Thursday, December 22, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 17 "Siren"

Directed by Allen Coulter

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong

Air Date: March 20, 1998

Guest Star: Vivian Wu (Tamara Shui Fa Lee)

"Siren" explores some areas the show had not explored up to that point, but the plot takes a turn towards well worn territory in the journey of Frank Black, protagonist of the series.

The cold open is set aboard a cargo ship bound for Seattle that's smuggling people fleeing from China. Customs officials inspect the ship and find a woman chained in the cargo area, a woman the captain blames for several deaths onboard on the ship. Later on at the hospital, Jordan spots the young woman and informs Catherine the woman may help Frank at some point. Once informed, Frank and Lara begin to investigate mysterious occurrences aboard the ship.

In a brief exchange, Lara muses on the sacrifices and risks many take in coming to the United States, Frank observes "humans are drawn towards the light." If the 1990s was the Pax Americana, a period when immigration rates continued to rise, I feel like there was an opportunity explore the idea further. The episode never goes into xenophobic territory, the theme of immigration and changing American identity during the 1990s, gets set aside in favor of Frank's narrative.

Unable to discover any useful leads to the woman's identity, Frank questions her at the hospital. She speaks English and seems to know everything about Frank's past. After leaving, Frank sees her on the highway and stops his car, but notices she's vanished. Then in what turns out to be visions, Frank imagines an alternate life when he's reconciled with Catherine and not associated with the group, a vision that ends with a terrifying image. Many make comparisons to It's a Wonderful Life, but The Last Temptation of Christ also comes to mind. 

Frank's frequent agonizing over whether he's doing what's right for his family has been a sustaining theme, but here it starts to feel a bit repetitive. An uneven entry, but worth watching for Frank's vision of an alternate reality. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 16 "Roosters"

Directed by Thomas J. Wright

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong

Air Date: March 13, 1998

Guest Star: R. G. Armstrong (The Old Man); Phillip Baker Hall (Group Elder)

"Roosters" picks up right after "Owls" and while remarkably plot heavy for a one-hour network TV show, it moves with confidence towards a satisfying conclusion. 

Secular vs religious worldviews are a main theme, partly causing the division from within the group. We learn the secularists are convinced an "astronomical event" in the mid-21st Century will destroy the planet. We also learn the group is privy to technological advancement long before the public becomes aware. In addition to the eschatology and secrecy, the Nazi element introduced in "Owls" is revealed to be a "third party" remnant of the Odessa Group, the alleged group of ex-Nazis who gathered after Germany's defeat, who are working to divide the group. There's a lot to process!

Where is Frank Black in all this? Alienated from the group for good reason, he discovers Catherine's new employer is front for the Odessa Group in a gambit to get to him (this felt a little thin). While Nazis always make for an easy villain, the idea that fascism remaining a malignant and dangerous force in the world sadly still resonates. 

Lending even more dramatic weight to the episode are guest stars R.G. Armstrong and Phillip Baker Hall. Both serve as stabilizing figures who suggest the goals of the group aren't necessarily nefarious. In an effective closing scene Baker receives the true cross and tucks it away in his bookcase, no dialogue, just effective non-verbal acting.

The denouement feels like an homage to The Godfather with the group exacting righteous justice on the Odessa Group. Now reunited, not unlike the Allies who came together in WWII to defeat fascism, the fissure within the group appears to be healed - for the moment.  

An intriguing story, "Roosters" steered Millennium into the apocalyptic momentum of the second season. At the same time, the story of Frank and his family gets lost in the shuffle, placing the series at a creative crossroads.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 15: "Owls"

Directed by Thomas J. Wright

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong

Air Date: March 6, 1998

Guest Star: R. G. Armstrong (The Old Man)

"Owls" was the first of a two-part story that would conclude with "Roosters." In full world building mode, the episode brings to light the split within the Millennium Group. The divide goes back to the group's origins, a debate over how the apocalypse will occur. The Owls believe there will be a disaster brought on by the natural world (secularists), while the Roosters believe it will be a theological event, the return of Christ. Fast paced and never boring, "Owls" borders on narrative incoherence at times, yet takes the series mythology to another level. 

The Magoffin of the episode is no less than the actual cross of the crucifixion. In Damascus, there's a shootout over the cross between the Owls and Roosters which inflames the inner turmoil. It's believed that whoever possesses the cross will be invincible - very Raiders of the Lost Ark in concept. In addition, descendants of the Nazis are also involved and seeking the cross, further complicating the group's history with Occultism. Meanwhile, Catherine accepts a counseling job with a company that's apparently a front for Nazis.

