Monday, October 24, 2016
Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-1999): A Retrospective
Twenty years beyond its first broadcast, Chris Carter's brilliant and underrated crime/horror program, Millennium (1996-1999) remains the gold standard in terms of the genre “procedural.”
Series such as Bones, Criminal Minds, CSI, Medium and even Hannibal owe the series a tremendous artistic debt.
Like those series, Millennium focuses on forensic pathology, oddball criminals, and crafty, perverted serial killers, but the series achieved something else beyond that description too.
More importantly, Millennium also charts the impact of such dark, difficult investigations upon the investigator, and even more so, his family.
Catching society’s “monsters” has an impact on the psyche of the investigator, as Millennium episodes such as “Dead Letters” and “The Beginning and the End” aptly note.
In terms of its origin or inspiration, Millennium takes as a leaping-off point two relatively early episodes of The X-Files (1993-2002). One is the second season story, “Irresistible” which involves a horrible serial killer who operates in plain sight, seemingly normal, but really harboring sinister and monstrous urges.
The second is the third season narrative “Grotesque,” which involves the real danger to the investigator in entering the thoughts/worlds of the serial killer. Here, Mulder nearly loses himself, following in the footsteps of the episode’s copycat killer: an FBI investigator who has lost himself in the quest to find the original killer’s motives.
Millennium ran for three glorious and all too brief seasons on FOX TV in the late nineties, in total broadcasting sixty-six episodes.
Millennium starred the incredibly versatile and charismatic Lance Henriksen in the role of his career: ex-F.B.I. profiler Frank Black, a quiet, haunted man who has suffered two mental breakdowns in his life because of his capacity to "see inside" the minds of killers.
As the series begins, he's just moved to a beautiful yellow house in Seattle with his wife, a therapist named Catherine (Megan Gallagher) and his young, gifted daughter, Jordan (Britanny Tiplady).
Frank helps the Seattle PD solve difficult crimes from time-to-time, and consults for the mysterious Millennium Group, an organization of ex-F.B.I. professionals (based on the real like Academy Group) dedicated to understanding and apprehending criminals...and also, perhaps, cultivating The End Times.
Frank's friend, and later -- nemesis -- is his sponsor in the Millennium Group, Peter Watts (Terry O'Quinn).
After a series of catastrophic events in the second season, Frank loses confidence in the secretive Group and returns to the F.B.I. Academy at Quantico, teaming up with a young, intelligent agent, Emma Hollis (Klea Scott) to bring it down.
Most of his cases there involve the mysterious and odd misdeeds of The Millennium Group. As fans of The X-Files remember, a closing episode of that show, titled -- appropriately -- "Millennium," brought some sense of closure (though not enough for fans…) to the series.
According to Variety at the time of Millennium’s premiere near Halloween in '96, Millennium "makes Twin Peaks look like a morning in Romper Room," and the magazine called the series "literate, well-acted and blessed with an irresistible hook...the best new show of the season."(Jeremy Gerard, Variety, October 21-27, 1996, page 212.)
John J. O'Connor, writing for The New York Times suggests that creator "Carter pushes all the right apocalyptic buttons...The production values darkly mirror the text."(The New York Times: "The Evil That Lurks All Around," October 25, 1996, page B16).
In 1999, after the program finally and sadly left the air, X-Pose Magazine insightfully commented that "Millennium surpassed itself in cultivating relationships between its principal cast" and called the show "a clear artistic success, making sense out of an often chaotic, disturbing world with consummate intelligence and powerful emotions."(X-Pose # 35, "Inner Demons," June 1999, pages 49-51.)
As these notices suggest, Millennium was constructed artfully, with symbols and ideas that continue to resonate deeply in today’s world. Back in 1999, I wrote a book called Terror Television, and opined of Millennium that it was "far better, far smarter, than just about any program on any of the American networks."
I could easily (and happily) make the same statement today.
As part of Millennium's twentieth anniversary, I'll celebrate this week with some posts about the series, some of which you've seen before, and others which you have not. But here, now, to start off, I want to break down some of the particulars of the series' artistry as I judge them.
