The recent launch of The X-Files Files, Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani’s second comedy podcast, was both unsurprising and surprising. Fans of Nanjiani’s standup act who follow his Twitter feed – one of the most consistently funny feeds written by a standup – have known of Nanjiani’s genuine love for The X-Files because of his tweets about the 1993-2002 sci-fi classic (“The single greatest television show ever made. For the first 6 seasons.”), so that’s not the surprising part.
The surprising part is the shape that his X-Files fandom has taken, as if it’s super-stretchy, shape-shifting X-Files serial killer Eugene Tooms. After Nanjiani tweeted that he was “starting a campaign to make The X-Files cool again,” I assumed he was going to write a think piece for the A.V. Club or Vulture about the 20th anniversary of the hit show’s first season. But instead, he’s decided to undertake an even more impressive project (and it’s all the more impressive because of what I assume is a busy schedule): a Feral Audio podcast in which he and a guest discuss at length the merits and flaws of a different X-Files episode each week. After only two installments, The X-Files Files is already one of the most satisfying comedy podcasts around. Nanjiani’s intelligent and vibrant conversations (with film critic Devin Faraci in the first week, comedian DC Pierson in the second, and Dan Harmon this week) have made me, a fan of many of The X-Files’ monster/disease-of-the-week episodes and a hater of the mythology episodes (they amounted to very little payoff), want to rewatch on Netflix some of my favorite X-Files episodes (whattup, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”).
Nanjiani’s new podcast is currently one of three standout podcasts in which a comedian (or a pair of veteran podcasters who are neither professional comedians nor all that terrible at humor) critiques a different episode of the same older TV show each week. The other two are Roddenberry Entertainment’s Mission Log podcast about Star Trek (which I’m actually a bigger fan of than The X-Files) and its 5,033 TV and movie spinoffs, and comedian April Richardson’s Go Bayside!, in which Saved by the Bell gets ripped apart like a pair of acid-washed Z. Cavaricci pants split open by A.C. Slater while dancing the Roger Rabbit.
It’s strange to label The X-Files Files a comedy podcast because, though it does contain some funny commentary, the discussions are a lot less jokey than the ones on Go Bayside! That jokier tone is due to Go Bayside!’s focus on a terrible show that’s being dissected by Richardson (who says she genuinely loves the Mark-Paul Gosselaar sitcom – especially Gosselaar himself – despite the show’s countless flaws) and her guests. Meanwhile, The X-Files Files and Mission Log are about quality shows that, aside from visible budget limitations, badly dated visual FX, and the occasionally shoddy writing that results from exhausted writers attempting to adhere to a 22-episode-a-season structure, aren’t exactly hate-watchable.
But whatever the quality of the series that’s being discussed, these three podcasts are worthwhile because they’re introducing a new breed of TV critic that’s far more relatable, entertaining, and diverse – Nanjiani is Pakistani-American, while Richardson’s guest roster is very diverse – than the stuffy old guard that used to define TV criticism before the days of online criticism pioneers Alan Sepinwall, Tim Goodman, the A.V. Club’s TV Club reviewers, and the now-defunct Television Without Pity. This new breed combines the intelligent, meticulous, episode-by-episode reviewing approach of Sepinwall, Goodman, and the TV Club with the snarkitude of TWoP and the unscripted machine-gun wit and charisma they’ve developed from standup. Meanwhile, Mission Log hosts Ken Ray and John Champion aren’t comedians. But the two Star Trek fans do a few clever things to keep Mission Log, which investigates “the morals, meanings, and messages” of Star Trek, from being staid, like choosing as the podcast’s announcer an emotionless female computer voice that delivers absurd and not-so-computer-y segues and is a homage to the late Majel Barrett, who voiced all the computers on the original Star Trek and its TV spinoffs.
Frankly, comedians make for better and more entertaining TV critics than most actual critics themselves. They’re just better at humor, plus they’ve been, to borrow the words of Herman Blume from Rushmore, “in the shit” and are part of show business, so they’re better qualified to talk about TV (they’re all the same reasons why I wish Aisha Tyler, who fared surprisingly well as a guest critic on Ebert & Roeper, was given a permanent spot on that show).
I can’t stand the old guard of TV criticism, with their ugly combovers, their atrocious-looking sweaters, their tendency to judge a show only by its pilot (you rarely got the sense that they even understood or liked TV), and their snooty and insufferable tastes in anything. I’ll always despise Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post critic and Velma from Scooby-Doo lookalike Tom Shales, an example of this overwhelmingly white and male old guard, for bashing shows like The X-Files (“It ought to be an ex-series before too long”) and the late ‘80s cult favorite Wiseguy, especially because he made a classist comment like “Men’s bowling teams are advised to schedule their nights around [Wiseguy].” The only thing Shales excelled at as a critic was when he threw shade at Kathie Lee Gifford and her Christmas specials in the Post, which was a far more entertaining annual holiday tradition than the excruciating specials themselves.
Speaking of shade being thrown, the barbs that Go Bayside! guests Karen Kilgariff and Aimee Mann tossed at Saved by the Bell during their respective guest shots are a great example of how enjoyable this new form of everyman/everywoman TV criticism is. While everyone on The X-Files Files and Mission Log is a longtime fan of the shows that are being covered, Kilgariff, Mann, and many of Richardson’s other guests never saw Saved by the Bell before they did her podcast. If you’re as unfamiliar with Saved by the Bell as those guests were, it’s like a sitcom about high school that was written by aliens who have never been to either high school or Earth. You don’t need to Netflix the show to fully enjoy the critiques on Go Bayside! Kilgariff’s hilarious opening comment on the effect her first Saved by the Bell viewing experience had on her (“I’m really different now. I’m definitely Republican.”) is all you need to know about the cheesiness of Saved by the Bell.
TV criticism is at its best when it’s fun and irreverent, and The X-Files Files, Mission Log, and Go Bayside! are proving that in spades. Heads up, Velma. Kumail Nanjiani’s doing a better job at X-Files criticism than you ever did.
Jimmy J. Aquino is a writer trapped in San Jose, California.