Friday, April 3, 2020

Who killed Dark Shadows?


Dark Shadows was pronounced dead on this day in 1971. As with many of the characters from that television serial, though, it has refused to stay that way, periodically rising from the grave whenever the mood strikes.

What drove Dark Shadows to cancellation is a favorite topic of discussion among fans, who have blamed its demise on fatigue, the Leviathans, changing demographics, and the result of a production spreading itself too thin to include feature films. Like a good game of Clue, there’s an endless supply of suspects … but the truth is probably more like the conclusion of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. There are simply too many hands on the murder weapon to place the blame on any one individual.

In 1971, though, one man publicly confessed to pulling the plug on the cult television program. James Duffy — then president of ABC television — took credit for the cancellation of Dark Shadows … and a few peripheral crimes, as well. "I hated to do it," he said. "I cancelled Dark Shadows and my daughter won't speak to me. I cancelled Lawrence Welk and now my mother won't speak to me."

He said his wife also gave him the silent treatment for taking Tom Jones off the air.

Duffy served as president of ABC television for 15 years, succeeding Elton Rule as the network’s head in March, 1970 … right in the middle of the show’s first ratings slump during The Leviathans storyline. A few weeks later, much of the cast — including star Jonathan Frid — abandoned the television show for a month to shoot HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. It was probably not the best time for the stars, writers and show runner to leave post.

A few months later, local affiliates began to drop DARK SHADOWS from their schedules. Ohio’s WKRC was one of them, taking DARK SHADOWS off the airwaves in August, 1970, and again in February, 1971. Fans were, as you might imagine, outraged. In March, 1971, the channel’s programming director addressed the issue in a column published in The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Citing “hundreds of phone calls, petitions and letters,” the programming director announced that Dark Shadows would return — for the third time — to the channel's schedule. The announcement was accompanied by a warning for viewers not to get attached, though: “ABC-TV is expected to cancel it in late April for a revived Allen Ludden game show, ‘Password.’” That story was published March 3.

The passing of Dark Shadows was later noted in the press with the kind of brusqueness you’d expect from authoritarians — when it was noted at all. Lee Hamilton, the entertainment editor at North Carolina’s The Robesonian did not take the cancellation in stride, though, and vented his frustration in a lengthy editorial titled “Things look dark for ‘Dark Shadows.’”

“After five years of interesting — if not really top quality entertainment — this unusually creative program about the strange Collins family is being cancelled and will be replaced by another of those mindless game shows, this one called ‘Password’ with Allen Ludden as host,” he wrote March 26 that year. The violence and “complicated plot” were cited as reasons for the show’s cancellation, he said.

“As for the ‘complicated plot,’ this facet has always been one of the show’s endearing assets,” he wrote, “but then the simple-minded must be served.”

If anyone was interested in complaining directly to ABC, Hamilton provided contact information for his readers. Have I mentioned yet that I like Lee Hamilton?

As this stage, it’s probably safe to say the methods used by television networks of measuring their audiences in 1971 were faulty. At the heart of the problem was the tendency to measure bodies instead of demographics. At the time, networks liked to connect advertisers to the heads of American households who — theoretically — controlled the purse strings. That eventually changed when everyone figured out kids were stupid with their money.

In 1971, though, networks cared little for the opinions of children. A few weeks after the cancellation of DARK SHADOWS, Bettelou Peterson, a TV columnist with the Detroit Free Press, addressed a question from a reader about the show’s demise:

“Why did they take ‘Dark Shadows’ off the air and replace it with that dull game show ‘Password?’ ‘Dark Shadows’ was the only daytime serial my girl friends and I watched after school.”

“You’re part of the reason,” Peterson responded. “Daytime sponsors want housewives, not school girls. Then too, 'Password' is inexpensive to produce; 'Shadows' cost a fortune."

Perhaps not coincidentally, April 2, 1971, was also the day that news about the second DARK SHADOWS feature film began to hit the press. Then titled “Curse of Dark Shadows,” the film had a relatively late name change to Night of Dark Shadows before its release later in the year. There’s never been any sign that producer Dan Curtis had any intention of shopping the television to another network but, for a few months in 1971, he probably still imagined porting Dark Shadows over to feature films. MGM’s handling of Night of Dark Shadows ultimately made that impossible, though.

Meanwhile, writer Sam Hall did his best to resolve lingering plot threads from the series. There’s a last-minute moment of violence in the final episode that feels almost engineered to incite anger in the audience: Nancy Barrett’s character, Melanie, is brought into the foyer at Collinwood with marks on her neck that look like to be the work of a vampire. This story is set during a period where Barnabas Collins died young, but free of the vampire curse. If I was a more cynical person, I’d suspect it was a Hail Mary Pass on Curtis’ part to fire up the audience to fight for the show’s return … but the closing monologue by actor Thayer David de-fangs that problem seconds later:
“There was no vampire loose on the great estate. For the first time at Collinwood the marks on the neck were indeed those of an animal. Melanie soon recovered and went to live in Boston with her beloved Kendrick. There, they prospered and had three children. Bramwell and Catherine were soon married and, at Flora's insistence, stayed on at Collinwood where Bramwell assumed control of the Collins business interests. Their love became a living legend. And, for as long as they lived, the dark shadows at Collinwood were but a memory of the distant past.”
In October that year, Hall would address possible fates of the show’s central cast of characters, none of who factored into the show’s final story arc. You can read a transcript of that essay, published in TV Guide, HERE.

It’s rare for a daytime drama to become a cultural phenomenon, and even rarer for it to cross the kinds of demographic barriers that were shattered by DARK SHADOWS. Once a soap gains a toe hold in the market, they rarely ever let go. But DARK SHADOWS was a strange beast from the very beginning and was never designed to have the kind of open-ended narrative favored by soaps. At its heart, it had more in common with episodic programs like STAR TREK and THE PRISONER, only told in a serialized format.

Also unlike other soaps, Dark Shadows was forever going to be The Barnabas Collins Show. All My Children could find a way to go one without Erica Kane, but Collinwood would always feel a little empty without Jonathan Frid’s presence. Lightning had struck with that character and no amount of reverse engineering would ever recapture that magic. But that’s a problem that should be celebrated, not mourned.

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