A question for our resident screenwriting buffs: do you think the show had a chance of working well in 2018? Could it be salvaged by making some changes? I haven't been able to figure this out. Any ideas?
I think the problem is less about the X-ness of these here Files, and more about the intended fantasy of them.
It boils down to an A-meets-B problem, where A is your topic and B is your genre; where A is your thematic setup and B is your thematic payoff. The need to keep major secrets from the public will always have a place in the culture, and from this we can assume paranoia and conspiracy-theorizing aren't going anywhere. For lack of a better word, we'll call that particular topic 'conspiranoia' — and conspiranoia is a super-solid thematic setup; it speaks to human nature, it's a part of us. Thus, 'secret powerful operations that must be happening in the background' stories will always be eligible for being taken seriously — if it's not James Bond, it's Bridge of Spies, or Men in Black, or All the President's Men, or Independence Day, or Ocean's 11 [think about it], or Citizenfour, or any of a hundred documentaries about classified ops or UFO sightings — because people love big complex secret truths hidden from everyday life. Conspiranoia is an itch the audience is permanently willing to scratch; what may not be permanent is any cultural interest in scratching conspiranoia with monster-of-the-week magic in particular.
"Where The X-Files gets into trouble," Teague said authoritatively, like an asshole, having never watched The X-Files, "is connecting serious conspiranoia thematic setups to magic monster-of-the-week thematic payoffs."
You can land on monster-of-the-week magic by way of any number of different genre setups, you don't have to use conspiranoia to get there: Buffy gets there by way of dramedy, Ghostbusters and Men in Black get there by way of comedy, and if you're willing to swap 'secret alien shit' for 'secret supernatural shit,' Indiana Jones gets there by way of adventure. But getting to monster-of-the-week magic by way of conspiranoia is trickier, because conspiranoia takes itself a little more seriously than those other thematic settings do — after all, another way of describing conspiranoia would be 'revealing the secret reality that's even more representative of how the world actually works, mannn.' It's inherently a topic with high standards for plausibility; audiences of any given random zeitgeist might be willing to roll with inherently silly payoffs to inherently serious setups, but that's a function of the escapism and whimsy of the zeitgeist at the moment, not audiences in general. In the nineties, we seem to have been pretty willing to roll with it — or perhaps it wasn't the nineties, it was Gen X. Whatever.
Basically, I think what happened is 9/11 advanced the zeitgeist and made silly premises look sillier.
Modern audiences are still quite willing to engage in stories about whimsical escapist cartoonish shit — oh my christ don't get me started on Marvel and Star Wars — but our standards have shifted greatly: escapism currently works if the pay-off is a lot less magical than The X-Files, e.g. The Dark Knight trilogy, or if the setup is a lot more fun than The X-Files, e.g. Marvel and Star Wars. In this way, X-Files suffers because its serious setup is a mismatch for its escapist pay-off. (It's also possible to have the opposite problem — and if you've come this far without wondering where DC might fit into this theory, you're going to enjoy the thought you're now having.)
I think the problem X-Files faces with modern audiences is that modern audiences are perfectly willing to sit through your thematic setup about humongous secrets the government has been keeping, but we also expect those setups to pay-off with plausible reveals, because we've been hearing a lot about humongous government secrets lately and the subject doesn't seem remote and escapist to us like it did in the nineties. In this atmosphere, with this audience, it's way harder for a story to follow its conspiranoia setup with a pay-off that feels monster-of-the-weekish, rather than feeling journalistic or gritty; equivalently, it's way easier for a story to take the form of a monster-of-the-week fantasy so long as the setup feels escapist. It's only when you take something that no longer feels like escapism and try to turn it into a fun genre story that you hit a disconnect.
Following from all this theorizing, it would seem X-Files has some meaningful options: it can drop the serious conspiranoia and become 'more fun' (tonally: Buffy, Agents of Shield, Men in Black), or it can drop the escapist fantasy and become 'more serious' (tonally: Bridge of Spies, Citizenfour, All the President's Men). If both sides of this spectrum are untenable, as I imagine they would be — I mean, at a certain point it just ceases to be The X-Files, y'know? — is there anything they can do to appease modern audiences? Can any show like this appease modern audiences? Sure: Fringe. Fringe skates with modern audiences because it anchors so much of its fantastical monster-of-the-week shit with explicit magic beans in the universe, rather than some hazy sense that the truth could be anything. Perhaps X-Files could skate just as well, if they were to drop the conspiranoia thematic setup and follow Fringe's lead with an escapist setup modern audiences are far more tolerant of: sci-fi.
Here's your high-concept pitch for a workable X-Files reboot: 'Fringe at Area 51.'
...but so long as we're throwing everything out anyway, I'd rather explore 'The West Wing at Area 51,' myself.
tl;dr — I think X-Files is out of fashion. It may become workable again once the world gets less scary.
I have a tendency to fix your typos.