Season 7, Episode 12: “X-Cops”
Original Airdate: February 20, 2000
Nothing like the threat of a Cops crossover to put a scare in the honest X-Files fan, am I right? The drunk great-uncle of reality programming, Cops has been fighting the good-ish fight since 1989, inspiring all manner of parody and satire and terrible jokes and your friends to sing “Bad Boys” while hanging their heads out of a moving vehicle. It’s the sort of show that has no place mixing with Fox’s prestige program—even in the year 2000, when that prestige program was maybe losing a bit of its luster, maybe, a little. So it is against all odds, then, that “X-Cops” is a smart little gem of an episode.
Premise-wise, the episode is simple—a smart choice for any high-concept X-Files episode. Mulder and Scully are investigating a creature who attacks during a full moon. Mulder believes that the monster is a werewolf. While pursuing the maybe-wolf through a busted-looking Los Angeles neighborhood, our agents cross paths with an LAPD unit that is paired with a Cops crew. The camera crews begin following our agents as well as the police, giving us an episode composed entirely of Cops-style footage.
Scully frets about the crew’s involvement, worried that Mulder’s spooky theories will play badly to a national audience. Eyeing the cameras warily, she does her best to support her partner even when debunking him. It’s a nice nod to the way their roles have evolved, the world where Scully is no longer just Mulder’s skeptic, but his protector. Mulder, for his part, is totally fine with the cameras. He may even want them, a little, may even feel a little hope that their presence will legitimize this investigation. While Scully scowls at the crew and shoos them away from her car, Mulder takes to them, even narrates to them. If they are there, then he is there. And maybe they’ll all see a werewolf together.
Except they don’t. Evidence soon mounts against the werewolf theory, pointing instead in the direction of an evil that’s a little more conceptual in nature. One-by-one, victims are attacked and killed by things that they fear—a sketch artist is slashed by fingers that look like Freddy Krueger’s; a hooker has her neck snapped after crying out that her (deceased) boyfriend had threatened to end her life the same way; a medical examiner worries about the hantavirus to Scully just before coughing blood and dropping dead. And an earnest deputy named Wetzel finds himself pursued by a wasp man that looks just like the one his big brother used to tell him about, when they were kids.
So the monster, it seems, is capable of emulating its victim’s worst fears. Clever monster, to head to a crime-ridden neighborhood. Clever way, also, to address the popularity of a show like Cops. And a show like The X-Files. Shows that allow us to face our fears—crime, mutants—from the comfort of our couches. When Deputy Wetzel gets cornered again by the creature, Mulder tells him not to be afraid. “You’re a [bleeping] Sheriff’s deputy!” he yells. “And you’re on national television, so cowboy up!”
What elevates “X-Cops” above parody is Vince Gilligan’s obvious affection for Cops. It’s a show with plenty of easy-to-mock elements: the low-lit chases through junk-filled backyards, the perps with blurred-out faces, the self-conscious monologuing from the show’s titular subjects. But Gilligan does more than replicate these tropes, he uses them to his advantage, revealing the essential—if quirky—humanity underneath. It’s what The X-Files does best, right? Except instead of seeing ourselves in mutants and aliens, here we’re seeing ourselves in junkies and terrified housewives.
Perhaps the best example of this is Steve and Edy, a gay couple who summon the cops after witnessing the sketch artist’s murder. At first the two are pitched like a joke—lol hilarious flamboyant mugging gayz—but when Mulder and Scully return to their house to make sure they haven’t been attacked by the fear-monster, they find the two in the midst of a fight. And Mulder laughs, because it’s just some hysterics, and they clearly haven’t been attacked? Until the reason for the fight is revealed: Edy is scared that Steve will leave him. And the minute he says it out loud, Steve goes to him, puts his arm around him, comforts him. The fear-monster, when left un-confronted, is as real and as deadly as can be.
In the end, the case is left unsolved. The fear fades as the sun rises; what’s the fun of an episode of Cops (or The X-Files) that doesn’t have a ton of flashlights. Scully tells Mulder that she’s sorry he didn’t get the proof that he hoped for and Mulder gestures towards the cameras. “It all depends on how they edit it together,” he says. And he’s hopeful, but it rings melancholy. They can find the truth all they want, but there’s always someone at the Bureau, or in the editing room, who can re-arrange it to read differently. Rarely is any evidence incontrovertible, any footage decisive. Justice, it seems, will have to rest with us. On our couches. Watching.