Saturday, December 25, 2021

Dark Shadows for the Holidays is a Triumph. So there.

There are times when an idea moves beyond the intention and becomes an unexpected wonder. Dark Shadows fans enjoyed just that in Richard Halpern and Ansel Faraj’s recent Zoom production of A Christmas Carol, which ‘aired’ on December 19. Not only did the producers bring us an adaptation of Orson Welles’ radio play, but David Henesy and Alexandra Moltke Isles returned to join the ensemble. You probably know that. You probably also know that their return should have been the story. If it had been limited to that, it would have been a successful moment in history, but a failure as a drama. And there is not one unsuccessful second in this production.

At its very marrow, this production of a Christmas Carol is the most artistically successful follow-up to Dark Shadows since the show went off the air. The budget was not vast. But that doesn’t matter. Did it ever? Because fans of the show don’t necessarily want more Dark Shadows from our Dark Shadows. We want more of the ensemble. And we want to see them given the chance to show us and the world why we love them. This was that opportunity. The script is a strong and economical distillation of the story, supporting the actors yet staying out of their way. I can’t necessarily say that for other Dark Shadows productions. And while it’s not a Dark Shadows production, it is, resoundingly.

As wacky and perfunctory as the project could have been, it manages, above all else, to be tasteful in its risks, with everyone participating. It’s improvised and compromised around the edges, and that lets us see what the actors bring to the execution via quirky and personal contributions. From wonky top hats, cozy scarves and appropriately fire engine-red reading glasses to David Selby‘s tieless tuxedo, the visual world of this show intersects immediacy and literacy and, most prized of all, fun.

I mean, there is an inherent ridiculousness to any production via zoom. It’s hard to bring James Tyrone to life if it looks like Peter Brady is about to appear in the square next-door to announce that his voice has changed. But that kind of visual language is used with discretion and strategy by Ansel Faraj. He trades out widescreen oomph for spectacle that works on a more resonant and emotional level. That becomes clear when Mitch Ryan delivers the touching and spare epilogue. His adoring cast members look on with professional satisfaction and affectionate gratitude for the chance to hear him have the final word. And it’s just as moving for us. 

Of course, the impossible luck of seeing this ensemble assembled is going to put any audience of fans in the right mood. Yes. That’s especially true in a year where, I believe, we have lost more cast members than I’m comfortable counting. Everyone is both having fun and bringing their A-Game, with about as much prep time as we are used to seeing them have on the original show.

This was not an easy presentation to pull together with little notice. But its success is not a minor miracle. It’s what happens when determined professionals get to do what they do best. The result is a production that, although brief, connects us with the emotional realities of the actual text, serving up sobering truths about aging, regret, and envy with equal measures of believably-earned hope.

Of course, there is esprit de corps and an intense sense of teamwork. But at a certain point, someone has to be Scrooge and stand out even further. 

So, David Selby.

In a performance that defines the most extraordinary horizons of what quarantine theater can be, Selby captures true theatrical size with the cerebral nuances afforded by the intimacy of the webcam.  In the midst of nothing but technology, he rescues the humanity that the story deserves. It is an honest performance. I kept waiting for his “bah humbug,“ and other trademark phrases, eager to hear his unique spin on them. Well, there was no spin. Instead, I was seeing Ebenezer Scrooge making a point to other characters rather than a self-conscious actor trying to top earlier Ebenezers. David Selby is a fine writer who represents the author, not himself. I suspect that we are seeing the performance he would want from actors in one of his own productions.

As the story unfolds, we see a character desperate to hide the pain he associates with lost loves and friendships. This is ostensibly a play about the unfair privilege of class differences. Here, I sense a parallel story: the unfair privilege of relationship differences. Scrooge, having earned it, wears his alienation with the pride of a man sure of nothing else.  Selby’s Scrooge feels wisely reverse-engineered from the middle of the play outward in either direction. The relatable sadness of his miscalculations and deviations from the Fezziwig standard chain him as much as the weights encumbering Jacob Marley. As a character haunted by Marley‘s Christmastime passing long before any literal ghosts appear, Selby takes great care to believably connect with the details of Ebenezer’s past. With nothing but his face and voice, he brings us the depth of Dickens with a rare purity as Scrooge is reintroduced to everything he’s lost.

When Scrooge finally exults in, perhaps, the most heartfelt “Merry Christmas“ I may have ever heard, I felt like I was seeing a man finally given permission to forgive himself. Scrooge connects with a world ever ready to offer second chances, and if anything makes this a “Dark Shadows“ production, it’s that. Again and again, that’s the message of the program, and that’s the message that we see here, as well. 

Partly because of our connection with the work of these actors over decades, the result is emotionally exhausting, but never overwrought. Honesty may not always be pretty, but if it is explored with range and sympathy, it is inevitably the most satisfying part of a ritual like this. 

Back to context. Rarely, if ever, does a franchise give its loyal audience a gift of this much heart and finesse. I don’t know if we will see the ensemble assembled like this once more. I think everyone is aware of that danger. Like the story itself, this was an opportunity to express a simple truth — moments to express respect, admiration, and love may never come again. Don’t be stingy with them.

James Storm is once again the reliable chameleon, embodying principled strength with compassionate eloquence. Jerry Lacy conjures up a Marley with precisely the grim relish to catalyze the journey. David Henesy has lost none of his ability to nail every single line with impudent sincerity. Nancy Barrett completely erases any sadness I might have at her absence from acting by reassuring me that her spark and wit are still screen-ready for the producer smart enough to cast her. And more effervescent than ever, Marie Wallace brings her native warmth and sense of life with every bit of the immediacy we enjoyed in 1968 and 1969. 

Yes, the story is a bit of a boy’s club… which is a clear invitation to the dance for such a powerful female ensemble. Nonetheless, Lara Parker elicits the nimble delicacy of the language with naturally cerebral verve. Kathryn Leigh Scott mixes a sense of ethical sincerity with the hint of sardonic mischief that is her laudable trademark. Leave it to accomplished authors to know exactly how to handle poetry of mirth and strength.

And the former Miss Winters? Alexandra Moltke Isles could have coasted on her own novelty, but she doesn’t. There is a dark and intense forthrightness to her presence, and I am too busy watching her character to be distracted by the rare and long awaited return of their actor. She wanted to explore more range and darker colors on the tv program. It took 50 years to see why she was right, but the results are well worth it.

Finally, Mitch Ryan inaugurates and resolves the story with an easy, reserved gravitas of reassuring authority. It takes the brightest of actors to observe the action with an improbably passionate neutrality. Mitch Ryan was and is the definition of that bright actor.  

