Monday, November 12, 2012

Back to Frank Black

Back to Frank Black co-editor Brian A. Dixon writes that Chris Carter’s TV series Millennium “defies all traditional labels, simultaneously adapting and combining the stylistic elements of mystery, horror, police procedurals, scripture, crime thrillers, slasher films, mythic and apocalyptic fiction, and others.  The series disrupts those lines that we imagine between genres, reinventing each in turn for its own creative purposes and ultimately defying any definitive attempt at classification.”

His message is clear: Millennium is something profoundly unique.  No doubt that’s why, thirteen years after Fox cancelled the series, it still has a strong enough following to produce a 500-page book of essays and interviews that would meet the most rigorous academic standards, without ever becoming so narrowly focused that it loses sight of the forest through the trees.  I’ve been following the Back to FrankBlack campaign for a few years now, and I’m extremely proud to be part of this achievement.  I’m astounded that a fan-led campaign has not only been able to produce such a thoroughly literate work, but that it has also able to secure the involvement of nearly every major cast and crew member associated with the series (including showrunners Glen Morgan and James Wong, who didn't even participate in the official DVD release of the series!).  Even Joss Whedon’s Browncoats -- arguably the most enthusiastic and effective fan organization around -- haven’t done that.

If you’ve followed the Back to Frank Black campaign at all, then you’ve probably heard at least a few of the podcasts conducted by Troy Foreman and James McLean.  McLean says that their initial agenda was to profile the series creators and contributors as artists, rather than simply using them as “a teat from which the fan could suckle more information about their favorite television show.”  (James has a way with words, doesn’t he?)  What they found out was that most of the people they interviewed wanted to talk more about Millennium than about themselves -- another testament to the enduring power of the show.  Everyone’s enthusiasm is evident in the new book, which repurposes the best interview material from several years worth of podcasts. 

It would have been easy enough for editors Adam Chamberlain and Brian Dixon to reproduce the interviews verbatim, but they’ve done something much better -- incorporating them into intelligent, comprehensive essays that provide greater context.  Some of the essays include quotes that were not included in the original podcasts, while some of the essays are entirely new contributions, including a heartfelt essay from Brittany Tiplady (who played Jordan Black on the series) and an interview with director of photography Robert McLachlan (the only major cast/crew member who worked on as many episodes as Lance Henriksen). 

These interview essays alone are enough to make up a book that any fan of Millennium or Chris Carter’s Ten Thirteen Productions should own, but there’s more…  The book intersperses this material with 11 original essays by well-informed viewers.  John Kenneth Muir takes an in-depth look at each season, offering an essay on the zeitgeist that informed the first season, symbolism that reveals the mythic quality of the second season, and a new theory that unifies the noticeably schizophrenic third season.  With these three essays, he charts the divisions in the Millennium fandom.  Each season has a unique focus, and each fan inevitably has his/her favorite season. 

Muir really got me thinking about my own reaction to the third season.  Like many fans, I think, I expected the series to draw order out of chaos as the storyline moved toward Y2K.   I didn’t feel like that happened over the course of season three.  A wonderful interview with series writers Erin Maher and Kay Reindl offers some perspective on how the season developed, making me feel much more forgiving about the first half of the season.  And as Muir points out in this essay, the second half of the final season has plenty to recommend it.  There are a handful of episodes that progress the series mythology in huge strides.  Regardless of that truth, the general thematic chaos of season three still leaves me feeling unsatisfied -- which is precisely why I would love to see the return of Frank Black.  Maybe a fourth season would have provided the order and closure that I was hoping for.  A Millennium movie could still pontentially achieve that.  In his interview chapter, Chris Carter talks about “a reconceiving of the original idea”...

Here’s my thing: The best storytelling in any medium has a distinct thematic arc.  It doesn’t have to be a simple arc (in fact, the most difficult arcs are often the most satisfying -- which is why Muir’s insights on season three are so resonant), but it answers the questions that the original story set out to ask, one way or another.  In my mind, the cancellation of Millennium left the tale of Frank Black unresolved.  If the questions that the series initially posed weren’t so important to me, I could let that go.  But this series, from the very beginning, asked some of the biggest, most important questions in life.  When I think about it, I’m amazed that a series like this actually existed.  People like to compare Millennium to shows like CSI, but to me it’s much more.  It’s as if Dostoevsky made a TV show.  CSI is entertainment.  Millennium is dense, meaningful literature in a visual medium.

