Saturday, August 27, 2005

Cult TV Flashback # 7: The X-Files: "Home"

From 1993 to 2001 - on Fox TV, of all places - The X-Files produced some of the best genre programming in two decades. Chris Carter's landmark series (a child, perhaps, of Kolchak: The Night Stalker [1974]) featured two F.B.I. agents - Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating unusual criminal cases involving the paranormal; so-called "X" files. The series ran for nine spectacular years, and drew the raves of critics everywhere for its sharp-as-a-razor presentation of material that could have been classified as "hokey" or "marginal."

"The direction is atmospheric, the scripts are tight, the dialogue is crisp, the tone uneasy and grim...How can anyone not love this show?" asked Omni columnist David Bischoff (December 1994, pages 43-50). Matt Roush, the TV Guide critic at the time, agreed: "Many weeks...The X-Files is as good as any movie, satirizing the characters' obsessions while still delivering shudders." "What's erotic about the show," suggested reviewer James Wolcott in The New Leader ("X Factor,'" April 18, 1994, pages 98-100), "is its slow progression from reverie to revelation, stopping just short of rapture. It wants to swoon, but swooning would mean shutting its eyes, and there's so much to see..."

All these critics are right on the money, and The X-Files, I believe, is right up there with the best genre programming in TV's long history: Star Trek (1966-1969), The Prisoner (1969), The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and my own personal - and highly controversial - favorites, Space: 1999 (1975-1977), Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-1998), Sapphire & Steel (1979-81), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2002).

I could pick any number of X-Files episodes to feature in this flashback edition (most of 'em from the show's exemplary first six seasons...). There's the brilliant and highly literary "Milagro," which gazes deep into the heart of agent Dana Scully. There's the Roshomon-like fifth season entry, "Bad Blood," which shows us (quite comically...) how Scully and Mulder see themselves, and each other. There's "The Host," the story of a flukeman living in the New Jersey sewers(!), "War of the Coprophages" - about extra-terrestrial cockroaches, "Unruhe," a serial-killer piece done extraordinarywell, and on-and on. For years, this show never produced a stinker.

But the best - and most disgusting - episode, has to be the one that was banned from network television after its initial airing on October 11, 1996. The episode I write of is the second of the program's best year, the fourth season. It is called "Home," and was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, and directed by Kim Manners. For those who don't recall the episode, it concerns a a small Pennsylvania town, "Home." There, a family of deformed brothers (with their crippled, limbless mother...) - The Peacocks - dwell in an isolated farmhouse, minding their own business. But when a dead fetus is found near the imposing, dilipadated house, Sheriff Andy Taylor (Tucker Smallwood) calls in Mulder and Scully to investigate. What the F.B.I. agents discover inside the Peacock home s a rotten, stinking farm filled with sharp-edged, home-made booby traps, and four monsters who barely qualify as "human." The wrecked Peacock home - filthy in the extreme - is reminiscent of the Leatherface estate in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the savage family dynamic presented in the early Wes Craven chiller, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The savage cinema returns!

I have never seen anything like "Home" on TV. It features: a bloody murder with a baseball bat, scenes of the brothers Peacock chewing their mother's food for her (though, thankfully, her impregnation occurs off-screen...) and the corpse of a deformed infant, who was buried alive. The show is cutthroat, terrrifying, and a sense of danger goes waaaay beyond the "safety" and decorum we expect (or used to expect...) from our boob tube programming.

But the show is artistic and worthwhile for other reasons. The horror creds are unimpeachable, but the hour is truly memorable for the way in which it sets up the locale of the town and its unspoken "rules." The Peacocks mind their own business - and so do the police - and each faction is left alone. However, the death of the infant and the subsequent arrival of the F.B.I throws these long-standing "rules" out of synch, and the Peacocks engage the police with brutal, animal ferocity. In the 1990s, this kind of encounter reflected the Zeitgeist - call it Waco or Ruby Ridge - but the idea of people dwelling out in the wilderness, waiting for a spark to go off and begin killing, was certainly one ripped from the headlines.