When the Dark Shadows Universe (a thing extending far beyond the actual production of the show) initially said goodbye to Ryan, Moltke Isles, and Henesy, a critical balance was lost. Thanks to this production, this can now be seen as only momentary. Dark Shadows is about home, often for those without one. Watching this made me feel as if the doors to Collinwood were open again. 2020 and 2021 took more from us than we deserved.  This gesture, at this time, is an essential reminder of what we still have. Too often, the love of a franchise reveals itself in the desperate acquisition of props and autographs and photos and handshakes, all of which are noble, but all of which distract us from the real reasons why we love the people who brought it to life. Richard Halpern and Ansel Faraj take full advantage of this rare opportunity to see them doing what we love most: acting. They have not only given this ensemble yet another vehicle to relish telling a great story together, but they have given us the opportunity and intimacy to see it. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: November 30

Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1165


Tad finds out that justice can be a mother when Samantha performs her wifely duty of trying to get her husband beheaded. Tad: David Henesy. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Even though the county prosecutor quits his job over the inanity of Quentin’s trial, the figures of Official Justice insist it go forward anyway. When he’s replaced by someone played by Humbert Allen Astredo, Quentin knows it will not go well. Meanwhile, although Tad begs his mother to testify on Quentin’s behalf, she instead takes the stand against him. Quentin responds by sitting around and pretending not to notice how handsome everyone thinks he is. 

It's David Henesy's last day on the program. It's a sad graduation. It's a quiet graduation. It's the kind of graduation that means a lot more to the adults than to the people actually going through it. Like all graduations, I guess. It's hard to tell whether or not they intended this to be his last appearance. He was at an awkward age for the program. You couldn't get away with any of the juvenile plots of him doing something out of naïveté. Yes, he could be turned into a delinquent, but that’s a move the show might not be ready for. Even in the world of David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman, he's not quite old enough to be an official teen idol without it feeling just a little bit creepy. All of this... packed into someone of middle teenage vintage who nevertheless has a voice deeper than Brock Peters

His farewell to the program consists of one scene, and it shows the influence that Tad should have on his world. With his father accused of witchcraft, Ted expects his mother to testify on her husband's behalf. Virginia Vestoff does a wonderful job trying to bend and weave around Tad's expectation, preparing herself to survive whatever kind of confrontation will follow whatever stunt she pulls on the stand. 

Although no relationship in life improves after the first date, it is the last conversation that permanently frames us with each other. Given that these characters, via specific actors, turn up over and over and over again in era after era, it's pointless (in some regards) to see them as anything other than one figure with many masks. All of the David Hennessy characters might as well be just one David Hennessy character. And if we look at it that way, what do we learn from this? 

Well, for one thing, this character was much better at talking people into things back when he decided the rules were meant to be broken. Like Britannicus in I Claudius, I feel like he's become obsessed with "putting on his manly gown," maybe because he doesn't wanna wind up like Laszlo. Either way, he may be becoming all leading man (at least on the chalkboard in his dressing room), but his decision to play it straight comes at the cost not only of his humorbut his overall cleverness. As is reflective of youth culture at the time, if he were any more painfully earnest, we would only see him crying an Iron Eyes Codependent mono-tear over the river of deceit and betrayal that runs through Collinwood. 

So he's growing up. That's a bookend. He's decided to take life seriously. That's a bookend. And he is desperate to stand up for his father, who is getting railroaded on false charges. It feels like he has earned the right to do this. “He” began as a character all too eager to see his father railroaded over allegations the paternoster projected onto, well, who knows? Maybe his other dad. I think we've all had those thoughts. Whether he's doing it for reasons of malice, reasons of justice, reasons of love, or as a five-dollar menu combo of lovingly malicious justice, the David Henesy character begins and ends as someone trying to align his father's legal standing with reality. And it's refreshingly uncynical that he should go from a boy trying to get a guilty father convicted (or at least in hot water) to a kid trying to get his father out. Of course, the two fathers are vastly different. The primary similarity is that the mothers are either physically or emotionally absent, and neither have his best interest at heart. But he is the only person at Collinwood who has yet to see family as more of a mess than a bastion, and so he sticks by the institution with admirable loyalty. 

And Samantha does get up on the stand. Of course, she does the opposite of what Tad wanted her to do. She’s ready to betray Quentin with zesty abandon. But The Henesy’s not around for that. It's almost as if this last blast of optimism collides head-on with one final betrayal from an untrustworthy mother. And perhaps that's all that the David Henesy figure can take. He disappears after that. The message? Very few parents are what they appear to be. Especially mothers. Eventually, that destroys the child within. 

Dark Shadows teaches its lessons in cycles. Moral development in Collinsport is not a straight line. It's a corkscrew, both moving forward while covering the same ground over and over again. The sometimes surrogate mother figures in this character's life have been fire demons, completely absent, suicidal alcoholics, reanimated occultists, and at last, an untrustworthy shrew. As much as the show is meant for women, the female figures that David encounters, no matter the name, have stunningly little to recommend them. Although Victoria is hired to be his companion, she, like all adults, becomes enraptured by events that pre-date David. In that case, for nearly two centuries. Who can compete with that? Carolyn is likewise lost in a hopelessly lost romantic union, which generally makes her lousy conversation. Liz is obsessed with death whenever John Bennett wants a vacation. And Maggie is at Windcliff. So much for female nurture in Collinsport. Fortunately, for someone with a sniveling, cowardly, alcoholic louse of a father (at least for the first year or so), David finds his modeling and nurturing in the men in his life. At various times, Barnabas, Quentin, and Tom Jennings all follow in Burke Devlin's footsteps to provide David with good advice and understanding moral support. At a time when most male relationships on television were based on macho buffoonery, this is revolutionary and refreshing. If you could take anything away from the David Henesy character, it’s that three uncles can make a hell of a mother. 

This episode was broadcast Dec. 11, 1970.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: November 16, 1967

Taped on this date in 1967: Episode 368/369 


When Barnabas is reintroduced to Angelique, can he resist her temptation to stray from Josette or will the charming chambermaid distract him with an unforgettably new direction? Angelique: Lara Parker. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Barnabas is elated to find that Josette has arrived, however, when the news comes from Angelique, his old flame, he is reminded that his fidelity is precarious. Angelique does what she can to persuade him to stray, and his refusal to do so is a clear invitation to the dance for the sorceress. 

One of my favorite clichés in the Daybook is about “this being the official first episode of the series.“ Another one is, “this is the perfect place to introduce someone to the series.“ Far be it for me to disappoint because this episode does both. 

In the previous few episodes, we are just dealing with temporal jetlag and the thrill and shock of seeing the show take on such the wild ambition of 1795. The installments are certainly necessary for flavor, but when it comes to advancing the plot, this episode is all meat. As always, to find the beginning of a story, study the ending and work backward. In fact, that is the core of David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards playreading technique. When you read a play backwards, the context of the entire script is brought into crystal clarity. You “begin“ by seeing the final, deciding choice made by the characters… the choice that sums up the entire story. By then, it's the only choice possible. The rest of the plot is about exploring how all other alternatives fell away until you reach the beginning of the play, when everything was and should be possible. 

Just as Dark Shadows has one or more beginnings, it has at least two endings. One at the end of 1840, and one at the end of 1841PT. And both of those endings have a single thing in common: Jonathan Frid and Lara Parker are in each other’s arms. Seen this way, this show is about getting them there.

After seven months of hearing about Angelique, today, she enters. So, no pressure Lara. You only have to live up to a half year of build-up. No portrait. No ghost. No voice at a séance to tease the audience with your laughter. Nothing but Jonathan Frid and language. 

Oh, and she is entering as the first new female character to greet the ensemble in a year or so since Diana Millay. (Yes, I realized that I left out Grayson Hall. Sorry…? I read that as a testament to the strange gender neutrality of the part.) That’s a good point of comparison. Millay entered into a tight ensemble of women, each of whom had a distinct identity and place in the storytelling. And I know, it’s just me, but she never really fit. I mean, she was fine as far flaming fire spirit women go. But Millay kind of feels like an intruder into the pre-established chemistry of the show, and it’s an alienness that benefits the storytelling. 