Meanwhile, Frank remains suspicious about the group and has another confrontation with Peter, clashing over the Group's increasingly intrusive and secretive methods. Peter expels Lara from the group when he discovers her name on the list of a Rooster. 

Between all the cloak and dagger going on, there's a set piece when a group member is assassinated while driving set to America's "Horse with No Name." A cool sequence, but with a character we're completely unfamiliar with so it lacks any emotional impact. Then a fake cross is left with him, adding to the narrative confusion.

"Owls" exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of Millennium's second season. All the intrigue involving history and mythology seems to anticipate the potboilers of Dan Brown and more unnervingly the mass proliferation of bad historical analysis on shows like Ancient Aliens. Yet the promise of a truly epic story arc yields a steady fascination even though it feels like the main characters are getting lost in all the intricate plotting. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 14: "The Pest House"

Directed by Allen Coulter

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong

Air Date: February 27, 1998

Guest Star: Melinda McGraw (Dr. Stoller)

"The Pest House" takes place mostly in a mental institution, taking the familiar horror movie premise of a mad killer on the loose in a hospital and attempts to turn it inside out. The show begins with a play on the lover's lane urban legend of a teenage couple getting murdered by an escaped mental patient. Frank and Peter suspect the crime was connected to a nearby asylum which holds a man who committed similar offenses. Their investigation predictably leads them towards a supernatural resolution. 

Episode director Allen Coulter skillfully used the hospital setting to create a creepy atmosphere with some moments of levity. The meta-horror quality of the episode was also much in vogue with the 1990s, especially Wes Craven's Scream released a few years before. At the same time the episode felt a bit labored and repetitive with an anti-climatic conclusion. Also, "The Pest House" is a stand alone episode existing outside the main arc of the season, somehow making the stakes seem lower. If the episode had leaned a little more into the comical direction of a previous episode like "Jose Chong's Doomsday Defense", the concept may have worked a little better.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 13: "The Mikado"

Directed by Roderick J. Pridy

Written by Michael R. Perry

Air Date: February 6, 1998

Guest Star: Allan Zinyk (Roedecker)

In 1998 the epochal shockwave of the internet was just starting to enter into television plot lines. People still tweet about Sandra Bullock ordering a pizza online in the 1995 thriller The Net as a landmark moment. "The Mikado" introduced the idea of murders being committed on the web as performance art for an audience of voyeurs to watch. On the DVD commentary track the episode's writer Michael R. Perry talked about wanting to explore the dark side of technology and what form it might take on the web. During the late '90s cultural pundits spoke in Utopian terms about the "information superhighway" ushering a new era of transparency and freedom. The prescience of the episode goes without saying.

"The Mikado" begins with three teenage boys looking for online pornography. They stumble upon a website and instead witness the murder of a young woman tied to a chair. With law enforcement overwhelmed with calls by online witnesses to the supposed murder, Frank Black and Peter Watts (Terry O'Quinn) are called into to lead the investigation. Frank believes the killings are not only real but possibly the work of the "Avatar" killer who once terrorized San Francisco (inspired by the Zodiac killer). Frank even worked on the case during his time with the FBI and is haunted by his failure to capture the killer.

A curious aspect of the episode is that Frank must work primarily from behind a screen. Frank and Peter go on 1998 style zoom calls with local law enforcement, Frank feels especially constrained by relying on screens and web searches. After many clues point to San Francisco, Frank travels there and comments upon the liberating feeling of back in the field where he can use his gifts. But the "Avatar" killer manages to evade Frank once again.

Henriksen and Quinn are at their methodical and stoical best, using their investigative skills to navigate a case involving technology and the past. Allan Zinyk as Rodecker proved to be an effective third member of the team. Unfortunately, "The Mikado" would be his final appearance. The actor brought a much needed comic relief to Millennium

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 12: "Luminary"

Directed by Thomas J. Wright

Written by Chip Johannessen

Air Date: January 23, 1998

Guest Star: Brion James (Sheriff Bowman)

Partly inspired by the Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild about a privileged young man who decided to explore the Alaska wilderness (also a 2007 film), "Luminary" follows Frank going to Alaska to find a missing young man against the wishes of the Millennium Group.  

The episode opens with a rare view into the inner workings of the group. Peter Watts leads Frank to a room where senior members are seated in a circle and request Frank to sit in the center. They ask him accusatory questions about his methods and the negative effect on his personal life. On an evening outing to a planetarium with Catherine and Jordan, Frank is introduced to the Glasers whose son recently disappeared. Frank takes an interest in the case after visiting their home and decides to search for Alex.

