Friday, January 21, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: January 18


Taped on this day in 1971: Episode 1197

Guess what happens when the characters do all of the right things and suddenly have the prospect of happiness welcoming them with open arms? Miranda Duval: Lara Parker. (Repeat; Our Entire Lives)

Angelique interrupts the execution of Quentin and Desmond with the severed head of Judah Zachery. When its flesh dissolves with the death of Ivan Miller, even jaywalking tickets are forgiven by the judge. Unable to live with this outbreak of rampant justice and happiness, Lamar Trask shoots Angelique just before she can hear that Barnabas loves her. The End.

“Attention must be paid.”

So said the Widow Loman at the grave for someone prized only for his insignificance.

I have come back to these episodes more times than any other. This year, it feels irresponsible to devote more words to them. And yet, it feels irresponsible not to. A show the size of Dark Shadows is more than a television program; it is a companion. If you spent three hours on a hobby with a friend, twice a month, for six years, you’d develop an understandable bond. That stretch of time is how long it would take you to watch this story. It’s a feast of a tale. Many times, in ways good and bad, it feels endless. The story accrues around the edges, in no more rush than the real lives it punctuates. 1967 is always fresh. 1968 is always a rich and intriguing core sample. 1969 is always better than we deserve. 1970 always pales by comparison, trawling for us to apologize for it. 1971 is always too short… a reminder of what it’s like to still love something when everyone else stops. 

I remain unshaken in my assertion that Dark Shadows is the most realistic show on TV. It just kind of putters around, threatening to do something significant and then just kind of… usually not. Most of the news is bad. We get used to it.

And then someone is shot and killed.

I’m not being glib when I say that. No, not every tragedy is a sudden and fatal  gunshot wound. But I guarantee you that there is someone out there reading this who has lost someone precious, precisely that way. And that’s how this episode ends. 

The most famous quote about television is that “the medium is the message.“ In other words, the means by which we consume art is as significant a statement as the art being exhibited. Dark Shadows is many things that it had no intention of being. (Newsflash: this goes for all art.) 

Like all art, however, it is a teacher above all else. Primarily, it teaches us to look at ourselves from a completely different point of view. But if you watch the entire show, the very storytelling, itself, is the most significant message. Maybe more than one.

The most immediate one is, in the words of Folcroft Sanitarium director, Dr. Harold W. Smith, “Thou shall not get away with it.”

The assassination of Angelique is a convenience. The actors want to move to a fresh storyline. The writers are probably hoping that new characters will give them new ideas. And the ritual of storytelling inevitably veers toward drab moralizing. In this modern world dominated by an antediluvian ethos, we certainly hear a lot about forgiveness. And at the same time, we also live in a culture that absolutely revels in just desserts. 

We love forgiveness because it makes Oprah happy. It’s what we are supposed to do because somehow it will liberate us. It will certainly liberate the people in our lives who are sick of hearing us complain about something. It’s vaguely godlike, so I guess it’s got that going for it. 

But is it just me, or does a lot of the forgiveness we hear about seem to have its fingers crossed behind its back?

Why? We just can’t stand the idea of someone getting away with it. Any of it. And because we can’t make up our minds which of these things — beatific forgiveness or righteous punishment — we will fetishize more, we look to fiction to give us both at the same time. And who has to pay the tab? 


So, of course Trask has to plug her. The fatheaded, arbitrary rules of the ritual that is fiction decree it to be so. There are plenty of Dark Shadows fans who love to sweep in at this point with a list of all of the horrible things Angelique has done, and I guess this… helps? But I hope you have a list of all of the rotten things Barnabas has done, because he’s just as deserving of the naughty step. And he pays, also. He pays an ongoing price too terrible for the show to make us watch.

And culture smiles on us for having it both ways. We applaud their 11th hour moral reversals safe in the “irony“ that they are being punished anyway.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it. The one thing these characters learn is that the past belongs in the past. All we have is the present. All we have are the decisions we are making right now. I spend 90% of my day apologizing for what I say the other 10%, and when someone is really going to town on me, I gently remind them that it won’t build a time staircase to allow me to make different decisions.

The saddest part about episode 1197 is that the present is the one thing these characters are denied. That’s nothing to feel good about. That’s nothing to applaud. And perhaps, it’s nothing to applaud in our art. Perhaps that’s the message we should actually be taking away.

When significance erupts in the mundanity of our everyday lives, it is shockingly sudden. There’s no taking it back. And then, the show ends. There’s no montage. There’s not even a funeral at which Barnabas can insist that attention must be paid.

If you’re going to forgive, mean it. Move on. Do it in the name of the future that Angelique and Barnabas never got. 

This episode hit the airwaves on January 26, 1971.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: January 16


Taped on this date in 1971: Episode 1196


“Head Alert!” Judah Zachery brings Valentine’s Day a month ahead of schedule when he robs Angelique of her powers just moments before Quentin’s planned execution. Angelique: Lara Parker. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Angelique’s plan to fight fire with voodoo fails when Judah Zachery removes the powers he gave her, 100 years prior. After persuading Charles Dawson to free her by gently beating him to death with a candlestick, she races to the site where Quentin and Desmond are about to go head-to-head in a laundry basket that will probably never be used as such again. 

Today, I may be on Judah Zachery‘s side. And I didn’t realize that until I sat down to write this. I will have to go back and look at what he did that was so terrible, but the 20th and 21st Centuries have made up their minds on the witchcraft issue. Those who don’t believe in it aren’t exactly going to be holding trials. Those who do believe are more than likely participating in it. 