With that as the only basis of comparison, Lara Parker gets to work. Given the results, I imagine that the last words a stagehand heard from her before she made her first entrance were, “Think that’s a tall order? Hold my daiquiri,” as an invisible timpani began its roll. 

Is she nervous? Is she confident? It doesn’t matter. The moment the camera records her, she transforms the program with a beauty, sense of truth, intelligence, eroticism, and dark integrity that feel absolutely real and wholly unique in television. The casting of Lara Parker was the single most important decision Dan Curtis ever made. Not to slight Jonathan Frid, but his job was made easier than you might think by the costume and the lyrical writing and the props and the old house set and the fact that he is playing a vampire. But who made the badass a badass? This challenge is far more sophisticated. And Lara Parker had no fangs (at this point). Her costume had to represent 18th-century refinement with a dishwater lack of glamour. Did she get an Inverness cape? Did she get a cool ring and a nifty cane? No. She got a handkerchief and Jeffersonian G.I. Joe. All of the power that she mustered had to come from within. And although she manifests no such abilities in this episode, the potential energy is clearly there. I think that’s true for viewers even if they somehow missed the context laid out in conversation over 1967.

Now we know why Barnabas became what he… will be? And with that, we know that the story can be told. It’s clear why Barnabas fell in love with this woman and her unique mix of capable strength, diplomacy, and emotional honesty. With that established, there is it last a pilot at the stick of this plane. That build-up actually meant something. The program has an actor who can make us believe that we are witnessing history rather than a reenactment. 

The episode works in every regard, showing us a world of hypocrisy destined to fall. This is the “before“ prior to countless little afterimages of disaster and triumph. We see all of the assumptions that will create the controlled demolition of Collinwood before it even enjoys its grand opening raffle. This begins with Joshua‘s dismissal of love as fit only for women, not men. This should, according to him, be a world of sensible, arranged marriages designed only to enhance commerce. Take that conflicted thinking, wrap it in the alluring regality of Kathryn Leigh Scott, and it’s easy to see the rationalizations that led to Barnabas‘s downfall. His continued pursuit of Josette nearly two centuries later isn’t love; it is his desire to earn his father’s approval by projecting a very specific type of masculinity. He just happens to be a great romantic, anyway, so he will do his best to merge his natural inclinations with a strategy to keep Joshua off his back. Thanks to Jonathan Frid‘s natural disinclination toward the erotic, his immediate and conflicted attraction to Angelique reads as far more personal than simpleminded priapism. When Barnabas loves, it’s clear that he’s responding to a woman’s deepest essence. It’s no wonder that Angelique responds as she does. Rejecting her is an act of brave determination, one commensurate with the brave determination shown by her. The pursuit of Barnabas forces her to hide her powers even longer. Not easily done as she risks everything to return home vis a sea voyage in the most inclement weather of the year. What makes it worth it? Angelique could have anyone. But Barnabas is hardly just anyone. And she has the right number. So what you will, Angelique is not a stalker, deluded into thinking that Barnabas is something he is not. Angelique doesn't just get the memo, she binds them for the Library of Congress, forgetting nothing. If Victoria exists to find ever-new things to not understand, Angelique resides at the opposite end of that spectrum.

Her willingness to fight for that love is made all the more admirable when we contrast her with the shallow and arrogant Countess Natalie, easily pleased with her title and the cruel privileges that it makes possible. When we meet Naomi here, day-drinking to distract herself from Joshua‘s world, we glimpse an even darker surrender. It is a surrender of greatness that makes Angelique‘s determination even more astonishing. 

She understands exactly what she will be fighting for. Eventually, in 1840, she will take a bullet for that belief. And she will finally die. But it will be on her own terms, having proved Barnabas’ love and the worthiness of her own character. It begins now.

This episode was broadcast Nov. 22, 1967.

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: October 28

Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 885


When Barnabas finds himself back in the 1790’s, can he turn his greatest defeat into victory? Barnabas Collins: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

As Kitty vanishes into a portrait of Josette, Barnabas loses consciousness and awakens in 1795 on the eve of Josette’s suicide. He is determined to change history, confronting Angelique with honesty and a compassionate plea for mercy. She betrays him yet again, and shows Josette a vision of herself as a vampire high atop Widows Hill.

I used to think that this was all about Judah Zachery. It’s vaguely convenient to imagine him puppetmastering the whole thing to emotionally decimate the Collins family. As Saint Ming would say, he likes to play with things a little before annihilation. The Zachery Codex is awfully elegant, and it makes for some USDA prime smartypantsim. The longer I am with Dark Shadows, the more comfortable I am saying that these grand theories are just those. Maybe they are accurate. Certainly, if it helps you read the show, then subscribe to them by all means. Subscribe to enough of them and then McMahon may show up with a check. Let’s just hope it’s not his bar tab.

(By the way, I miss entertainment. Is it the 70s again? I’m ready for it to be the 70s again.)

However, just because a grand theory works for a lot of things, it doesn’t mean that it explains everything. The moral arc taken by Barnabas Collins could be seen as his torture, but it’s a spectacularly risky and unsuccessful one. After all, although it is emotionally ruinous, it leads to his ultimate success as an ethical man. It could be that some other source is influencing the narrative. For a long time, I couldn’t really figure out who it was. Now, I do.


Just because she’s a child doesn’t mean that she lacks the ability or gumption to manipulate as many spectral workings as possible.  Perhaps this entire story is a contest of wills between the two of them. Because, when properly motivated, there are few things more unstoppable than a determined kid.  What would motivate Sarah to take on Judah Zachary? Well, his one-time protégé, Angelique, may have strayed from her master, but he he still trained her. Imagine that you die and suddenly see the full narrative that drove your life and demise? Not only that, but if Sarah thought his student was bad news, the teacher was practically Newsmax. 

But in death, Sarah realizes that she has a living agent, which is more than can be said for most of the regulars on The Love Boat. Her red right hand to punish Judah is her immortal brother. She knows Barnabas’ strengths, and more than that, she knows his failings. She knows that he is a raw element that must be tempered and honed before he can be properly deployed in battle. And, as with anyone who takes on transforming Poppin Fresh from an unbaked doughboy into a rockhard brick of weaponized  melba toast, ready to scrape the roof of evil‘s mouth, there will be pain. 

And it could be a combination of the two things. With Judah becoming increasingly aware of this inconvenient Vampire and his tough, grizzled, eight-year-old girl of a ringside Burgess Meredith, he puts more and more obstacles in the path. Looking at episode 855, it might be the result of the manipulation of Sarah. Or it might be the result of the manipulation of Judah Zachary. Or it could be the two of them going at it. Maybe Judah rips Josette into the past, and Sarah sends Barnabas after her. Or perhaps Sara has set the whole thing up to test her brother’s character.

