A 1990s Procedural That Foretold Not Only Peak TV But How Many of Us View Today’s World
This entry requires a bit of personal introduction first.
Approximately ten years ago when I was beginning to write about television seriously I decided to rewatch The X-Files and review every episode for my column and, later on, my own blog. (My reviews of the series were among the first entries that went up there.) At this point in my career as a reviewer The X-Files had been among the first series I ever posted reviews on the internet for but they had been lost several years previous and I wanted to see if my opinions had evolved in the years that had passed.
By this point I was also involved in the purchasing of many of the books written about television series. There had already been countless books written about The X-Files but the most detailed one to that point was Robert Shearman’s Wanting to Believe. Because Shearman wanted to be a completist, he opted to not only rewatch every episode of The X-Files but also the short-lived spinoff The Lone Gunman as well as Millennium. Now Lone Gunmen had an obvious connection to the parent series, but Millennium’s was more tangential.
Chris Carter, who created The X-Files follow-up project was Millennium. It had taken over The X-Files old Friday night at 9 pm time slot in October of 1996 but it had never achieved the popularity, either critical or from fans that Carter’s previous creation had. From its debut until its cancellation in May of 1999, it was always compared unfavorably to The X-Files, viewed as relentlessly dark, constantly pretentious, formulaic and having no direction, and from its premiere until its cancellation never clear about what it was supposed to be about.
At the time of its original run I had almost completely ignored it. I wasn’t watching TV with the same furor I would even a few years later and the critical response basically left me cold to the idea. I vaguely remember watching maybe two or three episodes until it ended and thinking nothing of it. I would have had cause to ignore it altogether had not in Season 7 of The X-Files, Chris Carter decided to air an episode titled ‘Millennium’ that was about the lead and some of the themes of the series. (Full disclosure: it’s not very good and is remembered mostly because it’s the first episode where Mulder and Scully kiss.)
Now Shearman ended up rewatching all of Millennium for his book, primarily because of that same episode of The X-Files. Shearman was being a completist. It is only because I read Shearman’s book and eventually most of the reviews of the series that I decided in the midst of my rewatch (around the time I reached Season 4 of The X-Files) that I should do the same. I had no intention of reviewing the show but at the time I was between jobs and I figured it would kill time.
Millennium was not streaming anywhere in 2015 but I had a ready recourse. By this point in my career I had been using Netflix to rent DVDs of TV series I had never watched before. I had done so with Battlestar Galactica and Breaking Bad and I would do the same with the first two season of House of Cards. So over the course of a little more than a year, I ended up watching the entire series. In a way, my timing couldn’t have been better: society was about to enter the same kind of grim and dystopian mood that was the atmosphere of Millennium nearly two decades earlier.
Even now I’ve never been sure what to make of Millennium. Certainly X-Files fans are divided on it. Assessing it for his book Shearman admits the tone is ‘schizophrenic’ and can be pretentious, but he also thinks that it’s the ‘most ambitious thing that Ten-Thirteen (Carter’s production team) ever attempted” and at times, “the most powerful and most thoughtful.” This opinion is not held by the writers of the next most detailed episode guide of The X-Files; Monster of the Week, where both writers dismiss the series as pretentious and heavy handed. I think there is an argument that both reviewers are correct in their assumptions: Millennium is everything people say it is both the good and just as frequently the bad. But the reason I think the series never got the respect It did in the 1990s and still does not today is because Millennium was, perhaps even more than The X-Files, ahead of its time when it came to how television was operating.
Trying to describe what the series is about is nearly impossible because I’m pretty sure it never figured it out. That, however, is to be expected when you consider that every season it was on the air it had a different set of showrunners each of whom had what amounted to a completely different mission statement for Millennium, one that almost always completed contradicted the previous showrunners version. There are some devoted fans convinced that there was an underlying theme to the show about certain elements but I’m inclined to doubt that, partly because it is designed by Chris Carter and he made it very clear after the fact he went into The X-Files with no road map for its mythology. I should also add that Carter, who was the initial creator of Millennium may not have intended for this series to be a mythology show.
When Millennium opens Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is a former FBI agent who has just moved to Seattle with his wife Catherine and their young daughter Jordan. Frank quit the Bureau after jailing a killer who took Polaroids of his victims, and a second unknown party sent him Polaroids of Catherine. He moved to Seattle and is now consulting with the Millennium Group — which Carter says is an organization for former law enforcement officials who are working together to ‘battle the dark forces of the coming millennium’. Frank is a master profiler who tells a Seattle detective he has the ability to see what the killer sees. “It’s my gift,” he tells him. “It’s my curse.” The Group offered to help him understand this gift and he and his family have moved to what they call ‘the yellow house’ — the symbol of purity in the bleak world of Millennium.
