The Second Coming

          IN THE FALL of the year, when the leaves turn red or gold or a disappointing brown, fledgling television programs come fluttering out of their producers' nests. From the moment they reach the airwaves, these dewy little creatures are caught up in the life-and-death struggle to find viewers. Of a dozen fledglings, only two or three will survive until next year. That's why many new programs adopt a tactic known to biologists as Batesian mimicry: They take on the coloration of an already-successful program.

          Last year, surprisingly, the program that we as a nation clutched to our bosom was a genuinely valuable specimen of the televisual arts. I refer, of course, to The X-Files. And so, in accordance with the laws of nature, this fall's TV schedule is clotted with X-Files knock-offs. Paranoia has become chic; the paranormal is now the norm; and the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

          The Burning Zone(8 p.m. Tuesdays; UPN) From their earnest, stiff facial expressions, you can tell that this winsome multicultural trio is working to alleviate human suffering. But what do they do, exactly? They travel to places where strange plagues are breaking out, and every so often they dress up as beekeepers. No, wait--those are contamination suits! They're not beekeepers, they're scientists! The Burning Zone derives from The Hot Zone, the paranoid non-fiction tome about how we're all gonna die from exotic diseases, but it adds an X-Files-ish touch: each disease-of-the-week has supernatural symptoms. Is it as ridiculous as it sounds? More so.

          Dark Skies (7 p.m. Saturday; NBC) The premise of this series--that all the important events of recent American history (e.g., the JFK assassination) hinge upon the legendary 1947 flying saucer incident in Roswell, New Mexico--is sufficient cause for helpless giggling. But Dark Skies misses the mark on an even more basic level. What gives The X-Files its special flavor is its lack of closure, the way it suggests explanations without actually committing to them. Dark Skies is the most slavishly imitative of the X-Files copies, yet it literalizes everything that The X-Files leaves to the viewer's imagination. Thus, in the pilot episode, big-slanty-eyed Whitley Strieber aliens stand bandy-legged in broad daylight, nodding their bulbous heads and waving their stringy arms, and... there's no mystery. Paranoia ain't no fun when everything's cut and dried.

          Profiler(9 p.m. Saturdays; NBC)Grim-visaged female FBI agent. Specializes in profiling serial killers. Burns out and quits, but can't keep away from the stuff. Turns consultant. (That's where the real money is, anyway.) Meanwhile, she's being hunted by her own personal psychopath, who taunts her by demonstrating the vulnerability of those near and dear to her. Oh, and she has a psychic gift: When she works on a crime, she can see it unfolding in her mind's eye. That's Profiler--and if you change the lead character's gender, it's also Millennium, the new show by X-Files creator Chris Carter. The producers of Profiler got wind of Carter's idea while it was still on the drawing board and boldly ripped it off. Too bad they couldn't also rip off Carter's talent. Profiler is both lurid and dull, redeemed to some small extent by the fact that its protagonist is a non-babe-like woman who never smiles. This isn't original, either (see Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect), but it does continue a promising trend.

          Millennium (premieres 8 p.m. Friday; Fox) If the pilot is any indication, this is going to be the darkest show in the history of television. One of the great virtues of The X-Files is that it's so goddamn scary--a typical episode puts most horror movies to shame. Well, The X-Files is a strawberry milkshake compared to Millennium. It stars the sepulchral Lance Henriksen, the android from Aliens (and may I please note that when Lance Henriksen has a TV series, the end is definitely at hand), as a serial-killer-hunter, pursuing his calling in a rainy Seattle of peep shows and riverbank wastelands. He goes home to a picture-perfect wife and daughter, but there are signs. And portents. The Book of Revelation is about to become the shooting script. Hard to judge based on a single installment, but Millennium might achieve its aspiration to be television's last word on the 20th century.

          These new shows, like The X-Files before them, play into, and feed, the popular suspicion that as the end of the century approaches, the world is becoming more frightening and less intelligible. I'm starting to think this suspicion has some merit. Suppose Millennium turns out to be a big hit? Then imagine: From sea to shining sea, on Friday nights Americans will recuperate from a stressful work week by watching the TV-series equivalent of The Silence of the Lambs. Week after week, snuggling on the sofa with a bag of microwave popcorn. Is it just me, or is this cozy little scene nearly as alarming as Millennium itself?

 
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