The episode is a hidden treasure. Soon, the series will turn into a sequence of hidden treasures. Every episode will be a reward for having watched all of the others. But right now, this exists like the Time Trap sequence around the 660s. It’s a seemingly superfluous gift that exists more as an example of the show’s Hellzapoppin exuberance than as a piece of mechanical storytelling necessity. It feels like it’s their way of saying, “and here’s a special something for being a loyal viewer.“ After all, the show doesn’t exactly specialize in two or three episode “very special events.”  We’ve been trained to expect this kind of side trip to last for months. In fact, Dark Shadows is the only show I know of where the special sequences contain fewer episodes than the average storyline, rather than more.  

At this point, they don’t even really bother with a time travel mechanism. Basically, don’t stand too close to a portrait of Josette while there’s a fire going in the fireplace. Similarly, don’t look at someone who is standing too close to a portrait of Josette while there’s a fire going in the fireplace. It’s just science. And that’s not what you came here for. But if it is, give me a minute and I’ll put on a lab coat and Dr. Lang’s surgical chaps. 

Still, this is part of the plot of the overall series, and if you want the benefits of any kind of overarching story themes, you have to put on an apron with me, grab a hammer, and bang away at these things in the rationalization forge. The fact that there is no seeming time travel mechanism is the entire point. It’s a wonderful mystery that invests us in interpreting the story. If we realize that part of the Leviathans’ plan is to both put the whammy in Barnabas AND hold, and let me see if I remember this correctly, the ghost of Josette as hostage (as a back up), then perhaps this was orchestrated by them to remind Barnabas of the intensity of his feelings for her.  Maybe it was Sarah’s doing, to remind Barnabas of the stakes underlying his ongoing crusades. Or, you know, “Judah Zachary,” because it’s pretty convenient to blame him for everything from the destruction of Collinwood in 1970 to some of those sweaters they made David Henesy wear toward the end of the series.  

It’s an immensely gratifying episode. It’s almost like seeing Barnabas at his high school reunion, vowing to undo everything he did to that bathroom stall in the science building when he was a sophomore. It’s one of the most authentic examples the series gives us of his evolution. Literally, a side-by-side portrait. You know, if one of the sides is hundreds of episodes prior. He is making the decisions we wanted to see him make In the first place. And he’s making the decisions that we suspected he was capable of back then. And now. 

It’s Barnabas at his most tender and heroic. When he tells Angelique that he can only give her his gratitude, he is being honest. By 1840, that would be enough for her. So in a sense, it is as much of a trial for her as it is for him. His mistake is in seeing her as the woman who saved his life in 1897. Yes, people can change. But not yet. This moment of her embittered selfishness doesn’t make us hate her as much as it makes us pity her, and it adds a depth to the ultimate forgiveness that she will show him in their final voyage.

As he made plans with Kitty in 1897, we have never seen him happier nor more confident nor more fulfilled. This adds a harrowing context to the impersonal turn towards a larger evil that he will take in the next few episodes. 

So, why? Why do they do this to him? If not the characters in the series, then the actual people making it? 

Every time I think I know every kind of crazy there is, I meet an entirely new kind of crazy. And that’s how we learn. For Barnabas, a man with a tenuous relationship with reality at best, every time he thinks that the universe is finally reflecting his opinion of what it should be, it piledrives him into reality. And he must climb the steps of Mount Morality once again. But he is not a video game character, continually leveling up. If the real subtitle of the show is The Continuing Education of Barnabas Collins, his cycle of ethical awareness followed by cynical downfalls gives him greater and more nuanced understandings of humanity with each turn. Because it’s not just his story. It’s our story as we venture out of the idealism of the Enlightenment and into being enlightened. 

The difference finally reveals itself in 1840. Up to the fall we are about to see, his heroism has been driven toward redressing who he was in the past, trying to bring the modern world into alignment with the aspirations of his era of origin.  Everything he does is about repairing the past. Because the past is safe. The past is a known quantity. 

What he has yet to attempt is building a bridge to the future unknown. That’s what his final arc, after this and after the Leviathans, will teach him to do. It’s based more on accepting what is rather than what should be, and guiding that with a courage that comes from saying, “I don’t know.“ Because to say that requires Barnabas to let go of his greatest fear: himself.  

And he does. And good for him. And I would like to think, good for Sarah.

This episode was broadcast Nov. 14, 1969.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Review: Dark Shadows and Beyond: The Jonathan Frid Story


He was a quiet celebrity. After the magnesium flash of Dark Shadows’ explosive popularity waned, his work was idiosyncratic, and his life was free of scandal. Good news for Jonathan Frid, but potentially bad news for audiences. As much as we might feel heartbroken over the bad behavior of a celebrity, it makes for compelling and suspenseful viewing. Frid is one of the most challenging subjects in that regard. I’m not sure he even made a rolling stop at 3 a.m. (In fact, did he drive?) He’s not so much a study in contradictions as much as a study in measured, reasonable judgment. You know, a Canadian.

Get it on AMAZON!
Think of the challenges. He was a horror star who walked away from it until years later when he could produce it on his terms. He was an actor, yes, with far more hours of filmed performance than many Hollywood luminaries. But you had to be a Dark Shadows fan to see it… Or you had to be very lucky to catch him in a live show… if he went through your town… and if you heard about it in time. He was adored by his costars but never became intimate with them. He even quit smoking at a reasonable time. So how do you make a movie of that?

Jonathan Frid’s friend, collaborator, and business partner, Mary O’Leary, has produced a ringing success, neither clinical nor cloying. An authentic affection and sense of human warmth run throughout the entire film, but it never invades. Enlightens, yes. The interview segments are fresh and cheerful, but I never feel something is being withheld or whitewashed. Instead, it’s a chance to see actors share their passion for their community's best and most professional. Which is a relief for everyone. 

Especially notable is the development of the “Clunes community” of collaborators who worked with Frid throughout the 1980s and 90s. Director O’Leary was one of them, as were Will McKinley (who emerges as the movie's emotional heart) and Nancy Kersey. Each came to Frid’s attention in similar ways. Writing to and about him, they emphasized a point he may have been missing; Jonathan Frid had more talent and potential than the world was getting to see. The drive to explore and better himself compelled Frid to work, but on his terms. As a result, there is a hint of a sensible and profoundly Canadian Cyrano that unspools over a feature-length running time that feels over far too soon. 

There are surprises, yes, but those are for Mary O’Leary to deploy. She does so with graciousness and a kinetic eye. The literate and literary gent is very much alive in the film, as is his mordant wit and natural dignity. It’s very much the film that Jonathan Frid deserves.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: September 24

Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1106


Barnabas Collins decides that the only man who can help him avert the apocalypse is the last man he can trust: himself. Barnabas: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Gerard thinks he has Julia by the short hairs when he dangles a newfangled earring in front of her as evidence that she comes from another time. Her explanation is credible enough to send Gerard away, leaving her time to conspire with Ben Stokes about recruiting Barnabas for the campaign. Ben finds Barnabas in the Old House, saying goodbye to Josette’s portrait… and dominance over his future. As he reasons with the Vampire, the present day version of Barnabas consults with Ben’s descendant.  Surrounded by an insane Carolyn and a suicidal Quentin, Barnabas is compelled to use the I Ching wands to take the battle to 1840. He immediately encounters the vision of Julia‘s grave. 

