Men in Black: The Series combined X-Files with Doctor Who, by way of a… 1970s crime procedural? The stranger thing is that it mostly succeeds. Until…
The Men in Black live action film was released in 1997, pulling in almost $600 million at the box office. The film, like the animated series, was based on a comic written by Lowell Cunningham and illustrated bu Sandy Carruthers, published by Aircel Comics back in 1990. On the off-chance that no one knows the details by now, Men in Black focuses on a team of suited agents dedicated to controlling and regulating the flow of aliens and alien technology that makes its way to earth. The comics, in particular, were more broad, dealing with all sorts of paranormal activity. Think of the original Men in Black as Doctor Who’s Unit team as run by Constantine-clones, which also implies the original comic was not afraid to go to dark, creepier places.
Of course the movie would be family friendly, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. The animated series, which by all accounts was based on the movie, ultimately had a choice – to cull the tone of the movie, or maybe reach for something larger. Creators Duane Capizzi, Jeff Kline, and Richard Raynis were able to develop a slightly more richer, heavier adaptation. While the show has a typical lightness to it to appeal to kids, there is a surprising weight and pathos to this series early on, a dramatic tinge to the adventures of Agents J and K (and L), particularly in the first season, which I will get to. Men in Black: The Series only has a passing resemblance to the film, instead opting to weave its own intrigue tales of rogue aliens, culling from well-known series such as X-Files, Doctor Who, and 70s cop dramas like The Rockford Files, Dragnet, and Cannon. Even though it gets silly, the show maintains an underlying commitment to its plots, keeping the tension and mystery moving to the very end – at least at first.
But first, I want to talk about that intro.
What surprises me here is how both stylistic and aloof it is. It kind of cuts into the nature of the show yet doesn’t showcase the content of the show, more the feel of it. The harsh, visual cuts coupled with the surreal-but-insanely-catchy hip-hop theme is purposely unworldly, but not off-putting. It’s very 90s, but it’s a “good” 90s. There’s only vague reference to what the show is about, alluding audience to the show’s mysterious aesthetics over the specifics of the show’s premise. It’s a ballsy theme, with the “narrative” not even concluding, as the giant, grotesque alien surges above them, with K only giving a quirky look at J and his “cricket” gun. What happens? That’s irrelevant; it’s about the calm and cool (and comedy) within the extraterrestrial chaos.
Speaking of aesthetics, the show’s entire look, particularly in the first season, is hyper-stylized, reminiscent of the MTV cult cartoon Aeon Flux. Lots of sharp, angular points on characters make everyone look alien by default, which gives the show an extra layer of creepiness, but allows the alien menaces, in particularly, look truly terrifying. The style doesn’t allow for aggressive movements, which is to the show’s benefit and determinant. It’s forced to emphasize mysteries and mood with its plotting, keeping the tension and suspense moving up until the very end reveal, which is a great development, but it leaves any character-action sequences flat and stilted. There’s a lot of stationary stand-offs and quick-thinking reactions to end action sequences quicker than they begin, but this allows MIB: The Series to emphasize their clandestine organization as a secret working behind the scenes and not an army prepped for urban warfare.
MIB: The Series attempts to balance their secrecy by culling the mysterious, “trust no one” sensibility of the X-Files through the universal, dangerous/goofy conception of Doctor Who. It’s an obvious combination that works well enough by default (and the series does it better than Torchwood ever could), but it needs a template through which to filter the characters; Mulder and Scully are too dour and “romantically” linked; the Doctor is a god. The show opts to channel 60s-70s police procedural, where Agent K is the monotone, “just-the-facts” lead, with Agent J as the audience surrogate, through which the MIB organization is explored. It may surprise you to note that MIB, in fact, views itself as a policing unit, not like the FBI or the CIA or the DOD. They use typical cop terminology and enforce the “law” with stuff like stakeouts, investigations, following clues, etc.
All of this is distinctly prominent in the first season, which builds the MIB organization and its “world” beautifully and darkly. It’s obvious there is a distinct plan in place, that the writers are building towards something. The line “not everything is as it seems” gets tossed around too frequently for that to be a coincidence, used mostly as a theme about mystery and secrecy but also gearing up as some foreshadowing to some big internal revelations. Even in the pilot, “The Long Goodbye Syndrome,” there are hints at something beneath the surface. The hilariously stoic reactions MIB give to the hit place on J by an alien race is telling – Agent L (more on her in a second) tells him that it’s due to everyone knowing 100% that K will save him, but there’s an implication that the agents are easily expendable and that death happens so often that they joke about it. We’re even given a moment where J, not in on the “joke,” contemplates his life and his decision to join MIB. “Regrets?” Agent K asks him. Agent J doesn’t answer. It’s a small moment, but one that resonates throughout the show’s season of withholding data, of disinformation and privacy. (Apropos of nothing, the day is saved pretty much the exact way the Doctor saves the day in “The Wedding of River Song.”)
