That Time Mulder And Scully Were On 'Cops' Chasing A Monster Through Venice
This story contains mild spoilers.
It was 1999, and by then the X-Files (which was entering its seventh season) was showing signs of fatigue. The ratings were flagging, and David Duchovny, who was engaged in a courtroom battle with 20th Century Fox over his pay, was planning to limit his involvement with the show. With the series teetering on the brink, writer/producer Vince Gilligan saw it as prime time to sneak in a pet project of his: He wanted to shoot the X-Files as an episode of Cops.
He'd proposed this idea before, actually, but it was always shot down by producers as being too kitschy; the X-Files was an era-defining show, and a cross-over episode (with Cops, no less) could reduce it to nothing more than Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But Gilligan persisted and wore down his detractors; the episode, which was given the hilarious title "X-Cops," was filmed and broadcast on February 20, 2000. And what could have been a disaster—the proverbial nail in the coffin—ended up being one of the funniest and most tripped-out entries in the show's history.
It also happened to be one of the most L.A.-centric episodes. The show had been produced in the L.A. since 1998 (when filming relocated from Vancouver), but "X-Cops" was one of the few installments to truly immerse itself in the guts of Southern California. We take a look back at the episode and speak with a few of the people who were involved with the shoot. How did they pull off this high-wire act? How did the Southland get to be its own character in the X-Files?
This really was the opening theme for the episode:
When the show opens, we're looking at sheriff's deputy Keith Wetzel through the lens of a Cops cameraman (we spend the entire episode from this POV). Wetzel, who's responding to a disturbance call, is poking around in a resident's backyard when he sees something off-camera that sends him into a panic. He tells the cameraman (i.e. us) to run, and everybody makes a mad dash for the patrol car. Once we're in the car, an unseen entity rams into the vehicle and flips it on its side.
When we come to, Wetzel is being treated by paramedics for his injuries. Mulder and Scully show up and say that they just happened to be in the area, investigating reports of a werewolf-like being that has been attacking locals. Might Wetzel have been attacked by a werewolf-like being? He denies it, but he's also (weirdly) uncertain about what, exactly, he'd seen that had frightened him. This becomes a recurring motif: There's no consensus as to what this monster looks like.
The first few minutes of the show also address a plothole: Why would Mulder and Scully allow themselves to be filmed by a cameracrew? It's because the FBI "has nothing to hide," says Scully, parroting a piece of PR advice that her superiors had foisted on her. The two agents are told to act naturally and play along. Scully spends most of the time being annoyed with the camera (and us by extension).
L.A. Plays Itself
For many viewers in other parts of the world, "X-Cops" introduced them to a different slant of L.A. Shooting took place in Venice and Long Beach, and while Venice is no stranger to the limelight, "X-Cops" swapped out the lively, sun-drenched boardwalk with the shadowy, pothole-riddled streets that are lesser known.
"Here is a part of Los Angeles that you don't see too much. This was not Beverly Hills. This was not Malibu. These are the back alleyways of Venice," Solomon Eversole told LAist, who played a nervous sketch artist named Ricky.
David Luckenbach, one of the cameramen working on "X-Cops," said that producers had made a conscious effort to draw upon L.A.'s character, which was out of the ordinary for the series. "Usually, the show doesn't tell you where you are. It's usually just somewhere. It wants to keep it anonymous. But ['X-Cops'] didn't downplay the fact that it was L.A.," said Luckenbach.
Working in this vein, the set designers did as little as possible, so as to let the environs come through on camera. Curtis C. Jackson, who played the irrepressible Edy, said that his character's home had a lived-in feel that was purely authentic. "It was this little beach bungalow. It belonged to this Hispanic couple and they agreed to let us use it. Everything in there—and everything outside of it—was theirs. Very little was added," said Jackson.
Some People Really Thought It Was Cops
Studio execs were concerned that people would confuse "X-Cops" as an actual episode of Cops (it was largely why they'd initially resisted Gilligan's idea to eschew the usual X-Files opening theme). While most viewers were hip to the experiment, some were confused about what they were watching. "I had friends who knew I was going to be on the show. But they turned on the TV and thought, 'Oh this is just another Cops episode,' and they turned the TV off," said Jackson.
The Cameraman Had His Work Cut Out For Him
True to the spirit of Cops, there was very little cutting done with the footage. As such, we feel as if we have some command over the camera. And one of the results is that Venice and Long Beach become a wide open set that we, as the audience, are allowed to roam through.