Structurally, this episode falls in an awkward place. The most exciting part of this sequence of action was yesterday when Barnabas explained to Angelique that she’s just not a member of Club Corporeal, and so they can never really have a substantial love life.  As many times as I have watched that moment in 1195 where Barnabas denies her desires because of her occult nature, I have had a hard time understanding it. I have always operated under the assumption that the endowment of her powers has, by its very nature, robbed her of something crucial. I think it’s something that Barnabas senses more than he can fully intellectualize; his objection is not so much about her being “a witch,“ with the moral baggage that comes with it. Instead, it is about the detachment that comes with that much power. 

A relationship is an endeavor primarily driven by emotion. Emotion isn’t always pretty. The more power someone has to act on them, the more damage they can do. Angelique swings back-and-forth between benevolence and rampant awfulosity. The latter nogoodnikism that trails around her in the DS “timeline” is a bloody testament to my point. It’s all good and well to breathe and count to 10, but what does it mean for someone who can reverse time?

Barnabas reacts from the mindset of an abuse survivor, and as sad as that is, it’s about time he moved proactively on that. Because he does measure his response to her love by her capacity to do damage. And, okay. I fess up. (pause) Yes, it’s very convenient for this universe to then remove her powers shortly after this conversation with Barnabas. But let’s look the army medic in the eye; writing fiction means dusting for the fingerprints of coincidence. Dark Shadows simply doesn’t have the time left to disguise that obvious fact with a finesse we’ve all outgrown.  

Writers of fiction are very quick to have characters reject godhood. A little conveniently so. Frankly, I find the person who rejects power without at least browsing the catalog to be a little suspect. Yes, Uncle Stan told us that, “with great power comes great responsibility,“ and far be it for me to question him. But at the same time, there are a lot of corollaries. 

For one thing, maybe it’s not as much responsibility as it seems. Or maybe the exercise of that responsibility isn’t really that difficult. Ultimately, I think most writers are taking the lazy, easy way out when they have characters make these antitheistic pronouncements. This is pertinent to Angelique because she doesn’t voluntarily give up her powers. Judah Zachery giveth. Judah Zachery taketh away. 

And Angelique is no idiot. She’s going to hold onto these abilities because, as a mortal from the 1690s, she knows exactly how miserable life can be. So, where does that leave Barnabas?

By curing him of his vampirism, she has made a more profound sacrifice than we might initially think. Okay, Barnabas might believe it’s a stretch for a mortal to love a witch, but it’s an even greater leap to expect any immortal, nearly-omnipotent being to love a creature who is going to age and wither astonishingly quickly, all things considered. Although the vampire’s curse was meant as a punishment, perhaps subconsciously, she also realized that it was the only way they could be together. How else was he supposed to accompany her through time, given that the power to make or break a witch seems to be unique to Magus Zachery? By the 1790s, she has been like this for 100 years. And even in that time, who knows how often she has ping-ponged throughout the centuries? For her to stifle her abilities and risk everything to travel to the American wilderness for this man is perhaps more admirable than anything done by her rival. Josette agrees to an arranged marriage to a guy she loves, picks up a free mansion Maine, and calls it a day. That’s about as brave as picking out a value meal at Subway. 

Judah Zachery is doing her a favor. Think of the size of Angelique‘s sacrifice when she turns Barnabas back into a human. She is condemning him to die the death of an ordinary man, and she is serving herself the punishment of having to watch it, anticipating nothing but a nearly-eternal life without him once he passes away.  

It’s a perspective the changes things just a tad. And before you stop me from crying too athletically into my Gibson, that degree of love could explain the degree of wrath that she’s shown so many times. One hundred years of immortality might be enough to detach anyone from the experience of being human, and perhaps that’s why Barabas rejects her. Judah Zachery is not exactly Santa Claus, but by turning her back into a mortal, he has (even if accidentally) given Angelique the gift of human relatability. The gift of her powers helped her find Barnabas. Rescinding them is the one thing that could help her keep him. 

This episode was broadcast Jan. 25, 1971.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: January 3

Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 665 


Everything’s at stake when Barnabas ends his trip to 1795 by saying goodbye to Vicki… and hello to sending Angelique back to Hell in a fiery flambe of just desserts. Barnabas Collins: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Angelique gloats that Vicki will be revived from torpor only to awaken in a coffin, unable to escape. Barnabas, hearing of this, wryly retorts by having a torch-wielding Ben burn her alive. Barnabas then sees Vicki off to her future with Peter Bradford, at peace, happy that she is simply alive. Unable to will himself back to 1968, Barnabas reasons that he must return to the 20th century the way he reached it the first time, in his coffin. As he starts his descent into suspended animation and ensures his coffinback and tray table are in their full, upright position while his carryon luggage is stowed under the sepulcher in front of him, Nathan Forbes seemingly stakes him.

The challenge with Dark Shadows — on both sides of the screen — was and is monotony. Soap operas fill the most hours possible with the least amount of story that they can. People may only tune in once a week. Certainly, the key demographic, housewives, were taxed with myriad distractions throughout the day. In many ways, it is “anti-storytelling.“ The virtue here is not economy nor even detail, but the believability that comes with intense, regular familiarity. That’s what makes them feel so strangely realistic. But sometimes even soap operas have to abandon that tidal rhythm and begrudgingly let one world end and another world begin. 

Welcome to Terra Nova. Dark Shadows has six milestone moments that define its arc, and this is the third, marking the middle of the series in both its episode run and emotional journey. Of course, they return to 1795 for it. This is, figuratively, where it all began. There is more going on in this 24 minutes of television than in 24 entire episodes of the average show. And that’s because, perhaps, there isn’t. That’s what you get when you finally enjoy the payoff for nearly 450 episodes, giving Barnabas about as much cathartic satisfaction and growth as he’s going to be allowed. 

