The Mythology Series May Be On Its Way Out
And That’s Probably A Good Think For Television
Earlier this week, in the constant of an article on the Showtime Yellowjackets the writer fundamentally said that we may be coming to an era where the ‘mystery box’ series — what we know as the mythology series — is fundamentally dead. This writer know of where she speaks: she coauthored what should be considered the quintessential guide to The X-Files, Monster of the Week.
The nature of the article is simple: she argues that the mystery box series is on its way out and that fundamentally it is a good thing for television. I think its demise isn’t quite a foregone conclusion yet — the fact that there was demand for a series like Manifest to get a final season speaks volumes, and as long as shows like Westworld and The Blacklist keep their fanbase interest, they’ll keep going — but there are fewer of them there they’re were even a few years ago.
So I agree with her that the ‘mythology’ show is probably on its downward trajectory and that it’s a good thing for TV as a medium. Where our conclusions differ, however, is how exactly we managed to get to this point and why I think it’s a good thing. So in this article, I will present my reasoning for these self-same conclusions.
The writer seems to think that it was the result of so many disappointing mythology series — and yes, Lost is the prime example of such — that finally pushed so many fans over the edge. I beg to differ. What ultimately is killing the mythology series is the same thing that pushed it to its peak: the Internet.
Way back when the Internet was barely a factor in anyone’s lives, the first real chatrooms that dealt with fandom surrounded the extraordinary cult series Twin Peaks. Its moment in the sun was brief, but it was never truly forgotten and the power of its fandom in a pre-DVD world really did involve the internet. That same fandom was becoming a major source when The X-Files premiered a few years later, and I’m relatively certain it would never gotten beyond a cult phenomena had it not been for the online fandom (and of course, the constant frustration that we all ended up expressing on so many levels.)
When Lost premiered in 2004, it was the perfect melding of two mediums. Creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse embraced the way of communicating with the fans of the series that the creators of The X-Files fundamentally ignored and audiences were more than willing to play along. The speculation for everything regarded Lost was always enormous beyond the Internet — I vividly remember how publications like USA Today and Entertainment Weekly were more than willing to do weekly analysis on every episode from the characters that linked the crash survivors to the details of every Dharma filmstrip. It was a water-cooler show, and the world seemed willing to be part of it — to the point that the fans often made connections about the series seasons before Darlton was willing to reveal them.
It wasn’t the ending of Lost, however, that cut the faith in viewers of mythology series. I think that it had more to do with the rise of Netflix and how streaming services in general changed how we watched TV. As long as we had a week for the next episode, there was a period for intense speculation among the fans and a sense of community among them as we tried to figure out the mysteries that the writers were giving us and the new questions that we had to ask. The second that Netflix decided that it would premiere every episode of shows like House of Cards all at once; a lot of the reason for speculation was gone. I’ve made repeated arguments against the whole concept of binge-watching but one of the biggest arguments is its draw. If all the answers for a single season are revealed at the same time, then you have nothing to talk about for weeks at a time. As much as we may celebrate series like Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea of the cliffhanger episode no longer has any meaning if you just watch the next one a minute later. That loss of community is a real blow to television watching that I think has done far more harm than good.
And networks and cable have no good answer for it. Shonda Rhimes no down piled on so many revelations for shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder in an attempt to try and build that sense of community. It worked short term but the sense of constant revelations was so much that the fan became numb to it. There have other mythology based shows in this interim — Fox would manage some success with series like Fringe and Sleepy Hollow — but the fanbase would never be as big and it usually didn’t work for long.
So, to paraphrase the Buggles in the first MTV broadcast: “Streaming Killed the Mythology Show.” But while I do mourn the loss of community that came from bonding over speculating over Mulder and Scully’s adventures and what exactly was going to happen next on the island, I don’t particular mind the death of the mythology series as a whole. Because we have to face a very fundamental fact: mythology shows have never worked
X-Files and Lost were both extraordinary series — I will defend to the death that they were among the greatest accomplishments in TV history — but they were great despite the mythology, not because of them. For each series, there was a different reason.
In her article, the writer says she can explain the reason the X-Files mythology worked but halfway through, her audiences eyes will glaze over. She’s being far too generous — I watched the entire series and gave up on the mythology ever making at least halfway during the run. (I think in her heart of heart she knows this; that’s why the book is titled Monster of the Week and not Endless Scenes of Old Men Walking and Saying Unspeakable Dialogue.)
I now have a network that reruns episodes of The X-Files late at night and I will watch every so often. But I’m very particularly. If it’s an episode written by Vince Gilligan or Darin Morgan, the geniuses of the series, whether it’s the comic masterwork Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or a brilliant thriller like Pusher, I’ll tune it. If it’s a monster of the week with style like ‘Post-Modern Prometheus’ or ‘Squeeze’, not a problem. I’ll even watch a darkly centered conspiracy adjacent episode like ‘One Breath’ or ‘Memento Mori’. But if its an episode where Mulder is chasing an alien bounty hunter or a UFO, or Scully is denying her abduction experiences even to abductees who remember her, or if its one where the phrase ‘alien-human hybrid’ or worse, ‘supersoldier’ is used, then I’ll take my chances with a cable movie.
Because it’s clear pretty much from — let’s be generous and say early Season 3 — that the mythology didn’t make sense and that Chris Carter and his merry band were more interesting in prolonging the backstory as long as they could rather than giving a real conclusion. Mulder and Scully spent decades searching for the truth, and it was never going to be revealed. I don’t know why the writers never acknowledged that simple fact until after the series was over. (Chris Carter actually said as much when asked about Lost, ironically.)