Another series would make it foremost importance to explain the nature of Frank’s gift: is it intuitive or supernatural? A flaw of the series — not the first or the biggest — was that it never came close to doing so and that the Millennium Group never helped in that regard. The problem that more people had with the show in the first season was how relentlessly dark it was in subject matter. Throughout the first season the major focus of Frank Black would be tracking down ‘the serial killer of the week’. A complaint was how utterly formulaic this became after just a few episodes: Shearman starts to become tired of it as early as the fourth. There was a reason for that: in 1996, this kind of series focused on getting inside the heads of serial killers was unheard of in broadcast television. (That same year NBC would debut Profiler which featured Ally Walker essentially doing the same role that Henriksen did.) And I’d argue that neither TV critics nor audiences were equipped for this, certainly not those who had spent the last three years following Mulder and Scully chasing down aliens and monsters.
It’s now crystal clear that this was a major way Millennium was ahead of the curve. Within seven years CBS would debut Criminal Minds which ran for more than fifteen years and dealt with an entire team doing exactly what Frank Black was doing. Even by that point, the procedural had begun to focus very much on this same point Law and Order: SVU debuted the year after Millennium was cancelled and so many of its killers make the ones Black chased look tame by comparison. Perhaps if Millennium had stayed the course of the mission statement Carter set forth in Season One, it might have been a bigger hit.
The problem came late in Season One with the episode Lamentation. In itself, this is by far one of the most brilliant episodes of the entire series. Frank spends much of the episode dealing with a killer named Fabricant, who is labeled the most ruthless killer the show has yet dealt with — and trumps it by the end of the episode with the creation of Lucy Butler, by far the series greatest creation. Sarah Jane Redmond initially plays Lucy as a gullible woman whose become Fabricant’s prison wife. By the halfway point of the episode, she’s carved the second kidney out of his body and has left it in Frank’s refrigerator. She ends up in Frank’s house and Bob Bletcher, at this point one of the major series regulars, clears Catherine and Jordan out. He sees Lucy at the stop of the stairwell. She then transforms into a demon (the show refers to her as ‘The Gehenna Devil’) and cuts Bletcher’s throat and leaves him hanging from the ceiling.
This episode is a complete shock to the formula. The problem was the series started to get too ambitious. In the next episode ‘Powers, Principalities, Thrones & Dominions’, Frank gets back to work, but now he begins to encounter hallucinations and gets the first signs that angels and demons are in the world. At one point, Frank is told by an angel that he is caught the middle of a supernatural battle and his own survival is irrelevant to these forces. That’s an impressive leap to take for any series, but its very hard for one that has spent its first season telling you its just about serial killers and the Black family. One is reminded almost of how Supernatural started out being about two brothers trying to find their demon hunting father and ended up being a battle between good and evil in which their own fates — and that of the human race — seemed truly incidental.
By the end of the season it really does seem like the show may have found a niche in its ending — but then they change the game again. In the season finale Frank has managed to thwart another killer while on vacation and he and his family go home. Frank leaves Catherine for a moment and comes back to find her missing. The note the season ends on is so innocuous that you almost think it’s a misunderstanding and everything will be fine — but the series has changed forever, and we didn’t know it.
The first season of Millennium is generally considered the best because it’s the most consistent. Henriksen is good throughout, and never steps wrong. There are many brilliant episodes, most of them tied to serial killers with occasional supernatural issues. The problem is the show doesn’t have a handle on its supporting cast. The only performer who holds her own throughout the series is Brittany Tiplady, who plays Frank’s daughter Jordan. She was always a talented performer and she’s fun to watch and sweet. No one else holds up as well. Megan Gallagher is one of the most talented actresses in television, but as Catherine she was never given anything more to do than to be a supportive wife in Season One. Her character actually got worse in Season 2. The other prominent regular was Terry O’Quinn as Peter Watts. There were several regulars for the Millennium Group but O’Quinn made the most appearances in Season 1 with eleven. O’Quinn’s work is solid throughout, but he does not have much of a personality. In a way, O’Quinn would be a victim of the writers’ problems with determine with The Millennium Group was Watts’ personality would change as they redefined it.
In Season Two Glen Morgan & James Wong, who had written several episodes in Season One, officially took over as showrunners. In the season premiere, they tore down the foundation by having Frank track down Catherine, who has been kidnapped and shows such brutality that he kills her abductor. Immediately afterwards a horrified Catherine tells Frank to move out and they separate for the rest of the season. Then the Millennium Group begins to change: Frank now logs in on a computer that has an Ouroboros symbol as well as a countdown for the millennium. We are now being reminded of it from here on it, and it starts to become grating.