It’s an invitation to appreciate the five-act structure of the series. If everything before Barnabas is Act One, then this ends Act Two. 665 bookends a story that conceptually begins in 1795 for both Vicky and Barnabas. It ends there, as well. If the two characters are strange mirrors of each other, orphans out of their native eras, the most crucial parts of their lives begin and end in the overlap: 1795. Twice, at least. 

The first act of Dark Shadows introduces Victoria. The second introduces Barnabas and focuses on their interaction, with 1795 as a fulcrum for both of them. For him, the arc actually begins with her first trip to 1795. It also ends in the most appropriate yet unlikely of places: in her second trip to 1795. (During his second journey there, as well.) After Vicky finally departs with Peter Bradford (to no doubt die of dysentery on the western frontier, which was probably New Hampshire), we look at the other unstuck time traveler, Barnabas, perhaps to see what kind of humanizing effect she had on him. He once again has to say goodbye to a woman he ostensibly loves, but this time, it is willingly. That is a Brobdingnagian leap for a man from his era. Few have suffered as much as he has in the pursuit of love, and his newfound sense of easy confidence evidences one of his greatest transformations.

Although fate again thrusts him to 1795, Barnabas begins the conclusion of Act Three in 1897. It’s as if he keeps returning for a reset, like some sort of perverse variation on Groundhog Day. With differences. In 665, he returns to his point of origin to demonstrate emotional mastery. At the end of 1897, he returns to see that he is the master of nothing. Forces far larger than he make a mockery, and perhaps even a Macarena, of his well-earned autonomy. And why does this happen? Why is it important? Is it to ridicule what he has accomplished? Perhaps. But perhaps some of it alleviates him of responsibility. Yes, absolutely, he is captain of his own ship and master of his own maturity. Yeah, yeah we get it. And that’s just ducky. However, too much reliance on that mentality can lead to total devastation… if forces genuinely beyond your control have conflicting plans. That takes us into Act Four, where Barnabas becomes even more of a storm-tossed ship, first as a Lambchop-tic puppet, composed of a sock seemingly worn by the robust actor William Conrad over a week in August. It concludes in Gerard’s Siege of Collinwood in 1970, demonstrating to Barnabas that while he may have control of himself, he has no control beyond. So, 1840’s Act Five is a chance to reconcile self-control while accepting that it has human limits. What’s left? The necessity of trust. He chooses to trust Angelique as much as he trusts Julia and overcoming his most tragic flaw— a resistance to forgive. Primarily, himself. Of course, forgiveness is easy to muster when you and the other person have hundreds of years to evolve after the inciting incident. His reward? Angelique, shot and killed. And, you know, that’s a thing. I think we can all admit it. And she is shot by a Trask, seeking revenge for the death of a father he didn’t even know. This proves that carrying a grudge, at some point, is more of a hobby than a righteous cause. That’s what it was for Barnabas. It’s certainly what it had become for Angelique, and it’s over the course of the 1840 storyline that we see her realize it, and give it up.

And that’s the story of Dark Shadows.

Episode 665 shows Angelique at the opposite end of her own forgiveness spectrum. We can buy a certain amount of infuriated jealousy. But at this point, Josette is dead. So, that’s out-of-the-way. Cross that one off the to-do list. Naomi is dead. Nathan Forbes is finally in a dance belt. You know, everyone is pretty miserable. So, you would think that Angelique’s work is done. But, like Sammy topping music with trick shooting and celebrity impressions at the Coconut Grove, she has to murder Vicki. Twice. Hanging, of course, because, you know, tradition. And then she has to plan on reviving her inside a coffin to die all over again. Why? I guess because Barnabas loves the gal or something. But the fact that Vicki’s running off with Roger Davis should be punishment enough for Barnabas. It’s not like he has a shot. No, here, she is drunk on evil to an extent that would have shamed Herbert Lom in a later Cluseau movie.

Perhaps Angelique has to be that evil, mechanically, because they want to reverse engineer this whole thing to justify the incredible, Fantasy Island moment when Barnabas opens the door so that Ben Stokes, who’s been waiting with a torch for Christ-knows-how-long, can light her up. It’s a great moment. Despite our love for Angelique, there’s nevertheless something satisfying in it. 

Because we know she’ll be back. She’s just gonna go to Hell for a little while and then show up in 1897… with a considerably improved attitude I might add. They all know this by now. I mean, I’m surprised that Barnabas didn’t pack a lunch for her, like Charley’s wife handing him a sandwich on her endless MTA iniquity. It’s not really an execution. It’s just calling the Uber a little early.  

That moment, and the sentimental moments between Barnabas and Ben later on, are necessary reminders about this hero. We met him as a lone agent out-of-time, defined by the friends who can never truly understand him. As unflagging as Julia and Willie are, they are constant reminders that he is not home. Not really. In 665, we are warmed and saddened to learn why. There is something truly grounding about this stranger, normally stranded in a strange land, in the company of his best friend. Someone that no one in the 20th century, save Vicki, knows. It puts his character into context and it puts his heroism into context and it puts his loneliness into context. 

And maybe that’s ultimately why 1795 is such a nexus. Ben Stokes. As life becomes increasingly monstrous, Ben rises to the challenge with ever-greater humanity. He’s both a servant, like Vicki and an occasionally ruthless man-of-action — with a heart the size of Canada — like Barnabas. 

Maybe 1795 isn’t home. Maybe Collinwood and the Old house are not Home. Maybe Ben Stokes is home.

Seen like that, I understand why Barnabas feels so alone without him. 

