Saturday, January 24, 2009

This Is Who We Are...

   For the last week and a half or so I have been indulging in one of my favorite pastimes: renting and consuming an entire season of a good TV series.  In the past I have had epic screenings of The Sopranos , Ken Burns' The War, the mini-series John Adams, to name a few.  It is endlessly delicious to be able to boot up the next episode immediately if so desired, and not need to wait until the next air date.  Viewing episodes in this manner gives you a better macro-comprehension of the series as a whole as well.  I  get the same pleasure from reading anthologies of great comic strips instead of just getting the daily four panels.
  This week's journey has taken me to the rainy, dark world of Millennium.  I remember watching the series as it aired and enjoying it for the most part, particularly season one, which is the season I rented and have been watching.  The series was Chris Carter's follow-up to his hit , The X-Files, which was riding high the year Millennium debuted, in 1996.  I was never much of a fan of X-Files.   This  was primarily due to the fact that I found the main characters, Mulder and Scully, to be painfully cartoonish.  The treatment of many of my beloved cryptozooilogical critters was also shabby (the Jersey Devil is only a hairy, crazy lady in the woods!) and the underlying mystery just got more convoluted and confusing as time went on, hinting that if the producers ever actually tied things up the series would be over (see Lost)  therefore viewers would be left on eternal third base.  
  That being said, Millennium initially looked like  a different animal.  It was cast as sort of to crime what X-Files was to aliens .  Chris Carter supposedly pitched the show to Fox producers as "Seven in Seattle", and you can certainly see some David Fincher influences not just in the subject matter, but also in  the look of the show.  One of the main enticements for me was the casting of the lead role.  The show revolves around the experiences of retired FBI man Frank Black, played by the great Lance Henriksen.  Frank Black hunted serial killers for the FBI as a profiler, using his unique talent to be able to get inside their skin (figuratively speaking!)  and "see" aspects of their case that would be undetectable to normal investigative procedures.  The impression that you get is that he is psychic, along the lines of Will Graham from Red Dragon, but Carter always denied this, saying that Frank merely had an extremely acute sense of empathy, his "gift"-his "curse".    The darkness that Frank visited in his daily work  life apparently crept into the imposed sunlight of his safe haven family life, causing a breakdown for Frank and a break from the FBI.  He retires with his family to his hometown of Seattle and settles in a house he had painted bright yellow, the new haven of light and normalcy amidst the darkness of fear and crime.  He also joined a mysterious group of ex-law enforcement types known as The Millennium Group which at the onset of the show just seemed to be a super-capable group that used their various skills and talents to solve crimes going beyond normal law enforcement procedures.  Frank is not only the heart of the show but it's soul as well.  He is the model of integrity, but not in the cartoony John Wayne hero way.  He is quiet, serious, dignified, concerned, and a great force of humanity dealing in  in the most inhumane spectrum of human behaviour.  In Henriksen's soulful wise eyes you can believe that here is a man who has seen it all.  His calm thoughtful way of speaking is somewhat contagious, too, I find myself unconsciously emulating him from time to time, which would be annoying if it wasn't so damn effective in defusing stressful situations.  Henriksen is one of those rare actors that does his best acting with his face, however, and whatever lead  might have been in the script is turned to gold when he puts it over physically.  Terry O'Quinn plays Frank's liaison to the Millennium Group, Peter Watts.  Here is another very fine actor who, like Henriksen,  has been  relegated to somewhat schlocky roles but always shines in them.  (Remember him in The Stepfather? Wow!)  In season one Peter is a great right hand to Frank, doing much of the necessary research via the Group to aid Frank in catching the bad guys.  And bad guys there are!  Any one with a passing knowledge of true crime can detect the sources of many of these killers, but they are vividly realized and portrayed by some really scary actors, many you recognize by face if not by name, as quality actors you've seen somewhere before.  
  A word or two must be said about Frank's wife Katherine, played by Meagan Gallagher.  She is Frank's rock, and , as a social worker who sees a lot of bad stuff herself, she knows his path isn't easy, but it is right.  She boosts him up and helps him keep his center.  At first she seems dangerously close to the stereotypical cop's wife, bitching about him never being home, getting pages at inopportune family moments, etc. , but as the series unfolds she becomes more dimensional .  She even gets to be the prime lead in an episode concerning a monstrous case of child abuse, which, if not being among the best of season one's episodes, is a nice vehicle to showcase her character's own motivations besides "being there" for Frank and Jordan, their small daughter.  Did I mention she is gorgeous as well?  That doesn't hurt anything, either.
