Monday, June 27, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: June 27

Aired on this day in 1966: Episode 1


A sophisticated New Yorker gives up big city life for the charm of rural America. Will she find colorful locals and a talking pig… or terror? Mr. Wells: Conrad Bain. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Victoria Winters ventures from Manhattan to Collinsport to assume the position of governess in a forbidding mansion whose owners are ambiguous about her arrival. Along the way, she meets a brooding business tycoon, quietly obsessed with her future employer’s isolation. A charismatic diner waitress, Maggie Evans, joins in the chorus of those who warn her away from Collinwood.   

Okay, so technically it's the 56th anniversary of the first episode of Dark Shadows.

Except that it really isn't. It's the 56th anniversary of the first episode of Shadows on the Wall. After all, if Art Wallace had any idea that the show would’ve wound up like it did, there’s no way that this would have been the pilot. That doesn't make the pre-Barnabas episodes inferior, but I do see them as a separate series; I think it's helpful to look through that lens. 

How to introduce Dark Shadows? I mean, really. This sets a certain atmosphere, but I'm not certain it's an atmosphere that works with the ultimate point of the show. And yet it’s still a marvelous piece of television storytelling. 

This is both a small and large episode. It exists at night, with small ghostly characters surrounded by vast swaths of darkness. Yet, it’s an expansive episode, almost an epic by comparison to the rest of the series. It has 11 characters which is over twice the norm of the program. It takes place on trains and at the Blue Whale and at Collinwood and in New York and in the Collinsport Inn lobby and at the attached diner and even on a lonely street corner. It takes two cities to tell this story and uses abundant flashbacks, thus told over multiple days even though it's also just a tiny slice of one endless night. 

As the next episodes go on, they will all be taking place over this “day.” And yet this day begins after dark, and if that's supposed to be in early to mid June, during some of the longest days of the year, how long is that evening? That strange timelessness creates a wonderfully surreal slice of pure atmosphere. And pure atmosphere is what powers the entire story as we learn about Victoria Winters and her quest for home and meaning and identity, so yes, it’s the 56th anniversary of the first episode of Shadows on the Wall. And without that, we would have had no Dark Shadows. Let’s celebrate it as its own animal. And yes, I know it's all one big text and it's one big story. And yes, I am violating my own rules by looking at this as more of a slice of real-world production than the first piece of a 1225 piece puzzle. But what’s analysis without a little internal contradiction, right? 

It's fun to watch how Art Wallace deploys the characters, sets, and information that viewers will need. It gives a clear view of his priorities… and what did or did not hook audiences. 

As the episode begins, Vicki is introduced as someone in search of meaning, Having to find out as much as she possibly can about… everything. That singular need makes her oft-repeated mantra of, “I just don't understand” feel more grating for her to say than for us to hear. Meanwhile, Roger is preoccupied with the danger of bringing a stranger into the house, while Liz seems determined to do so. When we consider that Liz is the one who has been isolating herself for 18 years, this situation becomes intentionally absurd. That is a quieter mystery than Vicki’s quest. It's one to be revealed under the skin of the story, but it's more profound than any of the others. 

Painting Roger as an angry xenophobe may be the only sour note here. After all, the trial and Burke’s imprisonment were over a years ago. Unless Roger is obsessed with Burke's return, he's in a pretty comfortable place. The later Roger — of Dark Shadows — would be thrilled at someone new coming into town. And from a dramatic perspective, having him in a place of smug comfort might have been a good height from which he could fall with Burke's return. But it wouldn't give the character anywhere to go, and it sets up one more mystery — why is Roger such an intense sourpuss? 

As a character, Collinsport is depicted in a suitably dreamlike fashion; the conductor says that there are normally no regular stops there, making the town seem beyond isolated for a place with a major business within. We wonder how it can possibly hope to exist. Not only has Liz isolated herself, and not only is Collinwood a fortress from the outside, but the entire town seems insulated from any kind of external influence. We understand why Burke calls it “the beginning and the end of the world.” In her flashbacks, Vicki keeps hearing the question, “What are you going to do?” And her answer is the answer of the 20th century; to take action is to step into a void of nothingness, hoping for the best. 

