The best joke on The Lone Gunmen happened before the first episode ever aired. When Melvin Frohike, John Fitzgerald Byers, and Richard Langly made their debut appearance on The X-Files (first season, in an episode called “E.B.E.”), they were intended to serve as a contrast to that show’s handsome leading man; Fox Mulder had his conspiracy theories, but here were the real-deal crazies, a trio of paranoids who between them fit nearly every nerd stereotype in existence. And while The Lone Gunmen would go on to make several guest appearances on The X-Files, even serving as the focus of two episodes, they spent most of their time in the shadows. That made sense. Frohike (Tom Braidwood), Byers (Bruce Harwood), and Langly (Dean Haglund) weren’t the sort of guys you built a show around. But then someone decided to do just that. Get it?
The Lone Gunmen debuted on March 4, 2001, roughly halfway through The X-Files’ eighth season. The show tells the story of the trio of geeks behind the eponymous newspaper The Lone Gunmen and their strained, often comically inept attempts to bring the truth to a largely disinterested public. Underfunded and frequently out-maneuvered, the three unlikely heroes faced the forces of darkness and more or less came out okay—until the ratings plummeted, the show got canceled, and the writers brought them back to their original home to kill them off.
The series’ run of 13 episodes does not represent a lost classic, nor was the show particularly ahead of its time (except in one bizarre, unintentionally eerie instance). Watching it now is mostly an exercise in recognizing how every once in a while, the viewing public gets it right. A few glimmers of hope remain, but it takes some work to spot them.
The main problem, evident nearly from the start, is that there never seems to be any pressing reason for the show to exist. The creative team was formed of a who’s who of X-Files writing staff: Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz, and the big man himself, Chris Carter. Their intent, judging by the supplementary material included on the show’s DVD set, was to tell stories with a looser, goofier tone than Mulder and Scully ever had to face. Yet one of the great strengths of The X-Files was always its ability to change its approach week in and week out, allowing for plenty of overtly comedic hours to settle in among the darker stuff. Trying to lock a new show into a single approach right off the bat meant losing a certain degree of surprise.
Plenty of weird stuff happens on The Lone Gunmen, but each episode boils down to a simple formula: There’s a mystery, the heroes investigate, there are long bouts of hopefully amusing ineptitude, and then the day is saved. Because things are meant to be light, there’s little suspense or any impression of real stakes; lives may be on the line, but there’s never any sense of urgency. Humor lives and dies on pacing, and the weird, not-really-drama and not-entirely-comedic vibe every episode gives off makes for a lot of long pauses and shaggy, unconvincing set-ups.
Even the wackiness can’t ever really get off the ground. Forty minutes and change is a tough space to fill for a genre that depends on momentum and pitch to sustain itself. Far too many episodes are more mildly melancholic than anything else—and while that’s an angle that could’ve ultimately born fruit if the writers had had a chance to develop the show further, as it is, there are just occasional glimpses of what the show might have been.
That leaves a first season made up largely of a creative team trying to force comic-relief characters into a shape that can sustain their own series. The decision to avoid the sort of supernatural plots that defined The X-Files might have seemed like a smart way to help The Lone Gunmen establish its own identity, but the result is a lot of bland plots about poachers, potentially corrupt politicians, government stings, and Chinese spy rings. The best episodes, like “Madam, I’m Adam” (guest-starring Stephen Tobolowsky as a man who thinks his life was stolen) or “Planet Of The Frohikes” (a Vince Gilligan-penned script about a super-intelligent chimpanzee), have enough twists and turns to avoid dragging, but even then, the show struggles to find a point of view. The best stories could’ve served as decent late-period X-Files’ entries; the worst, subpar MacGyver.
The saving grace comes in the form of the show’s leads. The Lone Gunmen makes a few stabs at developing its core heroes into more than just broad archetypes. This doesn’t get beyond establishing that Byers had a complicated relationship with his father and Langly really liked TV growing up, but the actors are comfortable enough in their roles that their familiarity with the material and each other helps carry over some of the shakier gags. Still, on the audio commentary for the pilot episode, Vince Gilligan talks about the challenge of writing for three supposedly distinct perspectives (as opposed to the two perspectives, believer and skeptic, that drove The X-Files), and that challenge is evident in the series. More often than not, scripts treat The Lone Gunmen as a unified whole, a single entity operating in three different bodies.