Context and Literary Allusion
Many episodes of Millennium -- especially during the first season -- open with a white-lettered quotation from a literary or religious source. In short order, the episodes then depict a tale that echoes, contrasts, or mirrors that opening selection.
Yeats ("Pilot"), Dostoevsky ("Dead Letters"), Melville ("The Judge"), Jean-Paul Sartre ("522666"), Robert Louis Stevenson ("The Well Worn Lock"), Cicero ("Walkabout"), Nietzsche ("Broken World"), William Rose Benet ("The Paper Dove") and even Shakespeare ("Monster") represent just some of the literary giants and thinkers Millennium routinely referenced. The Bible is often mined for pertinent quotations as well.
These opening quotes have not been included to be pretentious, but to provoke thought and to connect the viewer to the fact that the series concerns our history, our very nature.
It's an invigorating purpose, frankly, and one that reminds authors that there is a direct link between past and present: a universality of the human condition. The situations that criminal profiler Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) encounters are situations that Shakespeare or Cicero contemplated or thought about, and so these opening quotes -- too easily dismissed as affectation by by some -- remind us of our literary and historical past.
And since Millennium is, in some ways, about the passage of a thousand years, it's entirely appropriate, and even inspired, to focus on the link to our shared past.
In other words, these opening quotations help us contextualize the stories; but also contextualize Frank's journey in terms of human (or at least literary) history. He's not just "a guy" trying to catch a serial killer, he's part of the ebb and flow of human history, doing battle at a vital juncture in such history.
The Yellow House
I find it endlessly rewarding to consider how Millennium was devised on artistic terms, from its opening quotations to its very unique application of symbols and imagery. The oft-mentioned yellow house on Ezekiel Drive, for instance, is perhaps the program's most important and familiar symbol. Viewers associate yellow with brightness, and with bright, happy light, like that of the sun.
Of course, the yellow house also represents Frank Black's only bright place away from the darkness and away from the horror that he witnesses on the job, and even within the recesses of his own mind. Millennium utilizes the recurring symbol of the yellow house in a plethora of stimulating ways. It doesn't always mean the same thing.
In the series' first season, for instance, the house is seen as a place of safety for the Blacks, a sanctuary away from the darkness of the world. That safety is violated (alarmingly) in one of the best episodes of the series: “Lamentation.”
In the second season, the yellow house becomes a representation of paradise lost and the object of the heroic quest, when Frank is, literally, banished from it. His purpose in life becomes reclaiming the yellow house and what it once represented (the wholeness of his family.) He spends this season separated from Catherine, and from his daughter. He also loses the gift of insight in this season, so the yellow house, in season two, is something to be found again, metaphorically, or to be reclaimed.
In the third and final season, Frank's yellow house is but a sad memory, yet one which remains intact inside the recesses of his mind. He visits his former home in the episode "The Sound of Snow," and it has been painted white.
Still, the ever perceptive Frank envisions his Camelot, his yellow home in Seattle. Frank's house is now an ideal, not a real place, one representative of a specific time and feeling. The ideal can continue to exist, beyond the latest coat of paint, beyond the brick and mortar construct of the house itself. As Frank grapples with the loss of Catherine this season, and the requirement to raise Jordan alone, he must come to understand that the yellow house is a state of mind.
One might suggest that the yellow house of Millennium represents an escape from evil, "the painting away of the darkness" as Chris Carter has beautifully described it, and yet it is also the very reason why Frank faces the heart of human darkness every day.
By facing the dark inside and out, Frank preserves the yellow, inside and out. The two are interconnected in some significant way. The house is Frank's yin and yang.
The yellow house could also symbolize, on a more basic level, small town America circa 1996. Frank must rescue it from the encroaching evil. Thus the yellow home is not merely beautiful in an architectural sense, it is a brilliant symbol because it shares with viewers an insight into Frank's personality and cause.
It represents his interior architecture, if you will.
It is the reason Frank fights; and what he fights for, since the yellow represents the sanctuary for his family, for his wife and daughter.
And yes, I painted my first home yellow (a Dutch Colonial built in 1912), in honor of Millennium's yellow house.
