The Goof Is Out There

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As TV assistant directors' tasks go--riding herd on crew, wrangling stray actors--it was a pretty easy one. Tom Braidwood was an AD on The X-Files' first season when his bosses were casting a trio of conspiracy-theorizing underground journalists. They had already tapped Dean Haglund and Bruce Harwood, actors from Vancouver, where the show was shot, but for the third character, Frohike--a scruffy older guy with the hots for Gillian Anderson's FBI agent Dana Scully--they were stymied. The episode's director, says Braidwood, "turned to [X-Files creator] Chris Carter and said, 'We need somebody slimy. Somebody like Braidwood." So they asked Braidwood. "It was one line of dialogue," recalls the actor, 52, who had done some theater in the 1970s. "I said, 'Sure.'" He stretched the line--"She's hot!"--into two by saying it twice.

Today the three actors are in a trailer on the set of The Lone Gunmen (Fox, 9 p.m. E.T. Sundays for three weeks starting March 4, and 9 p.m. E.T. Fridays starting March 16), the spin-off that is about to make them TV's unlikeliest leading men this side of Jeff Probst. Seven seasons ago, they assumed the comic-relief parts would be, at best, an occasional paycheck. "The first three years," says Haglund, 34, who plays snide computer hacker Langly, "I'd have a different set of glasses on each time, because I'd just throw them back into the prop bag." None of the trio have much recognition, or extensive resumes, outside the sci-fi series. "And then," Braidwood gamely offers, "there's the ugly factor." ("The unconventionally good-looking factor," volunteers Harwood, 37, who plays the earnest Gunman John Fitzgerald Byers.)

But what the Gunmen lacked in David Duchovnian sex appeal, they made up for in popularity with vocal X-philes. They served as Mulder and Scully's nerd consiglieri, lending their computer geekspertise to the alien-hunting agents. And their deadpan delivery and off-the-wall conspiracy postulates (for instance, about the magnetic strip the government plants in dollar bills to track you) made a hilarious foil to Mulder and Scully's G-man gravitas. In 1997 producer Vince Gilligan conceived an episode around the three; another followed the next season. Eventually Carter, Gilligan and two other X-Files producers sold a series to Fox, which was eager to extend the bloodline of what remains the network's top drama.

It was a strange mutation, spinning off a flat-out comedy from a serious drama. (Lou Grant and Trapper John, M.D., for instance, spun the opposite way.) The creators decided to make The Lone Gunmen a sort of spoof of the '60s spy genre. "All of us grew up around the same time," says Carter. "We loved Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E." The Gunmen are a good bit closer to Maxwell Smart than Napoleon Solo as they drive a beat-up VW microbus and stumble onto government cover-ups and corporate conspiracies.

The joke, of course, is that dweebs like these don't typically get the bad guy or the hot girl. Or the TV series. So it's hard not to wish success on its unaffected, unglamorous stars. And that makes Gunmen even more disappointing. The creative team seems to have forgotten what made these guys such a hoot on The X-Files: setting them against a backdrop of dark intrigue and playing it straight. On Gunmen, they practically have to dodge the flying banana peels. After an X-Files-y pilot, the new series plunges into slapstick that wouldn't have made the cut in a Police Academy sequel, up to and including a that's-not-a-cow-that's-a-bull joke. Similarly, the trio's new sidekicks--an Emma Peel-esque mystery woman named Yves Adele Harlow (Zuleikha Robinson) and a dumb-jock assistant (Stephen Snedden)--are campy mistakes. At moments, the dry interplay among the three leads shines through anyway, but Gunmen would be twice as funny if it were to flail half as hard.

The show may get time to improve, given Carter's pull. He was furious when his virtual-reality thriller, Harsh Realm, died quickly on Fox in 1999, and he's hinted that his continued involvement on The X-Files may hang on how well Fox nurtures Gunmen. Fair enough. But if he and his team can't recapture in a weekly series what made these oddball characters a welcome occasional treat, there will be no grassy-knoll conspiracy to blame.