Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Dark Shadows Experiment

Last month, Patrick McCray, the creator of The Collins Foundation website, announced he was going to attempt the unthinkable: McCray was going to watch all 1,225 episodes of Dark Shadows in 45 days. That's five years worth of television and spans 450 hours of programming. It's the fandom equivalent of jumping Snake River Canyon.

McCray is following a fairly strict schedule and has mapped out a strategy for what he's calling The Dark Shadows Experiment and has been writing about hs viewing experience on his website (you an find him on Twitter HERE.) Once he completed Vol. 8 of the Dark Shadows DVD collection I realized, barring any zombie-related apocalypses, he would probably hit his target. As he's wading into the "1795 Flashback" and the introduction of Angelique, I thought it was as good a time as any to check in with him and find out how the experiment is faring.

Patrick McCray
You’re going to watch all 1,225 episodes of Dark Shadows in two months? I think the question on everyone’s asking is “What the hell is wrong with you?”
The proper question in my mind is "What the hell is wrong with everyone else?"

What inspired this idea?
I've always been a fan of the show.  Add to that the fact that I've also been a collector of all of the DVD's. I am always asked (even by people who fancy themselves media buffs), "But when are you going to watch all of this stuff?"
You want to know how tired I am of the question?  1,225 episodes of Dark Shadows over 45 days worth of tired of that question.

I wear a lot of hats.  I organize community groups.  I teach.  I write comic books.   I direct three plays a year. That leaves very little time for me to rest, relax, and take care of myself… and if I'm not careful, my summer off is completely frittered away on little bits of trivia with no sense of real accomplishment. Even if the accomplishment is bizarre. Thus, so far we have two reasons. One is to simply sit down and confront my collecting by viewing and enjoying all of this stuff that I've collected. The second is an attempt to control my summer and my free time so that I don't return to the school year without a feeling of some kind of authentic action having been taken.  Another reason, and this is an huge one, is simply morbid curiosity about what will happen to me. I cannot deny that the work of Morgan Spurlock is close to my mind. It was shortly after seeing his big movie, SUPER SIZE ME,  that I first got the idea.  I am an intensely curious man. I'm also happy to use myself as something of a lab rat. 
So, I was very inquisitive as to what would happen if I attempted to watch and enjoy the show in this concentrated fashion. Given how little actual time off I have, I don't know if I ever would've gotten around to watching the series again. I probably would've stopped it and started it... watched little bits and pieces of it over the stretch of decades. But actually watch it? That's something else.  (Something that's easy to lose in a world of countless, 24 hour media choices.)  And given that it's one big sprawling narrative, watching it in an epic, marathon fashion would no doubt put a very different spin on the story.  What would that be?  Let's find out. Oh, one more reason.  As a man whose heroes include Kroger Babb and William Castle, there's always the perfectly true response, "Because it's there." Raised on a steady diet of Andy Kaufman, I love a stunt.  DARK SHADOWS was a show of narrative stunts.  Somehow, viewing it in a stunt-like fashion seems fitting.

What’s your viewing schedule like? How many episodes can you squeeze in during a single day?  
The calendar that I have on the website explains this in what I hope is pretty painstaking and thorough detail. And, amazingly, I've stuck with it for at least a quarter of the series, which is the point I am at now.

To be exact, I watch approximately 28 episodes a day, beginning at 7 AM sharp. Towards the end, I think I may be watching a few more than 28 just so that I can stick to my initial 45 day schedule.  That's about 10 or 10 1/2 hours. Broken up with a lunch break.  I watch some on a treadmill.  Some outside so I can get some sun.  I'm jotting down notes for a Hugh Hefner bio I'm writing.  I design and experiment with board and RP games.  So I break up what could be monotony.

Watching so many episodes in such a short amount of time, have you noticed any unusual patterns in the acting or writing?   
Well, it's all gotten better. It's been very interesting to watch the writers and actors find and develop all of the characters. I think the biggest changes have been with Roger and Victoria.  Roger is now in no way threatening. I think that's so there can be a sympathetic male figure around as a counterpoint to Barnabas.

With Victoria, they seem hopelessly lost. Yes, they're trying to create a romance with her and Burke with Barnabas in the middle, but it feels like it's all too little, too late. And when the show does shift its focus to Victoria, it starts to feel like a pedestrian soap opera, rather than the romantic fantasy that Dan Curtis later described it as.  Right now, and I am at episode 313, the writers are really trying to figure out what they want to do with Barnabas. I mean, it's clear that they want him to be a major character for the show and they are not ready to kill him off. 

But right now it feels like they're just inventing villainous things for him to do. They have yet to round that corner where they suddenly realized that he's the real hero.  Watching Willie evolve has been fun.