Dark Shadows is turning to its most forbidden topic: endings. The job of a soap is to perpetuate misery. It resolves one one source only after it slides in another. But this phase of the show is replete with endings, conclusions and assorted apotheoses. We’ve seen Collinwood destroyed, and that’s how the ending begins! How do you top that? That kind of question surges within 1113 with urgent power. It begins with fatalism and then asks, “Is that all you got?” This is the perverse optimism that you find only at funerals. Because when the universe falls apart, the only certainty is change.  

With Barnabas, we even see double! The show continues its audacious presentation of parallel storylines — two different centuries with overlapping casts and one character appearing in both. The most unique acting challenge for Jonathan Frid is playing two different versions of Barnabas, both of whom have their counterparts in the relative future. And Dark Shadows is the only show where the future is 130 years in both directions. This storyline has a bad rap for being confusing. I suppose if you struggle to do things like drop pennies and straighten unknotted rope, you’ll find this baffling. But if you can manage those arduous tasks, 1840 is a pleasure.

Barnabas Collins may be the long suffering and occasionally non-beating heart of Dark Shadows, but Julia Hoffman is its soul. (Drop me a line if you can really explain the difference. But it sounds good.)  Following her into 1840, it’s clear how far she has come. She began as a conniving, intellectually ruthless, arrogant invader. If Collinwood tortures its beloved sons and daughters, you can imagine when an outsider puts it in a bad mood. Julia pays her dues. Now, she is on the other end of that process.  

Her scene at the beginning of the episode is a well-earned tribute to smug. She deflects Gerard’s smarmy interrogation with a cool efficiency that borders on decadent relish. Julia knows that she could die at any point. She knows that she is far over her abundantly-coiffed head. Not only is she fearless, but she has learned to take pleasure in hoisting her enemies with extra petard. Supernatural bullies specialize in lording for bidden knowledge over the rest of us. As Julia frustrates their efforts, her sense of “take that“ is not only admirable, it’s infectious. Had Victoria Winters remained on the show, this is the main character we might have gotten. Although I doubt it. Julia‘s age, gumption, and guile are impossible to imagine with anyone else. We are seeing Dan Curtis‘s dream, after all. Just by way of the real world.

Meanwhile, Barnabas truly turns a corner as he finally takes down the painting of Josette. After all, she let go of him. And she has given him the permission to move on. That’s on her end; this is a matter of his own choice. It involves the sort of courage that people can only show when they too close a tragedy.  There is a grace period in the time immediately following a tragedy, before its burdens become a part of us. Oddly, decommissioning Josette is a job that could only be accomplished by the 1840 version of Barnabas… and the 1970 version of Barnabas. Anything in between had had just enough time to become obsessed with his loss, but not enough experience to contemplate life without it.

Barnabas is speaking for himself and the writers when he boasts, “the word safe has no meaning for me.“  

It’s an extraordinary point of freedom… everything is possible because nothing is possible. It’s the same kind of desperate bravery shown by the producers as they introduce a backwards echo of Pansy Faye, with the nobler ancestor, Leticia Faye. It’s a character whose existence has no practical sense, but has such a poetic ring of truth that pedantic cavils are undone before they can be spoken. Leticia is there because it’s the most interesting continuing character that Nancy Barrett crafted, and because Nancy Barrett intrinsically belongs at Collinwood as its neurotic and self-punishing ray of light.  And who has the time to wallow in trivia when they have a 50 year old soap opera to write about? One of the story’s primary themes is the decay of our aspirations over time.  The introduction of Leticia manages to accomplish this… backwards. Somehow, Letitia is an ancestor of Pansy. And somehow, and it may just be the semiotic impact of a more natural hair color, Leticia feels a little more humane and relatable. 

And she’s not the only double in the episode. Leticia is confident in her use of the supernatural. But Nancy Barrett also plays the vaguely psychic Carolyn in 1113. Her encounter with the paranormal has driven her quite mad, pitting the two characters against each other. Similarly, we have a scene in 1840 where Ben Stokes reasons with his former master to show courage and trust.  This transitions to a scene over a century later, in the same house, where Elliot Stokes shows a newly dawning sense of hesitation and Barnabas must rally him into action. 

Moments before, the 1970 Barnabas is introduced under a looming portrait of himself from haughtier and happier days. He is attached to his chair, Hamleting himself to the point that a skull may appear in his palm at any moment. 

Barnabas is either on the verge of implosion or explosion. He seethes with Stokes’ report on the funerals for Carrie, Daphne, Elizabeth, and the assassinated future of the Collins family, David. These are unthinkably bold and permanent strokes of storytelling, and they engage Barnabas as they engage us. He has spent his second and third lives doubting his place in the future, and it has suddenly passed him by.

It is in this moment that Barnabas truly appreciates the ability that makes him unique. He alone can use the curse of immortality to travel within his own lifespan in either direction. For the trip to 1897, this discovery was an accident. Now, it’s invocation is a mandate.  

Barnabas rallies to a rare moment of decisive and ferocious action at the thought. He can only be haunted by the past for so long. Within the space of just a few lines this gentlemen of the past again becomes the last best hope for the future. A year ago, this might have been executed with a sense of insouciant elan worthy of Alexander Dumas. Frid avoids letting any twinkle spark his eye. Too many people have died. Too many regrets filled the ledger.  Yes, he is answering the call to adventure, but it is with gravitas and respect.  And yet again, the series reinvents itself.  

Too often, he is written off as villain literally defanged after his first few months.  I will admit, he spends a frustrating amount of time doubting his next move.  But even when Barnabas is at his most mournfully indecisive, he is, to me, the Great Man. It’s in scenes like these, today, that we see why. In fact, those other moments of ethical denial and over-intellectualized paralysis are what make episodes like 1113 such a joy. 

And the universe surrounding him seems to be in agreement. Even Elliot argues with him about the risks of such a journey, Carolyn glides downstairs for a late afternoon cocktail and yet another nervous break down as Quentin tries to hang himself upstairs.  As if to prove Barnabas’ point. Once Barnabas tries a tentative trance, the first thing he sees is Julia Hoffman‘s tombstone from 1840. A call to adventure, indeed.

And you wanted to talk about risk, Professor Stokes? Let’s talk about risk.  Risk may be James T. Kirk‘s business. But for Barnabas Collins, it is his very life.  

And I can say the same for Dan Curtis.

This episode was broadcast Sept. 30, 1970.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Press Conference with the Vampire, 1968

Sometime during the fall of 1968, Jonathan Frid conducted a press conference with dozens college and high school newspaper writers. He did this from the comfort of ABC's headquarters in New York City, with only a handful of young journalists in the room with him. Most of the participants spoke to the actor via telephone, courtesy of ABC affiliate WSIX-TV in Nashville, Tenn.

I say "sometime" because it's a little unclear on when this event took place. During the late 1960s, the news media wasn't as entertainment-driven as it is today. Even small town newspapers didn't give much coverage to celebrities when they hit town, often burying them in the back pages of the publication .. when they covered them at all. And even today, syndicated stories tend to run whenever the hell features editors decide they'll run, which is almost always as a tool to fill an editorial hole on a page. Good editors don't kill locally generated stories to make room for syndicated material, which makes researching events like this 1968 press conference a little complicated.

