… Thirteen Years Later is infamously silly. That may not be such a bad thing.
There are a lot of details that would seem to weigh against … Thirteen Years Later. It is the show’s first attempt at comedy since Darin Morgan left the staff at the end of the second season; any episode will suffer in comparison to Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” or Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me. It is an episode built around a guest appearance from the rock band KISS to promote the release of their latest album, Psycho Circus. It is also an attempt to do wry self-aware meta-commentary and Hollywood satire, which could easily become indulgent.
To be quite frank, … Thirteen Years Later doesn’t really work. It is messy and convoluted. A lot of the gags are obvious, and a lot of its satire of Hollywood feels somewhat stock. The framing device builds to a pretty lame (and entirely predictable) punchline. Some of the best gags in … Thirteen Years Later are shamelessly poached from better second season episodes – the idea of Frank Black in Hawaiian shirt comes from Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” while the idea of Frank Black critiquing serial killer movies was hilarious in Midnight of the Century.
However, in spite of all that, … Thirteen Years Later has an energy and momentum that is sorely missing from much of the season around it. The third season has seen a return to the mood and aesthetic of the first season, which occasionally wallowed in gloom and self-importance. … Thirteen Years Later completely skewers that sense of self-importance. Its best jokes seem to be affectionate jabs at Millennium itself, demonstrating that the show still has a great sense of humour; even if it has gotten quite effective at hiding it.
Scream has a lot to answer for when it comes to the horror genre in the late nineties. The movie was released in late December 1996, tucked away well outside the October release window normally reserved for horror films. It become a shock hit – a genre-defining (genre-reviving) powerhouse that spawned a franchise including three sequels and a television show. It changed the way that mainstream audiences looked at horror films, and demonstrated that there was a market out there for self-aware and self-critical horror cinema.
Of course, there had been self-aware films before Scream. Joe Dante’s Gremlins II remains horribly underrated and underseen; The Evil Dead II draws attention to its own cartoon nature. Before working on Scream, Wes Craven directed the fourth-wall-breaking New Nightmare, an oft-overlooked meta-horror that might be the best horror movie starring Freddie Kreuger. Nevertheless, Scream helped to popularise an entire subgenre of self-aware horror cinema – slasher movies that earned brownie points by commenting on stock clichés as they employed them.
In many respects, Scream could be seen as the quintessential nineties horror movie – a film that perfectly harnessed irony and postmodernism so to resonate with a younger generation. As Peter Hanson noted in The Cinema of Generation X, Scream made horror cinema more reflexive and introverted, redefining the genre to the point where even the more conventional movies following in its wake were still defined by it:
An interesting offshoot of Scream’s success was that it sparked a new cycle of slasher movies, including the Williamson-scripted I Know What You Did Last Summer. These movies offered exactly the kind of formulaic, insipid escapism that Scream satirised. So if the smothering irony of Scream was a kind of postmodernism, then the irony-free horror movies it inspired were a kind of post-postmodernism. The mere citation of such an unweildy term reveals why the cycle of pop-culture referencing and re-referencing grew so dizzying during the 1990s.
Scream paved the way for a whole of host of ironic and self-aware horror films. The quality varied from project to project, but Scream inspired an entire generation of film makers. Films like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Cherry Falls, My Name is Bruce and Cabin in the Woods would not exist without the success of the Scream franchise.
Scream tapped into the nineties zeitgeist perfectly, its embrace of irony resonating with the children of the late eighties and early nineties. For those individuals, Christy Wampole argued, “irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt.” Bidding farewell to the decade, Michael Bracewell opted to reference Austin Powers. “Who better to define British culture in the Nineties than such a quasi-ironic, post-modern assemblage of pop-cultural reference points?” he pondered. Nothing was truly serious; everything could be reduced to a wry and self-aware gag.
Irony became the default mode of discourse. In a way, The X-Files was way ahead of the curve on this point. “Trust no one,” the opening credits suggested, perfectly capturing the tone of a cynical time. The X-Files resonated with audiences because it spoke to that long cultural moment spanning from the collapse of the Berlin Wall through to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Not coincidentally, pundits rushed to declare the attacks upon the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon as “the end of the age of irony.” It was a sure sign that the nineties were over.
The X-Files loved irony. Chris Carter was quite a proponent of it on the show. The series could be earnest and thoughtful, but it could also be playful and irrelevant. Shows like The Post-Modern Prometheus or Triangle or Improbable gleefully refused to take themselves seriously. Instead, they winked and smiled at the audience. His work on The X-Files suggests that Chris Carter was aware that irony resonated with his audience; that the nineties television viewer was familiar with irony as a mode of self-expression and communication.
