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By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


'The X-Files' escapes its box

Seven years had sapped the sparkle from the once-provocative show. In an astonishing turn of events, its own malaise opens the drama's way to an exciting new season.

photo
[FOX photos]
The X-Files premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox with Gillian Anderson and newcomer Robert Patrick.
Once upon a time, there was a TV show that seemed ready to sleep with the fishes.

Its ratings were middling and its story lines -- involving two FBI agents uncovering a massive alien conspiracy to enslave mankind -- had grown confusing and overly manipulative.

Its stars told anyone who'd listen that they wanted out. To prove the point, one sued the network and the guy who created the show.

Then, a funny thing happened to The X-Files, at 9 tonight on WTVT-Ch. 13, on its way to cancellationville.

It got good again.

And there's one reason it all works so well: Less Duchovny.

I know, that's close to sacrilege in X-Files-land, where star David Duchovny's smoldering charisma perfectly matches co-star Gillian Anderson's icy reserve.

But even the best couples eventually grow apart. And seven seasons of Duchovny playing the quirky, capable conspiracy believer Fox Mulder against Anderson's skeptical Dana Scully were nearly too many.

As a way of settling Duchovny's lawsuit (he felt cheated when the show's reruns were sold into syndication), the star agreed to appear in just over half of this year's 22 episodes. He didn't know it then, but the petulant actor had opened the door to a shake-up that would save the series.

Tonight's episode introduces Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) as John Doggett, a by-the-book FBI agent assigned to find Mulder, whom viewers saw abducted -- most likely, by aliens -- at the end of last season.

Doggett views talk about alien abductions and conspiracies with considerable skepticism, allowing a distraught Scully to play the believer for once. As she struggles to decide just how far she can trust Doggett -- and how to cope with a surprise pregnancy revealed last season -- they both begin to suspect an outside force is watching.

It's no surprise to those who saw his turn as a degenerate gambler in HBO's The Sopranos, but Patrick brings an edgy energy as former New York City cop Doggett (named for Los Angeles Dodgers baseball announcer Jerry Doggett). His first scene with Anderson will likely go down in fan history for its combustible conclusion.

Duchovny, on the other hand, is seen only in brief moments -- mostly in a skin-crawling position that can't be revealed here for fear of ruining a major plot point. Let's just say that, after seeing this, you won't ever recline comfortably in a dentist's chair again.

For longtime fans, there are brief appearances bysome old favorites, including Krycek and the Lone Gunmen, and an expanded role for FBI assistant director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi).

Best of all, at least for X-Files aficionados, lots of delicious questions remain: Is Doggett a part of the alien conspiracy, an unknown pawn or a straight-up guy? Is Scully carrying Mulder's child, an alien baby or something else? And just where is Mulder, anyway?

As always, most of the fun for us viewers will come in watching Scully, Mulder and Doggett search for the answers.

* * *

Much has been made of Al Gore's and George W. Bush's tendency to trade stiff, scripted quips with obsequious TV talk show hosts. (Personally, I don't blame them. Who would you rather hang with, George Will or Oprah Winfrey?)

But the major party presidential candidates' appearance on Saturday Night Live's Presidential Bash 2000, at 9 tonight on WFLA-Ch. 8, only confirms what we always knew deep down about both these guys.

They really are a couple of stiffs.

Who else could endure the gantlet of gaffe watchers and nitpickers that our political press has become? It's obvious as Gore and Bush bring the only laughless moments of SNL's two-hour special -- a shared introduction featuring lots of sighing from the vice president, while the Texas governor notes he's "ambilament" about "offensible" TV content.

(Frankly, Jay Leno handled Bush's penchant for mispronunciation much better Monday, correcting the candidate's diction until Bush pointed out a sign reading, "Warning: Highly Flammabbabble.")

In their appearance tonight, Gore and Bush are far too worried about making a mistake to relax and be funny -- you can almost feel them wondering: "Will viewers laugh at me or with me?

By the time you finish this collection of SNL's best political jabs, you'll reach your own conclusions (perhaps helped along by a surprise appearance by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura).

Along the way, Melbourne native Darrell Hammond offers a spot-on impression of Gore's Southern-inflected condescension, while long-gone Phil Hartman brings side-splitting takes on President Clinton and Ronald Reagan (who knew he was a closet genius who spoke fluent Arabic?).

True enough, we've seen these sketches before: Dan Aykroyd's Richard Nixon leaving joke messages on the Watergate tapes; Norm MacDonald's Bob Dole as a cast member of MTV's The Real World.

But it's a nice reminder that, as the political season finally comes to a close, sometimes the best antidote to the madness is a well-timed joke.

* * *

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The Simpsons at 8 tonight on Fox.
It's a true TV miracle: a show that has remained one of America's funniest comedies for more than 250 episodes and nearly 11 years.

Watch The Simpsons at 8 tonight on WTVT-Ch. 13 and you'll see why: sharp scripts, vibrant characters and a taste for the absurd that only a cartoon can indulge.

Tonight, classic rockers The Who stop by the sleepy town of Springfield, which has split into two towns -- courtesy of Homer Simpson's fury over a new area code.

Watching Homer persuade the Who to stage a concert on a mountain of recycled garbage that separates the two towns is vintage Simpsons. And while the show has slipped a little from its heyday, tonight's episode continues its legacy of laughs quite nicely.

The only flesh-and-blood family that could possible equal the Simpsons in dysfunction happens to inhabit another Fox comedy, Malcolm in the Middle at 8:30 tonight on WTVT.

In this season premiere, Malcolm and his family are stuck in a miles-long traffic jam, while kid brother Dewey finds his way home after inadvertently bringing serious medical trauma to a babysitter and getting lost. Who knew emotionally scarred people could be so much fun?

* * *

Fans of quality woman-centered drama shouldn't miss the criminally underwatched Any Day Now at 9 tonight on Lifetime, a series centered on a biracial pair of friends in the South.

During tonight's episode, Annie Potts' Mary Elizabeth discovers her daughter has a secret that mirrors a mistake from her own past, with a multicultural twist.

How they cope with it all, echoing the timeless struggle of mothers and daughters to understand each other, makes for a compelling tale.

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