The first season indeed bounces back and forth between revelations and mystery, between doling out bits and pieces of characters and MIB lore while touching upon the kind of sacrifice this line of work leads to. The show’s biggest and strongest story arc begins with “The Alpha Syndrome,” where we learn of the first agent and founder of the MIB, Alpha, and how he became corrupt with the powers and promises of alien technology – so much so that he literally changes his body, stealing body parts and grafting them onto himself to “evolve”. It’s real, grotesque stuff, and Alpha’s VO artist, David Warner, oozes the perfect amount of slim as he reads his lines. There’s history between him and Agent K, and even though K tries to make it personal, J showcases his value as an asset as he saves the day. The movie emphasized that J outside of the MIB was particularly talented enough to join the MIB ranks; here, we’re shown why.
The first season continues to play around with secrecy and history, and the darkness of involving oneself in this world. “The Neuralyzer Syndrome” uses an accident to take a sad look into K’s ill-mentioned past; that K would rather say his father died rather than face the fact he can never see him again speaks volumes (even sadder – when K’s memory is restored, Zed wipes J’s memory of the whole incident, adding a scarier layer of secrecy to the organization, a la S.H.I.E.L.D.). “The Inanimate Syndrome” plays with a potential alien romantic relationship between K and Eileen, a relationship that is doomed from the start. “The Head Trip Syndrome” is a favorite, culling the most “Doctor Who-esque” plotting, where a deranged, paranoid human blames the MIB for the existence of aliens, and begins to systematically take out the five original founders of the MIB one-by-one via time travel. (The psychological toll of such work is another theme strongly presented in the first season, like in “The Psychic Link Syndrome,” where a deranged alien attacks humans taking his pictures because he believes cameras drain him of his essence, a dark reference to Dr. Strangelove.) Then there’s “The Take No Prisoners Syndrome,” where a sinister alien named Dr. Lupo uses a clone to stage a riot at the MIB prison. Dr. Lupo, who also has history with Zed, is eventually captured, but the real story behind Lupo and Zed is kept to secrecy.
It’s clear there’s a lot going on, with a lot of potentially-rich stories building up between J, K, Zed, Alpha, and Eileen. Even the side characters like Agent L, U, the Worms, Frank, and Jeebs, while mostly there for comic relief, serve a purpose and possess their own agencies. I could easily imagine there being episodes delving into the various characters backstories, explaining more about the full history of the MIB (particularly how Alpha could be K’s mentor when K was one of the founding members of MIB), and examining how an organization like MIB can change/destroy you from the inside, in how it leaves you so removed from any form of a social existence. Then the second season starts.
The second and third seasons are active give-and-plays between creative forces and executive demands. You can tell there were issues behind the scenes, and while the writers more or less acquiesced to those demands – more use of the Worms! less complicated plotting! fewer references to killing and death! – I will give them credit for retooling it in such a way to tell a different kind of story. The X-Files/Doctor Who elements are toned down, while the Dragnet-by-way-of-Scooby-Doo is toned up (action sequences are even scored with a old school, heavy bass-and-drum cue). So while any chance of learning about the history of the MIB is gone, and the theme sacrifice and the psychology of secrecy is moot, MIB: The Series does start to have a little fun with itself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the movies are a far cry from The Americans. But, as the case with most cartoons, there’s a line between silly and stupid, and MIB: The Series terrifyingly walks it.
The heavier use of the Worms isn’t the main problem, although they are as annoying as you’d expect. It isn’t that they’re overly goofy, it’s that they’re useless, and are just there for coffee jokes (and the same exact kinds of coffee jokes – no one seems to bother to explore the world of coffee to mine that humor). At least Jeebs and Frank are better characters as comic relief, as they represent two sides of the same stool pigeon coin, and at least offer the core MIB cast information. No, the biggest and most uncomfortable change is with J. First season J had a slight awkward streak but was attempting to maintain his social humanity within a world defined by self-privacy, and at the very least he was growing as an agent. Now he’s just an arrogant caricature of his former self. He’s still a capable agent, but the show now works to put J into goofy scenarios instead of maturing him. Again, this isn’t so bad, but as the show progresses, particularly in the dire fourth season, there’s an uncomfortable social stigma that arises from it.