I've also been trying to watch the show in two different ways. One is in a very practical way, as a writer, director, and producer, myself. That's been simply a matter of understanding and appreciating the fact that this is a television show that Dan Curtis and his writers were making up as they went along. But I'm also looking at it as a self-contained text. It's a little mental game that I play. I ask myself, "What if the writers knew everything that they would deploy for the story... from the very beginning?  How does that change things?"  That's actually a very exciting way to watch the show.  For instance, we eventually learn that most of the woes of the Collins Clan are the result of Judah Zachary's revenge.  

So, is the introduction of the ghosts a working of Judah? Has Sarah been summoned up by the conscience of Barnabas, or is it Judah just trying to drive him crazy?  In fact, how much can we lay at Judah's feet? And isn't it interesting that Judah's centuries-long campaign of revenge, based in cosmic wrath, gets undone by the one factor even he couldn't predict or overcome... the release of Barnabas by Willie, motivated by simple, human greed?  Because Barnabas is ultimately the agent of the family's salvation. And is Judah tied in to the Leviathans, who are even older than he is?  The Leviathan storyline may not be the best, but the mythological place they hold in the power structure of this universe cannot be ignored. Heck, Nicholas Blair, agent of Satan, answers to them! These are wildly fanboy questions, but this is the time for such things. 

How did you first discover Dark Shadows?
It was syndicated -- up to the start of the 1795 flashback -- when I was eleven, on WAVE 3 in Louisville.
Some people who had been fans of the show when they were kids all got very excited to get me to watch it. I had been a fan of horror of all varieties, but especially Hammer pictures and the Universal monsters. So I couldn't wait!

Before the Dark Shadows Experiment, who was your favorite character? Have you since revised that opinion?  
Unfortunately, I will only be able to safely answer that once I've seen the entire run of the show. Up to this point, my favorite character has always been Quentin (although Barnabas gets all of the great soliloquies).  But he has yet to appear, so ask me that again in a few weeks. However, I can refer to some of the rock stars on the show... the characters who, at least up to now, always make a scene fantastic. It's a pretty short list. The Mitch Ryan performance of Burke Devlin.  Pre-Barnabas-swooning Julia Hoffman.  The unbelievably well-written-and-acted Sam Evans (both performers), who is this wonderful, hilarious, beatnik guru.  My nickname for him has become "Sambuddha." Especially in black and white, Kathryn Leigh Scott is extremely real, intense, and shockingly primal (in certain scenes) as Maggie.  Bill Malloy and Peter Guthrie deserve Queen anthems in their honor.  I eagerly anticipate much ass-kickery by Stokes.

Should new Dark Shadows fans bother with the 200 or so “Pre-Barnabas” episodes?
Not really. Even for academic purposes, it was pretty dry. Start them with DVD volume 13. No question. That's the section with everything.

Roger Collins: Bastard, or Magnificent Bastard?
He's the finest man who ever breathed.  Another word against Roger Collins and it will be pistols at dawn!  Or dueling whisks and a timed, omelette-making contest. Or a Grand Marnier drinking contest. And really, you're dealing with two different characters. There's the one before Barnabas shows up and the one after. Prior to Barnabas, he's a magnificent bastard.  Afterwards, he's (up to now) just a highly entertaining, catty, queeny uncle for Carolyn and everyone else. It's exactly what the show needs.  And maybe what America needs, as well. 


darkshadowspod said...

Hey, guys! Thanks for this article. Nice look inside why (and how) someone would do something like this, and love your comments on the show. Oh, and your Barnabas portrait is such a hoot! Looking forward to much more.

Nathan said...

Excellent, inspiring article; I've been watching as regularly as I can since my Coffin Box arrived a few months ago. Due to classes, work, and that ever-depressing "real life," I'm still within the first 200 (hell, 100) episodes. While I definitely see the point, I don't think I'd ever recommend people skip the first 200 episodes. I know that the appearance of Barnabas quickens the pace, and that his appearance is a sort of turning point for the show, but in my opinion, even these pre-Barnabas episodes have a lot to offer. I can see how those anxious for some action would benefit from skipping these drier episodes, but, just like any good piece of literature, I feel as if you're robbing yourself of some pleasure by "skimming" the first 200 episodes.

Efe X said...

I agree with Nathan on not-skipping the pre-Barnabas episodes. I wonder if I'd have cared for some characters such as Vicki, Liz or Maggie as much as I do if I hadn't watched the Beginning! I even miss the simplicity and the gloomy mood of the earlier plots sometimes.

Aside from that, just whoa at the 45-day challenge! Anyone keeping records for Guinness? :)

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