However, Chris Carter seems to have pitched and developed Millennium as a show that is utterly and completely unironic. In the show’s first season, everything was taken very seriously. Millennium was clearly intended as an allegory about the nature of evil in the world, a sermon delivered with po-faced seriousness. This was an approach that worked well when the material was strong enough – episodes like Sacrament and Covenant work superbly. However, it also pushed a little bit too far in episodes like Weeds or Loin Like a Hunting Flame.
In its first season, Millennium seemed to take itself very seriously. Frank Black was much more of a conventional heroic figure than Mulder or Scully, with Carter comparing him to a protagonist from a classic western. As played by Lance Henriksen, Frank Black spent most of the season possessed of an incredibly moral certainty; he seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, but never broke a sweat. The second season broke away from that seriousness, offering a more playful and self-aware show that wasn’t afraid to embrace pulpier elements.
The third season seems to be consciously pushing the show back towards that seriousness and solemnity. Exegesis closed with Frank holding a toy butterfly as he wondered whether the millennium meant the end of the world or something more hopeful. TEOTWAWKI featured a school shooting and was bookended by solemn monologues about how terrible people will be when the end actually arrives. Closure opened the show’s first Hollis-centric episode with a bitter narration playing over a visit to the graveyard.
So … Thirteen Years Later helps to puncture that sense of solemn self-importance. It deflates a lot of the overwhelm gloom that pervades Millennium. The script is messy, the episode is disjointed. However, it is also fun and enjoyable in a way that the show hasn’t really been since The Time is Now. The idea of crashing the postmodern irony of Scream into the earnestness of Millennium was a bold idea that might easily have gone horribly wrong. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it does work in a way that is compelling and endearing in its own way.
After all, the climax of … Thirteen Years Later is brilliant in its sheer ridiculousness. Mark Bianco is revealed to be the killer, initially suggesting that he was meta-method acting; Bianco-channelling-Frank-channelling-a-psychopath. It is an absurd – yet self-aware – conclusion. However, Michael Perry pushes it a tiny bit further. “People die so you can play a part?” Frank asks. “Not all of them,” Mark confesses. “Just… well, just the first couple of victims. But, you know, by killing them I learned something really important.” He explains, “I really like killing people.”
It is a completely nonsensical twist from a storytelling point of view. The reason is that there is no reason! Mark Bianco is just conveniently a psychopath who never realised that he was a psychopath. At the same time, it is the ultimate ironic conclusion to the episode. … Thirteen Years Later leans into a stock pop psychological explanation for the rampaging slasher villain, only to suddenly pull back reveal that he is simply a rampaging slasher victim who doesn’t really need an excuse beyond the fact that the story needs him to enjoy doing it.
It also arguably plays as a wry criticism of Closure. Emma Hollis spent the bulk of Closure trying to figure out why people kill, wrestling with the idea that there might be situations where the answer is beyond human comprehension. Closure tended to get quite heavy-handed and philosophical on the matter, with Frank repeatedly assuring Hollis that some people are just inherently psychopathic. However, … Thirteen Years Later is able to cheekily shoehorn that observation into the final act without any of the same seriousness or solemnity.
The beauty of … Thirteen Years Later is in the way that writer Michael Perry plays the massive clash between the irony of post-Scream horror against the earnestness of Millennium. He doesn’t write Frank Black out of character; he doesn’t lighten Frank up. … Thirteen Years Later plays Frank as a character completely assured in his own gloominess. Frank is presented as the character that we have known and loved since The Pilot. However, he is placed in a rather unusual situation, which helps to cast him in a fascinating light.
Frank is completely and utterly serious for the entirety of … Thirteen Years Later. The best comedy in the episode comes from juxtaposing Frank’s deadpan seriousness with the energy and enthusiasm of the Hollywood talent around him. … Thirteen Years Later presents a version of Frank who responds to a script for a sleazy horror movie by complaining, “The killer in this story follows no known behavioral profile.” That is just nitpicking. He is the person who looks at an obvious Halloween or Psycho knock-off and points out that it isn’t really a “true story.”
“It is true,” Rowdy insists. “It’s just improved a little. That’s all. I mean, the reality of murder – it’s dark and depressing.” Frank responds, bluntly, “Yes, it is.” In many ways, … Thirteen Years Later plays as a much broader and less nuanced companion piece to Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense.” Both episodes are essentially meditations on the darkness at the heart of Millennium. Both … Thirteen Years Later and Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” confront the reality that Millennium is a very heavy show.
