If you want to understand how TV dramas have changed over the past 30 years, there may be no better show to watch than The X-Files.
With its finely tuned balance of episodic mystery and series-connecting mythology, it paved the way for today’s binge-watchable serials, and helped prove that TV viewers could follow complex storylines that played out over the course of years — even as it worked to ensure that each episode was a satisfying experience unto itself.
Serialization used to be a lot more rare on TV
Remember what TV was like before the "golden age"? Even on long-running, critically acclaimed series, just about every episode had to stand entirely alone, with few references, if any, to previous events. Sure, there were exceptions — Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks, soap operas — but the default for many if not most scripted series was that each episode existed in a kind of narrative vacuum.
There were reasons for this, of course: Broadcast networks, which produced the vast majority of scripted series, sought to appeal to the largest possible number of people, and execs generally feared that multi-episode storylines would not only confuse existing viewers who missed an installment or two, but also prevent new viewers from jumping in. DVRs and streaming services had yet to come online, so producers could not expect that viewers would be able to see every episode of a series.
But the results could be dramatically frustrating, if not downright weird. Major life events and dramatic choices that you'd think would have far-reaching ripple effects might occur one week and then be totally ignored the following week, and sometimes for the rest of the series. Pilot episodes provided setups, and established series often took their premises and character relationships for granted, assuming that viewers would know the basics but little else. It was as if every episode were a second episode.
These days, the opposite is true for many shows — especially when it comes to prestige cable dramas, where serialization is the norm. Every episode is a must-watch, and you'd better be paying attention: Shows like Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy juggle multiple intertwining plot lines over dozens of episodes, sometimes developing narrative payoffs over the course years. A subtle exchange in season two might be the key to understanding a crucial plot development in season four.
Indeed, today’s most complex series don’t just expect that viewers are always watching, they also encourage close viewing from obsessive fans. The old way of making television was built to accommodate viewers with no relationship to the show. The new way rewards viewers who have thoroughly mastered every minute of every episode.
The X-Files' pioneering format allowed each episode to stand alone while still fitting into the show's serialized story arcs
That’s what makes The X-Files such a fascinating TV artifact. The show, which ran from 1993 to 2002 on Fox (and recently returned for a limited six-episode engagement) straddled television eras, debuting before the golden age had taken shape and ending as it was well underway.
The series' format straddled that divide as well. Most episodes of the show were classic sci-fi procedurals — think Law & Order with monsters and aliens instead of criminals — in which a pair of FBI agents, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), investigated paranormal cases involving everything from telekinesis to werewolves. Interspersed throughout these monster-of-the-week episodes were so-called "mythology" episodes that advanced the show’s grand narrative about a government conspiracy to hide the existence of aliens. Sometimes these mythology episodes ran back to back, but for the most part they occurred every third or fourth episode.
The mythology episodes gave the show a sense of progress and momentum that didn’t exist in shows that emphasized standalone storytelling above all else. The series didn’t just feel like a bunch of one-offs built around the same premise; it felt as if it were telling an ongoing story — a story that would, over time, add up to something larger and more powerful, and would eventually give meaning to the experience of watching the series in its entirety. This was among the The X-Files’ most important innovations, and it helped pave the way for the sprawling, complex genre serials that are common on TV today.
At the same time, the show was intensely devoted to ensuring that every episode worked on its own, apart from the whole. In a 2013 interview, X-Files creator Chris Carter told TV critic Alan Sepinwall that the goal was for every episode "to be satisfying unto itself. So whether that is a mythology approach or a Monster of the Week approach, the objective is the same." The series was important — but never at the expense of the episode.
Yet even the monster-of-the-week episodes weren’t fully cut off from the rest of the series. Take an episode like "Pusher," from season three. It’s a monster-of-the-week tale, about a man (who calls himself Pusher) with the power to control other people’s minds through verbal suggestion, and it’s widely regarded as one of the series’ best. The standalone story sticks to the show’s usual structure — a teaser followed by four increasingly tense acts, each with clues and confrontation, eventually leading to a terminal showdown with the villain.
But during the final confrontation, Pusher urges Mulder to shoot Scully by reminding him that she once shot him — a reference to something that happened in the season two mythology episode "Anasazi." You don’t have to have seen "Anasazi" to understand the scene, which is incredibly tense all on its own, but if you have, it adds depth and nuance to the scene, reminding you not only that these two characters share a long history together, but that you, the viewer, have been through a lot with them. Carter didn’t just use the mythology episodes to tell a bigger story; he was using the connections they established to make the smaller stories more powerful.
Many current dramas are so focused on serialization that they don't tell standalone stories anymore
That’s harder to pull off on today’s thoroughly serialized shows — in part because viewers have become so focused on mythology and serialization that they expect it all the time. In the same 2013 interview with Carter, Sepinwall noted that the show Fringe, another sci-fi procedural that very much followed in the footsteps of The X-Files, started with a similar mix of standalone episodes and mythology-driven stories, but quickly switched over to a fully serialized format because of fan demand.
I love sprawling TV serials as much as anyone, but as I’ve been making my way through The X-Files over the past few months, I’ve been reminded of what’s been lost as serialization has become the norm: the art of the episode, and the insistence that each one work on an individual basis, even if there’s a larger story in play. Shows like Marvel and Netflix's Jessica Jones or Syfy's The Expanse — both of which I really like overall — sometimes act as if the hour-long episode format is a drag on their larger narrative ambitions. Netflix's chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, has made it clear that the network is willing to prioritize serialized storylines over individual episode structures.
The X-Files, in contrast, never felt like it was frustrated by format. And from today’s vantage point, the mix of mostly self-contained procedural stories and connect-the-dots mythology episodes makes it feel like a waypoint in the evolution of TV drama: Occasional viewers could enjoy the show’s dry wit and honest-to-goodness scares, while more attentive fans were rewarded for their devotion via the overarching plot line.
It’s a reminder that TV serialization and episodic storytelling don’t have to be at war with each other, and in fact can make each other better. With the right balance, you really can have it both ways.