Frank pursues his search and comes into psychic communication with Alex. After some red herrings (a body is found), Frank finds him, after a harrowing journey Frank gets Alex to the hospital only to learn Alex left overnight. Frank connects the young man's quest to the Italian writer Petrarch climbing Mount Ventoux, an event connected to the start of the Renaissance. Peter informs Frank that he passed the first "election."

The first scene exposes the cultish structure of the group and Peter's evolving role from mentor to antagonist with Frank, even though their friendship appears to be repaired by the end of "Luminary." The episode meanders at times, never quite reconciling its disparate plot elements. We never get to know Alex except through some hokey narration, betraying his naivete through some banal observations. The astrology motif suggests a connection to ancient history, but never pays off either. Yet the hopeful tone at the end suggests the possibility of a future.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 11: "Goodbye Charlie"

Directed by Ken Fink

Written by Richard Whitley

Air Date: January 9, 1998

Guest Star: Tucker Smallwood (Steven Kiley)

Opening Quote: Let us go in; the fog is rising. - Purported last words of Emily Dickinson

"Goodbye Charlie" is an outlier Millennium episode in that it takes a sympathetic approach towards the story's antagonist. Frank and Lara are sent to investigation recent "murders" of people who have one thing in common: they are all terminally ill. 

"Steven Kiley" is well played by Tucker Smallwood, a veteran TV and film actor. We are introduced to him on the prologue. Set in a motel room he's singing "Seasons in the Sun," the unlikely 1974 hit by Terry Jacks about the death of a friend. It's clear he's administering a lethal injection to a man on the bed. Later it's revealed he's helping people end their lives, even creating a peaceful scene, perhaps taking inspiration from the death room in Soylent Green. We later see him working at a crisis hotline and as a hospital nurse. 

The episode is asking, how American society handles death. Steven feels he's doing humane work by providing mercy to those who are suffering. He's also violating many laws. When Frank and Lara finally get him in for questioning, he and Frank engage in a perplexing debate. Tim argues end of life care in America is nothing more than a cash grab for doctors. Frank replies:

What if everything you're saying could be proved, absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt. There is still the law. Without the law, there's chaos. The end of order is the end of the world.

Steven replies:

Obeying immoral laws is the end of the world.

While the episode never makes an issue of Steven being a Black man, his response to Frank speaks to how white and Black people view America's system differently. History has shown immoral laws aimed at African Americans continue to plague America from its inception to the present. 

The episode ends with Steven evading any capture, Lara and Frank are left wondering why the group sent them on this case. Frank concludes it was not a question of right and wrong, but whether Steven was from heaven or hell.

Perhaps a trite observation, but it's clear Steven views himself as doing good in defiance of an unjust system. In this case the health care system in America, a political debate of the 1990s that continues to rage today as medical costs continue to skyrocket. There will always be individuals acutely aware of injustice that remains hidden to many, and some will take action. "Goodbye Charlie" asks how far should one go?

As an addendum Bobby Darin is referenced once again. Frank and Steven are both fans of his music, Steven spoke of Darin being ill from a heart condition his entire life and after a series of operations failed to help, he decided to refuse treatment and keep going until it gave out, living a dignified life. 

Anyway, as Frank observed, "Goodbye Charlie is a cool song."

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 10: "Midnight of the Century"

Directed by Dwight Little

Written by Kay Reindl & Erin Maher

Air Date: December 19, 1997

Guest Stars: Darren McGavin (Henry Black) Lara Means (Kristin Cloke)

"Midnight of the Century" takes place over the Christmas holiday of 1997 as Frank Black once again faces his past in a reflective and ultimately emotional episode. The episode smoothly captures momentary respite the holiday season can provide. Like "The Curse of Frank Black" we learn more about Frank's past.

The teleplay begins with Frank preparing for Christmas, shopping for gifts, and decorating his house. He goes to a holiday party at Peter's and finds him reflective and pensive about the passage of time. Lara Means is also at the party, she and Frank discuss their conflicting feelings about the holidays. Frank confides that Jordan probably has his gift and he's unsure of how to handle it, Lara sees it as a blessing since her parents never had any understanding of her gift. 

The stress of the holidays triggers memories from Frank's own childhood. He faces the fact his mother also had visions and was ostracized by society and her own family. His father Henry never understood her gift and would react with anger and contempt towards his wife. When Catherine informs Frank they received a note from Henry, Frank reluctantly goes over to visit him after years of silence. 