This aesthetic was made possible through Luckenbach's camera work. "If Mulder and Scully ran down an alley. I'd be running right after them like a news cameraman," said Luckenbach. Despite having worked on the series since its heyday, Luckenbach found that there was a learning curve with "X-Cops." For one thing, he had to trade in his steadicam (which is attached to a body vest for added stability) with a clunky news camera that he hoisted on his shoulder. And there was an added paradoxical twist to his task: He had to "capture" the spontaneity of a live-action shoot.
"You try to make your camerawork look flawed. When I'm tailing Mulder I might try to stumble a little bit. Or maybe I'll be a little out of focus," said Luckenbach. One of the risks was that, if he did it too well, the footage would come off as stiff and contrived. "You try to make it as if you're capturing this for the first time. You kind of have to unlearn everything you know as a cameraman," said Luckenbach.
(Sidenote: This is the only episode in which the actors intentionally look at the camera. In fact, there's a scene where a frustrated Scully shoves her hand in the lens.)
In Spite Of It All, The Shoot Wrapped Up Quickly
The undertaking was an elaborate one. Off-duty LAPD officers were called in to block off the set, real SWAT team members were used during a drug raid, and the cameramen had to reconfigure their approach, but, still, "X-Cops" turned out to be one of the shortest shoots in the show's history.
This is largely thanks to the fact that the show was, for the most part, shot in real-time, meaning that the cameramen did extended takes of a single scene, rather than filming little snippets that would later be pieced together in an editing room. "X-Cops" was only one of two X-Files episodes to attempt this (the other being the ambitious "Triangle" which was filmed to look as if it was done with one single tracking shot).
"The average episode probably took maybe eight days. But that one took maybe six or less. It was short," said Luckenbach.
What also sped up the process was that director Michael W. Watkins, wanting to evoke a sense of authenticity, aimed for a less-polished product from the actors. There was even a hint of improv thrown in (which was very L.A.). "Of course they gave us scripts to follow, but they really wanted a loose acting style," said Eversole, who was just 21 at the time of shooting. "They didn't give us much time to interact with each other. So my first time meeting the other actors was when I showed up and we did the first take. It was almost improvisational, how we were asked to behave on set."
The Cast Was Diverse
If there's one thing that's iffy in "X-Cops'" execution, it would be that some of the characters bordered on caricature, if not outright stereotype. There's Chantara, the prostitute who's on the run from her pimp. And there's Mrs. Guerrero, who, believing she'd encountered a serial killer, flails around and breathlessly declares that she'd seen a "Monster! Monster!" The episode—in attempting to capture the varied personalities of L.A.—paints its characters with broad strokes.
But it's worth noting that, true to its source, "X-Cops" had one of the most racially diverse casts in the show's history, and that the minority actors were given a variety of roles, including that of officers. "It really felt that they were trying to represent L.A. I'm on set with [Dee Freeman, who plays the skeptical Sergeant Duthie] and we were talking about how diverse the cast was. There were Latino and black actors," said Jackson. "And we looked at [Eversole] and said, 'Oh, and everyone else is here, too.'" (Eversole said he's black with a bit of Swiss, Hungarian, and Cherokee descent.)
It also can't be ignored that the best scene in the episode was devoted to a gay, black couple. Edy and his partner, Steve, catch us off guard with a heart-rending moment that deviates from the surrounding zaniness. In the scene, Edy tells Mulder what he's most afraid of, and we're drawn in emotionally because his fear is both private and universal.
What's more, Jackson said that the writers had given Edy and Steve a more fleshed-out background, one that provided context on their decision to remain in their bungalow (even as the police warn them that a monster is prowling the neighborhood). "There was supposed to be a monologue where we talk about about how we were from Alabama, and how we had gone through everything with civil rights. So we said that nothing was going to scare us from our home," said Jackson. The scene, unfortunately, was later omitted for time.
The Episode Was A Critical Success
"X-Cops" was a welcomed reminder that, when it tried, the show could be a wellspring of crackling wit and off-the-wall weirdness. "[This] comedic flavored episode pushed the show to new post-modern heights," said the Montreal Gazette.
And while it might not be included in the hallowed halls of the classics, the episode is still regarded as one of the wiliest and most creative episodes ever scripted. It's consistently referenced in the annals of "best of..." lists, with Blastr (the Syfy Network's publication arm) naming it as the funniest episode in the show's run, and Empire Magazine ranking it 20 out of the 202 total episodes.
So it turned out that Gilligan's gambit paid off, even if the series would "end" in two years. Our only regret is that we didn't get more episodes that played in the key of L.A.
You can find "X-Cops," as well as the entire X-Files series, on Hulu.