Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In The Year 2000...

Because it’s summer and that means that there are very few original shows on and I haven’t yet been able to get to Maggie Cats’ HBO GO subscription that she’s letting me borrow to watch other shows, I’m continuing the summer of nostalgia wherein I write about things that are no longer on the air and are at least 10 years old. To that end, let’s talk about a little series that ran from 1997-1999 called Millennium!. Ah, the halcyon days when Americans had so little to worry about that we could afford to scare ourselves with the pretend fear of the end of the world.

 Lighthearted summer fun!

Millennium was the second major FOX series developed by Chris Carter, who is also the creator of The X-Files.  As such, The X-Files served as a kind of better behaved older sibling to Millennium, which was far darker, moodier and gorier despite nominally existing within the same universe. Millennium told the story of a former FBI profiler named Frank Black and portrayed in utter grizzled awesomeness by Lance Henriksen at his most taciturn. Frank has a “gift” that allows him to put himself into the minds of killers and see the world through an abstract version of how they see it. Frank is recruited by a secretive organization called the Millennium Group which on its surface functions as a law enforcement consultancy but seems to have a deeper purpose related to mystical prophesies surrounding the coming millennium and possibly the end of the world.

Because this was a Chris Carter show, however, nothing was really as it seemed. As the show progressed, Frank began to suspect that the Millennium Group, far from being the benevolent assistants they promoted themselves as, were actually a cult that was dedicated not to fighting off Armageddon, but to bring it about.  At the same time, Frank must content with religious wackos, holy prophesies that are actually rooted in real world religions and a cast of allies that the show invested in, but never made any promises about not killing off.

Given how grave (pun!) the show could be, it make sense that a central theme of the series was the exploration of how dark Frank’s life and work was and the methods he used to fight against that darkness, personified in his wife, Catherine, and young daughter, Jordan. The show frequently contrasted Frank’s two world by showcasing his family in a brightly lit yellow house even while work scenes were typically shot in grey, moody, low-contrast visuals typically marred by gore, violence, despair and a sense that anything that would be bad could actually happen. To drive home that final point, the show even killed off SPOILER ALERT Frank’s wife at the end of the second season, and she was the second-billed star of the show.

 Seriously. It was dark. This is what passed for a "hopeful" shot.

I loved Millennium, and not in a proto-hipster ironic kind of way. I seriously loved this show, even through all its problems. Pacing was terrible – he audience would sit through 10 “serial killer of the week” episodes with no real consequences only to finally have something significant happen that advanced the plot. The first season focused almost exclusively on the very non-mythology aspects of the show, only to make a sudden about face during the second season which saw a monumental rise in storylines about conspiracy and mystic prophecy, only to again change in the third season when the show killed off major characters and recast Frank’s life and job. Still, I faithfully tuned in and to this day own the entire series on DVD.

I think what I loved about it was how unafraid it was to go utterly weird and depressing. The show capitalized on the existential anxiety that, in a pre-September 11th world, Americans just didn’t have. We wanted to be scared and we hadn’t seen anything in more than a generation that really looked like the end of the world, so it was thrilling to watch that play out each week for us. At the same time, the show didn’t feel the need to wrap up each ending, to always catch the bad guy or to shy away from overtly religious themes. In a show about the apocalypse, it’s actually rare to see an examination of hardcore theology, such as the multiple classes of angels that appeared on the show, to say nothing of the fact that one of the major villains was a recurring character named Lucy Butler who may or may not have actually been Satan. The show was quite stylized and the visuals, both what was literally on screen and the storytelling ones, remain utterly unique and memorable.

To this day, Millennium remains one of the only examples I know of pre-apocalyptic drama. We’ve seen multiple visions of how the world looks after the end, but for some reason storytellers aren’t as interested in how we get there. That alone makes Millennium still worth watching.

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