Lost is a different story. I have religiously rewatched Lost every two years almost like clockwork even though, like so many people, the ending remains a disappointment. But I don’t regard Lost as a failure either. Every time I rewatch it, I am swept away by everything in it — the brilliance of the cinematography and editing, the extraordinary score by Michael Giacchino, the exceptional ability of the writers to get us invested in every single characters, helped immensely by the magnificent talent of the cast. Every time, I am awed by the actors, especially Terry O’Quinn, Michael Emerson and Evangeline Lilly and each time I see different nuance to the work of performers like Elizabeth Mitchell, Josh Holloway and Naveen Andrews. I never cared about the gaps that the writers left in the story; I was always swept up in the relationships between the characters — Sun and Jin’s gentle romance, Desmond and Penny’s sweeping one, Ben’s utter destruction at the lost of his daughter, Richard Alpert’s magnificent saga of how he came to the island, what it cost him and the moment of joy at the end. A writer I respect immensely said Lost makes ‘your brain and your heart ache’. It still does more than a decade later.
On the X-Files, the sum of its parts was greater than the whole. On Lost, more often, it was the other way around. But the reason they failed as mythology series was fundamentally the same reason every mythology series doesn’t really work: the speculation over the answer is never as good as the reality. And trying to please the fans is something that can never be done. I’ll give an example for each series of this.
For almost the entirety of Lost’s run, fans were trying to figure out what the whispers that we heard every so often in the jungle was from. Near the end of the last season, we finally learned that they were the voices of the dead — ‘the ones who couldn’t move on.’ The internet lambasted this conclusion, not because it wasn’t logical, but because the fans wanted something ‘bigger’. What exactly that could have been, I don’t know (I was fine with it) but the vast majority of fans were angry about it. That same episode a character named Ilana, who the writers had spent nearly two seasons building up as vital to the endgame, literally blew up in front of our eyes. It says a lot about the fanbase that they were more pissed about the revelations about the whispers not being ‘explosive’ enough,
The X-Files, as is it way, needs more of an explanation. At the end of Season 7, in what many at the time thought would be the series finale; we learned that Scully, who’d been rendered barren from her abduction years ago, was pregnant. Everything about that storyline rubbed me, and millions of fans, the wrong way. From the writers basically ignoring it for half of Season 8, to spending the remainder saying their was something ‘alien about it’, to the season finale implying it was a normal child, to Season 9 saying it not only wasn’t’ but might also be the savior of mankind, to the fact that Scully gave it up near the very end in what was supposed to be a moment of high drama, but really seemed like the writers were trying to wrap up a storyline they had no business starting.
In the midst of all of these confounding explanations for the pregnancy, a major fan theory develop that the Cigarette Smoking Man was responsible for it. Most of the theory came down to the seventh season episode ‘En Ami’ when the Smoking Man stands over an exhausting Scully…and the next time we see them, she’s in pajamas and there’s no real explanation. I never bought into this theory, mainly because William B. Davis (the actor who played CSM) had written the episode himself and at the time, it was unclear if he or the series was going to come back.
Cut to 2018, and Season 11. Among everything else that happened in the interim, Carter and his writers are well aware of how Lost ended and the prospective problems with its shortcomings. In ‘My Struggle III’, the Smoking Man reveals to Skinner that not only did he help impregnate Scully in that episode (footage was shown in case we’d forgotten) but he’d used his DNA. So William was both his son and grandson. (Yes the writers had finally decided Smoking Man really was Mulder’s father, and I’m not much happier about that revelation either.)
I felt betrayed by this. I don’t know if fans were satisfied by this revelation or not, but if they were it’s because Carter had decided to take what was no doubt lots of fanfiction and make it canon. Rather than come up with an original explanation for William’s birth on his own (something by the way, he’d had more than fifteen years to think of) he gave in to the fans.
And it is both these cases that are at the core of any mythology series. It is the complete negation of famous phrase by Lincoln: “You can’t satisfy any of the people any of the time.” The explanation will either be seen as to simple or giving in to the fandom; either way people will be unhappy with it.
It is for that reason that I think the mythology series is either going out of existence, or as the author of the original article said, evolving. There are still series like Yellowjackets which have mysteries, but they are mysteries that are known to the characters. Perhaps the most obvious example of a show like that is This is Us. All of the mysteries that the fans of the show want to learn — how Jack Pearson died, what led to the split between Randall and Kevin, why everybody was gathered at Rebecca’s bedside — are unknown to the audience, but not the characters. This kind of mythology is more satisfying because it’s not really playing tricks with the audience the way, say; Westworld constantly is with everybody involved in the process. When we get angry with series like Westworld for changing the game every episode, it’s because they constantly upset our expectations. When viewers got upset when we didn’t learn the cause of Jack’s death at the end of Season 1, it was because the timetable had been slowed down. When the revelation did come on ‘Super Bowl Sunday’, no one would claim they weren’t satisfied — and then the series could move on to different stories, which it has.
So maybe that’s how the mythology series has to go on — only with a change in the mission statement put forth by The X-Files nearly thirty years ago, The show famously told us ‘The Truth Is Out There’ — but Mulder and Scully never knew for certain what it really was. In the new mythology series, the truth is still out there — and the characters already know it. It is just for the audience to discover, and to trust the characters to tell us.