I will say that a good 70% of the second and third season works really well though. The return of the bugs from the first Men in Black movie make for a dangerous set of villains, especially when they go after L for killing their brother in the film. There’s a pretty great “we work as a team” moment in “The Big Bad Bug Syndrome” among J, K, and L as they confront the various bugs who are attempting to capture them to bring them to their queen. Speaking of which, we get to see her in “The Mine, Mine, Mine Syndrome,” who is ready to give birth to a swarm of bugs to take over the world, and it’s a particularly good one to see the entire MIB team in action (an element that unfortunately gets swallowed up by K, J, and the worms). Villains continue to be a highlight, as they continue to be threatening and sinister – alien terrorists, mobsters, and all-around monsters, like the fire-spewing Drekk and the sonic-energy-powered alien Aldoosi. Alpha also makes sporadic appearances, continuing his hunt for body parts in delicious fashion, always staying one step ahead of J and K until the last minute. “The Out to Pasture Syndrome” is a great Alpha episode in its own right, and tight give-and-play between the agents and Alpha himself, with J as the pawn – who steps into his own at the end.
Yet you can see the writing on the wall. The plotting is broader – more of the various victim characters are silly, and a lot of the stories are really elaborate ways to place the characters in goofy situations. “The Little Big Man Syndrome” shrinks J down to a tiny size. “The Bad Seed Syndrome” jams J with a truth serum. “The Baby Kay Syndrome” transforms K into a fighting baby! K and J, who used to use their wits and skills in a specific, protocol-like context, become almost magically, karate-master fighters, leaping improbably into the air and performing backflips. More strained attempts at humor as well, although not every joke fails.
Despite these silly situation, the actual plots are still… well, not great, but strong enough to maintain a bit of tension and intriguing ambiguity. “The Worm-Guy Guy Syndrome” has Jay changing into a Worm via ridiculous plotting, but the villains as Judge Dredd-like galactic policemen capturing “criminal” aliens outside their jurisdiction shows kids the danger of vigilantism (so suck it, Batman). “The Baby Kay Syndrome” has the titular “baby K,” but the episode has a kidnapped daughter of a clearly dangerous extraterrestrial alien who did indeed wipe out the kidnappers’ planet. Not justifying the kidnappers’ actions by any means, but the fact that the episode even plotted that angle makes it worth mentioning. Even the most ridiculous elements – like the Fmecks, a species of six-inch sized aliens – have a well-developed undercurrent – they tried to eradicate their rivals, the Arquillians. My favorite “silly but tense” episode is “The Star System Syndrome,” where we learn the MIB agency in Los Angeles just casts aliens into horror films. It’s a dumb idea but it works because the show has fun with it, and even though the plot is predictable (is the hideous, played-out alien behind it all, or is it the cutesy, innocent alien team? Have you seen cartoons?), I can imagine younger audience being shocked by the twist.
Then the fourth season arrives.
It’s as if the full force of the executive meddling has come crashing down on the show. All of the tension, stakes, and mystery that were in even the more superficial episodes are gone. Villains are now mustache-twirling antagonists instead of the nuanced, motivated creatures of before. Large swaths of episodes are spent explaining things instead of building up the plot. There’s an interesting idea of Zed having to appease a council of aliens concerned about their image and representation (I like that Zed, like a typical police chief, is more of a diplomat than an agent), but that leads to the introduction of two new, throwaway characters, Dr. Zeeltor and Agent X (X is particularly shitty, not only because he’s a “loose cannon” bigoted alien disguised as a human, but the show has to write around L, changing her from an awesome, brilliant scientist into a babysitter. I’m not sure what’s up with the “I want to be in the field” angle with L, since she sure sees a hell of a lot of action even in her scientific position). The Worms, of course, are turned up to eleven. But worse is how utterly, utterly stupid J becomes. He starts to perform acts that endanger MIB and others, for petty reasons. Like in “The Virtual Crossfire Syndrome,” where he enters a “fake” video game (which is now real because of PLOT) just to prove a point. Note there are no real stakes here, just Jay’s ego. (I don’t want to get into how easily Alpha manipulates J in “The Opening Gambit Syndrome.” Seriously, at this point it becomes a klutzy black guy screwing things up while white people “who know better” look at him funny, and it’s not cool, especially with the kinda character he was in the first season.)
By the time the two part series finale rolls around, “The Endgame Syndrome,” it’s a mitigated disaster. It’s JUST an invasion. That’s it. No big revelations, no final twists, no major character reveals, no game-changing occurrences (MIB headquarters is eradicated, bu MIB just moves to a baseball stadium, because whatever). Nothing comes together, as various characters just chart on their own lame paths (Frank does stuff with puppies, after someone randomly drops a box of pups in front of him with no explanation). Even the mastermind Alpha has barely a line in it, let alone a clever scheme. Nothing is earned, which leaves the immensely promising MIB: The Series to end as a former shelf of itself. (I’m positive that this show would be better remembered if the dire fourth season didn’t fail so miserably.)
The first season of MIB: The Series is among the best DCAU episodes. The second and third episodes have issues but I’m willing to defend them as a mix of fun, excitement, and intrigue. The fourth season? Well, let’s just say I finally can understand why the neualyzer was invented.