Saturday, January 21, 2017

Case 02, File 20: Humbug

AKA: One Of Us, One Of Us


I've been referring to The X-Files as a horror show, and I will continue to do so, but that's not all it is. It's more often than not very, very funny, mostly due to David Duchovny's deadpan quips. So eventually, someone around the writers room got it in their head, why not try to make an entire episode that's intended to be more funny than scary. And while not all of them were hits, the good funny episodes are often counted among the best.

Humbug kicks off with a man named Jerald hanging out with and play scaring his children (Jerald, just for the record, has a Ichthyosis, a condition that makes his skin look like scales), before he is attacked by a thing and killed. Mulder, recognizing the attack as being similar to a series of attacks that have gone on for the past 28 years, heads down to the town in Florida where Jerald lived, a town founded by and populated mostly by, circus sideshow performers.

There he meets Sheriff Hamilton, and several major other characters, such as Dr. Blockhead (a blockhead, IE body manipulator and escape artist), The Conundrum (a 'geek' IE a person who will eat anything), Mr. Nutt, the easily offended dwarf manager of the local hotel and his baggage carrier Lanny, who has an underdeveloped conjoined twin and a drinking problem.

Mulder and Scully begin their investigation, initially curious about a fake mermaid that PT Barnum came up with called the Fiji Mermaid (actually a mummified monkey corpse sewn to a fish tail), which Mulder begins to suspect is responsible for the murders. Their desire to solve what happened only intensifies when another murder happens and blood is found on the outside of the entry point.

This is my favorite shot of the episode. If I say that about another shot, I'm lying.
After some more investigating (turns out the Sheriff used to the a wolf-faced sideshow performer) another murder (Mr. Nutt, which enrages Lanny and sends him to the drunk tank) Mulder and Scully begin to suspect that it was Dr. Blockhead. But, here's our twist: It turns out Lanny's underdeveloped conjoined twin Leonard is responsible, as he can detach and is seeking out a new sibling. Mulder and Scully give chase, but lose track of him, only for Leonard to be eaten by the Conundrum (ewwwwwwww). With that, the episode ends, with no one quite sure what happened or how.

Humbug is the first effort by the show (and legendary X-Files writer Darin Morgan) to bring a full comedy episode to the screen, and it's incredible that they got it so right on the first try. Other episodes are deeper, and I'm always going to consider War of the Coprophages the gold standard in terms of being the funniest, but Humbug in my opinion, strikes the best balance between the two, delivering an episode that is both satisfyingly smart and screamingly funny.

The one nitpick I have (just to get it out of the way early) is that the plot isn't very well constructed. Once we've established out setting and threat, the episode just settles into what amounts to an extended walking tour of the various characters around the town. Only a handful of the scenes actually push the plot forward at all, and you could probably skip straight from the funeral to the finale without missing too much, plot wise.

Alright, I think this Gollum cosplay has gone too far.
But what you would miss is the characters, and that's one of the reasons why the walking tour aspect of the script doesn't bother me too much. These are characters and a setting I don't mind spending a lot of time wandering around with, as they are consistently engaging and amusing to be around. The clear standout is Dr. Blockhead, as Jim Rose is a born performer and gets the best lines of the episode, turning every scene with him in it into pure delight. Michael J. Anderson is great at selling his character's incredibly quick temper, Wayne Grace, Gordon Tipple and Vincent Schiaveli all do great work with minor characters and The Enigma is a great silent presence.

The script and direction are both great as well...well you knew the script was great, Darin Morgan is a legend for a reason, but the direction contains some great moments as well. I especially like the way it uses framing and small camera movement for jokes, such as the slow crane shot to reveal the people attending the funeral, or the way the camera looking out the window shows the practicing acrobats outside Scully's trailer. As Edgar Wright will tell you, making sure to use your direction and editing in a comedy is extraordinarily important, and Humbug certainly knows how to do that.

And then there's that script, and the attendant themes. The major theme of the episode, established right from the first scene, is that despite their physical abnormalities, the citizens of Gibsonton are just as normal as anyone else, and the entire episode bears that out. I also like the subtle addition that the people who are physically normal (Hepcat Helm, Dr. Blockhead and The Conundrum) are all major weirdos, emphasizing the theme Dr. Blockhead spells out in the final moments. Neither of them are particular unique or original themes, but they're well handled and more than we usually get out of a 45 minute episode of Monster-of-the-Week TV show episode.

