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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.")

"It may, indeed, be a paranoid Saturday night on NBC -- 'Dark Skies' is definitely a paranoid Saturday-night show," said Bryce Zabel, a former CNN correspondent who created "Dark Skies" and is its executive producer.

"But, let's make no mistake, sci-fi has been around for a good, long time, and alien invasions were kind of a staple of the '50s, so I don't think that's what these shows are about. I think they reflect more a paranoia about what our government is telling us and whether it's telling us the truth."

"Dark Skies" follows a young, idealistic couple (played by Eric Close and Megan Ward) who come to work in Congress and the White House as part of John F. Kennedy's best and brightest "New Frontier" contingent, only to be sucked into a world of dirty secrets, murders, clandestine government operatives, UFOs, body invasion by alien ganglia -- well, you get the idea.

The compelling pilot episode ends with the couple on the run after the assassination of JFK, which the series suggests was either the work of aliens or the secret government agency fighting them from its headquarters in the basement of Washington's Union Station.

The final sequence includes the Buffalo Springfield singing, "There's something happening here/What it is ain't exactly clear," while the camera pans from the frightened couple to an overhead shot of the kind of ominous clouds seen in "Independence Day" and "JFK."

Oliver Stone's influence

As the "JFK" imagery suggests, filmmaker Oliver Stone is an important source for what's happening on television with such series. Stone, of "JFK" and "Nixon" fame -- and all that dark talk of the CIA, Cubans, right-wing Texans, Mafia, the Warren Commission and a grassy knoll in Dallas.

When asked to name his favorite director, Carter says, "I think Oliver Stone is a great movie maker, whether or not you agree with his politics."

Volumes have been written about Stone and what effect some fear his films might have on our sense of national history -- especially in a country where there is no longer a consensus on our postwar past being taught in schools.

This is not the place to replay that debate. But those who worry about what Stone sells as history in movie theaters are likely to be downright alarmed when they see aliens added to his conspiracy recipe and find the resulting stew served by NBC at 8 Saturday nights -- a time of heavy viewing by children and teen-agers.

Stone is far from the ultimate source for this worldview.

"The X-Files" has become such a cultural phenomenon that a scholarly book of essays on the series, "Trust No One: Reading 'The X-Files,' " will be published this fall by Syracuse University Press as part of its Television/Cultural Studies Series.

Search for Mort Sahl

In one of the book's essays, Allison Graham, an associate professor at the University of Memphis, skillfully maps the relationship between conspiracy theory and popular culture back through Nixon and Watergate, lies about Vietnam and the Kennedy assassination, to Mort Sahl.

She shows how Sahl was branded a "conspiracy nut" by mainstream media and marginalized as a comedian for articulating the very same take on postwar history that later found its way onto the big screen in such '70s films by Pakula as "Parallax View" and "All the President's Men." It is essentially the same view millions of television viewers accept each week on "The X-Files."

In fact, "The X-Files" goes a lot farther than Sahl ever did -- positing with great seriousness "the charge that the United States government is involved in a vast conspiracy with former Nazi and Japanese scientists to assist alien beings in performing experiments -- including genetic hybridization -- on American citizens," to quote the book.

(A footnote for fans of Sahl, as well as an indication of how such thinking has moved to the mainstream: The comedian's new one-man show in Los Angeles is winning rave reviews, and, yes, Sahl, 69, is still closing his performance by reading from the Warren Commission Report.)

Graham says Carter's contribution with "The X-Files" is in taking the sensibility of Pakula and Stone's conspiracy films and "splicing" it to the UFO-and-aliens explanations offered by '50s sci-fi films.

Carter agrees that his work could be considered sci-fi in that sense. The way the two strands come together to produce paranoia squared is suggested by "Dark Skies" producer Zabel when he is asked if he thinks the distrust of government started with the Kennedy assassination and the Warren Report.

"I think there's another factor. I think there's a core truth to this Roswell, N.M., event that happened in 1947," he said, referring to an alleged UFO crash said to have resulted in several dead aliens.

"Over the course of time, people have begun to realize that something happened there that they haven't been told the truth about. And, if that happened in 1947 -- almost 50 years ago -- and to this day you haven't heard about it, that means that somebody is keeping an awfully big, damn secret from you for an awful long time.

"And that causes you to think about things in a very different way. It changes your worldview, and makes some of the things that we posit in 'Dark Skies' not so crazy after all."

The Roswell event described by Zabel is also accepted as fact in "Independence Day."

So why do we watch?

So, what meaning can be made of the fact that millions of us are going to theaters and tuning our TV sets to such fare?

It depends on whom you talk with.

Robert J. Thompson, associate professor in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse and author of several books on television, disagrees with Carter.

He says the content of such shows is not necessarily a reflection of the times -- except, perhaps, in an indirect way through the escapism it offers.

"We are not living culturally in the peak of our conspiratorial history," Thompson says. "The golden years of conspiracy, the 1960s, have already come and gone.

"But part of the appeal may be that 'Dark Skies' and 'The X-Files' provide a very satisfying bogyman who is really scary and really dangerous, but not so identifiable that they make us think of the real fears and dangers in our daily lives, like losing our jobs through downsizing, or drugs in our neighborhoods."

David Lavery, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University and author of "Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to 'Twin Peaks,' " points out that such shows are especially popular with young viewers. One possible explanation is that their sense of history is limited and their sensibilities have been largely shaped by television, which teaches them that cynicism is cool.

In that sense, there is a dialogue between the shows' cynical view of history and the mind-set of the viewers, says Lavery, who co-edited "Trust No One."

"It is television as a major circulatory system for cynicism, offering a unified vision for alienated masses, co-opting our cynicism to sell us the product."

"It's not cynicism," says Zabel. "I believe and others do, too."

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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