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Lessons of “The X-Files”: The one show every TV exec should be watching

A television series is a shapeshifter. At birth, it looks fully formed, but its bones and vital organs are dangerously undeveloped, and it’s forced to compete immediately with countless other shows ravening to take its place. To stay alive, it evolves from one week to the next, sometimes radically, but also blindly, so it won’t know for months whether its latest adaptation is a brilliant strategy or a fatal mistake. Its lifespan can be as short as an hour or as long as a decade, but if it endures, it produces offspring of its own, mostly close copies of what the parent became only after years of metamorphosis. And if it’s lucky, it lives forever, an immortal being, in syndication.

When "The X-Files" premiered 20 years ago, on September 10, 1993, it was thrown into a television landscape that seems increasingly hard to recognize. There were no box sets or streaming options; Netflix and BitTorrent didn’t exist; the Internet, which would play such a large role in the show’s popularity, was just starting to appear in most homes. When I first encountered it, part of me was irked by its narrative amnesia, in which each case’s incredible events were forgotten by the following week, but it didn’t have much of a choice. Each episode had to stand on its own; the show, always seemingly on the verge of cancellation, had to keep moving or die.

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