"I was gonna be a doctor. Surgeon General Scully. Now here I am chasing a half-formed fetus through a funhouse."
Ultimately, Humbug is, was and always will be one of my favorite episodes, and easily one of the best episodes of season 2. The series would eventually overdose a little bit on the comedic episodes and their quality would drop, but to be fair the first few we got also set the bar extraordinarily high. And this, along with a few good to great episodes coming up, is a great way for season 2 to begin to wrap up.

Case Notes:
  • This episode is genuinely one of my absolute favorites, maybe even more than Clyde Bruckman or Jose Chung, so if I go a while without comment, it's because I'm too wrapped up in watching it.
  • I like how this episode opens by acting like a normal episode, like the two kids in the pool are about to get attacked by a monster.
  • I really like the portrayal of the Alligator Man as a normal man with a normal family. It's a good set up for the theme, and it actually made me a little sad when he died.
  • I can't believe that Mulder is the first person at the FBI to decide to investigate something or someone that has killed 48 people over 28 years.
  • The slow crane shot to reveal that Jerald's funeral is attended mostly by side show performers is a good shot.
  • The episode is setting up a lot of stuff very quickly, without much exposition at all. Not bad, not bad at all.
  • When you think about it for a second, Dr. Blockhead interrupting a fucking funeral to do his tribute is really, really awful. It also perfectly sets up what kind of asshole he is.
  • I was going to start listing my favorite lines/shots in this episode (with the first one being Mulder and Scully sitting in the wrecked funeral and Mulder quipping "Can't wait for the wake") but that would wind up being like 80 percent of my notes.
  • Good lord, I'd forgotten how big this cast was. We've got at least 6 or 7 major characters to introduce, but it all feels pretty natural.
  • I love how easily offended the Mr. Nutt. It's a fun, and believable, character trait for him.
  • Gulf Breeze Trailer Park. Ha. Ha.
  • I also really like Lanny, he's an amusing character.
  • The bit with Scully and Lanny covering themselves is really small, but really solid.
  • Scully fake eating the cricket (and Gillian Anderson's refusal to say whether she actually ate the cricket) is a goddamn legendary moment in this episode.
  • Mulder's comment "Everybody's uncle is an amateur magician" is something I say to this day.
  • Scully's visit to the museum is basically a bit of filler, as it doesn't add to the plot much, but it's such a well shot and written sequence that I basically never notice.
  • Okay, I'll admit it, the plot isn't super well structured, but I'll take a walking tour of these great characters any day.
  • I love the entire scene with Mulder and Scully in Sheriff Hamilton's backyard, from their quick little debate about whether they're being discriminatory, to Scully trying to lie her wait out, it's just funny.
  • Dr. Blockhead is a pretty major misdirect, but he's such a fun one. Every scene he's on screen is a delight frankly.
  • Honestly Scully, you should know better than to put handcuffs on an escape artist.
  • Hey, Scully comes up with the solution this time, nice twist.
  • The effect on Leonard is not great, which I think is why they keep it off screen so much. There's only a couple of shots of it under proper light and it looks pretty plastic.
  • Having the Conundrum eat Leonard is such an incredibly gross resolution to the episode, but it's so in keeping with the tone.
  • Blockhead repeating Scully's line from the start of the episode is a little blunt, but the episode ending on Conundrum's "Probably something I ate," is just goddamn perfect.
Current Celebrity Watch:

As many of you are probably aware, both Jim Rose and The Enigma (who play Dr. Blockhead and The Conundrum, respectively) are real circus sideshow performers, who actually do the things their characters do, and apparently quite well. Also notable is the fact that Mr. Nutt is played by Michael J. Anderson, a well known dwarf actor, who played the Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks. And finally, stretching our definitions slightly, is Vincent Schiavelli, who never really hit it big, but had minor roles in a lot of great films (biggest was probably One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

Audio Observations:

Hepcat Helm is attacked and killed to Frenzy by Screamin' Jaw Hawkins, best known for I Put A Spell On You. It's not quite as extensively used as some later ironic pop counterpoints, but it's still a good sequence.

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