Friday, January 26, 2018

Dark Shadows Lives (on Amazon Prime)

I can't imagine anyone believed we'd still be talking about DARK SHADOWS in 2018. When the show debuted in on June 27, 1966, today's calendar date was a short nap away from the era of THE JETSONS. Even the writers of speculative fiction didn't often look too far beyond that eternal signpost of the year 2000, the year in which most of the young people graduating from high school in 2018 were born.

Yet, here we are. We've already carved off a not-insignificant slice of the 21st century and DARK SHADOWS is somehow still a relevant topic in our cultural dialogue ... and that conversation is continuing in ways that weren't even imagined when the series first hit the airwaves more than 50 years ago.

Last week, after months of oh so slowly adding blocks of episodes to its catalog, Amazon Prime provided the remaining pieces to its digital DARK SHADOWS offerings. For the first time ever, the show was available -- in its entirety -- streaming in America and the United Kingdom. A few media outlets stopped to acknowledge the moment, but none of them seemed aware of the show's tortured history with home video. A few writers expressed a "Holy shit, Dark Shadows has how many episodes?" attitude, but there was also a shared misunderstanding that the afterlife of DARK SHADOWS looked pretty much the same as that of STAR TREK, BATMAN and its contemporaries. And that has never been the case. If DARK SHADOWS remains relevant today, it's not because it has thrived on the traditional cycles of natural selection, but because fans have spent the better part of the last five decades fighting to keep it alive.

Unlike other classic TV shows, DARK SHADOWS hasn't been a comfortable fit for rerun programming. A lot of what he think of as "classic TV" exists because it was cheap and easy to program: filler for after-school, Saturday afternoons, those weird post-midnight blocks of television ... pretty much any place not already occupied by the local news or network programming. A series that can survive for more than 100 episodes on a network can usually find some sort of second life in syndication, followed by enshrinement on a boutique cable television channel (think "Nick at Night.") Once upon a time, home video releases for television shows used to take place at the very end of this cycle, but that milestone since moved to the front of the process, before the series even ends.

DARK SHADOWS, with it's 1,225-episode narrative, was an ill-fit for this cycle from the very beginning. Even during its peak the show was the definition of ephemera, each episode broadcast only once before presumably going into the studio vaults forever. While millions of people watched the show daily, there was no mechanism in place to let fans catch up on missed episodes or, GASP!, watch them a second time. The best you could hope for was to clip and save published episode summaries, such as the popular "The Whole True Story of Dark Shadows" which ran for years in 16 Spec magazine. The cast of the live-on-tape series got one chance to nail their lines, the audience had once chance to see an episode, and after that it was gone. Reruns were never part of the agreement.

So it's not that surprising that the first efforts to put the show into syndication during the mid 1970s weren't immediately successful. DARK SHADOWS didn't gain it's first precarious foothold on the after market until the New Jersey Network began airing DARK SHADOWS in 1983. The public broadcasting channel had just 510 of its 1,225 episodes available in its catalog at the start. “New” episodes were added as the series progressed: By the time NJN took it off the air in 1986, it had bulked up its catalog to include arcs beginning with first appearance of Barnabas Collins until the start of the “Parallel Time” storyline. (Many of these later episodes went unaired because of the cancellation, though.)

As always, this proved to be a temporary setback. Whenever DARK SHADOWS shambles out of its crypt, it does so with renewed strength and vigor. It followed the NNJ cancellation with its debut on home video and, eventually, The Sci-Fi Channel. Both of these avenues eventually brought every episode of the series to audiences for the first time, even giving people their first chance to see those murky, prehistoric episodes before the game-changing introduction of Barnabas Collins.

Home video also proved to be a different sort of challenge. The original VHS collection from MPI Home Video eventually occupied more than 250 cassettes before that medium was discontinued. While the DVD sets were more space conscious, they nevertheless remained expensive. While nobody will argue that the 2012 "coffin" set that collected every episode of the series (that's more than 450 hours of entertainment on 131 discs) was anything less than ostentatious, the original retail price of $600 was off-putting for many. While the price of the set has fallen in recent years to about $340, that's still a serious investment for a lot of folks.

For the last few years, streaming media has been the last, best hope for supporting the mammoth, toothy bulk of DARK SHADOWS and its sprawling, multi-century/multi-dimensional storyline. But even that has proven to be an up-hill battle. Back in 2012 everybody expected Netflix to be the service that would be the first to host the entire series online ... but as its priorities shifted toward original content, Netflix even struggled to keep even keep the DVD series in stock for snail mail subscribers. Blocks of episodes have appeared on Hulu and Amazon Prime for the last few years, but it wasn't until last fall that the prospect of any single service hosting DARK SHADOWS threatened to become a reality.

It happened last week, in the middle of the night when nobody was paying attention. Amazon Prime UK added the entire series to its catalog, followed a few days later in America where Prime customers finally got the remaining pieces of the series. A show that struggled to stay in syndication for a few months in 1975 was now available, in its entirety, at your fingertips. (Technically, MPI Home Video beat them all to the punch last October when it launched the streaming DARK SHADOWS media service at, but that website has a long way to go before it can compete with the reach of Amazon.)

When DARK SHADOWS was cancelled by ABC in 1971, there was no reason to believe it wasn't gone forever. That wasn't a circumstance that sat well with fans, though, who eventually began organizing festivals and supporting fundraising initiatives to bring the series back to the public airwaves. These people continued to rally for years behind DARK SHADOWS, helping support a series as its back catalog was re-built episode by episode until, 25 years later, technology had risen to match their passions. Today, you can watch every episode of DARK SHADOWS on your television, smart phone, PC, tablet or any other device connected to the Internet. And frankly, we're all being a little too casual about how big of a deal that really is.

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