News materials documenting this press conference were published on a scattering of dates during November and December that year, and were edited to exclude direct references to the date of the event (usually a sign that an editor is trying to mask stale content.) A story published in The Tennessean Sun suggests it took place shortly before Halloween, though. "Editors Interview Vampire - From A Safe Distance" was published on Oct. 27. It was the second virtual press conference staged by WSIX-TV, according to the story, but the writer doesn't mention who was involved with the first.

If you've ever read an interview with Jonathan Frid, you pretty much know how the Q&A session went. He spoke about Shakespeare ("My big ambition after doing my job on 'Dark Shadows' is to do 'Richard III' on television," he told the kids) and his adjustment to television acting (“I never thought I would like television,but now I love it. The only thing I don't like about the series is the pressure. The first six months I was uptight every day.”)

"It was really neat," said Mindy Sterman, a student at Hillwood High School. "I just never knew anything like this could be done."

So, yeah ... not a lot of new material here. This is the kind of event that makes for a better podcast than a 10" newspaper summary, but that kind of medium was still decades away. I wonder if any of these kids held on to their recordings of the event?

Below are photos from the press conference. The first shows Frid at ABC in New York City, the second shows writers at WSIX-TV in Nashville, Tenn.

UPDATE: Jim Pierson of Dan Curtis Productions recently unearthed this crisp photo from the press conference in Nashville.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: September 14

Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1106


When Julia and Willie open what might be the box for Barnabas’ RealDoll, they discover the RealTruth, which may be a RealPain in the neck! Roxanne: Donna Wandrey. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Julia and Willie discover Roxanne’s coffin. Barnabas’ love for her prevents them from killing her. Barnabas traps her in the Old House, pursued by Sebastian, who later opens her coffin and aims a gun inside.  

The show has seven months left. 

A wildly successful storyline in 1897 was followed up by three storylines that command unfavorable comparison. A movie has been released that depicts most of these characters getting killed. They are no longer “just” cultural giants with symbolic weight. They are simply characters. Not icons. No matter how much the public adores them, they are just storytelling pawns for the producers. The show is still successful. It could be argued, though, that it has released just enough grasp on its identity that we can suddenly contemplate the world without it. 

It’s too late in the series for this, and because of that, it’s all the more welcome. Here we are, in the midst of all of this Dark Shadow when... what should break out? Dark Shadows. It was a year ago that the show outgrew its habitat. Like almost any living thing, it had to. After incremental evolutions and explorations, the show found its apotheosis in 1897. And after exploring the wildest potentials of Cold War Gothic storytelling for four years and three different eras, few possibilities seemed left in the genre. 

Besides, they had become their own genre. After four years and a very successful summer of learning to break the rules, they were now in a position to make the rules. So, why not cure Barnabas? Is there anything really left? And if you're going to cure Barnabas, you might as well give Quentin a happy ending also. Even though he's only been around for a bit, it seems like he's earned it. Besides, have we really had a leading man who wasn’t also trying to kill Roger? Or kidnap Maggie? Or constantly avoid Willie's inquiries about why he has yet to make employee of the month when he is, in fact, the only employee?

So, for the prior year (more or less) the show has been basking in its own glow. Yes, let's have some Paul Stoddard. Heck, we can bring Paul Stoddard in and then turn around and kill him. Why not have a snake cult? It gives things a touch of super-spy panache. Heck, let's make a movie and send the rest of the cast into a parallel dimension. Let Thayer have that pencil-thin mustache he's always pining for. 

And it was confident. And it was ambitious. Ans just very vaguely on the launching pad of desperate. And it is now so confident and ambitious that we careen towards the apocalypse by default. Because what's left, really? If the show were a growing person, it has reached the dark and mordant introspection of early middle age. Gerard sits in the center of a postmodern, existential labyrinth, mocking the enlightenment and industrial revolution heroes with rumors of inevitable doom. It refuses to disclose its weapons, much less its terms of surrender. Why should it? It needs no weapons. There are no terms of surrender, because there will be no surrender. Only complete annihilation. 

Gloomy stuff. Compelling, but gloomy. Profound thinking usually goes there with enough self actualization. After all, death and cancellation come for us all, even the undead. The show was drawn from some of the finest works of literature. If literature eventually follows the bleak-but-contemporary highway of modernism, so must Dark Shadows. And we've been trained to accept it over the past year and define Dark Shadows by this woeful Weltanschauung

So there it is. Sulking around Rose Cottage with its Weltanschauung hanging out. And then along comes an all-star tribute to Dark Shadows by Dark Shadows. Almost as if the writers were nostalgic for their salad days, when the biggest concerns revolved around life’s simple pleasures, like a chained coffin containing one of your loved ones. You know, that special someone who may be up for a stake through the heart, or a lifetime of starving imprisonment with the symbol of a dispassionate God burning a hole through their chest, or maybe just a big, warm hug. It's that kind of episode. Beginning in a crypt with stake wielding vampire hunters, it remains faithful to the only sets that may matter — the Old House Drawing Room with Capn’ Matthew Morgan’s Rubbermaid Big Max Love Dungeon behind the bookcase, and another suitably gothic setting where Roxanne’s  coffin has been waiting for this moment,

And of course, being Dark Shadows, that moment ends up being intentionally unintentionally riotous. Roxanne has been a vampire since 1840. So, for 130 years? Which is far longer than Barnabas has been a vampire. Taking into account elapsed time and all, Barnabas has only been a vampire for two or three years. You would think that she would've figured out someplace more secure to sleep it off. Julia and Willie might know one end of a stake from another, but they are not exactly the team that you call in to test an impenetrable security system. I doubt they could cut line at the Stake ’n' Ale salad bar. 

It's hard to tell how many times Roxanne almost dies in this episode. Her coffin is opened constantly. And when it's not opened, there's somebody going in just stand by it and think about opening it. But the same thing happened to Barnabas when Petofi had him as a prisoner. Captors were constantly opening it up, taking the cross off, letting them stretch, putting the cross back on, closing the lid, and then repeating the process all over again. No wonder Barnabas had to sleep in a coffin. He was exhausted. That wasn't dictated by the rules of the supernatural. It was a political statement to his captors. 

If this is full of impossibly active characters who never quite appear. We've already talked about how exhausted Roxanne must be. But the really exhausted and insulted character Has to be Quentin. When Julia comes up with her big scheme to calm Barnabas by confronting him with absolute emotional chaos, she realizes that Willie Loomis isn't up for the job of catering and décor. So, completely off stage, she sends for Quentin to help move the coffin. I'm sure he's thrilled. At this point, Quentin has so little to do that he's reduced to schlepping wildly heavy crates offstage. We assume it’s by hand, because I don't think Quentin is the station wagon type in that moment.

It's a teachable moment; check with Julia before giving Liz the keys to the forklift for some big date.

But amidst all of the nostalgia and silliness and morbid merriment, the old-school nature of the episode also serves an important purpose for the plot to come. Even though this is a new world of gods and monsters, so unlike the one just a year prior, it is still inhabited by the heroes who were shaped by that earlier age. And where does it all eventually go? Barnabas loses Angelique after discovering the unalloyed nature of his love. So, everything from there-back to here is a setup for that moment. In a startling fit of maturity, Barnabas muses that he is truly is beyond Josette. 

