Don’t Boggart That Cop
by Sarah Stegall
Copyright 2000 by Sarah Stegall. All rights reserved.
“So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a boggart?”
Hermione put up her hand.
“It’s a shape-shifter,” she said. “It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.”
—Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, by J. K. Rowling
The first question we must ask ourselves about “X-Cops”, Vince Gilligan’s latest laugh-fest for “The X-Files”, is why didn’t someone think of this earlier? The marriage of the Fox Network’s ground-breaking “reality” show, “Cops”, and its first mainstream hit, “The X-Files”, is as natural a pairing as cops and doughnuts. What better excuse could we ask for running headlong through the darkness, flashlight in hand? Where better to explore the seamy side of life than from a patrol car, with Mulder in the ride-along seat? And who better to serve as the Reluctant Witness than a hard-boiled, no-nonsense sheriff’s deputy who sees a boyhood nightmare come to life? “Cops” is the ultimate impartial witness, showing us the evidence but never explaining it; “The X-Files” is full of explanations without evidence. A crossover episode between them is a match made in heaven.
“X-Cops” starts with the best parody of “Cops” yet, a highly detailed send-up of the show’s standard format. We open with Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Wetzel (Judson Mills) driving around in a squad car, delivering homelies to the camera, interrupted by a routine call. We see the usual interview with an hysterical witness. We get the usual half-bored, world-weary explanation by the cop who’s seen it all. We follow with the ritual chase through junked-up back yards to the bouncing light of a video camera. Then the show enters X-Files territory before we’re even aware the boundary has been crossed, as Deputy Wetzel runs screaming back to the camera, hustling the panting cameraman along to the squad car in a blind panic. Unseen forces smash the car windows even as he tries to gun the motor, and we end the teaser with a rolling melee of flying glass and red lights as the car is rolled over. The “reality” show that started them all has just entered the X-Files zone.
The brilliance of this script is that it can be read on two levels. The most fun level is that of outright parody, both of The X-Files itself and Cops. There are the wonderful but telling touches, such as the forgotten coffee cups tumbling off the roof of a squad car peeling out on a chase. There’s Gillian Anderson’s not-amused professional annoyed by the intrusive camera crew. We get Mulder playing to the camera at every opportunity, publicizing his work in the hope of legitimizing it. There’s the homage to trendy indie “The Blair Witch Project”, complete with jerky camera work, a spooky deserted house, distant screams for help, and a bloody handprint in a decaying stairwell. This is a very satisfying, wickedly witty hour of fun with the Spooky Patrol.
On another level, it’s a serious look at validation.
“These crimes … are notoriously hard to quantify on any kind of regular, scientific level, which in its own way is a kind of validation in itself.”
— Fox Mulder
What validates an experience for those who have not witnessed it? The trust we place in those who did. Who are our witnesses in “X-Cops”? They are the characters we have come to see so frequently on “Cops”: the marginalized, the desperate, the unreliable. Our first witness is an older Hispanic woman screaming in Spanish, with a “history of medications”. Our second witness is a screaming Drama Queen, not only gay but black. Our third witness is a drug-addict prostitute, the fourth witness a terrified morgue attendant. Every witness we encounter in “X-Cops”, finally including Deputy Wetzel himself, is an untrustworthy narrator from the wrong side of the tracks. Mulder may want to believe, but his witnesses make it difficult. These are not the kind of witnesses whose testimony is likely to be widely accepted by a placid, middle-class society. They are not Our Kind of People. In fact, they are the people society fears most. That leaves the camera itself, our favorite witness in this Age of Infotainment.
“So the boggart sitting in the darkness within [the closet] has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. ”
— Professor Lupin, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban
There was a point in this episode at which I was convinced that the monster Mulder and Scully were chasing was incarnate in the ubiquitous but “invisible” camera crew. While Mulder is tracking down witnesses to the monster attack, he forgets that the camera crew has been at every crime scene. The monster is supposed to take on the appearance of whatever we fear the most, but yet the camera, suspiciously, never quite manages to find it. And after all, what is Scully’s biggest fear? Ridicule, and the fear of appearing foolish in public. So what does she find in the closet in the deserted house? A network camera crew. What is Mulder’s biggest fear? Failing to find the monster. He not only fails to find it, he fails on camera.
“The charm that repels a boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing. ”
— Professor Lupin, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban
Gilligan works his usual quirky charm on The X-Files again, writing a funny, insightful story about what we refuse to see, about monsters from the id, about the all-seeing yet blind eye of the camera. He forces us to see ourselves as we are at midnight: full of fears we cannot articulate, full of fears we are ashamed of. We laugh at the Freddy Kreuger-monster Senora Guerrero describes. We laugh at the WaspMan who haunts Deputy Wetzel. Then we make sure to check under the bed for monsters before we go to sleep, while pretending to look for our slippers. Of course we can’t admit out loud that we’re afraid of the dark, and what lives in it. Our worst fear is not the bogeyman, but ourselves. The genius of Vince Gilligan is that he forces that fear to assume an amusing shape.
Kudos to editor Louise “It all depends on how they edit it together” Innes, director Michael Watkins, and DP Bill Roe for absolutely nailing the look and sound of “Cops”. Gillian Anderson let us see Dana Scully as others see her–the cold, intellectual, no-nonsense beauty standing up for her faintly ridiculous partner. David Duchovny’s Mulder had perhaps too much Duchovny in him this time around, although his initial, dumbfounded reaction to the camera crew was wonderful. But top honors must go to Vince Gilligan, whose work on The X-Files is consistently the sharpest and most consistent. “X-Cops” is among the best episodes to air this or any season, and earns a full six sunflower seeds from this reviewer.
My thanks to my daughter Diana for the loan of her copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling.