Originally published at An Island Where No One Lives.
Adapted and edited for inclusion here.
Do you like depressing art?
The background to this question is simple. I recently had the opportunity to buy the first season of "Millennium" on DVD, and I went ahead and did so. I hate to shatter your illusions, but I buy a number of DVDs sight unseen, based (usually) on the reputation of the creative forces behind them. Sometimes I buy them because I think, Oh, a giant monster story, that'd be cool, other times because the cover is shiny, and who can resist something that's shiny?
So, Millennium. I only knew two things going in: 1 - it starred Lance Henriksen, who is pretty much always worth watching, as some kind of psychic cop, and 2 - that it was created by Chris Carter, the creator of "The X Files." I've always liked The X-Files, even in the later years when everyone on the show seemed to stop giving a damn. I always watched, hoping they'd pull themselves up. More fool me, eh?
Millennium was produced during the years when X-Files mania was at its peak; since Carter had created a big success for the Fox network, it seemed logical that they would open the vaults for him, and allow him a free hand to create the show of his dreams.
Well, I sure hope his dreams aren't anything like Millennium. Because this is the most depressing show I've ever seen; it's pretty much the most depressing thing I've seen in my life.
Now, don't get me wrong. The production is very well done, the acting is superb, and there are some interesting stories and ideas. Overall, it's the very model of a high-class television series. And I'm certainly aware that life can be dark and disturbing, and that it's foolish to gloss over the possibility of triumphant evil. But in Millennium, there's absolutely no hope at all. The whole world has been drained of life, and people are basically just shambling corpses, waiting until someone comes along and tells them to lie down and be buried.
Of course, The X Files could certainly be dark, and some of their episodes were pretty grim. But the overall foundation of that series was that of a basically good world, being invaded by evil. All that was necessary was for good people to fight the good fight, and evil would be vanquished. Perhaps not permanently, and perhaps with high losses on the side of good, but the world was not yet lost. Good was something that people were willing to fight for, and the fight proved that the bonds between human beings are indeed shared by us all. The soul of the show's world was a human soul. The invading forces were just that—an invasion, an encroaching alien shadow, in a world still in the light. The world may be teetering, close to tumbling into Hell, but it isn't there yet. There's time to right the balance.
Millennium's world is a much darker place. Here, it is quite apparent that the world is lost, that it is a planet of crawling evil now—that we are all already dead and in Hell. The sunlight and smiles are just fading masks on a party that has long ago turned into a wake. The world is hewn from darkness and terror and blood, and any struggle against these forces is going against the natural order—ie, it's a futile fight against forces that cannot be defeated. So, fighting for good is something that people do simply because there's nothing better for them to do; even then they don't believe in what they do. (They most likely haven't been given a good enough offer to join the Dark Side.) The rot is set in, the tide cannot be stemmed, all we can do is watch as things fall apart and the center cannot hold and mere anarchy reigns from his high throne and laughs. The only thing we can do is hold ourselves back from becoming involved in any aspect of life, allow our souls to die, and perform the only remaining sign of corporeal animation: laugh cynically along with chaos, surrender to the death of life and of meaning. We're not even doomed—we long ago passed that point.
This attitude infects everything in Millennium. Even the friendly (if overly enthusiastic) neighbor in the early episodes doesn't seem simply like a nice person--he's too friendly, and this seems way, way suspicious. Evil forces rule the world, and good is powerless and futile. People are simply going from birth...to death. No pause along the way for any meaning to it all, any indication that we are more than fodder for the flames.
In The X-Files, there were deaths as well, but you were pretty sure that Agents Mulder and Scully would save as many folks as they could, and bring the evil to justice, and that evil would then be vanquished--whether killed, or jailed, or simply exposed in the light. While comical at times, and overbearing many times, Mulder's passion that truth would stand in the light and banish the dark was what drove the series. The idea that evil was everywhere and undefeatable was not the foundation of the show.
Had Mulder walked into the world of Millennium, it would have chewed him up and spat him out. He would have been one of the first victims, his body left as a warning to fools. Pretty much no one lives in Millennium; once a person is abducted or otherwise goes missing, it's a fair bet they're already dead (in the worst possible way, too), and Frank Black (Henriksen) is simply around trying to find the body. The one episode where Frank's sister-in-law actually turned up alive was pretty astonishing for this show. It was so astonishing, in fact, that the impact simply wasn't there--I had long before assumed she was dead, so there was no sense of catharsis for me. Needless to say, this episode was followed by one in which an entire family was killed before the opening credits. We didn't even get to build one sand castle before the next wave pushed us aside.