Despite his tendency towards cynicism, Darin Morgan mounts an almost romantic defense of that darkness. Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” ridicules those people who would try to impose their own happiness on others; the script makes a point that Frank is confronted with real horror on a daily basis, while even Jose Chung harnesses his own darkness as a tool of self-expression and self-empowerment. For all that Darin Morgan injected comedy into Millennium, he was also very respectful towards the core ideas of the show.
In contrast, Michael Perry seems a bit less sympathetic towards Frank Black. The Hollywood characters in … Thirteen Years Later are all two-dimensional archetypes, but Perry seems to suggest that some of the changes they are making to the story might be justified. “I wouldn’t presume to know your business,” Frank self-righteously states before telling Rowdy his business. “There’s an abundance of heroism and drama in the real facts of any murder investigation.” Frank is entirely correct here, but that does not mean that Rowdy is completely wrong.
“Sure there is, Frankie,” Rowdy concedes. “But that’s complicated. The people, they’re ugly. And it’s probably dark and rainy all the time. Where’s the magic? The magic?” Rowdy’s position is absurd, but it does resonate slightly. For all its seriousness, Millennium is not real life. There are demons. Not metaphorical demons; actual demons. What is the harm in lightening up a bit, if the situation calls for it? … Thirteen Years Later seems to suggest that Frank and Rowdy occupy very extreme positions. The right balance might be found in the middle-ground between them.
At one point, Hollis calls Frank out on his snobbishness and elitism. “Mr Black, remember the suspect in Seattle, the one who quoted Nostradamus?” Hollis asks Frank, referencing The Pilot – perhaps the most iconic (and certainly most familiar) episode of Millennium ever broadcast. “The Frenchman,” Frank reminds her. “What if instead he was quoting B–movies?” Hollis wonders. “Wouldn’t you want to study them?” This seems to be suggesting that Frank is offended by the low-brow references that this killer is making, compared to his more literate foes.
The episode stresses that Millennium is just as just as heightened and surreal as any horror film. … Thirteen Years Later draws attention to the show’s tendency to take itself entirely too seriously. Increasingly frustrated, Frank repeatedly complains that “whoever is doing this is trying to drive [him] insane… for the third time in [his] life.” It is a line of dialogue that underscores just how unreal and absurd Frank Black is as a protagonist in such a serious show. Frank Black is a certified FBI agent who has already had two pretty severe mental breakdowns.
… Thirteen Years Later is a story that repeatedly draws attention to its own artifice. Throughout the show, Frank is assaulted by premonitions of an upcoming KISS concert, suggesting the true horror that lies at the heart of … Thirteen Years Later. When Frank draws his own side arm, Hollis pauses to point out the continuity issue that this generates with TEOTWAWKI. “Mr Black?” she asks. “I thought you didn’t carry a gun anymore?” Frank himself seems perplexed by this contrast, with the episode fading quickly to black before either character can deal with it.
… Thirteen Years Later plays with the trappings of Millennium. The episode even riffs on those wonderfully pretentious opening title cards, effectively using the introductory quote as a disclaimer. “Never believe anything you see on Halloween,” Reverend M. Goodman is quoted as saying… on Halloween in 1985. It sets a nice mood for an episode broadcast on the 30th October 1998, effectively serving as a playful riff on Alan Moore’s wonderful “this is an imaginary story… aren’t they all?” introduction to Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
It is a very clever framing device. It allows more serious-minded fans of Millennium to disregard … Thirteen Years Later as something akin to “an imaginary story.” However, in doing so, it draws attention to the fact that every episode of Millennium is ultimately “an imaginary story.” After all, how is … Thirteen Years Later any less real than Closure or Skull and Bones? Given the difficulties in getting the three seasons of Millennium to sit comfortably alongside one another, how does a viewer even define relative “reality” within the world of Millennium?
Continuity is a fascinating construct, because it often represents an attempt to impose levels of reality upon fiction. It serves as a way to include and exclude particular elements or interpretations of the source material. The X-Files has had great fun with the idea of what constitutes “reality” within the confines of a weekly television show. Unusual Suspects, The Post-Modern Prometheus and X-Cops all play cleverly with the viewer’s perception and understanding of television as a medium. … Thirteen Years Later does something similar.