This episode was broadcast Jan. 10, 1969.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Dark Shadows for the Holidays is a Triumph. So there.

There are times when an idea moves beyond the intention and becomes an unexpected wonder. Dark Shadows fans enjoyed just that in Richard Halpern and Ansel Faraj’s recent Zoom production of A Christmas Carol, which ‘aired’ on December 19. Not only did the producers bring us an adaptation of Orson Welles’ radio play, but David Henesy and Alexandra Moltke Isles returned to join the ensemble. You probably know that. You probably also know that their return should have been the story. If it had been limited to that, it would have been a successful moment in history, but a failure as a drama. And there is not one unsuccessful second in this production.

At its very marrow, this production of a Christmas Carol is the most artistically successful follow-up to Dark Shadows since the show went off the air. The budget was not vast. But that doesn’t matter. Did it ever? Because fans of the show don’t necessarily want more Dark Shadows from our Dark Shadows. We want more of the ensemble. And we want to see them given the chance to show us and the world why we love them. This was that opportunity. The script is a strong and economical distillation of the story, supporting the actors yet staying out of their way. I can’t necessarily say that for other Dark Shadows productions. And while it’s not a Dark Shadows production, it is, resoundingly.

As wacky and perfunctory as the project could have been, it manages, above all else, to be tasteful in its risks, with everyone participating. It’s improvised and compromised around the edges, and that lets us see what the actors bring to the execution via quirky and personal contributions. From wonky top hats, cozy scarves and appropriately fire engine-red reading glasses to David Selby‘s tieless tuxedo, the visual world of this show intersects immediacy and literacy and, most prized of all, fun.

I mean, there is an inherent ridiculousness to any production via zoom. It’s hard to bring James Tyrone to life if it looks like Peter Brady is about to appear in the square next-door to announce that his voice has changed. But that kind of visual language is used with discretion and strategy by Ansel Faraj. He trades out widescreen oomph for spectacle that works on a more resonant and emotional level. That becomes clear when Mitch Ryan delivers the touching and spare epilogue. His adoring cast members look on with professional satisfaction and affectionate gratitude for the chance to hear him have the final word. And it’s just as moving for us. 

Of course, the impossible luck of seeing this ensemble assembled is going to put any audience of fans in the right mood. Yes. That’s especially true in a year where, I believe, we have lost more cast members than I’m comfortable counting. Everyone is both having fun and bringing their A-Game, with about as much prep time as we are used to seeing them have on the original show.

This was not an easy presentation to pull together with little notice. But its success is not a minor miracle. It’s what happens when determined professionals get to do what they do best. The result is a production that, although brief, connects us with the emotional realities of the actual text, serving up sobering truths about aging, regret, and envy with equal measures of believably-earned hope.

Of course, there is esprit de corps and an intense sense of teamwork. But at a certain point, someone has to be Scrooge and stand out even further. 

So, David Selby.

In a performance that defines the most extraordinary horizons of what quarantine theater can be, Selby captures true theatrical size with the cerebral nuances afforded by the intimacy of the webcam.  In the midst of nothing but technology, he rescues the humanity that the story deserves. It is an honest performance. I kept waiting for his “bah humbug,“ and other trademark phrases, eager to hear his unique spin on them. Well, there was no spin. Instead, I was seeing Ebenezer Scrooge making a point to other characters rather than a self-conscious actor trying to top earlier Ebenezers. David Selby is a fine writer who represents the author, not himself. I suspect that we are seeing the performance he would want from actors in one of his own productions.

As the story unfolds, we see a character desperate to hide the pain he associates with lost loves and friendships. This is ostensibly a play about the unfair privilege of class differences. Here, I sense a parallel story: the unfair privilege of relationship differences. Scrooge, having earned it, wears his alienation with the pride of a man sure of nothing else.  Selby’s Scrooge feels wisely reverse-engineered from the middle of the play outward in either direction. The relatable sadness of his miscalculations and deviations from the Fezziwig standard chain him as much as the weights encumbering Jacob Marley. As a character haunted by Marley‘s Christmastime passing long before any literal ghosts appear, Selby takes great care to believably connect with the details of Ebenezer’s past. With nothing but his face and voice, he brings us the depth of Dickens with a rare purity as Scrooge is reintroduced to everything he’s lost.

When Scrooge finally exults in, perhaps, the most heartfelt “Merry Christmas“ I may have ever heard, I felt like I was seeing a man finally given permission to forgive himself. Scrooge connects with a world ever ready to offer second chances, and if anything makes this a “Dark Shadows“ production, it’s that. Again and again, that’s the message of the program, and that’s the message that we see here, as well. 

Partly because of our connection with the work of these actors over decades, the result is emotionally exhausting, but never overwrought. Honesty may not always be pretty, but if it is explored with range and sympathy, it is inevitably the most satisfying part of a ritual like this. 

Back to context. Rarely, if ever, does a franchise give its loyal audience a gift of this much heart and finesse. I don’t know if we will see the ensemble assembled like this once more. I think everyone is aware of that danger. Like the story itself, this was an opportunity to express a simple truth — moments to express respect, admiration, and love may never come again. Don’t be stingy with them.

James Storm is once again the reliable chameleon, embodying principled strength with compassionate eloquence. Jerry Lacy conjures up a Marley with precisely the grim relish to catalyze the journey. David Henesy has lost none of his ability to nail every single line with impudent sincerity. Nancy Barrett completely erases any sadness I might have at her absence from acting by reassuring me that her spark and wit are still screen-ready for the producer smart enough to cast her. And more effervescent than ever, Marie Wallace brings her native warmth and sense of life with every bit of the immediacy we enjoyed in 1968 and 1969. 

