“I’m not smiling, I’m wincing.” So says Clyde Bruckman (Peter Boyle), unhappily clairvoyant insurance salesman, in the beloved episode of The X-Files that bears his name. Smiling, wincing — a viewer might find themselves doing plenty of both across this miniature tragicomedy of death, mortality, and the achingly human tendency to dwell upon both. It’s among the saddest and the funniest 44 minutes ever aired in prime time.
Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose won The X-Files, the Fox sci-fi sensation that turned 30 this week, its only Emmy for writing. (Boyle also picked up a statuette for his indelible guest spot, a performance of exquisitely sardonic despondency.) The episode is frequently cited as the best of the series; a couple days ago, Rolling Stone stuck it at the very top of its full ranking. Those who don’t pick Clyde Bruckman tend to reach instead for another season 3 highlight, and another peerless existential bummer loaded with big laughs: Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. The two episodes share more than a brief appearance by a fictional, flaky TV psychic. They’re twin portraits of lonely obsession from the same creative mind — transmissions from the outrageous, melancholy imagination of Darin Morgan.
To fans, Morgan needs no introduction. Brought onto the show in its second season (he moved into writing after an uncomfortable stint in the rubber Flukeman suit seen in The Host episode), Morgan wrote only six episodes of The X-Files, and only four during the initial run. Yet each of his scripts is a show-defining (or redefining) classic. More than creator Chris Carter, more than Morgan’s prolific brother Glen, more than future Breaking Bad honcho Vince Gilligan, Darin Morgan saw what The X-Files could really be, expanding its tonal and philosophical boundaries, proving how malleable its formula was. David Duchovny supposedly once said that it seemed like he was “trying to destroy the show” with each format-busting installment. He meant it as a compliment.
In Morgan’s hands, The X-Files became an alternate universe version of itself, a knowingly absurdist show within the show. The X-Files was rarely funny — or only very, very dryly so — before the first episode he wrote, the carnie whodunit Humbug, which dared to find some comedy in Mulder and Scully’s rapport, to say nothing of the way these federal agents’ famous deadpan clashed with the world of the unexplained they were investigating each week. Other writers would soon mine the premise for laughs too, but none got quite as much sustained comic mileage out of it.
Morgan’s episodes are flush with wisecracks and inside jokes, broad sight gags, and intentionally campy special effects. He’d break the fourth wall for an inspired bit, like the bug that seems to scurry across your actual television screen during irreverent killer-cockroach potboiler War of the Coprophages. Later, he’d splice comedian Brian Huskey into footage from old episodes, Robert Zemeckis-style, in the revival retcon goof The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat. Morgan is said to have joined the writers’ room reluctantly; like some of the rest of the creative team, he was nervous about how his heavily comedic sensibilities would gel with the poker-faced nature of this supernatural procedural. But it worked — in part because Morgan understood the core values of the show even as he stretched its form, and in part because he spiked the daffiness with a withering worldview.
At times, Morgan slyly poked fun at the conventions of the show, without entirely steering it into self-parody: War of the Coprophages finds Scully literally phoning in her alternate explanations for the apparently roach-related deaths, while her partner does both sides of their believer-skeptic shtick in the post-comeback episode Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. Scully’s stubborn rationalism was ripe for spoofing, but Morgan rarely made her the butt of the joke. Instead, he latched onto the character’s empathy; she’s a final glimmer of consoling kindness in Bruckman, and offers an amused, encouraging rebuttal to the midlife crisis of Were-Monster. Mulder, on the other hand, was fair game. Morgan had special fun with his implied enthusiasm for porn, his perfect good looks (there’s a great cut to him in dashing pose at the end of Humbug), and Duchovny’s reputation as an unemotive actor, which is clowned on hard in Jose Chung.
