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Too Much of a Good Thing

Chris Carter is a lucky man.

This is not to say that the creator of The X Files isn't talented. No, this former surfer, surfing magazine writer, and Hollywood sitcom writer (with stellar projects such as The Nanny to his credit) is a man with a clear, coherent vision. Granted, his show exploited the American psyche's propensity to believe in conspiracy theories and alien abductions, and he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. But he was also smart enough to create a show that combined the creep-outs of shows like Kolchack: The Night Stalker and The Twilight Zone with the brilliant pairing of a UFO-believer male FBI agent and his skeptical, medically-trained partner. He was smart enough to cast David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in the roles of Mulder and Scully.

However, the television world -- and the world in general -- is littered with the failed attempts to duplicate a success. Just because someone creates one success due to talent (and maybe a little bit of luck) doesn't mean everything they touch turns to gold. Just ask Mary Tyler Moore. Or ask the two ex-Friends producers who jumped ship after a year on that show to create the forgettable Fox sitcom Partners. Ask Hugh Wilson, who went from WKRP to The Famous Teddy Z. Michael Mann, who went from Miami Vice to Crime Story. And on and on.

So, in a behavior we've come to expect from TV executives, the folks at Fox came to Chris Carter with a request: please, for the love of God, Chris... create another show for us. Like The X Files, but different.

And Carter complied. What was he going to do? Fox was throwing money at him. What did he have to lose?

The result is Millennium, a show I've watched faithfully since its premiere in October. Millennium is, at its core, a dark, downbeat show about people who are driven to kill and the reasons behind that drive. It's not exactly the feel-good hit of the year. (Of course, Fox and Carter sold the show as an X Files-like conspiracy show, featuring shadowy forces conspiring to bring about the end of the world at the turn of the millennium, opposed by the Millennium Group, an almost-as-shadowy group devoted to saving the world. In the end, there's been little sign of that story, with the possible exception of last Friday's episode. Instead, we've gotten to see the grotesque-method-of-killing-of-the-week, perpetrated by the fucked-up-psychopath-of-the-week.)

This is not to say that Millennium is a bad show. It's beautifully shot, features a great performance by Lance Henriksen as protagonist Frank Black, and Mark Snow's quiet and sad score might be the best incidental music on series TV. But the writing has been extremely disappointing. Every episode seems the same. There's usually very little dramatic tension. Cases are usually solved by chance, by dumb luck, or by Frank's annoyingly psychic gift to "see what the killer sees." And there appears to be a distressing lack of quality control -- perhaps due to the fact that Chris Carter and his staff, who once spent all their energy on The X Files, are now pulling double duty. One episode featured a trial that seemed to be conducted by Martian rules of law, a script so ignorant in the vagaries of the U.S. legal system that anyone exposed to one story about the O.J. trial or a half-hour of any L.A. Law episode would recognize a half-dozen errors. (For a moment, the law was so unreasonable that only the absence of Fyvush Finkel prevented me from thinking I was watching a lost episode of Picket Fences.)

In the end, Millennium is a great disappointment, a show that promised to be another X Files, and didn't deliver. It was almost inevitable, since comparison with The X Files is unfair. How could lightning strike twice? It doesn't happen. Besides, it's not fair to compare any show to The X Files, which was riding high as the best show on television last year.

Last year.

Which brings me to my other point: that while Carter has created a show of dubious quality in Millennium, he and his posse have allowed the crown jewel, the lightning-in-a-bottle magic, The X Files to fall apart.

The fall season which marked the premiere of Millennium also marked the lowest point in the history of The X Files. The first eight episodes of this season alternated between being among the worst the show has ever produced to simply mediocre shows that glistened like diamonds compared to the other shows The X Files produced this fall.

This fall, whether it was because Carter and company were too busy with Millennium or because they were too excited with the growing ratings success of the show, The X Files turned away from those things that made it so successful: a good sense of humor, clever plots, and good writing. Instead, we got a stream of gore loosely strung together with vague plot points or, alternately, plots recycled from old episodes. The low points included an episode featuring a group of inbred freaks who wreak havoc until, in a mess of a sequence involving a stand-off in Chateau Freak, they're put down (more or less) by Mulder and Scully, and another episode featuring Carl Lumbly (yes, the former star of one-time X Files lead-in M.A.N.T.I.S.) which seemed like a fourth-generation photocopy of "Squeeze," a well-written and creepy first-year X Files episode.

Maybe it's not entirely the fault of Millennium diverting attention from The X Files. Part of the blame has to be laid on the loss of Darin Morgan, who left this summer after spending the past two years writing perhaps the series' four best scripts and punching up countless others. Morgan's the one who made stars of circus freaks, a serial killer bellboy, killer cockroaches from space, and Match Game stalwart Charles Nelson Reilly.

But whatever the reason, The X Files has fallen more than a notch. And if Frank Black and his endless stream of twisted psycho-killers aren't the culprits, they're certainly accomplices. That makes Chris Carter, his producers, and Millennium more than just guilty of mediocrity -- after all, that's a crime most shows on TV will cop to. No, it's guilty of assassinating (or at least critically wounding) a great show in the process.

And given how rare good TV shows are, that crime is unforgivable.


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