This works well enough. The show captures a sense of easy, sarcastic camaraderie, and the chemistry between the actors is strong throughout. But the essentially static nature of their relationship (the pilot briefly suggests that Byers might be losing his faith; it’s not a believable suggestion) makes it necessary to introduce more regular characters into the show’s ensemble. Just as Scully provided an outsider’s entry into Mulder’s world at the start of The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen needs a neophyte, a newbie, a stranger who can join forces with the Gunmen and offer them valuable opportunities to explain their work to an outsider. Also, the show needs a female lead, because hey, that’s a thing, right?
Enter Jimmy Bond (Stephen Snedden), a good-looking oaf with little brains but lots of heart, and Yves Adele Harlow (Zuleikha Robinson), a freelance femme fatale who serves as the Gunmen’s Catwomanesque nemesis. Neither character jumps off the screen, and both struggle to establish themselves over the course of a season that can’t ever quite decide what it needs out of anyone. Jimmy, first introduced as the head coach of a blind football team, serves as a kind of comic relief to the comic relief, and the result is as muddled as it sounds; the split between moral guidepost and outright idiot never quite comes into focus, despite Snedden’s best intentions. Yves is more consistent, but far blander. Her uber-competence, obvious fondness for the heroes, and junior-high level of sexuality (gasp, cleavage!) mark her as the female lead on a show aimed at men—not embarrassing, exactly, but despite Robinson’s best efforts, the only interesting thing about the lady is the anagram of “Lee Harvey Oswald” that gave her her name.
All of this would be easier to accept and even forgive if The Lone Gunmen had managed to be consistently, or even intermittently, funny. But it isn’t. There are laughs here and there, but far too many gags fall flat, and when those gags are stretched out to fill a running time that can’t be sustained on plot alone, the situation becomes borderline intolerable. The problem with consciously setting out to make a “lighter” series is that these are heroes who need to be operating on the fringe of some horrifying stuff in order for them to make sense. Transforming them into a kind of low-rent A-Team robs them of what made them funny to begin with (namely, that they were too pathetic and strange for even those involved in government conspiracies to give a damn about them). In this new context, they’re grouchy fuck-ups who grumble a lot, get in everybody’s way, and occasionally prevail. It’s almost as though the writers behind the series couldn’t conceive of The Lone Gunmen as heroes even in their own vehicle.
Maybe this could’ve been fixed. A quick scan of the best hour-long comedies on television (Northern Exposure, Freaks And Geeks, Slings & Arrows, to name a few) reveals that the key to doing a “funny” show that isn’t just a 30-minute-long chunk of crazy is throwing in some legitimate drama as well, a way to take the ensemble as more than just a collection of joke-delivery machines. Maybe if The Lone Gunmen had managed to last more than a single season, the creative team might have found ways to get into what made Byers, Langly, and Frohike unique; maybe Jimmy and Yves would’ve become more specific and less like concepts designed to prop up the legs of an unbalanced table.
But this was not to be. These days, apart from the show’s connection to The X-Files, the only reason anyone remembers The Lone Gunmen anymore is due to a horrible coincidence. In the pilot, Byers discovers a plot within the U.S. government to crash a remote-controlled plane into the World Trade Center. It was conceived as an absurdity by the writers, only to have the events of September 11, 2001, turn the episode’s climax into a surreal, misplaced nightmare. That’s a level of real-life horror that the series itself could never sustain; few series could.
Really, though, this ungainly collection of 13 episodes was never going to be much more than an oddity. The defining trait of The Lone Gunmen was always their quixotic determination to keep going in the face of a largely apathetic world. Getting canceled wasn’t a tragedy, but at least it was thematically appropriate.
Wonder, Weirdo, or Wannabe? Weirdo.
Next time: Genevieve Valentine checks in with the first cop show to ever feature a female protagonist: Decoy Police Woman.