaker than that: “Or maybe you’ve just lost your taste for it, especially after all this birther stuff.” A marginalized Mulder spent the ’90s sequestered in a windowless office or on the run because he couldn’t convince anyone else that the alien-human hybrids and flying saucers he saw existed; in 2016, Trump became president after openly professing his belief in false stories that Mulder would have considered silly, then proceeded to fabricate stories about being taped and taping others. When conspiracy theories move from the fringe to the Oval Office, they stop seeming fun and start seeming dangerous — even as the administration’s self-sabotage routinely makes the idea of an all-seeing entity pulling strings from D.C. seem like a relic from a time when we trusted the government’s methods, if not its motivations. Nothing about Trump is hush-hush.

Morgan’s script sprinkles in a “Make America Great Again” cap, a joke about attendance at Trump’s inauguration, an alien who speaks in Trump’s patter, and references to government-sanctioned torture, the slaughter of civilians, and NSA surveillance — all too true to be the stuff of conspiracy. One character who creates “phony fake news” — real news presented in such a way that no one will believe it — notes that because many voters have lost the ability to distinguish between real and fake, people in power have stopped trying to hide behavior that once would have disqualified them from office. And if it doesn’t matter whether the truth is out there — or what it would look like if it were — no one needs Mulder to find it. “You’re dead,” the man tells Mulder. “Your time is past. … We’re now living in a post-cover-up, post-conspiracy age.” Where’s the thrill of chasing the evidence in a world where the target might just tweet it out — or, having been caught and copped to the crime, subsequently decide to start casting doubt on the authenticity of something that everyone saw?

“You know, our current president once said something truly profound,” the same character tells Mulder. “He said, ‘Nobody knows for sure.’”

“What was he referring to?” Mulder asks.

“What does it matter?” the man responds.

All of that emphasis on Mulder’s obsolescence makes him a more relatable protagonist; because the crusading icon of an earlier and more optimistic era is suffering from the same disillusionment we are, the show feels in step with the times in a way that it wasn’t two years ago. But the present still poses a challenge. If we assume the worst of everyone, it’s harder for fiction to shock us. It’s harder still if the stuff of fiction appears on the front page of the paper of record; we’re less than three weeks removed from The New York Times treading on The X-Files’ turf with an exposé about UFO sightings, Pentagon programs, and mysterious alloys. In real life, every unusual or unexplained astronomical discovery still leads to questions about whether we’re alone, but on The X-Files, aliens no longer seem to be abducting, dissecting, and controlling us; if anything, they’ve decided that our species isn’t worth the work. Now more than ever, The X-Files functions best when it keeps its focus narrow and wipes the slate from week to week. That’s the way we’re all coping: Trying not to think about our last episode. Or, scarier still, our next.