In a nice touch, … Thirteen Years Later features a shot of Emma Hollis reading Jorge Luis Borges’ short-story collection Labyrinths in a bathtub. That short story collection is packed with stories that question and interrogate the notion of reality. As Patricia Waugh notes in The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, selecting one story as an example:
Borges’ imaginary kingdom Tlön, discovered by the ‘fortunate conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopaedia’, is a post-modernist world. It is twice a fiction because it is suggested that, before its invention by Borges, it has already been invented by a secret society of idealists including Bishop Berkeley, and both, of course, are finally dependent upon the conventions of the short story. The fact that this ‘imaginary’ world can take over the ‘real’ one emphasises more than that epistemological uncertainty of both of them (which would be the aim of the ‘self-begetting novel’). Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the story, is about a story that invents an imaginary word, and it primarily and self-consciously is a story which, like all stories, invents an imaginary world.
… Thirteen Years Later bends reality in a number of sly and cheeky ways. The killer in this story is inspired by killers from other stories, with other works of fiction manifesting their influence on this particular work of fiction. This is an episode where characters critique the liberties taken adapting a “true story” in a fictional universe. It is an episode of a television show distorted through the narrative of a mad character within that narrative.
Again, it is not too hard to see the influence of Darin Morgan on the work of Michael Perry. After all, Darin Morgan had inspired Vince Gilligan to write comedy on The X-Files, so it makes sense that he would leave a similar legacy on Millennium. Morgan was a writer with a fondness for self-referential metafiction. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” rather explicitly referenced Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, much like … Thirteen Years Later nods towards Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths.
It could be argued that … Thirteen Years Later suffers from the fact that Michael Perry is not Darin Morgan in the same way that Small Potatoes suffers from the fact that Vince Gilligan is not Darin Morgan. The comedy here is simply not as consistently funny as the comedy written by Darin Morgan, despite hints of the same self-awareness and self-commentary. To be fair, Gilligan didn’t really master the mood and tone of X-Files comedy until he wrote Bad Blood in the fifth season; Michael Perry does not quite get the same chance to develop and grow.
Still, the episode takes a perverse amount of joy in affectionately teasing Frank Black. Guest star Jeff Yagher does a fairly great impression of Lance Henriksen, and it is hard not to smile at the idea of Frank Black confronting his own self-seriousness. Interestingly, Yagher is married to Megan Gallagher. In an interview with Back to Frank Black, Gallagehr recalls how awkward that scene was for Yagher and Henriksen:
“My husband had to go on the show the year after I was gone, so I was no longer a regular,” she explains. “I had died, and he played a character who had to imitate Lance. He was so obsessed with Frank Black and he had to do that voice. He said it was so embarrassing to do that in front of him, because he loves Lance and thinks he’s awesome, and he didn’t want Lance to think he was making fun of him in any way.”
The casting of Yagher works relatively well as a self-aware in-joke. Megan Gallagher played the wife of Frank Black. Megan Gallagher is the wife of the actor playing the actor playing Frank Black. … Thirteen Years Later plays very well as a single long joke about the awkward relationship between the earnestness of Millennium and the self-aware irony of contemporary horror.
… Thirteen Years Later works decidedly less well outside that context. The episode’s Hollywood satire seems particularly broad and generic. Everything boils down to a strange cocktail of money and sex and degradation. … Thirteen Years Later runs through the playbook of stock Hollywood jokes. Sir Douglas Lantham went from being “the English stage” to playing a psychopathic killer targeting teenage girls. One victim is transformed from “a forty year old quadriplegic” who was “strangled in her driveway” to a nubile young woman murdered in a girl’s shower.
Young actresses sleep with directors to get ahead. Producers are implied to have fairly significant cocaine addictions. Personal trainers hold far too much power. Actors are delighted when a tragedy gets them bumped up the casting list. Studio publicists are eager to turn disaster into opportunity. Everything is incredibly superficial; including the commentary and character work. There is very little new or exciting (or even nuanced) in what … Thirteen Years Later has to say about the way that Hollywood works. These are all gags that have been done before… and better.
… Thirteen Years Later also has an unfortunate tendency to recycle gags that worked quite well in earlier episodes. When we are introduced to Mark Bianco playing Frank Black, he is wearing a very conspicuous Hawaiian shirt. That incongruous wardrobe choice worked better as a sight gag in Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense.” Similarly, the sequence of Frank and Emma discussing horror movie psychopaths is just an extended version of a great gag with Roedecker in Midnight of the Century.
