He's the Princeton and Yale English-lit grad whose most famous character once described America as being run by the "military-industrial-entertainment complex." He's the actor portraying himself on Gary Shandling's Larry Sanders Show as a preening narcissist who finds Sanders' own preening narcissist irresistible to flirt with. He's the star who launched a gazillion web-sites, yet who once described his job to me as "pretty workaday… You get up, you take a shower, you read the paper, you play Mulder." He said this, as he says almost everything, on-screen and off-, with that enigmatic small smile, an anti-grin, an acknowledgment of the amusement of life, even if he doesn't quite share in the laugh.

David Duchovny is often described as being "deadpan," especially in the early days of the show that made him famous, The X-Files, but that's not true at all. He's more like an imp with restraint, a quality that served him well even before he entered the X-Files maelstrom of cult followings and inscrutable scripts. The title of his Ph.D thesis was "Magic And Technology In Contemporary Poetry And Prose." His somber speaking voice was perfect for his first notable job, that of narrator for the Showtime network's soft-core cable-porno Red Shoe Diaries. No one could listen to Duchovny's diffident voiceovers and doubt that here was a gentleman who would one day portray a guy named "Fox" whose bachelor pad was a mess littered with some of the more hardcore stuff.

Duchovny's barely-animated affect was perfect for The X-Files, a show that was often compared to everything from The Twilight Zone to Twin Peaks, in which, no coincidence, Duchovny played a role--that of a cross-dressing DEA agent. Creator Chris Carter declared he was inspired by the old '70s Darren McGavin show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, tales of the supernatural told by writer Richard Matheson with genuine jolts as well as an overlay of quiet, knowing humor. In the first season, you could see that Duchovny's co-star, the less-experienced Gillian Anderson, was unsure of how to play Dana Scully from scene to scene. Sometimes she was too hardboiled, sometimes too laid-back, other times verging on despair. But Duchovny had it nailed right from the start. He just met every smug FBI superior, every alien manifestation, with the same shadow of a smile, as if to say, "You think I'm a schmuck, but some day you'll come around to my way of thinking, schmuck." As he once remarked to me about Files, "If we ever revealed the secrets behind all this, the show would be unmasked as the ridiculous little hoax it is."

The Mona Lisa smile hasn't served him as well in movies. In the flimsy thriller Kalifornia (1993), it came off smug. In the charming romantic comedy Return To Me (2000) he seemed perpetually bemused--not a bad thing to be in a screwball comedy, but his face needed to register as much energy as Bonnie Hunt's script and directing demanded. There was a part of Duchovny that he withheld from the audience--the Princeton part, maybe, or the guy who was leery of committing lest he look like a sap.

TV remains Duchovny's medium. He was achingly funny on his three Sanders appearances. In the Red Shoe/Twin Peaks tradition, perhaps he's more free with his emotions when he's playing sexually upfront guys, even when that guy is a cartoon of himself, than when he's portraying a more conventional leading-man. The few episodes that Duchovny directed for X-Files, particularly the sixth-season baseball fantasy "The Unnatural" were smooth and assured, yet brimming with emotion just beneath their surfaces. His direction was imbued with the same unknowable smile he brought to Fox Mulder's barren, obsessed life, making it glow as mightily as any hovering spacecraft. This slightly hidden quality in Duchovny, whether in front or behind the camera, may prove his long-term strength.

// HATE //

SIX FEET UNDER: Alan Ball Buries American Beauty

If The X-Files dealt with the otherworldly, the stuff not of this Earth, ascending to the stars, Six Feet Under took the plunge, burrowing underground--or as underground as a gravedigger gets, which isn't very far. This superficial wound in the planet, inflicted to inter the dead, is in keeping with writer-creator Alan Ball's style, which is to get under your skin. He wants to disturb you, but not so much that you look away. So it was with his Oscar-winning script for American Beauty, which freed him from a career that had been spent churning out scripts for soul-crunching sitcoms like Cybill Sheperd's Cybill and Brett Butler's Grace Under Fire, and so it is with his extravagant, it's-not-TV-it's-HBO drama Six Feet Under.

The saga of the Fisher family of undertakers got off to a promising start in 2001, with an unshaven, morose Peter Krause-- looking as though he'd just come off a bender after hearing of the cancellation of his piquant but pitifully-rated sitcom SportsNight--wandering back home after years away. His father, the head of the mortuary, had just died, and Krause's Nate was there to pay his minimal respects and get the hell out, but he was pulled in, like the TV audience was. The family of miserable misfits--Nate's ditheringly weepy mother, Frances Conroy, the anguished gay younger brother David, bitter that Nate had left him holding the family (body-)bag years before, and the arty, moody teen sister Claire, Lauren Ambrose--was needy in a way that was inescapable. Nate stayed on, and so did we. Soon he'd launched into a promising affair with a wild, bristlingly intelligent woman, Rachel Griffiths' Brenda, and had learned how to embalm a body from David. This, combined with vividly imagined regular visits from dead Dad, a wonderfully jaundiced Richard Jenkins, gave the series a combination of depression and uplift that seemed fresh as pushed-up daisys.

But then Six Feet Under had to go and win a lot of Emmys, and a complacent rot set in. By the start of the fourth season, Ambrose's Claire moans, "I'm sick of everything being so fucking awful all the time," and I was inclined to agree. A formaldehyde fog had settled over Under--it enveloped you with a serenity that used to be unsettling but now seems more like smothering. The show had become airless in its artful coolness and as formulaic as the sitcoms Ball had escaped. Every episode had to begin with a death scene, a client for the Fishers; each family member's individual emotional crisis was updated with assiduous regularity.

The same themes began to be repeated--Mother's lovers turned out to be creeps, one after another; David's boyfriend Keith (Matthew St. Patrick), went in and out of the closet with each new job he took; Krause suffered, suffered, suffered--Brenda went wonky and broke up with him, he married Lily Taylor's Lisa, but she croaked. What began as a startlingly blunt look at death and its aftermath became lifeless and bleak. This left an exceedingly talented cast--especially Krause, Griffiths, and St. Patrick--standing around, as if contemplating their own demises. Or a network series, whichever opportunity arose first.