The New Yorker
January 6, 1997

Too Much Pulp
Chris Carter's metaphysical-fatigue syndrome.
By James Wolcott

Chris Carter, the creator of "The X-Files" and "Millennium" (both on FOX), has carved out his own little meat department of metaphysical angst. Each week, his heroes descend into the valley of the shadow of death. In his mod-gothic melodramas, the human body becomes a chop shop of spare parts: amputated limbs, torn-out tongues, popped eyeballs, skin peeled off like fleshy Saran Wrap. Sometimes an entire body is crushed like a soda can or set aflame. The success of Carter's seduction technique lies in the queasy contrast between these gruesome horrors (the by-product of pulp story lines involving vampire feasts, alien autopsies, black Masses, and serial killings) and a lush, becalmed spirit of voyeurism so pure and intent that it borders on a trance state. Not since Michael Mann ("Miami Vice") and David Lynch ("Twin Peaks") has a single mind so altered the mood tones of TV. Carter's shows have their own expressionistic climate. "The X-Files" and "Milennium" are both shot in and around Vancouver, where the low ceilings and low, damp skies keep a lid on a lingering fog that mildew and wilts the corners of every image with free-floating dread. Even the sunlight looks a little ill.

As "The X-Files" has erupted from a cult hit for cool people into a worldwide craze, with marketing tie-ins, personal appearances that turn into near-riots, and a constant Internet frenzy, its stars have become living posters. Fame and adulation have licked David Duchovny to a fine finish that would look fatuously smug if he weren't sharp enough to play against it. (His self-deprecating appearances on "The Larry Sanders Show" go beyond good-sport geniality into true comic daring.) Gillian Anderson, a his partner, has become an axiom of the medium, as the French auteurists used to say–her beautiful chalk-white, spectral face hung like a lantern against the shrouded backdrops. Together, as F.B.I. agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, they've entered pop myth as romantically and irreversibly as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Yet, for some of us early fans, something has gone awry in Chris Carter's purgatorial theme park. Just when "The X-Files" is at its ratings peak, it seems to have suffered an attack of brain drain.

What made "The X-Files" special when it débuted, in 1993, aside from its nifty premise (F.B.I. agents investigating paranormal activity), was its negative capability: its deadpan aplomb in the face of man-size flukes and alien fetuses; its eager willingness to enter into the weird spirit of each case study. Judgment was generally withheld. The show could lend sympathy to the victimizer (who was often a tormented soul) as well as the victims. So far this season, that sense of playful-worried fascination has been mostly junked. The show has become thick, bludgeoning. Duchovny's Fox Mulder, once a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes, a quirky bachelor entranced by his own snappy brain, has been remodelled into an action hero with a mean streak; he now whops bad guys in the face or taunts them with the prospect of prison rape, and engages in creaky derring-do reminiscent of Robert Vaughn in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." The coarsening of his character is part of the general downgrading of the show. More and more, "The X-Files" exploits gratuitous killing to an unconscionable degree; the nadir was reached this season in an episode where a trio of inbred backwoods mutations savagely beat a black couple to death to the ironic strains of a Johnny Mathis tune. The series is so busy testing our gag reflexes that it has tossed simple logic out the window. A recent two-parter, which began promisingly, with a Martian rock as a biohazardous McGuffin, broke down into a heap of head-scratching "Huh?"s. At one point, a Senate hearing is held to determine Mulder's whereabouts (Scully has been locked up for loyally refusing to divulge anything), and when Mulder himself finally appears–bruised and woozy, having just made the world's fastest escape from a Russian Gulag–he isn't even questioned! He just takes a seat behind Scully, slumping heroically.