The episode also takes great pains to develop the dramatis personae. Scully is deeply affected by the discovery of the dead baby, and wonders "what a mother must go through," dealing with a deformed child. Later in the episode, the Peacock Mommy makes it explicit: telling Scully how "proud" she is of her boys. In Mulder's case, we not only get a great reminiscence from him about pick-up baseball games in his youth (a terrific, heartfelt moment...), but his sudden realization that Scully could be..well...maternal. "I've never thought of you as a mother before," he says at one point; and clearly, he likes the notion. (Later in the series, Mulder and Scully do have a baby together).

The X-Files almost always features some kind of satirical edge, and indeed, "Home" includes this element. Sheriff "Andy Taylor" should ring a bell. That's the name of Andy Griffith's character on The Andy Griffith Show. It could be a cheap joke to name the sheriff of a town after this character, but much of the episode actually concerns the manner in which modern America is changing, how the Mayberrys of our nation are no longer places, perhaps, where you can leave the door unlocked and still remain safe. It is a chilling premise, and the use of the name "Andy Taylor" explicitly alludes to a gentler time in America, and certainly in American TV.

So as August becomes September, as hot summer turns autumnal, let's remember the scariest, most dynamic, and pulse-pounding X-Files episode produced in nine years. "Home" is where the heart of this great show resides. To this day, it still chills, and raises questions about the small towns where we live. From a terrifying teaser, which commences with the unholy birth, to the final moment, wherein two Peacocks escape the house of horrors and drive away to the tune of "Wonderful," "Home" fits in beautifully with a recurring X-Files obsession: terror underneath the surface of so-called "normal" America. Other episodes (including the exemplary "Our Town" and "Die Hand der Verletz") also tread through this queasy territory, but "Home" surpasses the already high gross-out factor in the series, and is an episode that anyone who has seen, never forgets. As I wrote in my 2001 book, Terror Television, "Home" represents "terror TV at an apex of both style and substance."


  1. Anonymous1:33 AM


    Now you've pressed my geek button...

    I haven't read what you wrote yet, I just got excited when I saw "X-Files"... I'm going to read it now and comment accordingly!

    -Jordan C.

  2. Anonymous1:43 AM

    NOW I read it..

    Ha, yes! I completely agree. I remember the first time me and my family watched that episode (We'd watch X-files every sunday night for many years)... It was brutal, and the baseball bat scene really disturbed me, and still does.

    I mostly love the end, where Mulder and Scully are in the booby trapped house, and how the brothers start descending on them like a pack of animals.

    My other favorite X-files episodes are (i dont know all the titles) "Jose Chung's From Outerspace" , the one with the haunted house on xmas eve (with Lily Tomlin), the psychic one with Peter Boyle(obviously), the really weird one where a hollywood producer based a movie on Mulder and Scully...

    What do you think of the last couple seasons? They actually went back to doing some really scary stuff...Like the episode about the creepy little guy who hypnotizes people...And there's that good one of the guy who's week is going backwards. No Mulder and an exhausted Scully, but still really good episodes... Though the mythology really baffled me at that point (were Supersoldiers aliens or not...??? whaaa??)

    I could talk about X-files for hours, arrrg...I'm not a big sci-fi guy at all (though I am a ghost guy), but I'm obsessed with that show...


  3. Hey Jordan!

    The X-Files is a neo-classic, I think. For the first six years of this show, there wasn't a stinker in the lot. I do feel that the show was different with the new cast members, but not necessarily worse. Some of the later eps got down to the business of scaring us silly again, and I appreciate that effort. I'll never forget the eighth season episode about a town run by some weird parasite that lodges in the human spine. Scully almost gets it put in her...yikes. CREEPY. I agree with you, this show is an obsession. One of the best genre programs EVER.

  4. Production values on this show were second to none. I was a fan that never missed and episode of this show since viewing episode 3,'Squeeze', introducing us to the liver-eating Eugene Tooms.
    Though admittedly, I was not so much a fan of the mythology, it remains my favorite series of the last 20 years by far.