Even though the episode is in black and white and it uses it magnificently, its investment in the symbolism of color is no more pointed than when we hear about what Burke and Vicki have physically brought to Collinsport. Burke is saddled with two black bags, literally representing his copious personal baggage and their ominous contents and weight. Vicki has only one piece of luggage: red. Her desirability or her heart or her intensity or sense of life? Or maybe Art Wallace just liked typing the word “red.” But it’s a passionate color, making her a tad less virginally naive when she meets her Collinsport counterpart, Maggie.

At this point they split up. Vicki stays at the inn… a place of nourishment and comfort, where people know Burke with a fond warmth incongruous with his cold demeanor. And Burke? He goes off to a bar, which says it all. He leaves the girl with the red tote and journeys to the Blue Whale. A color both sad and obscene, attached to the largest animal on the planet. Is he Jonah or Ahab or both? 

They both learn valuable information from possible allies. Or not. Vicky meets Maggie, who so little resembles the later character of Maggie Evans that the part might as well be played by Danny Trejo. Maggie is a wonderful foil for Vicki, worldly and edgy and keeping nothing to herself. They are both seemingly working class and yet nothing alike. 

At the bar, Burke learns that Elizabeth has been isolated for 18 years. That’s big news for the audience, but upon reflection it seems odd that Burke would not know some of this. He hasn’t been away that long. But the mystery of Collinwood pervades. It feels as if Vicki‘s impending danger is printed in bold on every page as the pilot moves her closer and closer to Collinwood. 

Just like Barnabas would, 211 episodes later, give or take, Vicki knocks on the door under the portmanteau to gain entry. It’s a very specific shot repeated for significant characters entering Collinwood… ones who seem to have more of a place there than many of the actual residents. As Liz ushers her in, the episode’s abrupt end brings our attention to what we still long to know.

As the camera pulls away from the conversation to follow, we feel like voyeurs yanked back into the anonymous night. It's a directorial move telling us that we have only gotten a brief glimpse. It’s a world meant to be guarded and cloaked. If we're lucky, maybe we will be allowed back in just as Vicki was allowed in. Will our stay be as brief?

It's a terse, suspenseful inauguration. What would that series have been like if it had been a success as envisioned? Within two years, Vicki would be not only lost in place, but in time as well. Her mysteries would mount rather than diminish. Perhaps Maggie never lost her brass as she gained texture and nuance. It takes grit and glamour to win the attention of television’s brainiest, most diabolical beaus. I don’t see Nicholas and Barnabas on the menu at this point, but I’m happy to hang around for them. Shadows are made to reveal surprises. Nothing could have surprised viewers more than what awaited them in the ones cast here. 

This episode hit the airwaves June 27, 1966.

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: June 23

Taped on this day in June 23, 1967: Episode  271


If it’s wedding bells for Liz and Jason, why is she ringing them with a bloody fireplace poker? Paul Stoddard: Dennis Patrick. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Liz explains why she cannot marry Jason in a flashback depicting her attempted assassination of Paul Stoddard. 18 years prior, after using the fireplace set for a rather extreme couples therapy role-play to respond to his attempts to leave, she seemingly murdered Paul, whose body was ostensibly buried in a trunk in the basement.

At this point, I really don’t know how most people watch Dark Shadows, or if there even is such a thing as “most people.” With DVDs largely dead as a medium and streaming packages insisting on separating the pre-Barnabas episodes has a weird (but potentially telling) afterthought, I really can’t responsibly begin this essay the way I would have a few years ago. Therefore, I shall.

When most people watch Dark Shadows, they begin with the unleashing of Barnabas, and immediately, it’s clear to anyone that he is not the villain of the series. It may be televisions greatest morality trick. I mean, yes he’s a kidnapper who kills people, but he’s no JR Ewing. He’s doing the former simply because he hast to eat. He’s doing the latter because he thinks, in someway, he can release the true, inner spirit from some sort of weird, working class prison of internally mistaken identity. Well, OK, he also beats the shisha out of Willie Loomis on a regular basis, but everyone has to have a hobby. And considering where he came from, that’s simply how you maintain a home appliance, like knocking a television on the side (back when they had sides) or whacking something with batteries in it to do… Whatever that’s supposed to do. Teach them manners or something. 