From this point on, the Millennium group itself — which to this point has been solely about law enforcement — now begins to take on a sinister nature. There are meetings with old men in cabins, we meet a woman named Lara Means who seems to have a gift for vision and profiling, the cases begin to become more supernatural and at one point it seems that the group is now involved in deeper themes like hunting down the true cross and has separated into sects calls Owls and Roosters. Lance Henriksen wrote in his memoirs years later that the sudden change in the show’s tone utterly baffled him, and it starts to become apparent in his performances. Henriksen is notorious for having a great stoneface but starting in Season 2 as the mythology begins to develop, you can see just how frustrated he is that his character has to go along with what both we — and the audience, frankly — clearly think is nonsense.
In a way, this is also a foreshadowing of how television would become just a few years later: initially monster of the week episodes having an underlying supernatural mythology. This very year that Millennium was making the effort and frequently bungling it, Buffy The Vampire Slayer was airing its full season and doing everything right that this show blunders with. That the series is increasingly taking on a tone that is very similar to The X-Files isn’t helping the cause of the show either. Sometimes the supernatural elements work very well, to be sure but there’s so much of an attempt to tie everything in to the upcoming end of the millennium that you’re genuinely wondering if they know what they’re doing.
Then at the end of Season Two, when it looked almost certain that the show was about to be cancelled, Morgan and Wong decided on their boldest stroke. They decided to tear down their failed vision for the series and make it window dressing for a power conspiracy. At one point Frank tells Catherine that he agrees the Millennium Group is nothing more than an insidious cult built on world domination. And their plan is to bring about the apocalypse…not in six hundred days, but now. At one point Frank insists: “There is no millennium!”
A contagion kills of a family while they are having their chicken dinners and we learn that a genetically enhanced virus is going to be released. Members of the group will be given a vaccine to survive — but not their families.
The end of Season 2 is terrifying and features incredible moments including an extraordinary nine minute segment when a hallucinating Lara Means, who has been plagued by vision all season, has a vision to a Patti Smith song in which we see her being driven mad. Describing it is pointless because it defies description: I’ve never seen anything like in thirty years. At the end of it Lara is wheeled off catatonic, but not before she gives Frank her portion of the vaccine.
In the final scene of the episode Frank and his family go to a cabin in the woods to prepare for the end. Catherine insists Jordan be given the vaccine. That night she develops symptoms of the contagion and walks off into the woods to die. In the final scene, Frank’s hair has gone shock white. His visions seemed to have turned the static and he looks ahead dumbly. Jordan asks about her mother but is distracted by her father’s hair. She cuddles into his arms happily. It’s one of the most brilliant closing scenes in the history of television…
…except Millennium was then renewed for a third season. Morgan and Wong had left, and while they say they had a plan for a third season post-apocalypse I have my doubts. Instead the third season steps wrong immediately by telling us: remember that apocalypse we spent the last two episodes building up to? Didn’t happen. (They didn’t come up with a better explanation actually.) Anyway Catherine’s dead now, the series has moved from Seattle to Virginia, Frank’s working for the FBI again and he’s been partnered with a new agent, Emma Hollis. To say the show lost the narrative thread is an understatement.
I give credit to the new showrunner Chip Johannsen for making the best he could with an impossible situation. To be fair, he did his best with what he’d been left with. It wasn’t nearly enough, but there were moment throughout Season Three where you could hear the music of the old Millennium. But yet again, the series made an error with the Millennium group. At the end of Season Two, it was presumed that Peter Watts had betrayed the group in order to save Frank and had died saving Lara. Now he’s reinvented as a dangerous foe, trying to win Frank and Emma back on to the side of The Millennium Group. There are occasionally times it works — at one point Peter is forced to deal with the abduction and possible murder of his daughter unless he betrays the group — but it’s yet another twist that didn’t help and already confused series.
Perhaps the best move of the show was to give more time to Brittany Tiplady as Jordan. In one episode, she seems to become a victim of death itself which leads to Lance Henriksen in one of his greatest moments on the show as he offers an agonized and confused prayer as last rites are being read over her. In another episode Jordan, who has occasionally seemed to have the same ‘gift’ as her father, becomes convinced her neighbor is a demon. She has his gift but none of the maturity so she can’t realize that the real threat is a child. It might have been the right move for the show going forward, but by this time the series was living on borrowed time: Millennium was cancelled not long after, though it did manage to have a strong final run in its last several episodes. (I won’t give away the actual ending, even though it’s pretty ambiguous.)