The essayists in Back to Frank Black understand this.  Rev. Paul Clark, Gordon Roberts, Alexander Zelenyj, Adam Chamberlain and Brian A. Dixon delve deep into personal examinations of the proper context for this series: fables and histories that go back hundreds of years, defining and redefining humanity across different cultures as we face the timeless challenge of real evil.  Their insights into literary and visual storytelling are remarkable.  Perhaps my favorite essay in the volume, Joe Tangari’s “The Evil Earworm” made me consider the series from a completely new perspective: “watching” with my ears, instead of my eyes.  (It’s worth noting that Back to Frank Black also features a new interview with composer Mark Snow, the man behind the music…)

Bottom line: Like the Millennium series itself, this book achieves such a high standard of quality that I almost can’t believe it exists.  As a reader, it makes me feel like a more active part of a very meaningful world -- a world that still lives on in the imaginations of viewers across the globe.  Back to Frank Black campaign founder James McLean helps to explain this feeling in his essay: “This book is not a testament to people who own DVDs, the type you’d commonly call ‘a fan’; this book features journalists, filmmakers, actors, writers, and artists.  It is the epitome of what Lance calls the Tribe: a group of individuals, each as vital as the other, coming together to celebrate the past and potential future of a timeless work of art.”  And that’s certainly something worth celebrating.

The Back to Frank Black book is available HERE.  (Did I mention that all proceeds from the sale of this book will go to charity...?)

If you want to make your own voice heard, you can join the new Tribe forum HERE.  There's a designated page for discussions of Millennium.

Finally, if you want to see the return of Frank Black, please write a letter and send it HERE.  It's time to let the executives at Fox know who we are.


  1. Joe,

    Wow, don't know what to say. Can't thank you enough for this amazing review of the book. We were honored to have you be a part of the book and that's why we kicked off the book with your essay. This goes to show you that a "fan" campaign can really put out something of real quality. I am proud of the entire team and so proud of this book!

  2. Really wonderful review Joe. Even more excited for my copy to arrive.

    I really agree too with the best storytelling has very distinct, thematic arcs. I always find it really simplistic when someone tries to say there's other crime stuff being shown now or "something with serial killers". Even if you take that statement at face value there isn't the simple respect for humanity that is there in Millennium.

  3. Thanks, Joe, for sharing your thoughts on the book here. Great article, and I agree with every word you say about storytelling and what Millennium achieves as literature. In terms of the book, your own essay of course has the perhaps unenviable task of opening the entire volume, but I have to say it does this masterfully, setting a context, tone and standard for everything that follows. You are very kind in your appraisal, but if I can be immodest for a moment the book certainly does feel like it has a significance that reflects that of Millennium itself. This is a point we have tried to convey when issuing review copies, and also in the letters accompanying copies of the tome winging their way to Fox executives. Here's hoping someone there recognises and shares that vision such that they support the ultimate mission of Back to Frank Black.

  4. Thanks, guys. Your passion for this series plays a significant role in making it something truly exceptional. Without you, "Millennium" would be long gone and forgotten... and that fact is obviously not lost on the creators who put their hearts and souls into the original series. I truly hope the campaign will give us all a chance to revisit the world they created.

    I was, of course, extremely humbled to see that my little contribution was at the front of the book... between a Chris Carter introduction and a Chris Carter interview! I'm equally humbled to be part of a tribe of such talented writers and artists. Thank you!

  5. I loved your review of the book because I have it on my nightstand and one day will share my thoughts as well. I also really enjoyed your eloquently summed bottom line thoughts as well Joe.

    Needless to say again, but Millennium surely was a work of art and I'm equally humbled to be part of this project as well my friend especially in the company of such fine creative people like yourself, Adam, Brian, John and the others I look forward to reading. Great to see the Maddrey eye focused on this. All the best, gordon

  6. Gordon,

    Your Cosa Nostra observations were right on the money. It's an honor to be featured alongside such intelligent writing, and I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on the book as a whole.