Prime-Time Paranoia Television: Fall shows troll for fans of the dark side with tales of aliens, lying governments and cynicism.

August 04, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA, Calif. -- There's a darkness spreading across the land of popular culture, and it is coming to a television set near you.

If you are one of the millions of fans of Fox Television's "The X-Files," you have already encountered this sensibility, with its weird camera angles, long shadows, and scenes set in deep forests, basements and underground garages. It's a universe of conspiracies, whispers, tape recordings and a government that lies to its own employees and "terminates" those citizens who discover its dirty secrets.

Come next month, with the arrival of the new fall season, that tone and worldview will be on display across the prime-time television landscape.

It will be most apparent in such shows as NBC's "Dark Skies," a Saturday-night drama that re-imagines post-World War II American history as the result of a clandestine war between alien invaders and a secret government agency, and "Millennium," another Fox show from the creator of "The X-Files." "Millennium" is about a former FBI agent who joins forces with a secret law-enforcement group "fighting against the growing forces of darkness as the millennium approaches," to quote Fox Entertainment president John Matoian.

Much has been written in recent months about science-fiction, alien invaders, American enemies, heroes and popular culture. With the enormous success of the feature film "Independence Day," it is not surprising that initial attempts to account for the new television shows have simply tried to plug them into the "Independence Day" discourse. That is, by writing about them as part of a trend in sci-fi/fantasy or as indications of how our ideas about alien invaders have changed since the Cold War.

Some of that discussion is useful, but most of it misses the larger cultural questions that beg to be asked about "The X-Files" and its imitators. What matters are not so much the specifics of genre, but rather the dark sensibility and worldview that these television shows share.

"Sometimes what I do and what people think it is that I do are different," says Chris Carter, the creator of "The X-Files" and "Millennium." "People think it is science fiction. I always tried to think of 'The X-Files' as other than science fiction.

"Personally, I think the world is a very scary place. I think it is becoming more and more frightening. I think that in most neighborhoods you can't go out for a walk alone -- certainly, a woman can't walk alone at night. So, for me, the darkness in the shows is a response to the world I live in -- it's a response to the times and that is what's important."

We've heard the notes played before in the movies of Oliver Stone and Alan Pakula, in the words of Buffalo Springfield's 1966 hit "For What's It's Worth" and Mort Sahl's monologues in the 1960s. But they have never been sung by a full chorus of network television series.

Not safe anymore

Prime-time television is supposed to be the soft, safe center of vast, mainstream, middle-class consensus -- as in 1968 at the Vietnam War's height, when "Gomer Pyle, USMC" was American television's most popular series.

Conventional wisdom says that while you can have a cult show here and there that is cynical, deep and dark -- such as "Twin Peaks" -- you could never find the 30 million or so viewers it takes to support a hit series sharing such a view.

The success of "The X-Files" already challenges that belief and, taken with its progeny, raises the very big question of whether what was once marginalized as paranoid or even "conspiracy nut" thinking has become mainstream in 1996.

Carter, who is easily the hottest producer in network television today, says he doesn't mind his work being termed paranoid.

"I can only speak to my own paranoia, which is great," he says. "So, maybe it is a case of my paranoia inspiring more paranoia. If that's the case, I'm a happy man. But I think it's more complicated than that."

In an industrial sense -- Hollywood making television shows the way Nike makes sneakers -- much of what will be happening on television this fall is simply a matter of other networks and producers trying to imitate Carter's success. At one level, Hollywood trends can always be explained as a matter of trying to imitate box office or Nielsen success. But it is almost always more complicated than that.

Carter was asked the question about paranoia because NBC's prime-time schedule this fall will include a Saturday-night lineup consisting of three dramas so dark that television critics on the summer press tour termed it "NBC's Paranoid Saturday Night."

Besides "Dark Skies," the other series are "Pretender," about a man who assumes multiple identities as he's pursued by deadly government agents, and "Profiler," the story of a former FBI agent who can see into the mind of serial killers. (Yes, that is also the premise of Carter's "Millennium.")

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