The Lone Gunmen: The Complete Series Review
The Lone Gunmen is a curious footnote in the pantheon of Chris Carter shows. While his other series all had substantial attention in the popular media, including the cancelled-after-three-episodes Harsh Realm, The Lone Gunmen never really attracted the same amount of interest, a series that almost slipped out of the gates unnoticed and was gone before it could gather any kind of momentum. Even among hardened X Files fans, of which this show is a spin-off, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm, although maybe this is unsurprising, given the very different tones the two series have.
In The X Files, the characters of the Lone Gunmen started off as a comic expositional tool, first appearing in the season one episode EBE. Over the years they grew in stature, and by season four were so popular that they had an episode almost exclusively featuring them, Unusual Suspects, which also happened to be the hundredth of the series. In that instalment, as well as season six's Three of a Kind which also extensively featured the characters, can be seen as the origins of the idea of giving them their own show, the characters fully able to support a story on their own. In 2000 the green light was given, and a half-season's worth of episodes were commissioned.
But spin-offs are tricky, unpredictable things. For every one that succeeds (cue obligatory mention of Frasier) TV history is littered with the gravestones of shows that didn't (Crusade, Galactica 1980 and, let's be honest here, Joey). Forcing characters who have only ever had secondary status to suddenly become completely three-dimensional creations capable of supporting an entire show can sometimes be too much of a leap, and so it proved with The Lone Gunmen. Although it did better than Harsh Realm in that it managed to get all thirteen of its made episodes broadcast, it is an uncertain, odd show in which none of the scripters seem exactly sure which direction to take with it. The premise, three paranoia buffs writing a newspaper about government conspiracies that no one believes, presents an immediate paradox. On the one hand, paranoid conspiracy theorists are, in general, so nutty as to be amusing (apologies to any reading), their theories about Elvis living in Malta and aliens drilling out the fillings in our teeth and replacing them with radio transmitters an enjoyably daft way to wile away a couple of hours’ reading time. The problem is, in the world of The X Files, these theories tend to be true, which means that the show has, at some point, to take these things seriously. This melding between humorous reality and the fictional construct of the world the Lone Gunmen live in is at times a clumsy one, and the show, certainly in its first couple of outings, doesn’t quite know which tack to take.
The approach we see, therefore, is to take what is known – that the Lone Gunmen themselves are funny guys – and run with it, hoping the rest of the premise slots in. Therefore in the first episodes we have a plethora of slapstick, be it a running theme of Frohike falling over or world-class assassins who manage to accidentally kill themselves, mixed in with stories about corrupt regimes and old criminals. The pilot episode suffers the unfortunate coincidence of being about a US-government conspiracy to fly a plane into the World Trade Centre to re-ignite arms sales around the world, broadcast roughly six months before 9/11, which now makes for uncomfortable viewing, especially in the climatic moments with the real aerial views flying over the two towers at night. Aside from this, it’s not a bad start, but things rapidly degenerate with the next episode, Bond, Jimmy Bond, which is quite the worst of the series, at times descending to a Tom Green-level of humour (Hey, look at the funny blind people playing sports! Chortle, look at Langley vomiting into a dead guy’s golf bag!). The third is nearly as bad, a mean-spirited tale which seems to have the ultimate purpose of dressing Frohike in lederhosen. Aside from when Darin Morgan was involved, humour and The X Files were always uneasy bedfellows, with slapstick almost unknown, and this inexperience really shows up here in the early instalments.
Fortunately, after this initial troika of under-achievers, the series starts to find its way, and the remaining ten episodes are much more even, balancing the humour with more regular stories of crime investigation. The problem is, though, that it still remains resolutely lightweight, and at times cartoonish, which ultimately doesn’t work given the kind of stories they are trying to tell. It’s very hard to tell a story about a corrupt senator which also has an extended sequence of Frohike, for reasons too complex to explain, pretending to have bad wind in a doctor’s surgery. The most obvious example of this genre clash is in the character of Jimmy Bond (Stephen Snedden), a gormless young guy whose function is to take the seemingly redundant role of comic relief. His stupidity ensures he never comes close to being believable – he makes Jade Goody seem bright – and is instead a two-dimensional gag that ensures that at no times is suspension of disbelief possible in the show. The humour always goes a step too far, and undermines the series rather than reinforces it, making one wonder whether the very premise was flawed from the start. Only once during the thirteen episodes does a story strike exactly the right balance, the entertaining Planet of the Frohikes, a story about genetically engineered monkeys which is absurd (one wonders if it was taken from the reject pile of its parent show) but amusing in its own right. Other than that, the episodes lurch from one extreme to another, at one point inviting laughs about giving cows rectal examinations, at another asking us to feel sorry for a crime lord who makes a noble sacrifice. Sorry, it doesn’t work. Even when the stories veer towards the serious (as they increasingly do near the end of the run), there’s nothing exceptional about them, generic tales that make for some very bland television.