Realistically, the villain is obviously Jason Maguire. Jason does what he does not just out of greed, but because he legitimately enjoys torturing Liz. Maybe it’s class envy. Maybe it’s deep seated, Irish Catholic rage aimed at someone who is more than likely an atheist. Or a Protestant. And to Jason, they’re probably the same thing. We don’t know much about the alleged death of Paul Stoddard, but we know that Liz has basically made herself serve 18 years with Matthew Morgan’s cooking with no time off for good digestion. It’s clear that she feels bad and that she has done more than her share of time served.  So, we naturally feel sorry for her and that makes him all the more hateful. 

What’s worse is that Dennis Patrick is quite probably the most charming actor to ever darken the towels of Collinwood, and while it won’t be the first thing out of my mouth if I ever see a cast member again, I suspect most of them would agree with me.  So, we wind up with that weird animal of “the villain you love to hate.”   

And pardon if I digress from my digression, but doesn’t that phrase seem a little turned around? Shouldn’t you take a certain modicum of satisfaction in having the ethics to, if not love the act of hating a villain, at least have no compunction about hating them? Now that I think about it, the expression that is probably more accurate is, “the villain you hate to love.” Because you know that you should just like him, but he’s such an ingratiating person that, honestly, I often find myself thinking, “well, if I’m going to be married to a hateful parasite, at least he’s fun to be around.“

Liz has been alone for 18 years. She has more money than she knows what to do with. I’m not saying that she should fall head over heels for every extortionist who helps to bury a murdered spouse, but now that I’m thinking about it, I sort of wonder how bad life with Jason would really be. I mean, I’m sure marriage would be terrible. Especially because all of my married friends warn me that it’s terrible. But… I’ve seen close-ups of Bill Malloy‘s beard. And no, I’m not talking about Mrs. Johnson. I’m just saying that she could do worse. I see people get married for money all the time, and I have to give props to Jason for at least being honest about it.  

And you can’t say that Liz doesn’t mind slumming it when it comes to husbands. I always detected a class difference between Liz and Paul. There are never any references to the mighty Stoddard belt loop empire or whatever people make their fortunes with. (I hear rumors that it has something to do with hard work, but I haven’t the nerve to try it.) And besides, give Jason a mustache and cut off his supply of Grecian formula, and you have yourself one Paul Stoddard with a more winning accent.  

So even with all of that, Jason‘s moments of sadism are striking enough that it overcomes even Dennis Patrick’s effervescence. (Which, ironically, makes him all the more adept as an actor.) 

As a Dark Shadows viewer, this episode, and the ones that immediately follow it, are some of the first most reassuring moments for most viewers that the show will deliver. Because at this point, Barnabas has given up on Maggie, probably because he thinks she’s dead (but not in the right way). So that entire storyline vaguely feels like it went nowhere. But this one had to go somewhere. It’s a bit of terrestrial nastiness that has to end in a wedding. 

The show does such a masterful job at reiterating the source of Liz’s anxiety that, even if we have not followed it from episode one, we still feel a profound satisfaction at seeing the flashback to Paul’s murder. As a kid, I didn’t think they would ever show something like that. And you only got it once, unlike everything else on the show, where the same pivotal moments are often repeated at least five times so that everyone, no matter what day of the week they see it on, gets the thrill.  This felt like a genuine reward for paying attention and tuning in every day. It was somehow both the Easter Egg and the entire basket.

Coming about one year and a week after the show went on the air, it had to be even more luxuriously satisfying for viewers who’d been with it from the start.

It takes four more episodes for the complete dénouement. It seems like a typically excessive length until you combine it with the typically excessive build up. At which point, the five episode pay off feels almost generous. 

Watching the hand of Barnabas rise up to crush Jason‘s life was a quick and brutally satisfying moment, as well. It’s a gesture that becomes a force of nature. For Willie, it was a moment that created a new life. For Jason, it means some thing else. But it makes the force within Barnabas seem like something out of Greek mythology, a cruel and honest crucible responding to an intruder’s essence. In some ways it almost feels as if that force within Barnabas has a judgmental autonomy completely divorced from the great man. A bit like Count Petofi’s capricious hand would be several years later. Because both times, it’s basically just Barnabas‘s instinctive response to having someone throw open his bedroom door without even knocking.

And although the coffin was not necessarily rocking, Willie and Jason really should have at least greeted him from his sleep with a newspaper and some toast. 

This episode hit the airwaves July 10, 1967.