The X-Files #44: Humbug

"Do you recall what Barnum said about suckers?"
ACTUAL DOCUMENTED ACCOUNT: Mulder and Scully investigate strange murders committed in a side-show freak community.

REVIEW: No Virginia, it's not a Christmas episode, but it is The X-Files' first full-blown comedy! And I, for one, love it. The show's dry wit is turned up a notch, with deadpan zingers you could 'port to today's best comedy shows without them seeming out of place. Yes, of course, it's about ghastly murders, but absurd ones, especially in their motivation and the episode's final solution. The production obviously went to some trouble to find actual side-show entertainers - certainly saves on the make-up - with The Enigma (above), before a lot of his current body mods, playing a particularly intriguing character, for example, and Jim Rose as Dr. Blockhead performing what I imagine are real tricks - lending an air of authenticity (and pathos) to the proceedings and using their showmanship to enhance the ridiculousness of what's happening.

Humbug is the first episode written by Darin Morgan - who'd previously been the Flukeman in "The Host - and it wouldn't be his last comedy, merely the one that made the crew a little uncomfortable with how far he pushed the tone. I found this quote from David Duchovny, which I find hilarious: "What I loved about his scripts was that he seemed to be trying to destroy the show." And it's true. There's a deconstructionist approach in his work. Normally, mutations are seen as an evil thing on the show (Morgan ought to know, he played one), but here, mutants are living happy lives, share a sense of community, have kids, etc. There are horrors, but they're in a make-up artist's studio. The monster of the piece (the culprit is sadly a bit obvious even if its motivation is not) is only trying to make friends. Time and again, the audience and the FBI agents are led to believe one thing, when another is true. That's X-Files 101, but it's not normally done as a punchline! Even the sexual tension natural to the show is twisted in an interesting way, with Scully - the usual target of the (often psychotic) male gaze - become the one who stares at deformities. I was disappointed in Scully's general insensitivity, but she also lets her circus flag fly, I suppose.

The episode isn't just a collection of self-aware jokes and gags, however. It has something to say. Oh, not the rather preachy business about judging books by their covers (of course, Mulder CAN be judged that way, amusingly), which the dialog rather beats into the ground. No, I mean Blockhead's final speech about nature abhorring normality. He and "the Conundrum" are prophets of this outlook on life, as "self-made" freaks, but it's certainly true of the X-Files world that mutation WILL happen, and often create Alpha predators. In our own world, everyone may well be trying to be "normal", but it's the different and unique we embrace. Coming out of the repressed 80s and forging ahead through the no man's land of the 90s, the show was doing just that - embracing the weird and the unusual, and as Humbug shows, not necessarily demonizing it.

- Filled with memorable characters and moments, Humbug shows the series can do comedy and not self-destruct. Clever and funny.


American Hawkman said...

I'll note that Scully really did eat the bug in that scene, which apparently nearly broke Duchovny.

Siskoid said...

You can hear her spit it out in the behind the scenes footage. But she was game. Cuz it looks like they also had a fake one for if she hadn't been.


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