Yes, the story is a bit of a boy’s club… which is a clear invitation to the dance for such a powerful female ensemble. Nonetheless, Lara Parker elicits the nimble delicacy of the language with naturally cerebral verve. Kathryn Leigh Scott mixes a sense of ethical sincerity with the hint of sardonic mischief that is her laudable trademark. Leave it to accomplished authors to know exactly how to handle poetry of mirth and strength.

And the former Miss Winters? Alexandra Moltke Isles could have coasted on her own novelty, but she doesn’t. There is a dark and intense forthrightness to her presence, and I am too busy watching her character to be distracted by the rare and long awaited return of their actor. She wanted to explore more range and darker colors on the tv program. It took 50 years to see why she was right, but the results are well worth it.

Finally, Mitch Ryan inaugurates and resolves the story with an easy, reserved gravitas of reassuring authority. It takes the brightest of actors to observe the action with an improbably passionate neutrality. Mitch Ryan was and is the definition of that bright actor.  

When the Dark Shadows Universe (a thing extending far beyond the actual production of the show) initially said goodbye to Ryan, Moltke Isles, and Henesy, a critical balance was lost. Thanks to this production, this can now be seen as only momentary. Dark Shadows is about home, often for those without one. Watching this made me feel as if the doors to Collinwood were open again. 2020 and 2021 took more from us than we deserved.  This gesture, at this time, is an essential reminder of what we still have. Too often, the love of a franchise reveals itself in the desperate acquisition of props and autographs and photos and handshakes, all of which are noble, but all of which distract us from the real reasons why we love the people who brought it to life. Richard Halpern and Ansel Faraj take full advantage of this rare opportunity to see them doing what we love most: acting. They have not only given this ensemble yet another vehicle to relish telling a great story together, but they have given us the opportunity and intimacy to see it. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: November 30

Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1165


Tad finds out that justice can be a mother when Samantha performs her wifely duty of trying to get her husband beheaded. Tad: David Henesy. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Even though the county prosecutor quits his job over the inanity of Quentin’s trial, the figures of Official Justice insist it go forward anyway. When he’s replaced by someone played by Humbert Allen Astredo, Quentin knows it will not go well. Meanwhile, although Tad begs his mother to testify on Quentin’s behalf, she instead takes the stand against him. Quentin responds by sitting around and pretending not to notice how handsome everyone thinks he is. 

It's David Henesy's last day on the program. It's a sad graduation. It's a quiet graduation. It's the kind of graduation that means a lot more to the adults than to the people actually going through it. Like all graduations, I guess. It's hard to tell whether or not they intended this to be his last appearance. He was at an awkward age for the program. You couldn't get away with any of the juvenile plots of him doing something out of naïveté. Yes, he could be turned into a delinquent, but that’s a move the show might not be ready for. Even in the world of David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman, he's not quite old enough to be an official teen idol without it feeling just a little bit creepy. All of this... packed into someone of middle teenage vintage who nevertheless has a voice deeper than Brock Peters

His farewell to the program consists of one scene, and it shows the influence that Tad should have on his world. With his father accused of witchcraft, Ted expects his mother to testify on her husband's behalf. Virginia Vestoff does a wonderful job trying to bend and weave around Tad's expectation, preparing herself to survive whatever kind of confrontation will follow whatever stunt she pulls on the stand. 

Although no relationship in life improves after the first date, it is the last conversation that permanently frames us with each other. Given that these characters, via specific actors, turn up over and over and over again in era after era, it's pointless (in some regards) to see them as anything other than one figure with many masks. All of the David Hennessy characters might as well be just one David Hennessy character. And if we look at it that way, what do we learn from this? 

Well, for one thing, this character was much better at talking people into things back when he decided the rules were meant to be broken. Like Britannicus in I Claudius, I feel like he's become obsessed with "putting on his manly gown," maybe because he doesn't wanna wind up like Laszlo. Either way, he may be becoming all leading man (at least on the chalkboard in his dressing room), but his decision to play it straight comes at the cost not only of his humorbut his overall cleverness. As is reflective of youth culture at the time, if he were any more painfully earnest, we would only see him crying an Iron Eyes Codependent mono-tear over the river of deceit and betrayal that runs through Collinwood. 

So he's growing up. That's a bookend. He's decided to take life seriously. That's a bookend. And he is desperate to stand up for his father, who is getting railroaded on false charges. It feels like he has earned the right to do this. “He” began as a character all too eager to see his father railroaded over allegations the paternoster projected onto, well, who knows? Maybe his other dad. I think we've all had those thoughts. Whether he's doing it for reasons of malice, reasons of justice, reasons of love, or as a five-dollar menu combo of lovingly malicious justice, the David Henesy character begins and ends as someone trying to align his father's legal standing with reality. And it's refreshingly uncynical that he should go from a boy trying to get a guilty father convicted (or at least in hot water) to a kid trying to get his father out. Of course, the two fathers are vastly different. The primary similarity is that the mothers are either physically or emotionally absent, and neither have his best interest at heart. But he is the only person at Collinwood who has yet to see family as more of a mess than a bastion, and so he sticks by the institution with admirable loyalty. 

And Samantha does get up on the stand. Of course, she does the opposite of what Tad wanted her to do. She’s ready to betray Quentin with zesty abandon. But The Henesy’s not around for that. It's almost as if this last blast of optimism collides head-on with one final betrayal from an untrustworthy mother. And perhaps that's all that the David Henesy figure can take. He disappears after that. The message? Very few parents are what they appear to be. Especially mothers. Eventually, that destroys the child within. 

