The incredible shrinking Mulder

He's bored with "X-Files" and, frankly, so are we.

Published May 22, 2000 10:00PM (EDT)

Last week, Fox, along with the other broadcast networks, unveiled its schedule for fall 2000. The good news: The X-Files lives! The bad news: There's, um, one teensy problem ...

"The X-Files" had been in danger of cancellation, due to falling ratings and costar David Duchovny's protracted legal battle with 20th Century Fox. Late last summer, Duchovny filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, accusing the company of short-changing him on his share of syndication profits. (He charged that Fox sold rerun rights to associated companies FX cable and Fox TV, instead of shopping them around for a better price.) In exchange for his participation in an eighth season of "The X-Files," Duchovny reportedly wanted his suit resolved, a considerable raise from the $200,000 per episode he was making last year and a greatly reduced workload.

Last Tuesday, Fox signed up "X-Files" creator/producer Chris Carter for another season, and announced that the show would return with or without Duchovny. (Co-star Gillian Anderson was already contractually bound to come back.) Duchovny and Fox finally struck a deal late Wednesday night -- the eve of Fox's scheduled fall-season announcement. Duchovny gets a raise (reportedly to as much as $400,000 an episode) and a settlement worth millions more. And, he only has to appear in half of next season's 22 episodes. Good for you, David! Bad for "X-Files" fans.

Duchovny seems to be suffering from an advanced case of Rob Morrow syndrome. Remember him? He sat out a season of "Northern Exposure" demanding more money, certain that his movie career was about to take off. The show fell apart without him. His movie career never took off. Sure, we can understand that an actor gets bored playing the same character for years, feeling imprisoned by the rigid schedule of network TV, enviously eyeing friends with the time and clout to make movies and take risks. In a recent cover profile in Entertainment Weekly, Duchovny saluted David Caruso for walking away from "NYPD Blue" to follow his heart to Hollywood: "So he stars in a few movies that don't do well -- that doesn't make him stupid or a bad actor. He and Julianna Margulies are heroes for turning down TV money."

The irony is that, in Fox Mulder, Duchovny has given life to one of those rare TV characters whose influence extends beyond TV; spook-chaser Mulder and skeptic Dana Scully infiltrated every corner of pop culture in the '90s, and seeped out into the mass consciousness. "The X- Files" gave a name to the confluence of paranoia, distrust of authority, conspiracy theories and spiritual hunger that characterized the last decade, and Duchovny's Mulder put a face on this longing to believe. How many movie stars of late have had this kind of real, sweeping impact?

Duchovny has made a handful of movies (most recently the well-reviewed box office disappointment "Return to Me"), but he's done his best work on TV. And I'm not just talking about "The X-Files," I'm talking about his piquant, off-kilter sweetness as cross-dressing FBI agent Dennis/Denise Bryson on "Twin Peaks," his deadpan homoerotic flirtations with Garry Shandling on "The Larry Sanders Show" and his sneaky, droll impersonations of Richard Gere and Jeff Goldblum on "Saturday Night Live." Duchovny is a miniaturist, a guy who works best in subtle, intimate brushstrokes. Why have fans followed Mulder this far? Because Duchovny is not afraid to let us in on the self-deprecating joke at the center of Mulder's being: He may look incredible in that red Speedo, but he's still an obsessive, lonely, socially inhibited geek who'd rather spend an evening watching the skies for validation of his quest (or watching porn in his unkempt hovel) than seriously making a play for Scully, the unconsummated love of his life.

But, listen, it's not like we can't sympathize with Duchovny's desire for a change; most of us were as bored with "The X-Files" this season as he was. The show is in a rut, maybe because of Carter's stinginess with plot-advancing mythology episodes, maybe because the writers were boxed in by Mulder's uncertain future. There were entire episodes where Mulder and Scully were like bit players in their own show (the one about the shark-mutant cannibal guy who works at a fast-food joint and eats his customers, for instance). There were the matching vanity-plate episodes written and directed by Anderson and Duchovny (Duchovny's "Hollywood A.D." was one long in-joke about how actors are not the characters they play -- duh). There were the recycled monsters, the familiar plots and the stunt episodes (the "Cops" crossover, Scully and Cancer Man's Hitchcockian interlude) that were clever, but added up to nothing in the overall scheme of things. If "The X-Files" had packed it in at the end of this season, with true bang-up revelations and closure, few fans would have felt cheated.

But a minimally engaged Mulder -- now that's a cheat. Mulder and Scully are a pair, soul mates forever linked in their past, present and future, as we've been shown innumerable times. By forcing the writers to alter Mulder and Scully's destiny to accommodate his needs, Duchovny is screwing with the show's balance and, even sadder, its legacy. He's spurning the loyalty of the show's -- and his -- original fans. And he's doing it with the sort of "I'm not like the other actors, I have a master's degree" arrogance he displayed a few weeks ago on the celebrity "Millionaire" episode -- when he gambled with charity money to guess at an answer instead of walking away with a nice fat check for disadvantaged kids. He almost blew it all.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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