That said, the three leads are affable enough and enjoyable to watch. As well as the writing, the other reason the Lone Gunmen have been so popular through the years is down to these three performers, Bruce Harwood as Byers, Tom Braidwood as Frohike and Dean Haglund as Langley. Haglund occasionally pushes his performance over the edge from amusing to annoying, but the other two are consistently good, if a little too low-key at times, Harwood in particular giving the only genuinely emotional performance of the entire run in the Pilot (an emotional element that is completely lost thereafter). To bolster up the show they are paired up with two new-comers, the afore-mentioned Snedden as Jimmy Bond and Zuleikha Robinson as the mysterious femme fatale Yves Adele Harlow (see if you can spot what that’s an anagram for). Despite his character’s shortcomings, Snedden throws himself into his role with wide-eyed enthusiasm and, after somewhat overplaying him in his debut, settles down to become the ostensible “heart” of the group. Robinson’s character, who has an exotic Latin look about her but speaks with a plum British accent, starts off as an ice-cool maiden but eventually softens to the team and becomes their ally, any ambiguity to her being swiftly abandoned. The actress is less certain in the softer moments (surprisingly, given her appearance in the interviews on this set) but has a good presence and makes a good visual contrast to the other leads.
Ultimately, however, good actors will only take you so far, and the writing in the series is so uneven it’s unsurprising the show was cancelled after just one season. The cliff-hanger was resolved ultimately in a season nine episode of The X Files which does a good job of melding the two series but gives the characters a send-off that is to be regretted after their many years on the two shows. At times, this series reminds me of nothing more than The Simpson’s Spin-Off Showcase, which featured a trio of ill-thought-out possible extensions to the parent series, but it’s never entirely clear whether this is the fault of badly-thought out writing or whether the premise itself is essentially flawed. I come down on the side of the latter so, while it has good points (not least of which is its generic but jolly theme) it is very much less than the sum of its parts.
The complete series, plus The X Files episode Jump the Shark which resolves (sort of) the cliffhanger, are presented on three double-sided dual-layered disks. The first two disks have five episodes per disk, three on the A-side and two on the B-side, with the remainder of the episodes, and all extras, on the last. The disks are housed in two slim jewel cases in a container box, with appropriate, if unthrilling, artwork. Each case comes with the episode synopses, airdates, and writer and director credits, as well as random photos from the episodes in question – beware if you want to go into the series spoiler-free, these photos do give away certain surprises.
Each disk opens with the same montage from the series which introduces the three Lone Gunmen, although not Jimmy or Yves. These clips don’t really have spoilers, although the opening one is from the last episode, which seems a bit of an odd choice. The menus themselves have a static emblematic picture of the three leads with the option to select one of that side’s episodes, each of which has its own submenu, complete with any extras for that particular one. A short loop of the show’s theme accompanies these menus.
While the episodes themselves are subtitled, the extras are not.
Very good for a TV series, with few signs of digital artefacting, with flesh tones at times more convincing than even The X Files’ later releases. Few problems.
Unremarkable but functional, there’s nothing exciting to be heard on the audio tracks, but which do their job and are clear enough.
Five episodes have commentaries, three with members of the production team and two with the main actors and producer Brian Spicer. The production team commentaries are by far the better, frank tracks that mix accounts of why the series was made the way it was with admissions of elements that didn’t work as well as they could have done. The two cast commentaries are similar to hundreds of others that have come before them, anecdotes of making the episodes combined with in-jokes and the occasional description of what’s happening on screen. Overall, though, some effort has gone into bringing back so many people involved in the show (including the increasingly-busy Rob Bowman), which should be commended.
Defenders of Justice: The Story of the Lone Gunmen
Decent half hour documentary that makes up the makers and stars of the series talking first about the origin of the characters on The X Files and then discussing memories of selected episodes. Although not a particularly analytical way to go about it, this approach makes a pleasant enough retrospective of the series.
Four tongue-in-cheek trailers for the series shown on Fox, it’s difficult to imagine these encouraged anyone not already a fan to tune in.
A minor entry into the Carter oeuvre, this series is at best mildly diverting but really not worth spending much time with. Good performances aside, there’s not a whole lot here, either for X Files fans or for newcomers looking for what the makers hoped would become “Mission: Impossible with geeks." The set’s extras are lightweight with only the commentaries and the number of people involved in them appearing in a favourable light.