Dark Shadows teaches its lessons in cycles. Moral development in Collinsport is not a straight line. It's a corkscrew, both moving forward while covering the same ground over and over again. The sometimes surrogate mother figures in this character's life have been fire demons, completely absent, suicidal alcoholics, reanimated occultists, and at last, an untrustworthy shrew. As much as the show is meant for women, the female figures that David encounters, no matter the name, have stunningly little to recommend them. Although Victoria is hired to be his companion, she, like all adults, becomes enraptured by events that pre-date David. In that case, for nearly two centuries. Who can compete with that? Carolyn is likewise lost in a hopelessly lost romantic union, which generally makes her lousy conversation. Liz is obsessed with death whenever John Bennett wants a vacation. And Maggie is at Windcliff. So much for female nurture in Collinsport. Fortunately, for someone with a sniveling, cowardly, alcoholic louse of a father (at least for the first year or so), David finds his modeling and nurturing in the men in his life. At various times, Barnabas, Quentin, and Tom Jennings all follow in Burke Devlin's footsteps to provide David with good advice and understanding moral support. At a time when most male relationships on television were based on macho buffoonery, this is revolutionary and refreshing. If you could take anything away from the David Henesy character, it’s that three uncles can make a hell of a mother. 

This episode was broadcast Dec. 11, 1970.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: November 16, 1967

Taped on this date in 1967: Episode 368/369 


When Barnabas is reintroduced to Angelique, can he resist her temptation to stray from Josette or will the charming chambermaid distract him with an unforgettably new direction? Angelique: Lara Parker. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Barnabas is elated to find that Josette has arrived, however, when the news comes from Angelique, his old flame, he is reminded that his fidelity is precarious. Angelique does what she can to persuade him to stray, and his refusal to do so is a clear invitation to the dance for the sorceress. 

One of my favorite clichés in the Daybook is about “this being the official first episode of the series.“ Another one is, “this is the perfect place to introduce someone to the series.“ Far be it for me to disappoint because this episode does both. 

In the previous few episodes, we are just dealing with temporal jetlag and the thrill and shock of seeing the show take on such the wild ambition of 1795. The installments are certainly necessary for flavor, but when it comes to advancing the plot, this episode is all meat. As always, to find the beginning of a story, study the ending and work backward. In fact, that is the core of David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards playreading technique. When you read a play backwards, the context of the entire script is brought into crystal clarity. You “begin“ by seeing the final, deciding choice made by the characters… the choice that sums up the entire story. By then, it's the only choice possible. The rest of the plot is about exploring how all other alternatives fell away until you reach the beginning of the play, when everything was and should be possible. 

Just as Dark Shadows has one or more beginnings, it has at least two endings. One at the end of 1840, and one at the end of 1841PT. And both of those endings have a single thing in common: Jonathan Frid and Lara Parker are in each other’s arms. Seen this way, this show is about getting them there.

After seven months of hearing about Angelique, today, she enters. So, no pressure Lara. You only have to live up to a half year of build-up. No portrait. No ghost. No voice at a séance to tease the audience with your laughter. Nothing but Jonathan Frid and language. 

Oh, and she is entering as the first new female character to greet the ensemble in a year or so since Diana Millay. (Yes, I realized that I left out Grayson Hall. Sorry…? I read that as a testament to the strange gender neutrality of the part.) That’s a good point of comparison. Millay entered into a tight ensemble of women, each of whom had a distinct identity and place in the storytelling. And I know, it’s just me, but she never really fit. I mean, she was fine as far flaming fire spirit women go. But Millay kind of feels like an intruder into the pre-established chemistry of the show, and it’s an alienness that benefits the storytelling. 

With that as the only basis of comparison, Lara Parker gets to work. Given the results, I imagine that the last words a stagehand heard from her before she made her first entrance were, “Think that’s a tall order? Hold my daiquiri,” as an invisible timpani began its roll. 

Is she nervous? Is she confident? It doesn’t matter. The moment the camera records her, she transforms the program with a beauty, sense of truth, intelligence, eroticism, and dark integrity that feel absolutely real and wholly unique in television. The casting of Lara Parker was the single most important decision Dan Curtis ever made. Not to slight Jonathan Frid, but his job was made easier than you might think by the costume and the lyrical writing and the props and the old house set and the fact that he is playing a vampire. But who made the badass a badass? This challenge is far more sophisticated. And Lara Parker had no fangs (at this point). Her costume had to represent 18th-century refinement with a dishwater lack of glamour. Did she get an Inverness cape? Did she get a cool ring and a nifty cane? No. She got a handkerchief and Jeffersonian G.I. Joe. All of the power that she mustered had to come from within. And although she manifests no such abilities in this episode, the potential energy is clearly there. I think that’s true for viewers even if they somehow missed the context laid out in conversation over 1967.

Now we know why Barnabas became what he… will be? And with that, we know that the story can be told. It’s clear why Barnabas fell in love with this woman and her unique mix of capable strength, diplomacy, and emotional honesty. With that established, there is it last a pilot at the stick of this plane. That build-up actually meant something. The program has an actor who can make us believe that we are witnessing history rather than a reenactment. 

