Modern Entertainment’s Secret Sauce: The X-Files Recipe

Anticipating the revival of The X-Files got us to wondering what goes into the secret sauce showrunners are adding to their serial dramas that have made the Golden Age of television shine so brightly. It turns out the recipe has 6 ingredients.

Modern Entertainment’s Secret Sauce: The X-Files Recipe
by Chris Blockus
January 24, 2016

According to a myriad of critics, we are living through television’s Golden Age. Whether you clear your calendar for a particular night, binge on demand, or Netflix and Chill, it’s hard not to recognize the volume of quality shows available. Anticipating the revival of The X-Files got us to wondering what goes into the secret sauce showrunners are adding to their serial dramas that have made this Golden Age shine so brightly.

Just for fun, the following television drama summary has been stripped of specific characters and setting details. Try a little thought experiment to see if you can identify which show is being described:

“A quirky but capable character finds her- or himself in an unusual and uncomfortable situation and must subvert the life she or he has known to reconcile her or his condition. In order to do so, she or he must rely on a diverse team of reluctant allies to help overcome specific hardships and uncover a larger system hidden from mainstream society.  Along the way, the characters must confront their own individual troubled pasts and deal with the emotional consequences that accompany maintaining such dependent relationships.”

What do you think? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Game of Thrones? The Sopranos? The Wire? Breaking Bad? The Walking Dead? Mad Men? Vikings?

The summary was written to describe The X-Files, but fill in a modern critically acclaimed drama produced since and you’ll find it follows the same recipe. Note, however, it is not shared by less-acclaimed shows like Saved by the Bell or Baywatch.  More importantly, it also doesn’t work for other acclaimed shows that predate The X-Files. For example, Star Trek: The Next Generation used an obviously different formula; Gene Roddenberry was adamant that starfleet would have moved beyond petty squabbles amongst its crews and that all conflict would be external.

After a scientifically conducted study involving watching all 201 episodes of The X-Files consecutively, we have deduced that executive producer Chris Carter’s recipe has six main ingredients. Although The X-Files did not invent any of these individually, it was the first to bake them all together:

  • Dark and mysterious subject matter: From alien abductions to shadow government intrigue, dark and mysterious subject matter serves as the initial hook to attract the audience and hold their attention long enough to become invested in the characters.
  • “Show-World” Mechanics: Mechanics order the events that happen in a show. Supernatural events take place in The X-Files, and even though mechanics are not presented directly to the audience, there is always a sense that nothing is arbitrary in the world of Mulder and Scully. In fact, the surface-level narrative purpose of Dana Scully is to investigate these events scientifically. Mechanical breakdown within a TV narrative (often called “Jumping the Shark) betrays the trust of a loyal audience.
  • Flawed but competent team of characters with complicated relationships: Each main and supporting character in The X-Files has a unique set of skills that makes him or her both indispensable to their co-stars and an imperative part of moving the storyline forward. Mulder is a brilliant investigator with a wealth of esoteric knowledge (he finds the monster), while Scully is a hard-nosed skeptic and top pathologist (she dissects it). Their romantic tension is legendary, and that is because much of the show’s conflict is internal and intra-personal between the stars. Mulder is paranoid and lonely, Scully struggles with religion and PTSD. Complexity and indispensability gives each character’s actions long-term consequence and  emotional weight.
  • Mythology revealed over time: Where mechanics order the events that happen, mythology orders the present and historical meaning characters ascribe to those events. Chris Carter created a famously convoluted mythology around the vast conspiracy at the heart of The X-Files, and over the course of nine seasons drip-fed it to the audience through the unreliable perspectives of characters like “Deep Throat” and “Cancer Man”.  Mythology allows for the narrative world to broaden and deepen, which is what allowed  The X-Files to spawn a non-sequel spin-off series (called The Lone Gunmen).
  • Independent story breaks: The writers of The X-Files were able to balance their tangled mythology with what came to be known as “monster of the week” episodes, in which Mulder and Scully’s investigation of a particular supernatural incident started and ended in a single hour. These allowed casual fans to watch intermittently without feeling lost, while keeping diehards satisfied by remaining “in-world.” Some monsters, like body-morphing Adrian Tooms, returned between seasons, and character-developing easter eggs, like getting to see into Mulder’s apartment, were scattered throughout.  
  • Mashups within genre: The X-Files would have rapidly become one gloomy, procedural note had the producers not realized that injecting elements lifted from other genres, like satirical comedy, B-movie horror, and classical noir, would add the perfect seasoning to finish off the recipe.  

The recipie Carter created can be seen across today’s “Golden Age” of television; it is why serialized dramas suddenly got so good. The legacy of The X-Files recipe extends beyond the small screen, though. This same set of characteristics is being implemented in Hollywood’s most successful movie franchises and in iot theatrical productions, as well.

The recent success of Marvel Studio’s “shared universe”, for example, caught other hollywood players a bit flat-footed and has them all racing to catch up. Marvel’s genius is to create individual movies that overlay a different genre on top of traditional superhero action and explore relationships superheros have with their families, friends and societies. These individual films are linked by common mechanics and mythology, and because each hero is powerful but deeply flawed in a particular way, they must come together and depend on one another to vanquish the largest worldwide threats.  Sound familiar? Marvel has been so successful following the recipe that The X-Files established that their “shared universe” extends beyond feature films to include network and subscription television series, too.

The seed for the structure of iot productions germinated watching The X-Files in the late 1990’s, too. For example, The Pandemic world is a dark combination of the sci-fi, horror and conspiracy genres with a touch of humor and a mysterious mythology that extends far beyond any single production. “Dark Lords” and “White Knights” are nowhere to be found; we take our cue from nuanced characters like Assistant Director Skinner and “Cancer Man” because we agree that characters are  far more interesting when they exist as more than simple narrative devices. Like Mulder and Scully, characters in the Pandemic world will always be more complete as a team.

Despite running for 9 seasons, inspiring 2 movies, and launching a spinoff show, the influence of The X-Files transcends any one genre or media; The X-Files fundamentally changed how the entertainment industry tell stories. Thanks, Mr. Carter! We plan on enjoying your next chapter, and can’t wait to see what new spices you add to your secret sauce.