There are even some plot beats borrowed from The Pest House, with a string of killings inspired by popular culture; one of which includes part of a hand being served as food. It is entirely possible that these references and allusions are just another example of the irony at work in … Thirteen Years Later. It is an episode that takes great pleasure in the way that it is stitched together from a variety of sources. However, it does get a little bit distracting. A joke or a trick is never as satisfying the second time around.
At the same time, it is hard not feel sympathetic towards writer Michael Perry. … Thirteen Years Later seems like a nightmare assignment. The production of the episode was massively derailed by network instructions. As Perry recalled to Back to Frank Black:
“Fox Television said, ‘Put KISS in an episode of Millennium’,” Perry explains. “Then they said, ‘Make it the Halloween episode.’ And they had to perform a song. Each of them needed a speaking role, out of make-up, and the kicker [was that] only two were real actors. This was non-negotiable. I know, because Ken Horton valiantly tried to get them to relent during several loud phone calls. How we got KISS into Millennium was entirely our own business. At the time was working on a more typical episode: basically, Frank visits a town where an old case is being made into a movie and sees telltale signs of the crime recurring. Chip and Ken came in to tell me how the episode I was partway through outlining had to change; mine was the only script that could be ready in time for a Halloween airdate. Very quickly, it had to be gutted and rebuilt to accommodate the Kabuki-faced kings of stadium rock.”
Millennium was not really at a point where it could refuse or the defy the network on something like that. The ratings were fairly low, and it seemed to be a miracle that Fox had renewed the show for a third season. As a result, there was really no leverage to decline that particular instruction.
KISS were promoting the release of their 1998 album Psycho Circus, the first album to feature all four of the original line-up since 1979’s Dynasty. The album had been prompted by the band’s insanely successful 1996-97 reunion tour that grossed over $140m. In reality, the four original members collaborated only fleetingly; in interviews following his departure, Peter Criss suggested that the only track on the album where all four artists appeared together was Into the Void.
Nevertheless, Psycho Circus turned out to be quite the success for KISS. The album peaked at third position on the Billboard charts, not a bad showing for an old band. The lead single – Psycho Circus – became the band’s first number on hit on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Chart. Proving themselves quite the entrepreneurs, KISS even managed to leverage a video game from the album, releasing Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child to eager audiences two years after the album hit the market.
Appropriately enough, the band performs Psycho Circus quite late into the episode. Director Thomas Wright films the sequence in a way that evokes a music video. According to the documentary End Game, the band even considered trying to use the footage as the official video for the song:
I shot a whole music video with Kiss during that episode. We were going to cut it as a music video. In fact, Kiss wanted it done as a music video for them. The material that we shot – it was terrific.
Unfortunately, that didn’t quite happen – it would have provided a rare intersection between Millennium and wider pop culture. There would be something quite surreal about seeing Lance Henriksen as Frank Black stalking around MTV or VH1.
The decision to have KISS appear on Millennium seems really strange. It seems almost as absurd as having Coolio guest star on Space: Above and Beyond. Fox were trying to find a way to sell Millennium to the same young audience that had devoured The X-Files. As such, it seemed like a very strange place to shoehorn in a guest appearance from four musicians who had last released an album together almost two decades earlier. It was an awkward fit that feels almost like a parody of television network decision-making.
Michael Perry shrewdly realises this. KISS are not going to fit gracefully into an episode of Millennium. As a result, he allows their mere presence to distort and contort the show around them. Over the course of … Thirteen Years Later, Frank is not haunted by visions of brutal violence; instead, he is confronted with glimpses of KISS. The episode frames it in such a way that it feels like the appearance of KISS towards the end of the episode is the real crime featured in … Thirteen Years Later. Everything else is just window-dressing.
In a way, the KISS cameo liberates … Thirteen Years Later. Once Michael Perry was instructed to include the musicians, there was no way to force … Thirteen Years Later into a shape that would resemble a regular episode of Millennium. It fundamentally breaks the show, and Michael Perry deserves a great deal of credit for recognising that the show is broken and for not trying to pretend that this could be “business as usual.” It could be argued that the whole of the third season might have been stronger had it adopted such an approach.
… Thirteen Years Later is a messy and disjointed episode that doesn’t really work on all the levels that it would need to. However, it is a very fun and entertaining (and clever) episode – in a way that few of the surrounding episodes can claim. It is a nice reminder that Millennium need not be solemn soul-destroying glumness. At least not all of the time.
Filed under: Millennium | Tagged: comedy, Darin Morgan, horror, irony, metafiction, michael perry, michael r. perry, mike perry, millennium, nineties, postmodernism, self-awareness, thirteen years later |