  I won't catalogue much about the stories involved except to say they are generally very good with some being exceptionally good.(The one about the Russian Anti-Christ that started Chernobyl  should have been a movie!)  Many are strictly crime stories but some go into a more possibly demonic area.  There is a lot of religious themes in text and subtext, mostly of an apocalyptic nature.  The whole thing reminds you of the apprehension and millennial madness that was churning around out there in the late 90's, as the year 2000 approached.  One of the goals of the show was to cash in on that anxiety , and it is a pity that the series never made it that far, being cancelled in 1999.  Frank showed up in a special episode of The X-Files in 2000, ostensibly to tie up all the loose ends that the shows cancellation left in the air, an admirable, if ultimately unsatisfying, effort.
  It has been a long time since I watched the shows of seasons two and three, but I remember being unhappy with the direction the show took.  It may have been a natural progression of the shows' story arc, but it seemed more like a re-tooling to me.  The Group turned out to be a bunch of religious nut jobs intent on killing off everyone in the world by means of the release of a super virus, with only their chosen few given the antivirus.  The once solid Peter was turned into a sinister force, throwing Frank's world into chaos.  They even killed off poor Katherine in an attempt to make Frank's journey to the millennium as bumpy as possible.  To my mind, the re-tooling seemed to be an attempt to make the show more like The X-Files, which was a mistake.  Here again was the big baffling and maddeningly slow revelation of an over-arching mystery, a strip-tease that could never end, that rather than getting me hooked on the show to see what happens next, left me bored because I knew we would never find out the answers.  Still, there were some stand-out shows along the way, and if given the opportunity, would gladly watch seasons two and three on DVD.  I am trying to think of a case where the re-tooling of an already airing series actually worked, and the only one that comes to mind is Chris Elliott's Get a Life.  As soon as he ditched the yuppie couple and moved into Gus' basement the show turned to gold.  Other than that I am at a loss.  I  read on the Internet that there was some buzz about Carter making a Millennium  movie, which would be pretty cool.  However, given the near universal yawn that met the last X-Files movie, I wonder about its' chances now.
  Oh, and by the way, the theme music for the series is awesome.  It is by Mark Snow, who also did the X-Files theme.  It is a haunting mix of Celtic-style strings, deep percussives, and ethereal synthesizers.  I saw it was available on Itunes, and on my next buy I am going to snag it.  The film montage that accompanies the theme music on the opening credits is a masterful collection of glowing, colorful,  and mysterious images.
  The world of Millennium is perhaps  not the happiest place to spend the last couple of weeks but it is full of rewarding viewing.  It his highly evocative of its' time, where end of the world anxiety abounded, and pre Y2K jitters even had the government spending billions to avoid a technological apocalypse.  It all seems almost innocent in our post 9/11 world.  Far from a big splashy end, the collapse seems more likely to  be like the ants that take down the elephant, the death of our way of life due to a lapse in faith; faith in God, faith in our liberty, faith in the human ability to effect change in a positive way.  Sometimes it seems like we are at the wheel of a car that is heading for a cliff and yet we are too transfixed to simply turn the wheel...Like I said,  the world of Millennium is no tea party, but it does present some interesting food for thought...


AlanDP said...

A favorite of mine also, except that his wife mostly annoyed me. It airs regularly on the Chiller channel.

I also recently caught several episodes of a short-run show called "Haunted" that was pretty good. The tie-in is that the music for it was also by Mark Snow. It's about a private detective who was almost killed, and when he came back from his near death experience he was able to see ghosts. He was also haunted by the ghost of the criminal he killed, and who almost killed him.

Another short-lived series from Fox (also during the X-Files heydays) that you might want to check out is "Strange Luck." I don't know if it's on DVD, but if it is, check it out. D.B. Sweeney plays a man who, as a young boy, was the only survivor of a plane crash, and throughout his life has been blessed (or cursed) with strange luck. They also threw a cursory X-Files reference into one episode, just before it got canceled.

Brer said...

I, too, enjoy the pleasure of gulping down vast draughts of a series; it appears to be a good way of savoring the flavor of a show, and as you say, examining its' story arc and development.

It's strange how shows like this that have been mostly swept from the cultural remembrance can evoke a certain time and feeling; they're like the short term memory of the country, redolent of the concerns and fashions of the moment. It seems a ridiculously short time to feel nostalgia, even negative nostalgia, but it feels like a life-age has passed since then.