Why? Josette was just the most proximate cure to the underlying problem: loneliness. If the show is “about” Barnabas, which, let’s not kid ourselves, it is, then his primary concern is the primary concern of the show. It's the most inconvenient of primary concerns. It's one that no one wants to hear about. Again, loneliness. I think this is what drives Barnabas. It rests balefully under the veneer of the pursuit of Josette. And it's tendrils stretch across the storylines. The show begins with Elizabeth, whose loneliness is self-imposed, sending for an orphan to tutor a motherless child who, for all we know, has been making his own braunschweiger sandwiches for breakfast since he was four. The entire program deals with the lonely hangover of the fellowship party that ended a decade or two before the show even began. 

Stake or seduce, Barnabas? The indecision he faces is emblematic of the entire program. Is Roxanne the ultimate companion, or is she the opportunity for ultimate redemption? Is she the only one who can truly understand the pain of his existence, is she just close enough to seem familiar, or does her ruthlessness demand elimination? Barnabas is paralyzed by these considerations. And it's an important opportunity to just pause for a moment.

It’s only the smallest grand decision of his life. 

This episode was broadcast Sept. 21, 1970.

Friday, August 13, 2021

The Jonathan Frid Story comes to home video Oct. 5

Dark Shadows and Beyond: The Jonathan Frid Story
, a feature-length documentary about the life of the late actor, is coming to home video Oct. 5 from MPI.

The film reveals the real man beneath the vampire's cloak, exploring Frid's personal and professional struggles, artistic triumphs and rise to fame. Among the family, friends and co-workers who offer fresh insights are veteran talk show host and Yale Drama School classmate Dick Cavett, actresses Marion Ross (Arsenic & Old Lace) and Christina Pickles (Seizure), American Shakespeare Festival associate Anthony Zerbe and Dark Shadows colleagues David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, Nancy Barrett, Marie Wallace and James Storm. The documentary also includes rare performance footage and previously unseen interviews and archival materials from Frid's private collection.

Special features include:

  • Dark Shadows PBS Special/Jonathan Frid Interview​
  • Jonathan Frid Reads The Legend of Sleepy Hollow​
  • A Dark Shadows Letter From Jonathan​
  • Jonathan Frid Dark Shadows Promo
  • Jonathan Frid Photo Gallery​
  • Dark Shadows Scenes: The Best of Barnabas

Dark Shadows and Beyond: The Jonathan Frid Story is available for pre-order from Amazon at

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Joan Bennett's love life gets the true crime treatment


Vanity Fair, V.F. and Cadence13 are teaming up for Love Is a Crime, a 10-part podcast about the 1951 scandal that mostly ended the career of Joan Bennett. The cast of the serial, which launches Aug. 17, includes Zooey Deschanel as Bennett, Jon Hamm as husband Walter Wanger, Griffin Dunne as agent Jennings Lang, Mara Wilson as Joan’s older movie-star sister, Constance, and Adam Mortimer as Joan’s turbulent father, Richard.

Karina Longworth (You Must Remember This) and filmmaker Vanessa Hope -- the granddaughter of Bennett and Wanger -- will lead listeners through the story of how Bennett found herself embroiled in a love triangle than ended with her husband shooting her agent. Believing his wife was cheating on him with Lang, Wagner decided to solve the problem by shooting Lang in the balls. Lang took a bullet to the inner thigh and Wanger spent four months in jail.

You can read more about Love Is a Crime at Vanity Fair.

The Dark Shadows Daybook tops Amazon's sale chart

Less than 24 hours after going on sale, The Dark Shadows Daybook has topped the Amazon sales chart for "TV Guides & Reviews." As I write this, the print edition of the book sits at #1 on the chart, with the Kindle edition following behind at #3. The Golden Girls better watch their backs.

Monday, August 9, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook is now an actual book!

It feels a little strange writing an announcement for this book. First off, if you've been visiting this website with any kind of frequency, you already know about our feature The Dark Shadows Daybook. Patrick McCray has been writing it in various formats since 2016. He was named "Writer of the Year" by The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards for the feature in 2017. "Dark Shadows does not have a more devoted critic," says Angelique herself, Lara Parker. We asked Kathryn Leigh Scott to take a look at an early proof of the book, which she calls "a stunning collection." The feature even has fans outside of Collinsport, with Fangoria EIC Phil Nobile, Jr. calling the book a "better, deeper, and more thoughtful analysis than anyone ever imagined this show would ever get." Diana Prince, the latest and greatest incarnation of "Darcy the Mail Girl" at The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs says "If you’re a fan of the venerable vampire soap, you simply MUST check out this book!"

So you see, this is a pretty big deal for us here at The Collinsport Historical Society. Our hometown boy has done good.  

The weird thing, though, is that Patrick and I have been living with this book for about 20 months already. The world was a very different place when we first started piecing together this collection. We've since been hit with a global pandemic, witnessed an attempted government coup, and have lost a tragic number of original Dark Shadows cast members. On a personal note, I'm minus a minor -- though not insignificant -- part of my body courtesy of a small case of cancer last Christmas. This announcement feels to me like the final reel of Death Race 2000.

"But what's in the book?" you ask? It contains dozens of installments of The Dark Shadows Daybook that have appeared here over the years, revised and edited to create a narrative analysis of the series. While not every episode of Dark Shadows is covered (if you've ever seen the series you know why THAT would be a bad idea) Patrick hits the high notes, from the first episode in 1966 to the show's bow in 1971. There are even a few bonus features in the book's back matter.

We also scored an introduction from my pal Dana Gould, whose credits could fill a book of their own. Because I want to give this blog post a bump in Google's analytics, I should at least mention his work as a writer/producer/actor on The Simpsons. But he's also a brilliant comic and appears in the best two horror anthologies of the last 30 years, Southbound and Tales of Halloween.

And me? I designed the book and provided a number of illustrations.

The print edition of The Dark Shadows Daybook is now available on Amazon at  You can get the Kindle edition at

And don't forget to leave us a review there!

- Wallace

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: August 5

Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 817


With David’s life in the balance over two centuries, Quentin learns that he lacks the one thing Petofi is determined to master: Time. David Collins: David Henesy. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Petofi allows Quentin to visit Barnabas in his coffin, and learns that the road to 1969 might be more challenging than he thought. Beth breaks from tending to David, now astrally trapped in Jamison’s body, to serve Barnabas… until Petofi shows her a vision of her vampiric future. 

Somewhere in the wilderness… as seen on a backlot.

Please, Robert Bly, put away the drum and step away from the fire with that drink. Who can see it’s a pousse cafe in a Yeti mug, anyway? No one’s impressed. Sure, we all think it’s mead. Now please go away before Paul Elam hears us and wakes up. Yes, we’re going to talk about manliness, as is my wont, but not your kind. We shall have no deep feelings shared nor bonding acknowledged, thank you. Because that’s all a bit much. Manhood is the opposite of flatulence. He who smell’t it is most certainly incapable of having dealt it. 

Go back and read that in Count Petofi’s voice. Yes, you hear the music, too. 

Manhood. Whatever that means. This really is a core reason of why I love Dark Shadows. Wallace and I have been in the midst of assembling the Daybook Book in fits and starts, and I frequently inundate him with new title ideas. Today’s? “How to Love Dark Shadows.” More accurately, it might be, “Why I Love Dark Shadows.” Episode 817 is a good place to start. 