In one of the best scenes of the entire series, Frank has a melancholy but ultimately emotionally reconciliation with Henry. Henriksen and McGavin are mesmerizing as they speak honestly with each other, Henry confesses regret at not understanding his wife. Frank comes away with some closure and they bond over Jordan. Reunited with Catherine and Jordan at a midnight mass, it's revealed Henry has passed on as Frank and Jordan witness his spirit passing by.

Mark Snow's music creates a mood that's both comforting and haunting, similar to Danny Elfman in The Nightmare Before Christmas, but less playful but more cathartic. There's a humorous scene when Allan Zinyk returns as Brian Roedecker, part of the Millennium Group's Geek Squad, as he and Frank analyze Christmas themed slasher movies (Do profilers watch them for research purposes?) A first-rate production from beginning to end, well-acted and sharply written, nicely evoking the spirit of Millennium with the rituals of the holidays.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 9: "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense"

Written and Directed by Darin Morgan

Air Date: November 27, 1997

Guest Star: Charles Nelson Reilly (Jose Chung)

Fun is rarely an adjective one would use to describe an episode of Millennium, but "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense" is a sharp self-parody of the series, written with the precision of a peak era Simpsons episode. 

The episode is narrated by cult writer Jose Chung, played brilliantly by Charles Nelson Reilly, in a performance that earned him an Emmy nomination. Reilly was reprising the role of Chung who had earlier appeared in the The X-Files season three episode "Jose Chung From Outer Space." The character took elements of Reilly's own persona and a composite of cult writers from the post-war era, thinking Truman Capote or George Plimpton. He writes non-fiction bestsellers on perplexing social trends like self-help gurus and conspiracy theory culture. Chong's latest book is about new religions springing up around the turn of the Millennium, which brings him on a collision course with the actual "Millennium Group."

The amusing prologue tells through a montage the life story Onan Goopta, a struggling writer of detective fiction who went on to invent his own religion named "Selfosophy," a system designed to program people to eliminate negative thoughts. Goopta's story is clearly a satire of L. Ron Hubbard, the famed Sci-Fi writer who went on to start Scientology. Chung's current book satirizes Selfosophy, partly from his own experience since he knew Goopta when they were struggling writers. A member of the group was excommunicated and later found murdered for reading a short story Chong wrote satirizing modern cult movements. 

A series of surreal crimes occur that draw in Frank and Peter Watts. In one fantastical scene we get a rare glimpse of Lance Henriksen breaking character, playing an exaggerated version of Frank Black making wisecracks at a crime scene. When Chong is confronted by an angry follower of Selfosophy for lampooning their beliefs, Chong concludes humorless people are the most dangerous ones. Chong is also interested in the Millennium Group but promises he won't write about them, but you can imagine his interest as a writer. The group itself would make a good chapter in his book (Watts is quick to point out the group is not seeking publicity). Frank reminds Chong they are alive at the most crucial moment in human history, but Chong reminds Frank everyone from every age thinks they are alive at the most important time.

Unfortunately, Ching doesn't survive the episode, but his book Doomsday Defense gets published posthumously. The episode ends with Frank reading the book, Ching's final prediction about the next millennium, "one thousand years of the same old crap."

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Millennium Season 2: Episode 8: "The Hand of St. Sebastian"

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong

Directed by Thomas J. Wright

Air Date: November 14, 1997

Guest Stars: CCH Pounder (Cheryl Andrews); Phillip Baker Hall (Group Elder); Gottfried John (Josef Heim)

A myth building episode speculating on the origins of the Millennium Group, "The Hand of St. Sebastian" follows Peter Watts and Frank Black to Germany where they investigate a murder that may lead to answers about the group's history. The pacing of the episode is methodical and by turns abrupt. It also sets the stage for the second season's deep dive into the group's mythology.

The prologue is set in 998 AD, following a monk being betrayed by his companion, revealed to have markings on his body that connect him to the group. Watts has a growing obsession with the group's origins and asks Frank to accompany him to Germany to investigate the murder of a doctor whose lab held mummified bodies. Watts informs Frank he's investigating without permission.

While in Germany they butt heads with German authorities who are suspicious of them and their motives. Frank and Peter narrowly escape a car bomb and find more surprises. Peter discovers the German scientist heading the lab is still alive, but later gets framed for the actual murder that occurs later in the episode. CCH Pounder reprises her role as Cheryl Andrews and informs Frank she was sent to keep tabs on Peter. Their investigation leads them to a bog where they discover another mummified body with markings relating to the group (for a harrowing moment Frank almost sinks and must be pulled out). Frank discovers Cheryl has betrayed Peter by trying to frame him for the murder. The episode ends with Frank dissuading Peter from his pursuit of ancient relics and suggests they rely on their own reasoning abilities.

