The new issue of Entertainment Weekly (March 14) features its annual "Pop Culure Throw-Down!", which makes such deliberately provocative — and potentially injury causing — pronouncements as "Bob Dylan sings better than Kelly Clarkson" and "Craig Ferguson is funnier than Conan O'Brien," along with such timeless pop culture arguments as The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Spielberg vs. Scorsese and Diane vs. Rebecca on Cheers.
The lead-off argument, if you will, is "The X-Files is better than Lost." Longtime EW TV critic and former New York Magazine film writer Ken Tucker argues the former; veteran EW staff writer argues the latter.
My initial reaction was that it's a silly argument — the two are impossible to compare. But then I realized that's a weasel argument, and I have to choose if I'm to play the game. That's the thing about parlour games: If you're unwilling to play along, they're no fun.
I decided to pick one, so I picked Lost. And then I thought about it more, and changed my mind. I picked The X-Files, and I still do.
• The X-Files came first. In an entertainment medium not noted for its originality, that counts for a lot.
• The X-Files was more varied from week to week. The so-called mythology episodes — Mulder's sister was kidnapped by aliens! black oil! Cigarette-smoking man! — were a recurring theme, but the standalone "monster-of-the-week" episodes were quite different, in tone and structure. The only thing linking them, really, were Mulder and Scully.
• David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are underrated performers, and quite different from each other. Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly — they're decent performers, don't get me wrong, but Duchovny and Anderson seem more experienced, more nuanced somehow. Still, it's a tough argument. Lost is about the ensemble; X-Files was about the two leads.
• For all Lost's bravura storytelling — flashbacks! flash-forwards! — it's locked in a box, somehow. The X-Files's scope was vast, as vast as the universe itself. Or the galaxy, at any rate.
• The X-Files predicted 9/11; Lost reacted to it.
• The X-Files tackled real-world politics: It warned about government wiretaps, rogue agencies and the erosion of civil liberties long before terms like "rendition" and "waterboarding" became part of the popular lexicon. Lost does paranoia very well, and it seems likely that corporate malfeasance and globalization will appear in Lost's crosshairs before the series is over in 2010. Still, big government seems a bigger target than big corporations, though I'm sure the Noam Chomsky/Ralph Nader crowd would beg to differ.
• The X-Files was filmed in my home town, where I live. Lost is filmed in Hawaii, which I've visited and would like to visit again. Can't imagine living there, though.
It's a tough, tough call to make, though. I recently had to pick my Top 10 list of favourite TV shows on DVD, as an adjunct to an article I wrote for the Canwest newspapers about DVD box sets. And, wouldn't you know, The X-Files and Lost both made it onto my desert island list. (Don't laugh: a desert island can so have a DVD player, TV screen and the necessary cable hookups. Just look at the Lost island, if you doubt that.)
As part of my research, I had a long chat with Edmonton's Gord Lacey, who runs the website TVShowsOnDVD.com, the go-to site for anything and everything to do with, well, TV shows on DVD.
Lacey deals with the Hollywood studios, DVD producers — Lacey recently sold the site to U.S. TV Guide — and TV fans, and he says there is virtually an unlimited number of factors that weigh in a TV fan's decision to buy one series over another on DVD.
Basically, it comes down to your passion for a show, how often you think you may want to watch that show all the way through, how much time you have, how much you really want that show in your home library and, of course, price.
The X-Files and Lost both make terrific DVDs. The difference, of course, is that The X-Files has come and gone, and we know it went out with more of a whimper than a bang. Lost is still in transition.
What's interesting is that, behind the scene's, Lost's brain trust is quick to pay homage to The X-Files. At a press conference in Pasadena, Calif., before Lost aired, co-creator J.J. Abrams was asked the ages-old question: What guarantee do we have that Lost won't fall into the X-Files trap and disappoint in the end?
Abrams, who in real life is quite personable and cheerful and like the next-door friend you grew up with, showed a flash of irritation.
"Listen," he said. "I would wish The X-Files on my best friend. It was one of the greatest series in the history of television, and we should be so lucky to be mentioned in the same breath."
Later, in the hotel hallway, Abrams and I had a private chat in passing. Abrams said he had everything about Lost's pilot episode worked out to a T — where the story was coming from, and how it would play out in the end. Even so, he said, he admired The X-Files' ability to shift on its feet and adapt to the changing mood of the times. In the end, The X-Files stayed true to itself, Abrams insisted. When you tap into the zeitgeist that deeply, it's hard to find your way out in a way that satisfies everyone.
In another press conference last January, midway through Lost's thrid season, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof was asked a variation on the same question: What assurances can you give us — as if TV writer/producers are in the assurance business — that Lost won't fall apart like 24 did? "24 happens to be my favourite show," Lindelof replied, before giving it the old we-should-be-so-lucky speech.
Forced to choose, I have to go with The X-Files over Lost. They are both remarkable, however — network TV at its very best. Perhaps the truest testament to The X-Files is that, six years after it aired for the last time, a pop culture periodical like Entertainment Weekly is still arguing its merits.