Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Dark Shadows: A 50th Anniversary Appreciation

Dear Aspiring TV Writer:

I understand you want to know the secrets to writing great characters and great dialogue. Okay. Here they are. Pick a great show you’re obsessed with, a show your mom won’t let you watch as a kid because it’ll give you nightmares. Then watch it anyway. Once you’re a teenager and that same show becomes available on your local PBS station, record episodes of the show on crappy cassette tapes. Listen to those tapes over and over and over again until you’ve memorized every word, every comma, every pause in a lengthy soliloquy for falling set designs and repeat the process endlessly. Finally, when the entire boxed set becomes available on DVD in a collectible “coffin” edition, buy the whole thing and watch all twelve-hundred-odd episodes over again. Twice. In a row. Just because you can.

Oh, and most importantly… love every damn second of the process.

That’s what I did. Yes, somewhere in my parents’ basement those stacks of DARK SHADOWS bootlegged audio cassettes remain intact, ready for an impromptu revisiting. They primarily cover the “Dream Curse,” “Adam and Eve,” and early “Whoa, Chris Jennings Is A Werewolf!” storylines, because those were my favorites at the time.

I listened to those tapes so many times. It was common to sometimes fall asleep to the rhythms of my favorite characters’ speech patterns: Dr. Hoffman’s nasal insistence on perfection. Reverend Trask’s spit-flingling prognostications of hellfire and destruction. Barnabas’ aching laments of melancholy over doomed romances. Ah, good times.

That’s why DARK SHADOWS is more than just my favorite TV show of all time. It’s literally the show that’s responsible for driving me to become what I am today. A TV junkie who is lucky enough to get paid to also write it.

It seems like yesterday when I had a major crush on Donna Wandrey (still do). And yes, the relationship between Barnabas and Julia never stopped breaking my heart. (Isn’t unrequited love the best?) I loved the 1840 storyline so much that I wanted my own “Head of Judah Zachery” prop. Someday.

But I was equally excited every time the name “Gordon Russell” scrolled by during the show’s end credits. Even at a young age, I was starting to figure out that tons of my favorite episodes were being written by the same guy. Or gal, in the case of Violet Welles and the 1897 storyline. That’s not to say I didn’t also love episodes from Sam Hall, Ron Sproat, Malcolm  Marmorstein, Art Wallace and the many other wonderful scenarists that contributed to the show. Gordon and Violet (and later Sam Hall) were simply the ones I noticed first.

What was it about DARK SHADOWS that made me sit up and take notice of the words that lay beneath the veneer of bats, tombstones, and severed telepathic heads? Truth. As insane as the stories sometimes became on the show, there was always genuine emotion at the heart of the characters’ daily conflicts. You could hear in the actors’ voices how much they relished the juxtaposition of supernatural hijinx with grounded situations like dealing with a cheating fiancĂ©e (it’s okay, Josette… I know you were under a witch’s spell), the premature death of a loved one (R.I.P. Jeb Hawkes) or having to deal with the ongoing realization that the person you love doesn’t think of you in “that way” (Oh, Julia… I’m so sorry…).

Listening—and watching—Barnabas and the rest of the Collins clan deal with these very real, very grown-up feelings exposed me to the essence of good dramatic writing before I even knew who Aristotle was.

After truth, let’s not forget my other favorite aspect of great DS dialogue: hyperbole. I’m talking about hyperbole that rivals Shakespeare in its intensity, if not always in its execution. But then I’m guessing old William made mistakes, too. Fortunately for him two-inch tape had yet to be invented.

I know what you’re thinking. Hey, Eric, this show is fifty years old. Surely, you don’t watch DARK SHADOWS anymore. I’ll bet there have been a dozen or more shows that have influenced you just as much in the intervening years, right? Sure. There’s THE X-FILES. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. DR. WHO. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. 24. GAME OF THRONES. Each of them are TV milestones in their own right and huge fonts of continued inspiration for me today.

But there’s still only one show that moved me so much that just hearing it—listening to syncopation of script, direction and performance over and over in the dark—was enough to impress permanent shivers on my spine, shivers that continue to resonate with me and drive me to keep writing every day. That’s the power of DARK SHADOWS. Fifty years later, I still can’t get enough.

So get thee to your television or laptop or black box wireless thingy, Aspiring TV Writer. Find your muse. Oh, and listen, ahem, watch DARK SHADOWS. You’ll be glad you did. Just like me.

Writer/Co-Executive Producer, TEEN WOLF

PS - Happy Anniversary, Collins Family!

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