Everything about Millennium had elements that would have been so much more fitting had it aired just a few years later. The series was so too dark for broadcast television in 1996 but by the end of Season One, Oz debuted on HBO the first in an era of TV series that would focus almost entirely on characters so much darker than anything Frank Black would deal with. These days almost everything on network television is darker than the threats that Frank had to deal with on a weekly basis. Similarly the shifts in story arcs are something we are more used too, along with deeper mythologies. And shows like The Walking Dead have their starting points in the boxes that Morgan and Wong ended Season Two in.
And so much of the threats that Frank dealt with involving the Millennium group that seemed far-fetched a quarter of a century ago are part of the daily discourse: ritualistic killers, belief that demons and angels are walking among us, cults that seem to control the world — hell, the last few years we lived through our own plague and some people thought that was a government conspiracy. These days an entire generation has been named for the era that we were all so terrified of and are now just as certain that the end-times are upon us. And that actually lead me to the reason that despite everything that took place on Millennium there might have been a message to lead us forward…and it came from the most unlikely source.
Those of you who have read my reviews on The X-Files remember the piece I wrote on Darin Morgan and how he utterly changed the world of television in just four scripts. One year after leaving The X — Files Glen persuaded his brother to write a script and make his directorial debut for Millennium. He actually did so for two episodes which most fans of the series consider the show’s highpoint because they are practically the only comic episodes in the entire three seasons of the series. They are regarded highly by his peers: ‘Somehow Satan Got Behind Me’ and ‘Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense’ both received award nominations; the latter from the Emmys. And its that one I want to discuss.
Darin Morgan’s comic episodes for The X-Files were hysterical but had a gloomy undertone which you’d think would have fit perfectly for Millennium. If anything, his episodes are ridiculously cheerful, which is fitting because he is making fun of the pretentions of Millennium. This seemed a little harsh: Shearman describes it as ‘kicking a puppy with a broken leg’. But the thing is, after spending so much time in gloom and pretensions, we loved it.
Jose Chung for those of you who might not know was played by Charles Nelson Reilly in Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, Morgan’s final episode of The X-Files. This could have seemed like the most blatant X-Files crossover at all but at Shearman points out ‘this is no more like an X-File than an episode of Millennium.” Chung is writing a book about Selfphosophy — a religion founded by a sci-fi writer that is primarily centered in Hollywood and is set in secrecy and intends to sue anyone who questions it. (No Morgan doesn’t even pretend he’s satirizing Scientology here; you’re honestly surprised he didn’t get sued.)
Chung shows up when a fan who was expelled from Selfosophy Joseph Ratfinkovich, ends up getting electrocuted. Chung ends up meeting Black at the scene and its wonderful to watch Henriksen in action throughout the episode as he gets to make fun of everything he and the show stands for. At one point, he reads a story where a version of Frank Black shows up at a crime scene, chats up all the women, delivers snappy one-liners and punches somebody who suggests he look at the corpse. The message of the episode is ‘Don’t Be Dark’, which is against everything Millennium stands for.
In case I haven’t made it clear Morgan is making a no-holds barred attack on all of the pretension that the show (which his brother is writing!) stands for. At one point Frank asks Peter about the Groups attitude towards Selfosophy and Peter shuts him up immediately:
Frank: “You’ll stare down evil incarnate.
Peter: Evil incarnate can’t sue.
Everything Chung says is a repudiation of Millennium and there’s something curiously inspiring about it. At one point, when he is being threatened by someone so angry that he has mocked his cause, Chung angrily defends his right to wallow in sarcastic humor. I won’t tell you Chung’s ultimate fate (in keeping with Morgan it is equal parts comedy and tragedy) but he gets the last word not only of the episode but of any idea of what the show considers about the apocalypse. He predicts that the next millennium “will usher in one thousand years of the same crap.”
For a writer who found so much of his comedy in bleakness, that’s damn near an inspiring message. Chung actually points out in the episode every generation thinks that it is living in times of tumultuous change. Does this generation think the apocalypse is coming any day now? The previous generation was just as certain of it. Millennium argues every conceivable threat we thought was coming — there’s even an episode devoted to a cult around Y2K — but as Mulder and Scully said in the X-Files episode, on January 1st 2000, the world didn’t end. Every generation has people who are certain the world will end in their lifetime. They keep getting proven wrong.
Millennium still can’t be found on streaming but all three seasons are available on DVD. I advise fans of TV to track it down. Perhaps this generation’s audience will find it just right. I myself might end up finally buying the whole series just to have it. We have lived through an era of dystopia that does seem to increasingly mirror the world in that series. Maybe doomsday will come in our lifetime. But the more I think about it, we’re not that lucky. I think we’re far more likely to have another thousand years of the same old crap. And maybe we’re better off that way.