The episode works in every regard, showing us a world of hypocrisy destined to fall. This is the “before“ prior to countless little afterimages of disaster and triumph. We see all of the assumptions that will create the controlled demolition of Collinwood before it even enjoys its grand opening raffle. This begins with Joshua‘s dismissal of love as fit only for women, not men. This should, according to him, be a world of sensible, arranged marriages designed only to enhance commerce. Take that conflicted thinking, wrap it in the alluring regality of Kathryn Leigh Scott, and it’s easy to see the rationalizations that led to Barnabas‘s downfall. His continued pursuit of Josette nearly two centuries later isn’t love; it is his desire to earn his father’s approval by projecting a very specific type of masculinity. He just happens to be a great romantic, anyway, so he will do his best to merge his natural inclinations with a strategy to keep Joshua off his back. Thanks to Jonathan Frid‘s natural disinclination toward the erotic, his immediate and conflicted attraction to Angelique reads as far more personal than simpleminded priapism. When Barnabas loves, it’s clear that he’s responding to a woman’s deepest essence. It’s no wonder that Angelique responds as she does. Rejecting her is an act of brave determination, one commensurate with the brave determination shown by her. The pursuit of Barnabas forces her to hide her powers even longer. Not easily done as she risks everything to return home vis a sea voyage in the most inclement weather of the year. What makes it worth it? Angelique could have anyone. But Barnabas is hardly just anyone. And she has the right number. So what you will, Angelique is not a stalker, deluded into thinking that Barnabas is something he is not. Angelique doesn't just get the memo, she binds them for the Library of Congress, forgetting nothing. If Victoria exists to find ever-new things to not understand, Angelique resides at the opposite end of that spectrum.

Her willingness to fight for that love is made all the more admirable when we contrast her with the shallow and arrogant Countess Natalie, easily pleased with her title and the cruel privileges that it makes possible. When we meet Naomi here, day-drinking to distract herself from Joshua‘s world, we glimpse an even darker surrender. It is a surrender of greatness that makes Angelique‘s determination even more astonishing. 

She understands exactly what she will be fighting for. Eventually, in 1840, she will take a bullet for that belief. And she will finally die. But it will be on her own terms, having proved Barnabas’ love and the worthiness of her own character. It begins now.

This episode was broadcast Nov. 22, 1967.

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: October 28

Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 885


When Barnabas finds himself back in the 1790’s, can he turn his greatest defeat into victory? Barnabas Collins: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

As Kitty vanishes into a portrait of Josette, Barnabas loses consciousness and awakens in 1795 on the eve of Josette’s suicide. He is determined to change history, confronting Angelique with honesty and a compassionate plea for mercy. She betrays him yet again, and shows Josette a vision of herself as a vampire high atop Widows Hill.

I used to think that this was all about Judah Zachery. It’s vaguely convenient to imagine him puppetmastering the whole thing to emotionally decimate the Collins family. As Saint Ming would say, he likes to play with things a little before annihilation. The Zachery Codex is awfully elegant, and it makes for some USDA prime smartypantsim. The longer I am with Dark Shadows, the more comfortable I am saying that these grand theories are just those. Maybe they are accurate. Certainly, if it helps you read the show, then subscribe to them by all means. Subscribe to enough of them and then McMahon may show up with a check. Let’s just hope it’s not his bar tab.

(By the way, I miss entertainment. Is it the 70s again? I’m ready for it to be the 70s again.)

However, just because a grand theory works for a lot of things, it doesn’t mean that it explains everything. The moral arc taken by Barnabas Collins could be seen as his torture, but it’s a spectacularly risky and unsuccessful one. After all, although it is emotionally ruinous, it leads to his ultimate success as an ethical man. It could be that some other source is influencing the narrative. For a long time, I couldn’t really figure out who it was. Now, I do.


Just because she’s a child doesn’t mean that she lacks the ability or gumption to manipulate as many spectral workings as possible.  Perhaps this entire story is a contest of wills between the two of them. Because, when properly motivated, there are few things more unstoppable than a determined kid.  What would motivate Sarah to take on Judah Zachary? Well, his one-time protégé, Angelique, may have strayed from her master, but he he still trained her. Imagine that you die and suddenly see the full narrative that drove your life and demise? Not only that, but if Sarah thought his student was bad news, the teacher was practically Newsmax. 

But in death, Sarah realizes that she has a living agent, which is more than can be said for most of the regulars on The Love Boat. Her red right hand to punish Judah is her immortal brother. She knows Barnabas’ strengths, and more than that, she knows his failings. She knows that he is a raw element that must be tempered and honed before he can be properly deployed in battle. And, as with anyone who takes on transforming Poppin Fresh from an unbaked doughboy into a rockhard brick of weaponized  melba toast, ready to scrape the roof of evil‘s mouth, there will be pain. 

And it could be a combination of the two things. With Judah becoming increasingly aware of this inconvenient Vampire and his tough, grizzled, eight-year-old girl of a ringside Burgess Meredith, he puts more and more obstacles in the path. Looking at episode 855, it might be the result of the manipulation of Sarah. Or it might be the result of the manipulation of Judah Zachary. Or it could be the two of them going at it. Maybe Judah rips Josette into the past, and Sarah sends Barnabas after her. Or perhaps Sara has set the whole thing up to test her brother’s character.

The episode is a hidden treasure. Soon, the series will turn into a sequence of hidden treasures. Every episode will be a reward for having watched all of the others. But right now, this exists like the Time Trap sequence around the 660s. It’s a seemingly superfluous gift that exists more as an example of the show’s Hellzapoppin exuberance than as a piece of mechanical storytelling necessity. It feels like it’s their way of saying, “and here’s a special something for being a loyal viewer.“ After all, the show doesn’t exactly specialize in two or three episode “very special events.”  We’ve been trained to expect this kind of side trip to last for months. In fact, Dark Shadows is the only show I know of where the special sequences contain fewer episodes than the average storyline, rather than more.  

At this point, they don’t even really bother with a time travel mechanism. Basically, don’t stand too close to a portrait of Josette while there’s a fire going in the fireplace. Similarly, don’t look at someone who is standing too close to a portrait of Josette while there’s a fire going in the fireplace. It’s just science. And that’s not what you came here for. But if it is, give me a minute and I’ll put on a lab coat and Dr. Lang’s surgical chaps. 

