Friday, April 27, 2012

So, you want to watch Dark Shadows?


From the outside, watching Dark Shadows must look like a daunting task. The story is massive in scope and character but, as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. There's not really a wrong place to start with Dark Shadows, but some places make better starting points than others.

Dark Shadows isn't exactly an unknown quantity in America, but its cumbersome nature (1,200+ episodes) has made it difficult for television stations to package in syndication. Even Netflix has struggled to keep the 26 DVD collections consistently available to subscribers.

I've found myself talking about the show a lot in recent months, almost always with people who have never seen it. If you're reading this blog you've likely seen an episode of two, so consider this a primer for newbies. This isn't an attempt to summarize the show's many storylines. Instead, I thought I'd try to explain the appeal of Dark Shadows. If you're trying to convince someone to watch the show, maybe this will help make your case.

1: You don't have to start with the first episode.

While it’s best to begin at the beginning of one of the show’s many story arcs, there’s no real need to watch the show from the "pilot" episode (or even from episode 210, when Barnabas Collins joins the cast.) As long as you start at the beginning of any of the show's arcs, you ought to be able to catch up quickly. 

The 1897 story might even be the best jumping-on point: Barnabas travels back in time and is introduced to new characters and situations, making him as lost as many of the viewers. But the same is probably true for the 1795 story .. as well as The Leviathans, Parallel Time, etc.

Dark Shadows goes full-tilt crazy around the time it goes color. If you want to watch the show to see a time-travelling vampire acting as an attorney for a man accused of witchcraft, though, I’d probably not start with episode one. But those of us who have seen the show from the very beginning have a certain fondness for the original cast members ... even those like Mitch Ryan, who didn't stick around for very long.

2. Dark Shadows is both great and terrible.

Part of Dark Shadows' appeal is its frequently unavoidable camp nature. Stories change gears without warning, characters sometimes behave in illogical ways, sets fall apart on camera, actors forget lines, and let's not forget about those damn flies ... But the thing to remember is that a good story and camp atmosphere are not mutually exclusive ideals. Dark Shadows can be both great and terrible, and that is its charm.

Dark Shadows superfan Will McKinley once told me he thinks the creators of the new movie see the original show as “less evolved,” which it is in many ways. But if you look at Dark Shadows and see nothing but overlit video, creaky special effects and bloopers, you’re only experiencing the show on a level I’d generously describe as “superficial.” The new movie might trump the original show when it comes to production values, but there’s only so much a movie can do in two hours ... and it must get things right immediately.

The errors in the television show create a form of intimacy between the cast and audience, like watching an elaborately staged community theater project. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the show’s fandom is so friendly with the original cast, gathering each year to meet and dine with them as part of the Dark Shadows Festival. Our fandom is a genuine community. When watching Dark Shadows, we’re not rooting for the cast to fail ... but the humor, intentional or otherwise, only makes the show that much more endearing.

I’d go say far to say that Dark Shadows can be used as a Soul Detector. If you know someone who sees the show and can only laugh derisively at it, it’s a safe bet they are a horrible human person.

3. Dark Shadows accumulates story.

Newbies sometimes finish their first episode of Dark Shadows and wonder what the hell they just watched. The show is a perfect example of non-traditional storytelling and has more in common with a novel than other television shows.

Like baseball, Dark Shadows isn’t about what’s happening during any particular moment. Instead, it accumulates story as it rolls along, even when it sometimes moves at a glacial pace. I’d compare it to THE VENTURE BROS. in some ways because, if you only see a single episode, you’re not experiencing the actual show and are only watching footage. Dark Shadows requires a commitment. If you give it a shot, say 10 or 12 episodes, and still don’t see its appeal, then it’s probably not for you.

4. Dark Shadows lives in its own world.

Yes, Dark Shadows was cancelled four decades ago, but don't expect a television show full of mini-skirts and Beatle boots. Because Dark Shadows rarely ventured out of the antique architecture of Collinwood (and because it spent so much time in the distant past) there is very little of its era reflected in the show. There are no overt references to Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, pop music or any of the other things people have come to associate with the '60s. Even though it was set 300 years in the future, Star Trek often feels more dated than Dark Shadows, because it is more a product of its time.


Cousin Barnabas said...
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Cousin Barnabas said...

From a fashion perspective, you're absolutely right. But compare it to Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, two contemporary shows that look absolutely offensive in terms of their sexual politics. Dark Shadows tended to deal with the sexual revolution as something that had already been fought and won. I think the tensions between Vicky and Burke was the only time the show even dealt with it directly, and then it appeared the show's sympathies were with Vicky. Vicky was actively questioning WHY she should quit a job she likes to become a housewife, just as Samantha and Jeannie were always trying to be more submissive.

The women of Dark Shadows usually did what they wanted, when they wanted to ... even though there are few examples of career-minded women on the show, there weren't many men on the show who had jobs, either. Most of the cast were independently wealthy layabouts, which made it easy to duck issues of gender politics.

pete said...

Well I do remember there being some mini skirts and beatle boots (didn't barnabus and joe hasel wear them in the present?) but that's true, it does stay within its own world.

cynthia curran said...

On the other hand. Angelique whole existence was because she loved Barnabas, how in the past is that, or old Maid Abigail would have been better if she married.

Unknown said...

I would start a new viewer with the 1795 plotline. It's the one I first saw at 6 or 7 in the 60s and my whole family fell in love with the costumes and the story of the witch. Dan Curtis did pay a lot of money to ONCE to use a Beatles song on the Blue Whale jukebox, I think it was Yesterday, but that's kind of a timeless song, if you will. I have NO clue which episode it was, if someone would tell me, I'd like to know and rewatch.

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