(CNN)Fox is issuing what amounts to a desperate call for viewers, bringing back "The X-Files" alongside the emergency-themed "9-1-1." The Wednesday tandem yields a split decision, as the former can't recover from the over-the-top cliffhanger that ended its last run, while the latter does a surprisingly effective job of breathing life into a seemingly stodgy concept about cops, paramedics and firefighters.
'X-Files,' '9-1-1' put out call for viewers on Fox
"X-Files" creator Chris Carter left a sprawling mess behind to close the first season of this long-deferred revival, as all hell broke loose around its central characters. The premiere extricates itself from that situation, but does it so awkwardly as to require two or three episodes to regain its bearings.
On the plus side, moving on paves the way to take a respite from the show's dense, conspiracy-minded mythology by getting back to more stand-alone adventures in this expanded 10-episode engagement.
For ardent X-Philes, the five episodes previewed do have their moments. The highlight, by far, comes in the form of a hilarious homage to "The Twilight Zone" from writer-director Darin Morgan, who famously found a way to inject dark, quirky comedy into the original.
As agents Mulder and Scully, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson continue to sporadically exhibit those qualities that made the series pop, from his droll asides to her intensity and skepticism. The show has also embraced the current political moment, albeit a little too heavy-handedly, with references to "fake news" and a gripe about how "we've thrown science out the window."
Overall, the episodes feel somewhat more assured than the last go-round, but that amounts to damnation with faint praise. Granted, "The X-Files" always wrestled with how to balance its spooky "The Night Stalker"-inspired origins as it delved deeper into its alien-invasion/who's-your-daddy issues, and if anything, shouldering the baggage from nine seasons (10 if you count the last truncated turn) and a couple of movies has seriously exacerbated that juggling act.
Commercially speaking, the 10th-season ratings were enough to justify this encore. Should there be demand for another, the logical gamble would be to allow Mulder and Scully to sail into the sunset for good after nearly a quarter-century of service and let new agents pick up the torch -- or rather, flashlights.
As Fox's stab at doing just that with "24: Legacy" demonstrated, that process can be perilous as well. But it would still beat fanning this old "X-Files" flame, especially when the embers on even the Cigarette Smoking Man's preferred vice feel pretty well extinguished.
Paired with "The X-Files," meanwhile, is "9-1-1," which on its face looks like it belongs among the small army of "Chicago"-branded series on NBC. Improbably, though, producer Ryan Murphy and company have not only cast the project to the hilt with some of his "American Horror Story" favorites (Connie Britton, Angela Bassett) but has also kept the situations tense and unpredictable enough to give the show considerable energy.
Yes, there are the requisite clichés, with Britton as a dispatcher who talks about emergencies that "you never wanna have," and Peter Krause as a seen-it-all firefighter grappling with a hot-headed young employee (Oliver Stark) who describes the job as "See the fire. Put out the fire. The rest is blah blah."
Yet stick with it, and "9-1-1" exceeds expectations, covering a whole lot of ground in terms of providing little insights into the characters' lives while conjuring unusual twists, like the stoner who's convinced that he's hearing a baby's cry emanating from the walls.
Judging strictly off its premiere, the show would do well to avoid the excesses that have a way of creeping into Murphy's work elsewhere. Still, thanks to the cast -- with a trio of legitimate headliners in Britton, Bassett and Krause -- there's room for optimism that if the writing holds up, "9-1-1" can continue to answer the call.
Besides, when it comes to procedurals, the formula is basically, "See the show. Enjoy the show. The rest is blah blah."
"The X-Files" and "9-1-1" premiere Jan. 3 at 8 and 9 p.m., respectively, on Fox.