This isn't intended to be one long Millennium-bash. My point is this: what is it about these dark, depressing visions that is so attractive to creative people? Why is it that a show like "The X-Files" or any version of "Star Trek" is considered mere light entertainment, monsters and spaceships for the kiddies, while "Millennium" is believed to be making a profound statement about life, the universe, and everything? Why is it, when offered the opportunity to create anything he wanted (I imagine), Chris Carter chose to create this show, with its weary hero and pervasive darkness, and the impossibility of triumph?
Why is it, that to be considered serious, a person's vision has to be nihilistic? That's really what Millennium comes down to: nihilism, from the Latin word nihil for "nothing." Nihilism is a belief not so much in anything, as the belief that there is, ultimately, no other reality aside from an all-consuming nothing that rotates at the center of space.
It's not just Millennium that has this belief. Many other movies, books, popular songs, etc, all seem to think that an ending where everyone dies is a much more profound, mature and artistically valid ending than one where someone overcomes his or her difficulties through hidden strength of character. Bruce Springsteen, singing that the working man is going to be inevitably crushed, is always touted as deep and thoughtful, whereas no one's ever going to give big awards to music that's just fun, like Madness or Brave Combo. Which one gets people up and dancing, though? Or is that an irrelevant question? Should pop music make us feel everything is worthless, including ourselves? How does one get pleasure from this kind of art, except the pleasure that comes from saying, “You see, I was right all along”? A statement which translates to "My insight into things is much deeper than yours."
Is that what it is? "I am wiser than you are"? Where does this attitude come from?
Perhaps it comes on the road to what we call “maturity.” When we are children, at least children in North America, most people's childhood consists largely of happy events, one after the other: Christmas, birthdays, trips to fun places, Saturday morning cartoons. (I will grant that, tragically, some children suffer horribly in life, but I'm speaking of typical childhood.) When one reaches adolescence, one can begin to contrast the experience of life with one's expectations of that experience. An anticipated happy event can he imagined to be happier than it is ultimately experienced, and life suddenly becomes an ever cascading series of disappointments and disillusionings. One could say that this change is indicative of an ability to judge and consider, but the negative spin is one of the chief characteristics of this ability. Ie, nothing is ever good enough, everything is worse than it should be. In some respects, what we're talking about is responsibility. Comparing an imagined outcome to an actual one, we can see that someone else failed to live up to my imagination. Which naturally leads to further questions. Who's responsible for what happens to me, for what kind of person I am? Am I a murderer because I enjoy killing people, or do I enjoy killing people because someone abused me in the past? If it's me, and my choices, that make me who I am and (at least partially) shape my life, I can shape up and get my life in order. On the other hand, if I'm just a puppet in the hands of indifferent cosmic forces or an inescapable past (personal or not), then I have no choice about anything I do. It's not my fault, because it's not my responsibility. There's nothing I can do, except excuse my behavior. This seems to sum up Millennium nicely, I think, if I can use the word “nicely” when talking about the show.
The change also shows up in the way people use dialogue. In The X-Files, as in
childhood, the dialogue consists of questions and attempts to explain either
oneself or others. Even the Cigarette Smoking Man, who had a lot to
hide, was pretty straightforward when he spoke. By contrast, in
Millennium (like during adolescence) people talk in
clipped, deliberately obtuse phrases and half-questions that don't really
create dialogue at all. It mostly seems to be the actors saying words, rather
than conversing; the impression given is of someone who is so smart, we cannot
follow what he says, because we don't have his intellectual tools. In reality,
I think it's just intended to give a fake profound air to one's utterings.
possible some of this stems from the difference between believing there are
answers, just waiting to be found (childhood), and the belief that those
answers are meaningless and the search for them pointless (adolescence).
But shouldn't maturity come with the realization that life is neither total happiness, or complete unfairness, but a mixture of events that happen to us? How we react to these things determines our character, and our sense of the character of our lives. We can take what happens and do what needs to be done, or we can despair that we are helpless, both within the same sets of circumstances.
I am reminded of what I consider the money quote from David Fincher's Seven, that bleak and depressing film of endless rain, dark corners, and dealings with the devil. In one scene, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are talking in a bar. Mr. Freeman, who is just about to retire from the police force, offers, as has been his wont throughout the film, his view that life is a terrible thing of unending pain with no reward. Brad Pitt disagrees, and responds, “I don't think you're quitting because you believe these things you say. I don't. I think you want to believe them, because you're quitting.”
Gruesome ending beside, I think that is the key passage in the entire movie, and it's the one scene that keeps Seven from being an unrelenting depression-fest, and instead relegates it to the ranks of films that do, in fact, affirm life. (As a contrast, Mr. Potter's continued malevolence keeps It's A Wonderful Life from becoming overly-sappy. Can you imagine how awful that film would be if Potter showed up at Jimmy Stewart's house all reformed and nice? It's important to keep the mixture balanced.)
Back to Seven. If you've seen the film, and you know the ending, while it seems appropriate to what has gone before, doesn't it seem kind of rushed? It's as if they want to push it at you with no chance to think about it. So, let's think about it: despite Freeman's protestations, and John Doe's exhortations, I think no jury in the world would convict Pitt's character of anything other than a crime of passion at worst. Other than the contrivance of the ending, in the world of Seven, John Doe would, in fact, end up as a t-shirt, or a movie of the week. In my opinion, the ending of Seven, where there is this desperate insistence on procedure and order, is the weakest part of the film (conceptually, at least; in actual fact, it's rather gripping).
Actually, the film ends in voice-over with Morgan Freeman quoting Hemmingway, "The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for." Mr. Freeman then goes on to say, "I agree with the second part." Again, despite the oh-so-hep caveat, this seems to be the film saying that despite all the darkness and evil in the world, there is hope, and we can pursue it. To me, this differentiates the film from Millennium, in which (as I've said) there is no hope at all.
I'm not saying that all art should be sunshine and flowers. Depressing works can be cathartic, too. Barry N. Malzberg's work, for example, is among the bleakest and most depressing prose you can find. It is, frequently, pretty hard to get from one page to the next, but while reading him, I personally never felt that the overall effect was one of despair. (There's a lot of despair, there, don't get me wrong.) On the contrary, his work is invigorating. I think the difference is that his work burns with a white-hot anger at this depressing, futile state he imagines; rather than finding complacency and completion in these worlds, Malzberg seems to rail for something more, something positive, even while (seemingly) admitting that more, and positive, aren't possible. Nonetheless, while in his work everyone may die and everything end up in ruins, Malzberg seems genuinely angry about this, railing against the complacent acceptance of nihilism, rather than accepting its enveloping, fashionable folds. Malzberg, despite the defeatist air of most of his work, strikes me as a fighter for human values rather than one who surrenders to the shadows.
If the end result is the same, does it matter? Yes, I think it does. I think the underlying attitude of a work is many times more important than the events portrayed in that work.
In every creative writing class I've had (and the books I've read on the subject), the short story was described as a problem-solving exercise. The protagonist was presented with a problem, and through use of available resources, overcame the problem, or the problem proved too intractable to solve, and the protagonist accepted this. In any case, it illustrates a form of revelation: a new facet appeared in the protagonist's character in response to the situation. That was the seed of the story, its reason for being.
There are stories that that follow this path, both to reward or to death, and they're classics of the field. There are others that take the short path, and (in my view) they don't work. If you've ever read Stephen King's story “Gramma,” you know that it takes the short path. It's about a small boy who is going to die, and he dies. That's the whole story. Oh sure, he worries about his fate, and he tries to escape, but he doesn't; his efforts all come to naught. While the story is gruesome, there's no satisfaction in it for the reader; the gruesomeness comes because King wants it to come, not because it arises organically out of the story. There is a difference. The fact is, nothing changes throughout the story. We start with one certainty, and end with that same certainty.
Millennium is "Gramma" writ to world-spanning lengths. In this world, there are no solutions, or even simple relief from problems. The scenes where Frank interacts with his wife and daughter seem forced and separated from the story; I get the impression they're put there simply to show us that Frank has a life outside his work, but they don't add much of anything to the flow of the story. Not to say they are unattractive vignettes, they aren't, there's definitely a warmth to them and the acting is excellent as always. But I think you could shoot several hours of Lance Henriksen, Megan Gallagher and Brittany Tiplady interacting, and then just drop scenes at random in the other stories without let or hindrance, and no one'd be the wiser. The scenes themselves don't seem to specifically interact with the story at hand; they're just moments of relief.
