Shoot Straight

Last thing first. At this very moment, Chris Carter sits behind his desk in the Ten Thirteen Production offices, on the 20th Century Fox lot in Studio City, California, finishing the final X-Files episode of this season. The show's creator has just one scene left to write--the very last--and that is how he will spend the rest of today: figuring out what, for the moment, is to become of Fox Mulder, Dana Scully and newcomer John Doggett. It would be imprudent and particularly geeky to push him for details; this is not a sci-fi convention, and my mail-order Special Agent Fox Mulder Official FBI Badge is at home. Besides, there is but a single question to be asked about the season finale: Is "Existence," which airs May 20 on Fox-TV, also to be the series' final episode?

It would seem Carter has wrangled with this issue at the end of the last few seasons; there was some doubt that this season, the show's eighth, would even exist, after David Duchovny (who plays, of course, Fox Mulder) filed suit against Fox in 1999 claiming the network and Carter bamboozled him out of profits made when the show went into syndication on FX, the Fox-owned cable sibling. Duchovny would ultimately clean up: He appeared in only 11 of this season's offerings and, reportedly, took home an extra $30 million for his troubles. The show has done well enough without Duchovny: Robert Patrick, as clenched-jaw skeptic Doggett, transcends the definition of "replacement," and Duchovny's early-season absence allowed room enough for Gillian Anderson's Scully to evolve more in one year than she did during the previous seven. Carter even insists he sees the show returning for another season; still, the man who made the phrase "trust no one" a lifestyle is quick to defuse such optimism with a hastily added "but..."

"Right now, there is a lot of ground to cover in getting there for next year," he says. "Right now, there are certain X factors--if you will--we don't know. We're all hopeful. I think everybody wants to come back. I am not sure if David wants to come back or not, but I don't foresee any real concrete reason why we wouldn't come back. That said, it is in negotiation."

In no small part, the fate of The X-Files depends on what Fox decides to do with Carter's fourth series for the network, The Lone Gunmen, the X-Files spin-off featuring three of the most clever and cunning numskulls in the history of television. Gunmen--starring Dean Haglund (playing the gangly Langley), Tom Braidwood (the stubbly, stumpy Frohike) and Bruce Harwood (the buttoned-up Byers) as publishers of a conspiracy-exposing newspaper--is a rare hybrid in these wearying days of weakest links and conniving survivors. It's the only hour-long comedy airing on network television, and it's bereft of laugh track and cynicism; the show's humor has a heart. If The X-Files, which occasionally sags beneath the weight of its own self-contained mythology about aliens and abductions, has become too dark in recent months, then The Lone Gunmen is the light at the end of that very long and exhausting tunnel--Get Smart, done smarter.

The Lone Gunmen debuted March 4--in The X-Files' temporarily abandoned Sunday-night slot--and was seen by about 13.2 million viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings; 9 million tuned in the second week, and the number was half that for the third--a precipitous drop that terrifies any network (smells like the XFL). But when the show moved to its regular Friday-night slot in late March, viewership actually increased: It's estimated about 6.5 million people tune in each week. That's nothing compared to a show like E.R., which attracts about 25 million pairs of eyeballs, but it still qualifies The Lone Gunmen as Fox's most successful Friday-night series since the Chris Carter-created Millennium...which the network killed after its third season.

Of late, Carter's relationship with Fox has been characterized by some TV insiders as tenuous: He was upset when the network axed Millennium (even now, he says, Fox "killed a hit") and furious when then-network president Doug Herzog canceled his show Harsh Realm after a mere three episodes in the fall of 1999. One need only look back to the first season of The X-Files, in the fall of 1993, to discover Carter's always been pushing a boulder uphill at the network: Sandy Grushow, then Fox's head of programming, said at the time he'd "eat my desk" if The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., which debuted alongside The X-Files, didn't become a hit. Brisco County lasted as long as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral; Grushow never offered to eat anything if Carter's new show failed to take off.

So, yes, Carter admits his decision to bring back The X-Files rests, in part, on whether the network decides to bring back The Lone Gunmen for the 2001-2002 season.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky