For 11 seasons and 2 movies, Mulder and Scully hunted monsters, aliens, and other paranormal phenomena, cultivating a rabid and well-deserved fan base across the world. The show made household names of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, with audiences completely invested in seeing how their will-they-or-won't-they relationship resolved. Looking back now, what made the show so successful, and how did it lay the groundwork for shows that came after it?
When The X-Files debuted, there hadn't ever been anything quite like it on television before. There had been plenty of shows with male and female leads that had an ongoing question mark over their relationship status, but there was nothing that blended horror and science fiction elements in the way that The X-Files ended up doing. Thanks to creator Chris Carter, the show brought together monster of the week episodes, bottle episodes, and over-arching mythology together in a mostly seamless way.
The main plot of the show saw Mulder and Scully looking to uncover the conspiracy perpetrated by the government to hide the existence of aliens. The two played opposite sides of the coin: Mulder was the all-in believer to Scully's put-upon skeptic who, despite weekly evidence to the contrary, still started every episode with disbelieving incredulity. As the show progressed, the true depth of the conspiracy was uncovered, and it became a show about the two leads going up against an increasingly shadowy cabal trying to maintain the smokescreen.
Taking a look at shows that have followed The X-Files, it's easy to see the influence that the long-running show has had on the television landscape. Shows like Lost and Bones owe a lot to the formula of the show, from the deep, multi-season mythologies in Lost to the male/female detective pairing in Bones. Even now with shows like Stranger Things, the fingerprints of Chris Carter and his creation can be plainly seen. This is by no means a bad thing. The way in which the show played with tone, shifting plots, and settings changed genre television in a groundbreaking way. Before The X-Files, mainstream television with science fiction and horror elements was few and far between. Meanwhile, since the height of its popularity, genre television has exploded.
Shows like Fringe, Supernatural, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer almost certainly wouldn't exist (or would at least be far less successful) if it weren't for the huge popularity of The X-Files. Fringe, in particular, took a more extreme science-fiction, approach but had many of the same elements; namely, a male and female lead investigating both an ongoing conspiracy and weekly mysteries based on the fringes of science. The relationship between Olivia and Peter was central to the show, and without that, the story wouldn't have worked as well.
With Supernatural and Buffy, the shows took on a monster of the week style approach also similar to The X-Files, usually with one main antagonist per season or so. The creators of both series have cited The X-Files as inspiration for the combination of suspense and humor used in both shows — what's more, legendary producer and director Kim Manners who worked on X-Files also worked on Supernatural. Creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, also worked on The X-Files as a producer before going on to create his landmark show. Alumni from The X-Files crew also went on to work on Castle, Game of Thrones, and Shameless, to name just a few.
While the reach to other shows is undeniable, it's also important not to discount just how important to pop culture the character of Dana Scully has been. Before Scully, female characters were often the ones characterized as flighty believers, whereas the male characters were often the staunch skeptics, sensible and smart, the ones to keep a level head when things go off the rails. Mulder and Scully flipped that stereotype, with Anderson's dry, and often an exasperated portrayal of Scully coming up against Mulder and his often absurd ideas about aliens.
What made The X-Files special was an amalgamation of character chemistry, storytelling, and structure. It captured a moment in time, and yet still remains fresh when watched today. Not only do science fiction shows owe a winning formula to Chris Carter, but so do many of the crime shows on air today. Shows like CSI, NCIS, and all their spinoffs owe their methods of cracking cases to The X-Files. Solving the mystery, collecting evidence, and deep-diving into facts and science was popularized by Mulder and Scully's methodology. This structure has gone on to dominate procedural shows, instead of focusing on the human side of the criminal.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what caused The X-Files to catch hold of the zeitgeist of the time so completely. It was a perfect storm of timing — the show began airing shortly after the end of the Cold War, making the over-arching government conspiracy plot more than timely. Each episode was like its own self-contained feature film, making primetime television a cinematic event every week. Granted, in later series the plot became a little convoluted, but it did almost nothing to detract from the overall appeal of the show. The legacy of The X-Files is somehow both indefinable and completely traceable back to the series. It may be almost 30 years since it first appeared on our screens, but the influence of the show isn't going anywhere anytime soon.