I suppose I've been pretty hard on Millennium, here; on the other hand, perhaps that's what the show expects and actually enjoys. Who can say? Based on what I see underlying the show, maybe my negative view of it was just inevitable, willed by the fates, before the first camera rolled. Let me just say that I didn't hate Millennium; I just didn't enjoy it. The show itself just seems endemic of a wider syndrome of draining the life and joy from what is, after all, supposed to be entertainment. (It may also be symptomatic of another trend, which is that of entertainers feeling that, since they have the stage, they have to lecture us, the little people, on what to think and feel and what opinions are “correct” to hold...but that's a rant for another day.)
It may explain why I find watching the show to be pretty difficult—there's just nothing to enjoy here, apart from the technical aspects. There's no fun. I know the show has a lot of fans who were disappointed that it did poorly in the ratings and got itself cancelled. And I'm certainly not trying to persuade people who love the show that they're “wrong,” because I believe that we all respond to entertainment differently, and my way is no better than yours.
Personally, I prefer my cynicism leavened with a little optimism or humor, like "South Park," for example. (Cynical as it can be, there is definitely a positive moral center in "South Park," a sense that one can be good or bad, but positive action is always better than inertia.) It may also be why I prefer “problem and object” television shows, like "The X-Files," the original "Dexter's Laboratory," the original "Star Trek," or any number of other such programs. Heck, even "Gilligan's Island" takes a positive view of problem-solving. Here the characters face their problems and attempt to overcome them, successfully or not (ususally not, since they're still marooned), whereas Millennium seems to wallow in the impossibility of taking action or making a difference. (One sees this creeping cynical nihilism starting to enter “children's” entertainment in things like Adult Swim, where the Aqua Teens and denizens of Sea Lab 2021 seem trapped in a endless loop of accepting their failure to do anything at all. It's a kind of celebration of inertia. Admittedly, I laugh like a loon at the Aqua Teens.)
Again, this is not a call for uplifting, namby-pamby arts that will slap smiles on people's faces. (I've been accused many times of creating paintings that are depressing, but my feeling is, my stuff is bleak, not depressing. I've removed the human element from it, so my work doesn't impact on human life. That, I think, is an important distinction.)
We all have different needs and expectations from our entertainment choices. But I have to tell you, I'm honestly tired of art that tells me everything is worthless and futile. Even if I believed that (and I'm not sure I don't) why do I have to be told it, again and again? Isn't once, enough? And don't those terms apply to the art in question as well, then? If life is futile and meaningless, isn't art futile and meaningless too? Where does it all end? I have this vision of people sitting around watching an hour of television snow and static and, at the end, telling each other that this episode wasn't as good as last week's.
It gets dark every night. But the sunrise isn't that far away.
Ironically, the very success the show's
creators have had with creating the perfect, hopeless atmosphere has cost them
what they most wanted. Carter and others have said they wanted the show to be scary.
Well, you can't have fear unless you have some hope. You have to have something
to lose (your life, your family, your freedom, etc) in order to feel fear; if
you have nothing to lose, it's not fear, it's fate.
Consequently, while the show is grim, depressing and grotesque, it is never frightening. At the end of season one, (SPOILER ALERT) Frank's wife Catherine is abducted. I'm sure the producers were hoping I was saying, "Oh my God, I have to find out what happens to her! I have to buy season two right away!" but I wasn't. I was saying, "Oh well, Catherine, nice to have known you, pity you're dead." Sorry, but when all the characters seem to be set up solely to be killed, why should I make any emotional investment in any of them? I know from frame one they're probably going to die, so what's the point in caring about them? You might say that this is the point I'm talking about, that showing we care shows we're human, but that misses a minor point: Millennium doesn't care about its characters. That seems to preclude anyone else being concerned as well. The show seems to wear its own pointlessness as a badge of pride, but I was done with it. I had, and have, no desire to see any further episodes.
Can that be the reaction they wanted? Probably not. But that's what the show managed to get from me. You have to have some hope for audience sympathy, and when you abandon all hope ye who tune in here, what are you left with? Something like abstract art, where it's design and color and pattern. One is left watching patterns of light and dark on a television screen, depicting bodies going through motions, directed by off-screen hands like chess pieces. Sometimes, during a chess game, a piece is removed from the board. Does anyone care? Does anyone cry?
March 11 - 14, 2005 - December 16, 2005
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