We all have a "yellow house" in our minds; whether in our adulthood or as a remembrance of childhood. It is a place of safety, nostalgia, hope and dreams.
In Millennium, the yellow house is the center of gravity, the center of Frank's universe.
The Time is Near
The specter informing so many episodes of Millennium is the end of the world itself: doomsday.
This is a powerful and universal fear because many people suspect that the end will come one day...and perhaps soon. Dinosaurs preceded us here and now they are extinct. The Roman Empire came and went, a brief candle. The expansive Native American culture which once existed on this land we now inhabit is but a memory too.
Time passes, cultures die, and life is transitory and on some subconscious level, all humankind is aware of this fact, of the inevitable changing of the guard. On a personal, individual note, we all must reckon with our personal appointed doomsday, or appointed apocalypse. We will each die, and for us, that cessation represents, certainly, the end of the world.
Throughout Millennium's canon, the series writers obsessed on the universal human inquietude about our impending ends.
Could our demise arrive in a second great flood ("Force Majeure?")
Could it involve religion prophecy ("Forcing the End,") and, specifically the Anti-Christ ("Marantha?" “Antipas?”)
Would our end come from deliberate, blind tinkering with our science, or our genetic make-up ("Walkabout," "Sense and Antisense," “Bardo Thodol”)?
The series also gazed at ethnic doomsdays ("A Single Blade of Grass), Y2K fears ("Teotwawki), and one of the best, "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense,” boasted the audacity to suggest what we've actually seen since Millennium was canceled, with the advent of so many damned movie remakes: a creative apocalypse.
Written by Darin Morgan, this installment of the series implied that all humans can look forward to for the next thousand years is "the same old crap."
It probably seems strange to praise Millennium as an inherently optimistic series, considering how obsessively it wonders about the end of the world, or the fall of man.
Yet, Millennium boasts another recurring and potent symbol worth mentioning. That symbol is, of course, the child. Segment after segment on Millennium explicitly involves children, and youth in general, because our offspring represent the future. In our children, in our next generation, we see hope and fear, and Millennium shares this viewpoint.
For instance, in one of the best hours written for any genre show in history, Millennium explores a very real "evil" of modern American society: the way in which our culture encourages children to be the same, to conform to expectations, and be "ordinary."
The episode I refer to is titled "A Room with No View," and it concerns a demonic force, Lucy Butler (Sarah Jane Redmond) who captures promising kids. These abducted teenagers have all been voted "most likely to succeed," and are well loved by classmates and parents. There is something almost intangibly special, something attractive, charismatic and magnetic about each of them. They all have spirit, for lack of a better term.
But in "A Room with No View," our future leaders are captured and tortured until they succumb to the urge to become ordinary, invisible, and corrupt. In this case, Millennium views an apocalypse not in some outside force, such as a flood, but in our inability to inspire and support our children; to let them be who they choose to be. Instead, we wish to fit them into pre-designed boxes, whether they fit or not.
Other episodes also very much involve children. Chris Carter's "The Well Worn Lock" gazes at the terrifying problem of child abuse and how it intersects with politics, while "Monster" gazes at a child who -- for inexplicable reasons -- is purely and simply evil.
The inspiring story "Luminary" involves a young man who forsakes the material "culture of desire" we've made here in the United States, and gives up all his belongings and money. He goes to Alaska alone to seek wisdom. When the boy disappears, Frank must find him. But the very idea of renouncing things, of renouncing wealth, is a potent idea in Millennium (inspired by the story Into the Wild), and significantly, it finds purchase in the symbol for our future; in the next generation.
Throughout the series, the writers also followed the development and growth of Frank's daughter, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady).
But importantly, we also witnessed, dynamically, Frank's viewpoint as a parent regarding his daughter, and regarding children in general. In the aforementioned "Monster," he delivers an impassioned, heart-wrenching speech about what the arrival of Jordan meant to his life; and how it changed him.
Specifically, Jordan's birth reminded Frank that he did not "manufacture" himself as a grown-up; that he too had been a child once. And now he strives to see the child -- the potential -- in all of us, even the men he hunts. If the serial killers are dark potential realized, then Millennium views children as exactly the opposite, as a source for hope.
