Wednesday, May 04, 2011

MILLENNIUM: Critical Mass

The critical buzz over the Fox TV series MILLENNIUM officially began in July 1996. On the 1st of that month, Ron Miller of the San Jose Mercury News enthusiastically reported that "the dumbest programming decision of the coming fall TV season is now looking only half as dumb as it did." The "dumb decision" was removing Chris Carter's wildly popular series THE X-FILES from its Friday night time slot. The not-so-dumb decision was replacing it with MILLENNIUM.

Miller was among the television critics who received an advance screener of the series pilot and – although Fox asked critics not to write official reviews until they had a final cut of the show – he immediately raved about it: "I can tell you it's going to be one of the season's best shows if Carter can keep up the quality of that opening show." Miller was particularly impressed with the show's lead actor: "Henriksen is the perfect guy for this role. Gaunt, laconic and forceful, he looks properly haunted."

Carter was equally enthusiastic, as he told Paul Simpson of Dreamwatch magazine: "You want to get a great actor, and you want to get a person who's been tested, who's been through enough life experience and tragedy, seen enough horror to be affected by it. It wouldn't have worked with a younger, less lined face, less gravel-voiced hero. It just wouldn't have been believable. This is a man who you just believe, like Atlas, has the weight of the world on his shoulders." Carter explained to Xpose magazine that Frank Black was, in no uncertain terms, his heroic ideal: "Here was a hero I wanted to create who I think, if he embodies anything, embodies the appropriate response to the world we live in, to the newspaper headlines we read everyday. I wish there were more people like Frank Black and this is my way of addressing that."

Audiences received the show and its hero enthusiastically. When it premiered in the U.S. on October 25, 1996, ratings were through the roof. The show got a 14.4 Nielsen rating and a 24 share in 32 of the nation's 33 overnight markets... the best premiere figures for any Fox drama and the best numbers of the year for any drama premiere. The critical response had just as much heat.

Variety scribe Jeremy Gerard called the pilot “literate, well-acted and blessed with an irresistible hook,” and proclaimed it “the best new show of the season." He also heaped praise on Henriksen, calling him "exceptionally appealing as Frank, sort of Clint Eastwood with a tough of Stallone thrown in for good measure." The review was not, however, an unqualified rave. Gerard added a personal note: "I just wish it were a little more fun, that I didn't have this nagging feeling that it wants to hurt me the next time I come around." His was not the only conflicted response.

New York Times writer John J. O'Conner hailed MILLENNIUM as "the season's most chilling drama," while Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg dismissed it as "gruesome, foreboding television to slit your wrists by." Time magazine applauded the show's "marvelously unrelenting sense of unease," while Newsweek complained that it delivered "all the smut and violence that Bob Dole warned you about - and then some." The latter even called for the "V-chip police" to arrest Chris Carter on sight.

Carter and Henriksen vehemently defended their show against accusations that they were celebrating ugliness and violence. Carter told TV Guide, "If you just deal with goodness and selfishness, it means nothing - unless it is in jeopardy. This is what people don't understand about the show. It is irresponsible to just set out to tell sweet stories because I think it is Pollyanna-ish and it does a disservice to the audience." Henriksen added, "Instead of having a V-chip, we should have the B.S.-chip. We need to take the B.S. off the television. This show is not B.S." Later, he told New York Times reporter Justine Elias, "We're not living in a world where we understand the outcome of violence. More offensive to me than the nature of MILLENNIUM is some show that ends precisely at 11pm with everything all wrapped up in a nice cliche, everybody beaming and happy."

All the same, over the course of the first season, critics like TV Guide's Jeff Jarvis campaigned against the show's "serial killer of the week" formula. Jarvis wrote: "All that separates it from MURDER, SHE WROTE are extra wrinkles on its star's face, extra-grisly crime scenes, some self-indulgent hooey about apocalyptic prophecies, and an overall bad mood." (Oddly enough, he was strangely effusive about the show's lead actor, calling Henriksen “mesmerizing.”) Perhaps sensing that he was losing his audience, Carter decided to shake things up in the first season's "back nine" (an additional nine episodes ordered by the network in November). His goal, he told Entertainment at Home magazine, was to "give the series a chance to roll out and show what it can do." Accordingly, he added a supernatural twist to the show. Ratings-wise, the plan didn't work. MILLENNIUM finished the 1996-97 season ranked a lowly #94 in the Nielsens.

Fox remained hopeful and renewed the series while the creator moved on to Plan B. Carter hired writers Glen Morgan and James Wong to oversee the second season, and gave them free rein to put their own spin on the show's mythology. In a July 1997 interview with USA Today, Wong spoke about breaking up the "serial killer of the week" mold and focusing more on the mysteries surrounding the Millennium Group: "We're taking that story a step up into the metaphysical world, and we might be in that area of wonder, horror and the paranormal." In other words: making it more like THE X-FILES. Fox president Peter Roth, and even Chris Carter himself, called season two an “evolution” of the original vision, and Henriksen told On Sat writer Linda Yovanovich, "It's almost as though the first year as sort of the background of everything. And this year, it's going to [come to] fruition."

Halfway through the second season, Henriksen gave Orange County Register reporter Kinney Littlefield a clear vision for the future of the show: “I would like to see Frank as a loner going through a kind of hero's journey, like the one in Joseph Campbell. I think a new kind of ritual must be constructed to lead us into a new age." Nearly a year and a half later, when it came time for the actor to reflect on season three, Henriksen told fans in an AOL Celebrity Chat that he wanted to see the character continue to evolve, or to be abruptly stopped in his tracks. "My desire,” he said, “would be to de-program him or shoot him. No in-between." With six episodes remaining to be shot, he was already thinking about making a feature film as a capstone for the series. He commented, "This is the perfect time for a MILLENNIUM film. It would be shot this summer so it'll come out at the end of the year. What we can do would be a knockout. If Chris wrote it and we did it, I think we'd be in great shape... I hope Fox is watching this and getting the idea."

Instead, when the series was canceled after the end of season three, Fox bid farewell to Frank Black via a guest appearance on an episode of THE X-FILES... an idea that Henriksen was never fond of. The two series, he explained, belong to "different sides of the brain, in a way." He compared playing Frank Black in THE X-FILES universe to falling in love with a photo of a girl who died in the 1800s. Since then, he has repeatedly said: Frank Black's story is not done.

In a 2001 interview for TV Zone, Henriksen reflected on the changes of direction in the series as a whole. He opined, "Chris Carter was much more honest to the original idea which was of this character, Frank Black, and his world. If Chris had stayed with it, it would have evolved even better and been more hardcore." He remains eager to get back to that original concept of Frank Black, and to give Frank Black the closure he deserves. And he’s not alone. MILLENNIUM fans are waiting for Frank Black to lead us into a new age – a post-millennial world that has shown us darkness on a scale we could scarcely have imagined in 1996. Even though the world has changed significantly over the last ten years, Carter’s empathetic hero still embodies the “appropriate response to the world we live in”… and we need him more now than ever.

Join the campaign for the return of Frank Black.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent look back at this stellar series, Joe. Every so often, I have to tee up an episode. I continue to hope the campaign of returning Frank Black bears fruit. BTW, the lead image of your post remains my favorite ad graphic for MILLENNIUM. Thanks for this, my friend.

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  2. Thanks, Michael!

    I agree with you about that ad image. I hadn't seen it until I was going through a box of Lance's publicity stills and ran across the postcard version. That line - "Evil has many faces. Hope has just one." - took my breath away.

    Looking forward to meeting you at the Dark Del signing.

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