Frank's observation at the end made for a clever ending: although their trip to Germany was foolhardy and put them in unnecessary danger, Frank realizes they must stay focused on the present and not get trapped in the past by searching for relics. Yet Peter's cryptic motives and Frank's ambivalence suck the energy from this episode at times, their usual chemistry feels a bit off. Cheryl's turn also seemed random. The group's motives and history are left to be more mysterious than ever, hinting at something nefarious and complicated yet to be discovered, epitomized by the great Philip Baker Hall appearing as an elder with lots of secrets. Veteran actor Gottfried John also adds some gravitas as a German detective who loves quoting American cop shows. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Millennium Season Two: Episode 7: "19:19"

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong

Directed by Thomas J. Wright

Air Date: November 7, 1997

"19:19" begins with a common image in 1990s pop culture, the man sitting alone in a room with walls plastered with newspaper and magazine clippings, highlights, and diagrams all over the place. "Prine" also has multiple televisions going at the same time. Today he would fall into conspiracy theory rabbit holes on the web. The episode suggests he's having visions of nuclear war.

When a busload of children go missing Frank and Peter Watts are called in to lead the investigation in rural Oklahoma. They discover the bus at the bottom of the lake and determine the children were taken to another location. It's revealed the children are being kept in a bunker at some undisclosed location. The authorities apprehend Prine and take him into questioning, through deduction they are led to the bunker. A tornado strikes out of nowhere as they are saving the children, killing Prine. It's revealed the twister had destroyed the school - where the children would've been.

Some compelling twists and turns in an otherwise middling episode. The trope of Frank taking on an investigation in rural America had been played over quite a few times in the show's history up to this point. Darkness is usually found in the heartland, but here it's one of prophetic significance. Unfortunately, the episode never quite earns its ending since Prine is such a cypher. Lara Means (Kristen Cloke) returns, using her psychological expertise to aid the investigation. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Millennium: Season 2: Episode 6: "The Curse of Frank Black"

Directed by Ralph Hemecker

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong

Air Date: October 31, 1997

Guest Star: Dean Winters (Mr. Crocell)

Opening Quote: Do you ever find yourself talking to the dead? Since Willie's death, I catch myself every day, involuntary talking to him as if he were with me." 

- Abraham Lincoln

"The Curse of Frank Black" stands as one of the most nuanced and engaging hours in '90s network television. The wonderful harmony of acting, directing, and acting. The episode follows Frank Black through the course of a long Halloween night. Stuck in a limbo state, he ponders the ghosts of his past, present, and future.

The episode's blend of playfulness and seriousness is captures in the first scene as Frank prepares to carve a pumpkin, but his brief moment of revelry is disrupted by a demon appearing. Later he takes Jordan (dressed as Marge Simpson in a fellow show on the Fox network) trick-or-treating, for a moment Frank think believes he sees something bad happening inside a house window, only to realize he's looking at a television set. 

Then Frank being has flashback to a past Halloween and encountering Mr. Crocell, who is dealing with PTSD from his war experiences. In another flashback it's revealed Crocell took his own life years later, as a teenage Frank looks on with his peers who make some ignorant assumptions. Crocell appears again as a ghost to Frank and advises him to repair his family and disassociate from the group. 

Frank also stumbles upon the yellow house and finds teenagers in the basement telling an urban legend (that's true) of Detective Bletcher being murdered inside the house, they speak of Frank the way people spoke about Mr. Crocell. A sort of living legend in his own time, Frank scares the kids and shews them away - and asks for "Bletch" to appear to no avail. 

Meanwhile the numbers 26 and 8 keep appearing, you see more and more after repeated viewings. Frank discovers it's a reference to the Book of Acts, a verse about the possibility of raising the dead. While the supernatural had been often suggested in Millennium up to this point, "The Curse of Frank Black" signals the more fantastical direction of the second season.

Henriksen gives a tour de force performance, almost a one man show as he literally faces demons over a Halloween night. When his car breaks down by the Yellow House, kids are throwing eggs at the house, later in a fit of anger Frank does so as well. In his later encounter with Crocell's ghost, he admits to throwing dog crap at his house and never cleaning it. The episode ends with Frank cleaning the egg of his house, signaling the character's determination to carry on into the darkness and hopefully find the light.