In tonight's episode of the Fox series "Millennium," four demons sit in a doughnut shop discussing ways to capture human souls. Dark yet funny, the hour includes a serial killer, a dancing devil baby, a network censor running amok--thus becoming fodder for "When Humans Attack," a special on the fictitious ANT network--and a more subtle theme regarding loneliness.
In short, Darin Morgan is at it again.
Casual fans of "The X-Files" might recognize Morgan as the character who assumed the likeness of others, nearly stealing a kiss from Agent Dana Scully while masquerading as Agent Fox Mulder. Morgan also donned heavy makeup during the second season as the Flukeman--an irradiated, human-sized worm residing in the sewer.
Many more ardent followers, however, hail Morgan as the writer of four episodes that injected black comedy--as well as cockroaches and circus freaks--into the series, among them an Emmy-winning script showcasing actor Peter Boyle as a man who could foretell how people die.
Older brother Glen Morgan, with producing partner James Wong, has also been responsible for talked-about "X-Files" episodes, including an incestuous family of mutants; tracing the history of the mysterious Cigarette-Smoking Man; and yes, an episode about a satanic cult in a small town.
Having left their respective marks on that show, the Morgan brothers have reunited on "Millennium"--the second-year series, also from "X-Files" creator Chris Carter, starring Lance Henriksen as Frank Black, a former FBI agent capable of putting himself in the minds of killers.
In overseeing "Millennium" this season, Glen Morgan and Wong have sought to lighten the program's dour tone--raising that effort to new heights in two episodes written and directed by Darin Morgan, who earlier brought back Charles Nelson Reilly as Jose Chung, an eccentric novelist introduced on "The X-Files."
Regarding his latest episode--titled "Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me"--Darin recalled, "I went in to Glen and Jim and said, 'I want to do another episode, but I want it to be one of the weirdest things you've ever seen on network TV,' and they said, 'Oh, great!'
"Anywhere else, in any other circumstances, if you said, 'I want to do the weirdest thing ever, [something] that may destroy everything we've invested in the show,' they wouldn't have it. In that respect, it's been great."
Glen Morgan had no qualms about allowing his brother to take such chances, perhaps emboldened in part by "Millennium's" modest ratings.
"I thought that the show was so humorless, within a year and a half [it] was in a position for self-parody and examination a lot faster than 'The X-Files,' " he said.
Despite his quirky style, Darin, 32, doesn't feel his approach has undermined what's central to either program.
"Even 'The X-Files' I did that were funny were in keeping with the theme, with the overall tone of the show," he said. "They were not just laugh riots.
"I felt the same way with the two 'Millennium' episodes. . . . The idea of loneliness is in keeping with the tone of the show. That's why I never feel bad about doing the episodes that I've done on either show, because I can argue that they fit in with the overall tone. Viewers may disagree."
Beyond having fun with "Millennium" itself, Darin Morgan takes direct aim at some other targets, such as the dancing little devil, which spoofs Fox's popular "Ally McBeal."
"The fact that she sees that baby and reacts to it the way she does makes her a more disturbing character than Frank Black," he noted wryly. "It's a terrifying thing, that baby. She dances with it, and you go, 'There's something really wrong with this person.' "
Morgan also maintains that most of the censor's dialogue in the episode (including such lines as "You can use the word 'crap,' but not when referring to crap") is culled from actual conversations with network executives.
"It's just so ridiculous you go, 'I've got to use that,' " he said.
Quiet and soft-spoken, the Morgan brothers don't outwardly appear likely purveyors of murder and mayhem.
The two grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., before the family moved to San Diego when Glen, now 36, was 14 years old. Two years later he met Wong, beginning a 20-year friendship that also included working together on movies and various TV series, such as the Fox drama "21 Jump Street." They left "X-Files" in its second season to create the short-lived "Space: Above and Beyond," but later returned.
Both Morgans attended Loyola Marymount University, with Darin's student film landing him a movie deal while still in college.
According to Glen, however, their family itself served as an early film school, as the two saw movies such as "The Wild Bunch" with their father and watched "All in the Family," "MASH" and Marx Brothers movies on TV when staying at his grandmother's house. In college, they absorbed movies such as "Taxi Driver" and "Dog Day Afternoon," watching each dozens of times.
"It sounds more depressing than it was," Darin said.
Darin had already left "The X-Files" when he won the Emmy in 1996, saying he was "happy to be unemployed" for a time before his recent work on "Millennium." Glen believes his brother's future lies in feature films, although Darin acknowledged that television has afforded him more creative freedom than any movie studio is apt to do.
Morgan and Wong, meanwhile, are currently producing "Skip Chasers," an action-comedy pilot starring Arsenio Hall that CBS is considering for next season. Both Morgans agree the younger brother's tendency to agonize over the creative process would make it hard for him to advance to running a TV series.
"The thing that Darin couldn't take is that with 22 episodes [per season], so many of them are going to suck. He couldn't bear that," Glen said. "He does a couple of episodes a year because he demands that they be good. . . . The ones that slip through your hands, [because] someone's belligerent, or the script didn't work, would kill him."
For now, that leaves Darin Morgan uncertain as to his future--in contrast to Clyde Bruckman, the ill-fated salesman played by Boyle, who also earned an Emmy for that episode. While Darin is hard-pressed to explain the source of his offbeat sensibility, his brother at least can cite the inspiration for that character.
"I had read the script, but seeing it I went, 'Jesus, these are like quotes from Dad,' " Glen said. "I told my father, 'Hey, Dad, all those years Darin was living with you, he was listening.' "
* "Millennium" airs at 9 tonight on Fox (Channel 11).