“We weren’t having an argument. We were simply discussing something.”
It’s morning at Collinwood, which means it’s time for Liz and Jason to stand around in the drawing room with the door open, and rehash their secret blackmail storyline at the top of their lungs. Looks like it’s going to be one of those days, by which I mean it’ll be night again by the start of act two.
The current crisis is that somebody broke into the house in the middle of the night, and took Willie’s clothes from his room. Nobody’s seen Willie for two days now, and Jason can’t figure out why he’d disappear without getting the money he was promised.
Now, there’s no point in having a top-secret conference in front of an open door without having somebody walk by, so here comes Carolyn, Liz’s daughter and one of the long-suffering heroines of the show. Carolyn doesn’t have a big storyline right now, but she’s pretty and headstrong, and she’s got a little crack in her voice when she feels hurt that can break your heart wide open. You won’t have to wait long for an example, because she does it about three times in every scene she’s in.
Carolyn asks her mother why they’re arguing, and Liz naturally denies everything. Carolyn presses her, and Liz exclaims,”Carolyn, please!” Carolyn gulps, “Please what? Please mind your own business? Please go away? All right, mother. All right, I’ll go.” She walks out.
We cut to the Blue Whale, Collinsport’s favorite tavern, where the music is always swinging and the extras are always silently hunched over the bar. Carolyn walks in, and I guess it took her a while to get downtown, because it was morning when she left the house, and all of a sudden it’s happy hour.
Joe greets Carolyn, and she smiles back. Burke approaches, and she gives him a freezing glare and then walks away. It’s a big day for awkward moments.
So the problem here, obviously, is that Carolyn was in love with Burke a little while ago, but he was just stringing her along, etcetera. I could go into a whole explanation, but it involves six other people and they’re pretty much wrapping it all up in this scene anyway.
Carolyn sits down with her back to the room, and Joe tells Burke to go apologize to her. Burke approaches, and we get the following exchange.
Burke: Could I buy you a drink?
Burke: I’d like to talk to you. There’s something I want to say to you.
Carolyn: I don’t think I’d be interested in anything you might have to say.
Burke: Well, please let me say it anyway.
Carolyn: Burke, please. I’m tired, I’m upset about something, and I really don’t feel like talking.
Now, this is pure standard soap opera — two people who aren’t looking at each other, having a formal conversation about whether they should talk to each other or not.
So let’s pause Carolyn and Burke’s fascinating discussion for a minute, and talk about Melrose Place.
Melrose Place was a nighttime soap in the mid-90s that started out as an extremely dull show about characters who were adequate and charming, but nothing special. The core romantic couple on the show was Alison and Billy, two attractive people who lived together as platonic roommates, and for no particular reason pretended that they weren’t interested in dating each other. Melrose episodes would end with everybody splashing in the pool together, all arguments resolved and grievances forgotten.
Then, two-thirds of the way through the first season, they threw in a special guest star — Heather Locklear, playing Amanda Woodward.
Amanda is introduced as Alison’s new boss at the advertising agency, and quickly begins making Alison’s life miserable. Amanda starts dating Billy, and challenges Alison to admit her feelings for him. Over the next few episodes, Amanda and Billy move in together, Alison quits her job and moves to Seattle, Amanda and Billy break up, Alison returns, and Amanda humiliates Alison by rehiring her as a receptionist. Alison and Billy finally start dating, until Amanda reveals that she’s pregnant with Billy’s child. And it just spins on and on, with big events happening every week.
And so Melrose Place was transformed by the magical powers of the special guest star, who turned a tame little drama into a roller coaster of crazy, breathless plot twists. The ratings went up, and the show became America’s guilty pleasure. Heather Locklear was billed as a “special guest star” for the entire rest of the run, but she was effectively the main character for the next six seasons.
Over the next several years, the Melrose producers tried to duplicate what they thought was the magic formula, launching a string of spinoffs and copycats — Models Inc., Central Park West, Malibu Shores, Savannah and Pacific Palisades. They were all cancelled within a year, because they all made the same mistake — they tried to start at the intensity level that Melrose didn’t reach until the beginning of season 2.
Three of the shows — Models Inc., Savannah and the 2009 Melrose Place reboot — all start with a murder in the first episode. Now, that might seem like an exciting place to start, but the first episode of a show has a hard job — introducing the audience to the characters and the premise. When a show kicks off with a murder, then your introduction to the characters is distorted by the requirements of a mystery storyline. To understand all of the possible suspects, the show has to dump tons of character information on you, all at once. To provide a selection of potential motives, everybody needs to be angry about something, or hiding a terrible secret.
That means that the audience is introduced to a diverse set of angry, haunted, untrustworthy people who can’t explain where they were last night. This never works.
Adding Amanda to Melrose Place in episode 21 worked, because there was an established set of characters who were stuck in a dull holding pattern. Then Amanda drops on them like a grenade, and everybody has something new to react to.
The interesting thing is that these are always accidental breakthroughs. Nobody sets out to make a boring first season. There’s something about that “lightning in a bottle” moment, when the underwhelming show finds a special guest star who brings all of the established characters to life. That was Amanda on Melrose Place, Fonzie on Happy Days, Urkel on Family Matters, and Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.
And then there’s Barnabas Collins, one of the greatest special guest stars in television history. They’re ten months into the series now, which is plenty of time to figure out who the characters are, and how they relate to each other. This is the perfect time for a shady con man to open the mystery box, and unleash a new threat.
So that’s why we’re sitting in the Blue Whale, listening to Carolyn and Burke’s couples therapy. Feel free to fast-forward if you want to. When Carolyn goes back to Collinwood, Liz and Jason are still in the same room, standing in the same positions and having the same conversation, which pretty much says everything.
Tomorrow: Very Much Alive.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the beginning of act 1, Jason says, “Willie has a way of getting past locks.” Liz replies, “There’s a great deal about him.” Jason goes on with his next line without waiting for Liz to remember the rest of her sentence.
When Liz is talking to Carolyn at the drawing room door, she has to check the teleprompter before she says, “Carolyn, please!” Unfortunately, the teleprompter is behind her, so it’s not very subtle.
Also, when Carolyn first stands in the doorway, you can see a boom mic hovering above her head. The camera adjusts slightly to get the mic out of frame — first a small dip, then a more noticeable one. It’s worth checking out; you don’t get on-the-fly cinematography like that these days.
Behind the Scenes:
Nancy Barrett was 23 when she was cast on Dark Shadows. She originally auditioned to play Victoria, but she was unimpressed by the bland role. She was called back to read for Carolyn. In an interview on a Dark Shadows DVD bonus feature, she said, “I looked at Carolyn and thought, ‘This is more like it! She’s got too much money, she’s got too much freedom, she’s got too much hair! She’s me!”
Before Dark Shadows, Barrett’s only previous screen credit was in a 1963 episode of the anthology series The DuPont Show of the Week. She’d been in several stage productions, including a Broadway run in the Charles Dickens musical Pickwick in 1965. She’s one of the three original cast members who appears in the show’s final episode in April 1971.
Tomorrow: Very Much Alive.
— Danny Horn