Season 11 premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday on Fox
As “The X-Files” enters its 11th season — 10 episodes beginning 7 p.m. Wednesday on Fox — it’s beginning to look more like a membership club than a television series. It cruises along doing business the way it has since its founding 25 years ago, and it caters to an audience that knows the staff and delights in the many arcane rules and quirks of service.
And membership has its privileges. Like the country club that still turns out a good porterhouse, “The X-Files” still produces excellent stand-alone TV episodes — tremendously entertaining hours with the show’s familiar blend of spookiness, self-deprecating humor and cleverly conceptual in-jokes that only the initiated can really appreciate.
In the five episodes of the new season made available to critics, the winner is the fourth, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.” It was written and directed by Darin Morgan, who also provided the best hour of the show’s revival season in 2016, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” and authored celebrated old-school episodes like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” back in the 1990s.
“Forehead Sweat” guest-stars Brian Huskey (“People of Earth”) as either a madman or a fellow FBI agent from an alternate dimension who is intimately familiar with the show’s heroes, the alien-chasing feds Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). Morgan uses this premise to provide the ultimate in fan service — constructing an elaborate meta-story that recapitulates the history of the series, with a cracked version of “The Twilight Zone” as a framing device, and wallows in specific references to past “X-Files” installments (including “Clyde Bruckman’s”).
As if that weren’t enough, the episode is simultaneously a running commentary on the current American condition. The name Donald Trump isn’t mentioned in the five episodes, but the season capitalizes on Mulder and Scully’s place of employment, positing an embattled FBI threatened by a Moscow-based military contractor that enjoys White House protection. In his episode, Morgan goes further, suggesting that the “fake news” era has rendered the X-files moot — in a time when mass delusions are the norm, it no longer matters whether “the truth is out there.”
“Forehead Sweat,” by itself, will justify the continued existence of “The X-Files” for the true devotees, and Morgan deserves full credit for that. But when you take a broader view, you can’t help noticing that of the 10 writing and directing credits in the first five episodes, nine are shared by inner members of the show’s coterie — Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, James Wong and the creator, Chris Carter. (One episode is directed by a newcomer, Kevin Hooks.)
What they’ve produced is intelligent, stylish and always graced by the wonderful performances of Anderson and Duchovny. It also feels more formulaic than ever. “X-Files” episodes come in three varieties — mythology, monster and mixed — and their order is predictable. Carter takes on the obligatory season-opening story that extends the series-spanning mythology, which ran out of gas back in 1999 and now revolves tepidly around the Cigarette Smoking Man and William, Mulder and Scully’s missing son.
Glen Morgan and Wong chip in with mixed episodes, where cases of the week combine with the overarching conspiracies. Morgan’s “This” brings back, in a manner of speaking, a fan-favorite character thought to be dead, while Wong’s “Ghouli” is a move-the-story-along hour with revelations that don’t have the impact they should.
Which leaves the stand-alone episodes, “Forehead Sweat” and Carter’s “Plus One” (directed by Hooks), where the show can relax and have some unforced fun. Everything about “The X-Files” now being meta, Mulder acknowledges this state of affairs at the beginning of “Plus One” when he tells Scully it’s time to jump on I-95 South and “get back to our bread and butter.”
It will be interesting to see whether the addition of new female writers and directors in the second half of the season — a response to criticisms of the show’s mostly male, mostly white core group — shakes things up. The familiar pleasures of “The X-Files” aren’t negligible, but a few surprises would help.