"The X-Files" enjoyed the advantage of becoming a sleeper hit, accumulating an audience and escalating in its shock effects as it went along. It creeped and seeped into the system. But, with its success, Carter found himself in the predicament of having to top himself. The pounding promotional hoopla for "Milennium" has prevented it from building slowly, forcing it to come big out of the box. (Its title alone is a Major Statement.) Although the first episode earned high ratings, the series has not inspired the nutty devotion of "The X-Files." While Mulder and Scully have a platonic bond that fosters significant eye contact and enough sublimation to power a motorboat, Lance Henriksen–as Frank Black, a former law enforcer tormented by psychic vision (subliminal flashbacks of atrocities)–can only look within. Always in the midst of a mental crucifixion, he is a one-man misery index, who sees and senses what nobody else senses and sees. Even when he's at home exchanging platitudes with his wife (Megan Gallagher), or on the job with the other crime fighters, he's an abject loner, a gnawed-on stick of death. His hell-and-back voice makes his most casual pronouncement sound like a Zen koan. In the première, while briefing a roomful of detectives he told them that the serial killer doesn't see the world as we do. How does he see it? Someone asked. "Differently," Frank said. He turns every line into an utterance.

The doomy milieu of "Millennium" is impressive. Like "X-Files," the show casts a spell, looking and moving as if it were a prose poem of infernal night, with embers still flickering under the toxic fumes. Its crumbling, back-door-satanic urbanscape owes a lot to "Seven," which is proving to be one of the most influential movies of the decade. But thus far "Millennium" hasn't been able to fight its way out of its own visual funk. It's so atmospheric that it's oppressive. Where "The X-Files" offers comic relief, not only in bantering asides but in full-length episodes (especially those written by the madcap sickie Darin Morgan), "Millennium" retains a steadfast mope. It isn't that Henriksen can't do comedy–he was quite funny as the exasperated villain in John Woo's "Hard Target." It's that the show has been conceived as a mission, a Manichean struggle between good and evil, which doesn't leave much breathing room for sex appeal or comic relief. It's too preoccupied with pain, both personal and global.

"Millennium" does top "X-Files" in its garish mortification of the flesh. In the première episode, a homophobic serial killer was able to abduct his victims from a popular cruising spot, amputate their hands and sew up their eyes and mouths, bury them alive, set them on fire, and still work in a pathology lab–busy, busy, busy. The show that was broadcast the day after Thanksgiving (that warm family time) involved a killer who tortured and killed religious figures. ("You think that you can get rid of your pain by slaughtering the faith that's inside you," Frank told the culprit, which sounded a little pat.) I knew I had reached my limit with "Millennium" after an episode about a stalker who preyed upon the recently bereaved. The psychopathic predators on the show barely have personalities; they're just the opaque sum of their pathologies, not evil itself but prototypes of evil. Much is made of entering into the mind of the killer, but what's in a killer's mind is mostly muck and ritual. You don't get inside a killer–you get outside him, to chart his activities. The actual methodology of these serial-killer sagas is to study the murders as if you were poring over a problematic text (the urtext often being a Biblical passage, a nursery rhyme, a recipe), then decode that text and divine the pattern. It's the hermeneutics of homicide. The déjà-vus that Frank suffers do little to solve his cases; their purpose is to let in enough anguish to keep the crackling flames of Hell alive.

The irony is that "Millennium" was intended to be an optimistic program, an antidote to the apocalyptic gloom and jitters collecting around the prospect of the year 2000. The Millennium Group, after all, is a benign conspiracy, a cabal of good guys meant to offset Cancer Man and the other sinister shadow-government trenchcoats on "The X-Files." But "Millennium" itself seems clinically depressed, an is now infecting "The X-Files" with its sense of futility. In the past, hip shows like "Miami Vice" and "Wiseguy" also succumbed to existential malaise, which may be nothing more than a fancy form of fatigue. I don't think Chris Carter despairs of the future; I suspect that he's plumb tuckered out from the effort of keeping two separate hour-long dramas creatively cooking. Like his hero in "Millennium," Carter is a visionary with a heavy workload. It's not a fun position to be in, but it needn't become martyrdom.