Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Dark Shadows was never a soap opera


More than 50 years after its debut on television, DARK SHADOWS remains a show that's difficult to quantify.

As far as the mainstream media is concerned, DARK SHADOWS is "that soap opera about a vampire." It's thumbnail sketch of the series drawn primarily by people who hadn't actually seen it, journalists tasked with writing an authoritative exploration of America's latest cultural phenomenon despite their lack of experience with it. As is generally the case with American media, these stories were almost always told from the outside looking in. They're not stories of "us" but of "you," the author immune to the charms of whatever nonsense is currently holding the peasantry in thrall. Bitter? Maybe a little. But living though several decades of "Pow! Bam! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" story ledes will do that to a person.

When it debuted back in 1966, DARK SHADOWS got as aggressive a media push as ABC could muster for an afternoon drama. You can read many of those stories in our archives, but they are of two varieties: general announcements that there's a new show on the way, and short feature pieces on the individual cast members. After that initial blitz the media took little notice of the program again for more than a year. Even the audacious move of adding a vampire to the cast in 1967 wasn't enough to make any immediate waves. Jonathan Frid's introduction to DARK SHADOWS was roundly ignored by those who should have been paying attention. It would take another year before the entertainment press was forced to acknowledge a cultural phenomenon, and you can feel the resentment in the collective voice of the gatekeepers when pens were finally put to paper. Too many write-ups focused on such things as "plastic bats" and Joan Bennett's status as a fallen diva. If there was anything lower on the pop culture stratum than a soap opera it was a horror. And here were both in the same program, making the beast with two backs Monday through Friday on network television for all to see. It was unseemly.

Another year went by (1968, if you're keeping score) before TV Guide, Time Magazine, Tiger Beat and Famous Monsters of Filmland finally took notice of what has happening on DARK SHADOWS. The variety of those publications and their hesitant response suggests that none of them knew who this show "belonged" to. By all rights, Famous Monsters should have been first on the scene, but it's possible they overlooked the program as something made for the "housewife set." Its first feature story on DARK SHADOWS was titled "Video Vampire Number One" and avoided use the term "soap opera." (The term "vampire opera" was used in one of the captions, though.) TV Guide published a few women's fashion pieces about the show in 1967, while the writers for Tiger Beat and Time were likely deeply confused when they found their readership overlapping. But hesitate they all did until 1968. By this point Frid was already pulling in thousands of fans during stops on his promotional tours of the nation, bringing in crowds larger than Richard Nixon's campaign stops (which is a weird metric, but one actually used Time Magazine.)

And this is how DARK SHADOWS received the logline that it was a "soap opera about a vampire." It was not meant with love. It was a code used by writers to tell editors that there were more important things they could be doing with their time than discussing (ugh) daytime television.

And you might want to sit down for my next assertion: DARK SHADOWS was never a soap opera.

This isn’t a matter of genre snobbery on my part. (At least, not entirely.) DARK SHADOWS was certainly constructed to meet the programming requirements of a soap opera, but it differed from its counterparts in a very significant way: It had a premise.

A soap opera isn’t automatically defined as “serialized entertainment,” the same way that serialized entertainment is not automatically a “soap opera.” The presence of melodrama in a serial doesn’t automatically make something a soap. If it did, programs like MAD MEN would better qualify as a soap than DARK SHADOWS does. Hell, TWIN PEAKS was as overt a soap opera as there's ever been (and even parodied its own soapy elements in the show-within-a-show, "Invitation to Love") yet neither PEAKS nor MAD have been corralled into the soap opera ghetto.

Comic books and professional wrestling are other forms of serialized entertainment with elements of melodrama. While it's occasionally argued they sometimes resemble soap operas, nobody seriously considers them as such. Marvel's "Fantastic Four" comic, the 19th century penny dreadful "Varney the Vampire," Stephen King's "The Green Mile," THE SOPRANOS and DARK SHADOWS are all serialized and share elements of melodrama ... but they also have premises.

Soap operas do not have premises. I dare you to tell me what RYAN'S HOPE or DAYS OF OUR LIVES is about. These programs are Venn diagrams of conflict, but there's no "there" there. When asked, people will tell you about the big moments, such as the time Luke and Laura got married ... but that's not a premise, is it? It's not even a story. If pressed, most fans of GENERAL HOSPITAL would probably have to submit that the series is about nothing more than a bunch of assholes hanging around a hospital.

From the very beginning, DARK SHADOWS had a premise, however abstract, that informed the series until the very end despite its many changes in between. There’s a reason we’re still talking about this show 50 years later and that’s because there’s something to talk about. You can actually spot the moments when rot began to take hold of DARK SHADOWS, because those were the moments when writers began to lean on soap opera cliches as substitutes for story. Nobody really cared if Quentin got custody of his kid from Samantha, or if Bramwell Collins  knocked up Catherine Harridge. More importantly, even the writers by this point didn't care. DARK SHADOWS devoured stories at an alarming rate and its appetite was insatiable. By 1971 it had already burned through "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "Jane Eyre" (twice!), "The Turn of the Screw" (twice!), "The Lottery," a bunch of random H.P. Lovecraft elements, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" ...  not to mention parallel timelines, alternate futures and even (gasp!) alternate pasts. Many of these tales and tropes, even the gothic ones, were actually science fiction. And that's not even mentioning the witches, werewolves, zombies and other phantoms that called Collinsport home.

Let's do the time warp again.
DARK SHADOWS was a fantasy program that was built to occupy available real estate, which happened to be a block of afternoon programming previously inhabited by a soap opera. In 1966 ABC asserted the series was part of it's "continuing effort to bring fresh new forms of entertainment to daytime television." Comparisons to PEYTON PLACE aside, I think ABC was successful in creating something very different in DARK SHADOWS. During the first year the program was teased as a "suspense serial." By the next year that term had become a "mystery narrative" and "romantic suspense series." But the show's descriptions became more dismissive as it grew in popularity. A 1968 newspaper story published in Indianapolis said "Housewives, and the mico-boppers who can rush home from school in time, love it." DARK SHADOWS was an illegitimate phenomenon because its fanbase was illegitimate. Or, you know, predominantly female. This wasn't a huge problem when nobody was watching it, but once it exploded onto the cultural landscape ... well, some people needed to be reminded of their places. If you think this attitude has changed much in the last 40+ years, go back and read some of the coverage of Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT series, which committed the cardinal sin of appealing to women. Granted, TWILIGHT is awful ... but we give a great many awful thing in this country a pass as long as they're entertaining. Nobody seems all that put out by the toxic masculinity on display on THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS series, but those movies are candy for dudebros. And dudebros get whatever they want, or else. (Which is a pretty good summary of the F&F movies, to be honest.)

And this, my friends, is how we arrived at the "soap opera about a vampire" logline. It's one that got trotted out every few years as DARK SHADOWS migrated into syndication and cable television and has been more difficult to shake than the term "Trekkie." Neither were designed to be terms of endearment.

Because of marketing demands, though, I guess you have to call DARK SHADOWS something. But to call it a soap is to confuse structure with content. And the latter is much more important when defining the identity of the series. Admittedly, the structure of DARK SHADOWS contributes to much of its charm. It gave the show room to live and breathe in a way later adaptions of the material have not enjoyed. But there's the rub: When that first "Barnabas Collins" story was ported over to theaters as HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS in 1970, it created something that nobody would ever confuse with a soap opera. And the 1991 "revival" series leaned slightly on motifs from evening dramas of its day, but was also not tagged as a soap. Tim Burton's 2012 feature film tried to force soapy elements into the narrative (particularly the rivalry between the two local canneries) but they didn't amount to much. Four years later the film has become a programming staple on Freeform's "13 Nights of Halloween" marathon.

To my knowledge there's never been an effort made to bring a new version of DARK SHADOWS back to its original daytime address. There might be a reason for that. But you could also make a strong argument that DARK SHADOWS has not exactly thrived when transplanted to other environments. Perhaps the concept demands an extremely complex ecosystem in order to survive.

Again, please don’t interpret this argument as “Dark Shadows isn’t a soap opera because soap operas suck.” That’s not what I’m saying. It's just that DARK SHADOWS has little in common with other soaps except a structure.  With its superficial qualities stripped away,  DARK SHADOWS sits comfortably on the shelf with contemporary programs like STAR TREK, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, WILD WILD WEST and even BATMAN. All of these programs share a dedication to unique ethos which remained the same no matter how their respective casts or stories changed. THE TWILIGHT ZONE had unmistakable themes, motifs and obsessions that always held true no matter how the individual stories were presented, and DARK SHADOWS was no different.

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