The importance of the child (of our tomorrows, essentially) is signified in Millennium even in its opening credits, impressively. As you can see in the photo above, there's an image of a young girl walking across a bridge, awkwardly, in danger of a fall. That's the bridge to the future (the 21st century) and she will either make the journey intact...or plummet to her doom.
The Fall of Rome?
Millennium is an abundantly introspective series. Back before Y2K, before 9/11, before Katrina, the series set up a very specific analogy that America was like something akin to Rome...an empire on the verge of collapse.
And the cause of the collapse came from within; from a perversion or "weeds" growing up inside our borders, and personified by the serial killers of the 1990s. The series brilliantly and quite originally suggested "pathology is part of the grotesque master plan" (Alyssa Katz, The Nation: Millennium," November 24, 1996, page 35), and constantly raised the specter that, as a nation, America was rotting from within; from a kind of inbred decadence.
I have written about this before, but I believe that writers such as Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz carefully used the concept of the "serial killer of the week," much like Star Trek used the concept of "the civilization of the week."
In each new encounter and each new episode, Frank would learn something valuable about himself, and something about the values of his country from the case of a twisted serial killer.
We saw this paradigm in "Weeds," "Blood Relatives," "Loin like a Hunting Flame" and "Wide Open," among others.
The idea was that madness had sprouted up in the land, a very specific madness born from "who we are." The series suggested this madness would ultimately be America's downfall. Unless men like Frank could stop it.
The Ouroboros is the symbol of a cycle. And Millennium is about such cycles. In the Ouroboros symbol, a serpent swallows its tail. It eats itself. It devours itself, and yet it still exists. This is a metaphor for human life.
And it is important regarding Millennium’s historical context, both in-world, and outside it. The Millennium Group speaks often of the last millennium (the year one thousand) and the one approaching. The implication is clear. We survived the test of the last Millennium, but we may not survive the test of this one.
But we have gone through it all before.
Also, consider that in America we have seen these cycles again and again. We have war, then peace, then war, then peace again. In the 1980s, we were locked in a Cold War, and in the 1990s, America was suddenly the last superpower standing. Then came the 2000s and the asymmetric contests of the War on Terror. Millennium -- falling in the age between wars -- evidenced anticipatory anxiety; fear that the cycle of “peace” and “prosperity” would soon come to an end.
Of course, the series was quite correct.
It would be impossible to write of Millennium without considering the depth that Lance Henriksen brought to the role of Frank Black. Even in a narrative that doesn't necessarily work on all thrusters, Henriksen completely invested himself in the role of Black.
The scene I described above, in "Monster," is a perfect example. The episode, as a whole, is pretty good, but boasts some pretty obvious deficiencies in the writing. For instance, Lara Means (Kristen Cloke) is introduced in this episode as a semi-regular, and in the first twenty-three minutes, she quips "here's my thing" four times. The viewer is practically bludgeoned with the catchphrase, and it's...well, lacking in nuance.
But then, in the third act, amidst the dross, Henriksen delivers that speech; the one about childhood, about the importance of children; about the impact of his child's birth upon his life, and his performance is absolutely riveting.
Suddenly, you're not watching a conventional tale of an evil child; you're watching the story of a human being, of a committed father facing the loss of all that he cares for. The scene is emotional and beautifully performed (and written), and Henriksen accomplished miracles like this on a regular basis.
We're all shepherds
For me, Millennium was always at its best when it addressed our human fears (about apocalypse, about our culture, about violence) and made us look in the mirror. In the opening credits the first year, the question "who cares?" would pop up in almost accusing fashion.
That was an important matter.
Who cared enough about the world to make it a safer place? By the third season, the series had formulated carefully it's answer to the question "who cares."
The answer came, not surprisingly, from Jordan, from a child. She said "we're all shepherds," meaning it is incumbent on each of us to care how the world turns out, apocalypse or no apocalypse.
For three years, despite format shifts, Millennium reminded us, "this is who we are," and in the process gave television one of its legitimate artistic masterpieces.