The Dark Ages

by Sarah Stegall

copyright ©1996 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Chris Carter
Director: David Nutter

"Men don't need reasons. All they need is an excuse."

Frank Black is going to blow Fox Mulder out of the water.

Chris Carter's new series, "Millennium", erupts onto the screen with a pilot both terrifying and mesmerizing, complete with Carter's trademark style, pessimism, and depth. As sheer drama, it poses more of a threat to "The X-Files" than any of the pale imitations of that landmark series that have hit the airwaves this year. Fox Mulder is cool, arrogant, hip, and sexy, but he chases UFOs, monsters, and other unlikely villains. As well-grounded in reality as he and Dana Scully are, they can't compare to the humble and naturalistic Frank Black, whose monsters are far more likely, all too familiar, and discouragingly human. If the two series had to go head to head, I would fear for "The X-Files". I'm not afraid of finding little grey men landing in my back yard some night, but like all urban dwellers I am daily repulsed by the discovery of yet another cold-hearted, twisted killer who kills and kills and kills again out of motives no sane person can comprehend.

Former FBI sexual homicide investigator Frank Black, played by Lance Henriksen, "retires" to Seattle with his wife Catherine (Megan Gallagher) and daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady). His neighbors are amicable, his home life serene, his daughter adorable, and his house is a warm and friendly yellow. Then the murder of a young woman catches his attention, and in a flash he is down at local headquarters, inviting himself in on the case. It turns out that the lead investigator is his old friend Bob "Bletch" Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich). Over the course of the hour, we are gradually introduced to Black's "special gift", his ability to get inside the mind of a serial killer and "psych him out". If this sounds familiar, it's the same talent displayed in "Manhunter" (which included a small role for Smitrovich), based on the book "Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris, who also wrote "Silence of the Lambs". We even got the blood-dripping walls from "Angel Heart". There's a reason the logo for "Millennium" is a snake swallowing its own tail.

Both Millennium and NBC's "Profiler" spring from the same long and honorable pedigree, from "Silence of the Lambs" and "Manhunter" to lesser known films like the Anthony Perkins movie "China Blue" and the Judd Nelson vehicle "Breathe Easy" or the Jeff Bridges mystery "The Vanishing" (which also featured live burials). They say imitation is the sincerest form of Hollywood, so it's a moot point whether "Millennium" or "Profiler" came first. What will matter in the long run is which one has more staying power. My vote is for "Millennium".

Millennium suffers from the same flaw that crippled "Seven"--the overinvolvement on a personal level of the lead character. "Seven" was upping the emotional ante just fine--until Brad Pitt's character was dragged into the case as a participant, not as an investigator. Millennium was hooking me into a deeply unsettling and intriguing show--until we got Frank Black's story of receiving Polaroids of his family in the mail. Sorry, but this kind of thing kills my belief in the storyline immediately. As an ordinary citizen living in parlous times, I can strongly identify with Frank Black's statement that he is just a guy with a wife and child he wants to keep safe. All of us have learned to lock our doors and walk carefully through dark streets, and those of us with children always lie awake at night worrying. But when Carter piles Pelia on Ossa and gives Black his own personal stalker, he loses credibility. I have never been stalked. Most of us have never been stalked. It's not something that's going to hook me in. It's just a little too melodramatic, a little too histrionic. It's as distracting in "Millennium" as...oh, say, a romance between the leads would be on "The X-Files". I hope this stalker is caught and killed off by the third episode, so we can get this story line out of the way.

Much has been made of the "bloody" storyline, but I found Carter's approach less Grand Guignol and more Hitchcock. We actually saw not much more blood than one might find on an episode of "NYPD Blue", and certainly less than on "ER". The violence and terror were glimpsed, as it were, out of the corner of an eye. Carter knows that what we see is less horrifying than what we imagine. Fleeting, almost subliminal glances and fantastic images of eyes sewn shut hack away at the audience's sense of security. How can such monstrosities exist? How can we encompass these realities in the same world we live in every day? Nothing was put into "Millennium" deliberately to shock; every flat, remorseless image was part of the whole. It is terror stylishly done, in the service of a disturbing message. Whether Americans, who on the whole are an optimistic bunch, will sit still for this level of grim despair week after week is problematic; if anything gets them to swallow it, it will be the presentation.

The most compelling feature of "Millennium", however, is the performance of Lance Henriksen. This level of acting is way beyond what I expect on television, and the reason I think "The X-Files" may lose its position as Fox's ratings leader. Henriksen's humility, artlessness, and realism sucked me straight into his head. The face like a battleground, the smile like sudden sunshine, the world-weary eyes that have seen it all but never really got used to it, all spoke to me of a very human soul tortured by his ability to become what he hunts. Although he is drawn as an alienated figure, Black is not really the dispossessed soul Fox Mulder is. Black is strongly rooted in family and in himself. There is no self-doubt, no hesitancy. He knows the face of evil and does not compromise with it; when he spots the killer in the park, or in the lab, he faces him down without flinching.

Smitrovich's performance as Bob Bletcher turned what could have been a cookie-cutter role into a good foil for Black. Terry O'Quinn's brief role as Watts, another Millennium group member, introduced us to the organization behind Black in a short but effective scene; the further exploration of this mysterious group can serve us up many interesting episodes in future. Director David Nutter and Director of Photography Peter Wunstorf leach all the color out of "Millennium", giving us a bleak and gritty portrait of Frank Black's world. Mark Snow's poignant theme music adds to the melancholy atmosphere of this landscape of fear, cruelty and blighted hope. Only the warm yellow house, a haven in the desolation around Black, allows us a visual and emotional respite.

This is a powerful and charismatic debut for a series. Although I am well aware that the pilot is not the series, and many have failed after a strong opening, I venture to prophesy that "Millennium" will have the staying power to keep its audience, even as it appalls and horrifies them.

I give the Pilot for Millennium five snakes out of five.

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