Still, this is part of the plot of the overall series, and if you want the benefits of any kind of overarching story themes, you have to put on an apron with me, grab a hammer, and bang away at these things in the rationalization forge. The fact that there is no seeming time travel mechanism is the entire point. It’s a wonderful mystery that invests us in interpreting the story. If we realize that part of the Leviathans’ plan is to both put the whammy in Barnabas AND hold, and let me see if I remember this correctly, the ghost of Josette as hostage (as a back up), then perhaps this was orchestrated by them to remind Barnabas of the intensity of his feelings for her.  Maybe it was Sarah’s doing, to remind Barnabas of the stakes underlying his ongoing crusades. Or, you know, “Judah Zachary,” because it’s pretty convenient to blame him for everything from the destruction of Collinwood in 1970 to some of those sweaters they made David Henesy wear toward the end of the series.  

It’s an immensely gratifying episode. It’s almost like seeing Barnabas at his high school reunion, vowing to undo everything he did to that bathroom stall in the science building when he was a sophomore. It’s one of the most authentic examples the series gives us of his evolution. Literally, a side-by-side portrait. You know, if one of the sides is hundreds of episodes prior. He is making the decisions we wanted to see him make In the first place. And he’s making the decisions that we suspected he was capable of back then. And now. 

It’s Barnabas at his most tender and heroic. When he tells Angelique that he can only give her his gratitude, he is being honest. By 1840, that would be enough for her. So in a sense, it is as much of a trial for her as it is for him. His mistake is in seeing her as the woman who saved his life in 1897. Yes, people can change. But not yet. This moment of her embittered selfishness doesn’t make us hate her as much as it makes us pity her, and it adds a depth to the ultimate forgiveness that she will show him in their final voyage.

As he made plans with Kitty in 1897, we have never seen him happier nor more confident nor more fulfilled. This adds a harrowing context to the impersonal turn towards a larger evil that he will take in the next few episodes. 

So, why? Why do they do this to him? If not the characters in the series, then the actual people making it? 

Every time I think I know every kind of crazy there is, I meet an entirely new kind of crazy. And that’s how we learn. For Barnabas, a man with a tenuous relationship with reality at best, every time he thinks that the universe is finally reflecting his opinion of what it should be, it piledrives him into reality. And he must climb the steps of Mount Morality once again. But he is not a video game character, continually leveling up. If the real subtitle of the show is The Continuing Education of Barnabas Collins, his cycle of ethical awareness followed by cynical downfalls gives him greater and more nuanced understandings of humanity with each turn. Because it’s not just his story. It’s our story as we venture out of the idealism of the Enlightenment and into being enlightened. 

The difference finally reveals itself in 1840. Up to the fall we are about to see, his heroism has been driven toward redressing who he was in the past, trying to bring the modern world into alignment with the aspirations of his era of origin.  Everything he does is about repairing the past. Because the past is safe. The past is a known quantity. 

What he has yet to attempt is building a bridge to the future unknown. That’s what his final arc, after this and after the Leviathans, will teach him to do. It’s based more on accepting what is rather than what should be, and guiding that with a courage that comes from saying, “I don’t know.“ Because to say that requires Barnabas to let go of his greatest fear: himself.  

And he does. And good for him. And I would like to think, good for Sarah.

This episode was broadcast Nov. 14, 1969.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Review: Dark Shadows and Beyond: The Jonathan Frid Story


He was a quiet celebrity. After the magnesium flash of Dark Shadows’ explosive popularity waned, his work was idiosyncratic, and his life was free of scandal. Good news for Jonathan Frid, but potentially bad news for audiences. As much as we might feel heartbroken over the bad behavior of a celebrity, it makes for compelling and suspenseful viewing. Frid is one of the most challenging subjects in that regard. I’m not sure he even made a rolling stop at 3 a.m. (In fact, did he drive?) He’s not so much a study in contradictions as much as a study in measured, reasonable judgment. You know, a Canadian.

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Think of the challenges. He was a horror star who walked away from it until years later when he could produce it on his terms. He was an actor, yes, with far more hours of filmed performance than many Hollywood luminaries. But you had to be a Dark Shadows fan to see it… Or you had to be very lucky to catch him in a live show… if he went through your town… and if you heard about it in time. He was adored by his costars but never became intimate with them. He even quit smoking at a reasonable time. So how do you make a movie of that?

Jonathan Frid’s friend, collaborator, and business partner, Mary O’Leary, has produced a ringing success, neither clinical nor cloying. An authentic affection and sense of human warmth run throughout the entire film, but it never invades. Enlightens, yes. The interview segments are fresh and cheerful, but I never feel something is being withheld or whitewashed. Instead, it’s a chance to see actors share their passion for their community's best and most professional. Which is a relief for everyone. 

Especially notable is the development of the “Clunes community” of collaborators who worked with Frid throughout the 1980s and 90s. Director O’Leary was one of them, as were Will McKinley (who emerges as the movie's emotional heart) and Nancy Kersey. Each came to Frid’s attention in similar ways. Writing to and about him, they emphasized a point he may have been missing; Jonathan Frid had more talent and potential than the world was getting to see. The drive to explore and better himself compelled Frid to work, but on his terms. As a result, there is a hint of a sensible and profoundly Canadian Cyrano that unspools over a feature-length running time that feels over far too soon. 

There are surprises, yes, but those are for Mary O’Leary to deploy. She does so with graciousness and a kinetic eye. The literate and literary gent is very much alive in the film, as is his mordant wit and natural dignity. It’s very much the film that Jonathan Frid deserves.

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