As Wallace once wrote, “Dark Shadows doesn’t tell a story. It accumulates one.” If there is any real story to the show, it’s ours… the viewers’. Dark Shadows is a tough show to watch. It’s an even tougher show to “get.” It takes time away from our lives. Yet it becomes a genuine companion, ever-changing. And we can’t help but be changed by it. 

So, what is it… this Dark Shadows? You know the answer. It’s okay, we’re amongst friends. 

Dark Shadows is Barnabas Collins. Thus, transitively speaking, he is what changes us. Knowing him. Watching the arc of his second life… maybe even his Sansara. Feeling the pressure to make decisions burst into full-on choice. This daily immersion slowly wears away the import of our world and replaces it with his. 

817 is so beautifully resonant because it lets us step back and look at Barnabas and Quentin as the pure friends we always wanted them to be. Every Gilgamesh needs an Enkidu. That was a lesson in manhood for me when I first saw it. These things, if they are to have value, must be unexamined. They can only be acknowledged through silence. Ergo, I must write an essay about it. What’s more, Dark Shadows lets us ponder the power of the soap opera format to build that friendship in real-time, from a place of intense distrust. Its success both sneaks up on us and seems like the most natural thing in the underworld. Quentin approaches Barnabas in the coffin, and the respect and affection they share is effortless. David Selby does most of the heavy lifting in the scene. It’s some of his best work because it’s so relaxed, attentive, focused, and authentically kind. In the midst of a ludicrous situation which sneezes squarely in the soup of “write what you know,” he is like the very real stone in a Zen sand garden. 

Later, when Quentin compares notes with Beth, also having returned from Petofi’s, their conversation about the supernatural is stunningly casual-yet-intense. They are beyond romance and beyond the bodice-ripping hullabaloo that encapsulates how we met them. They are, maybe, friends, but colleagues-in-wartime, first. My, how things have changed in four months. And who was the agent of those changes? Barnabas, by action and by example, goes from being a stranger in his own hometown to the Jackie Daytona that everyone needs-but-never-knew-it. Beth needs a concerned mentor with no ulterior motives. Quentin needs a (literally) Edwardian hand of structure with no judgement. Selby’s Quentin is increasingly aware that, no matter how much Barnabas divulges about the future, there is something darker that he’s not being told. A few months ago, Quentin would have seized on the existence of such a secret. Now, we get the sense that he’s somewhat relieved at being sheltered from it. It’s a world all too eager to talk about ugly truths, and as 1897 goes on, it does so with less comical hysteria and more wistful acceptance. This is an episode where a twelve year old boy asks a woman what it feels like to die. 

They’ve all been awakened from the sleep by Barnabas Collins. And so have we. Dark Shadows, for once, talks about what matters at the most primal level… how the ritual changes us. Its characters become us and we become the characters. Down to Beth watching herself become a vampire on a suspiciously television-like box in Petofi’s chambers. It’s the only show that matters. 

This episode was broadcast Aug. 12, 1969.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

In memoriam: Ron Popeil (1935-2021)

By Patrick McCray

We lost him a few hours ago, and in losing him, we lost one of the last, great American originals from the silent generation. Although the news will provide others with the fodder for lazy punchlines, American innovator Ron Popeil is worth far more. The medium of television in the era of Dark Shadows was more than just a chain of 23 minute episodes squeezed into a half hour. It was a ritual that streaming, physical media, and convenience have robbed us of. And thus, whether we hear the pitchmen from in front of the television or from behind the bathroom door, TV commercials are as much of the text experience as the intended programming.

He belongs to Collinwood as much as anyone else. And although he was neither actor nor character nor Dan Curtis Productions employee, he was nevertheless a presence in hundreds of episodes. And like the literal characters who inhabit the Dark Shadows universe, he was part sorcerer and part comforting friend. He trafficked in pure imagination and the art of the unexpected, but with a sincere flair that reminded you that he was uniquely postwar, all American, And every bit on your side. 

Ron Popeil was, above all, an innovator and, if either had the time to bother with the other, was Howard Rorke to Wendell Berry’s Ellsworth Toohey. The latter sold those of us with good manners and letters after our names on the myth that labor saving technology was lazy, suspect, and responsible for divorcing us from an authentic human existence. And that’s why very few parents ever hired Wendell Berry to appear at kids’ birthday parties.

A college dropout, Popeil joined his inventor-father in the family business responsible for the Veg-o-Magic and Chop-o-Matic kitchen utensils. There is only so much romance to mincing vegetables, and beyond chasing the almighty dollar by convincing the American public that they desperately needed something they had no idea existed, Popeil and son were also domestic innovators. Just those two inventions alone saved postwar Americans countless hours to spend on other things. As someone who is missing a healthy section of the pad of his thumb due to an expertly crafted kitchen knife, I can attest that they are far safer. 

They not only changed how Americans interacted with their domestic lives; the Popeils changed our relationship with technology and the very process of learning about it. Carrying on in his father‘s footsteps, Popeil was a tireless inventor who had the necessary creativity to look beyond good taste and provide the workin’ Joe and Jane with tools to elevate the ordinary. Or just bring a goofy grin to families that needed it. There was a sense of excitement and wonder that Popeil brought to to his inventions, turning the mundane into something almost countercultural. By preparing his demonstrations on videotape, Popeil was a key visionary in the field of retail communication. That’s the technical side of his second art: sales. But what truly made Popeil such a pop pioneer was the infectious excitement for his inventions… and his sincere affection for the consumers. Beyond his well-tuned mantras reassuring us that the gadgets “really, really work,” was the subtext that we deserved better. To listen to Ronco ads is to hear a voice suggesting that those who came before him in domestic engineering were content for us to settle for less. Why must the future start with billion  dollar space vehicles out of our reach? Why can’t it inhabit our homes, as well?

Yes, anyone who creates so many varied products will be an object lesson in Sturgeon’s Law. 90% of everything will be crap. A mechanical mug froster, spray-on-hair, and a machine to scramble eggs in the shell are bizarre must-haven’ts. But there is a giddy audacity to them that keeps them memorable. In reviewing Ronco products just now, I was struck by how much Popeil lived in the future. I saw many Ronco innovations that respectable manufacturers simply allowed him to beta test. Before they took half the risk for twice the price. 

Go to a Williams Sonoma or surf the Internet for high priced life tools, and Ron Popeil will be staring back at you, having gotten there first. Oxo has nothing on the man, and it owes him a moral fortune. Veg-o-Matic-like food choppers can now be had respectably in the most chic of boutiques. The same can be said for the “innovation“ of lumbar support in motor vehicles.  Air purifiers. Spill-proof commuter mugs. Teeth cleaning equipment modeled on dental  tools. His final claim to fame and fortune, the countertop rotisserie oven, may seem dubious in the era of air fryers and pressure cookers. That’s until you think of the comparatively exotic and healthy recipes suddenly in reach of the renters of tiny, joyless studio apartments or denizens of dorm rooms. Suddenly, life has a lot more possibilities, even if in three easy installments.

Of course he would accompany Dark Shadows. After all, what was that program but the reinvention of time-honored story elements from bold, new perspectives to delight modern audiences? Helpful then. Helpful now.  That’s a shared tradition of American vision that we can all get behind.  Both are symbiotic and endearing legacies as seen on tv.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...