His episodes also leap at the opportunity to pull the spotlight from Mulder and Scully. Most of them are built around the ideological perspective of an idiosyncratic guest protagonist: Boyle’s hopelessly depressed Bruckman; Charles Nelson Reilly’s eccentric novelist Jose Chung, who he’d bring back for a terrific episode of Carter’s other series, Millennium; Rhys Darby’s cursed lizard person Guy Mann, a bewildered caricature of the pathetic human condition; Huskey’s delusional X-Files superfan Reggie Something. You could call Morgan’s run on the show a series of one-off character studies that just happen to also feature the same pair of mismatched FBI agents.
Morgan loved to jumble genre and subvert tradition, but he also knew how to deliver what The X-Files did best. He recognized the show’s potential to function as a rabbit hole into different fields of far-out thinking, with Mulder and Scully as tour guides on a journey to the places where science, myth, and fact intersect. That was always an exciting aspect of the show: Watching it felt like getting a crash course in weird. To that end, the writer’s Humbug is, for all the humor it introduced, a perfect distillation of The X-Files’ appeal, tucking tidbits of P.T. Barnum trivia and history lessons on American sideshow culture into the usual bite-sized mystery.
If Humbug is the platonic ideal of a classic X-Files episode, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space may be the most radical deviation — it’s Morgan’s masterpiece, and maybe the show’s, too. The subjective structure, an intricate web of conflicting accounts and unreliable narration (Scully’s hilarious, suspicious praise for Chung’s novels feels like a hint that even the framing device can’t be trusted), allows for lots of uproarious non sequiturs: the little yelp Mulder emits in one version of events; the Alex Trebek cameo; the running gag about bleeping profanity; an unexpected nod to Twin Peaks. At the same time, though, Morgan uses his complicated storytelling gambit to meditate on the essential unsolvability of life and the universe’s mysteries, and to address darker theories about what really lies beneath our national obsession with UFOs. Jose Chung’s From Outer Space said that while the truth may be out there, there’s no guarantee we’ll ever uncover it.
“We are all alone,” Chung concludes in the closing narration of the episode. Is this Morgan’s ultimate artistic statement, the purest expression of his outlook? Loneliness is what links the misfits and lost souls that populate his episodes, from a circus performer rejected by a very close relative (“It hurts not to be wanted”) to a lizard man learning the tragic, mundane realities of the human experience (“Life’s hopeless — a few fleeting moments of happiness surrounded by loss and grief”). That’s the smile-wince paradox of Morgan’s work on The X-Files: The belly laughs never detract from the profound sadness he located in the material. Isn’t Mulder, a man always searching, an inherently tragic figure? Morgan’s goofiest installment, his last one, The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat, envisions an alternate ending to The X-Files where our hero gets all the answers to every question he’s ever asked, and is crushed by the loss of the crusade that gave his life meaning.
It’s been said that Morgan struggled with the unforgiving pace of network TV production, and also with depression and suicidal ideation — problems he’d admit to pouring, devastatingly, into Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. He would leave the series after Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, having then written only four episodes, all brilliant. It could have served as a suitable last word, an ideally inconclusive conclusion to his run. Instead, Morgan would return, two decades later, with two more ingenious curveballs for The X-Files revival — both cleverly meta installments that reflect on the nature of the series and redeem its otherwise rather unnecessary second life. In-between these two brief tenures, the show grew from his influence. Without Morgan, it’s hard to imagine Carter and company taking the swings they did. Take, for example, Vince Gilligan’s gut-busting Small Potatoes, so Morgan-esque in sensibility that it actually guest stars Morgan himself as a schlubby shape-shifter taking Mulder’s perfect physique for a joyride.
How many TV writers build a real legacy with so few episodes to their name, and without a “created by” credit on their résumé? And how many get their break by stepping into a giant rubber monster suit — a detail that feels like it could have come from one of this writer’s own scripts? Morgan is an anomaly, on The X-Files and on TV in general. And though he changed both, no one has quite replicated the precise alchemy of his work — the way he kept us smiling and wincing at the dark absurdities of our world.
The X-Files is currently streaming on Hulu. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.