“Are you out of your mind? That man once tried to kill you!”
“Look, Sam’s overdue,” Joe says, “I’d probably better to go down to the Blue Whale and get him.”
Maggie says, “He’s probably still talking to Professor Stokes.”
“Yeah, if Stokes ever showed up to talk to him,” Joe frowns. “I don’t know if you can believe a guy who had the nerve to swipe something right out from under your nose.”
Apparently, at some earlier point, Maggie got a gift from Cassandra, and put it on the table, and a few minutes later, it was gone. Joe insists that Professor Stokes must have taken the gift. But they brush that subject aside for now, and Joe leaves to get Maggie’s father from the bar.
After Joe’s exit, Maggie takes a pair of earrings from her purse, and looks in the mirror as she puts them on. A music box begins to play. Smiling, she grabs her coat and leaves the house. Then we pan over to the window, where we see a tall man with scars on his face, looking in at the room. There’s a big crescendo of horns and kettle drums, and then the opening titles begin.
And that’s how you can tell that the show’s ratings have gone up, because they just referenced five different storylines, and explained none of them.
Do you remember those dark days, just a year ago, when they were so desperate for new viewers that they would actually try to help people understand what the hell was going on? They’d say things like, “Let’s review the case,” and then you’d emerge hours later, wondering if the race of man still walked on the surface of the Earth. Sometimes they’d actually recap conversations that we’d just seen earlier in the same episode. It was a world of goldfish.
But now they’ve got the audience in their pocket, and they know it. Let’s do a quick run-through of the story points that they just mentioned:
#1. Sam recently went blind; that’s why Joe has to pick him up at the bar.
#2. “Cassandra” is really Angelique, who’s cast a complicated Dream Curse spell that will eventually lead to Barnabas’ death. The gift that she brought was pipe tobacco, laced with a magic powder that would make Sam have the dream.
#3. Professor Stokes is fighting Cassandra, and trying to stop the Dream Curse. He stole the pipe tobacco, because he doesn’t want Sam to have the dream.
#4. Willie has a crush on Maggie, so he stole a pair of Josette’s earrings from Barnabas, and left them in Maggie’s purse while she wasn’t looking. When she puts the earrings on, she has a flashback to the period when Barnabas held her captive, and tried to convince her that she was Josette — a period that should be blocked from her memory.
#5. Adam, the newborn Frankenstein, has befriended Sam, and is now looking for him.
So there you go — five stories referenced in three minutes, involving several people who aren’t even mentioned by name. If you missed watching the show over the last month or so, we probably lost you somewhere around sentence two. You know the name Sam, and the music box melody is familiar, and everything else is just white noise.
Therefore, anyone who says that soap operas are for stupid people can go to hell. What we just saw is a three-minute slice of an incredibly dense narrative that requires people to keep track of multiple plot points, including at least one from last summer, which is referenced only by a music cue.
So let’s take a look at Everything Bad Is Good for You, a 2005 book by Steven Johnson that I figured would probably come up sooner or later. Johnson’s thesis is that pop culture has been getting significantly more complex over the last half-century, in a way that actually teaches people how to process information more efficiently.
In one passage, he compares cop shows from three decades — Dragnet (1952), Starsky & Hutch (1975), and Hill Street Blues (1981).
“Watch an episode of Hill Street Blues side by side with any major drama from the preceding decades — Starsky & Hutch, for instance, or Dragnet — and the structural transformation will jump out at you. The earlier shows follow one or two lead characters, adhere to a single dominant plot, and reach a decisive conclusion at the end of the episode.
“Draw an outline of the narrative threads in almost every Dragnet episode and it will be a single line: from the initial crime scene, through the investigation, to the eventual cracking of the case. A typical Starsky & Hutch episode offers only the slightest variation on this linear formula: the introduction of a comic subplot that usually appears only at the tail ends of the episode.
“Starsky & Hutch includes a few other twists: While both shows focus almost exclusively on a single narrative, Dragnet tells the story entirely from the perspective of the investigators. Starsky & Hutch, on the other hand, oscillates between the perspectives of the cops and that of the criminals. And while both shows adhere religiously to the principle of narrative self-containment — the plots begin and end in a single episode — Dragnet takes the principle to a further extreme, introducing the setting and main characters with Joe Friday’s famous voice-over in every episode.
“A Hill Street Blues episode complicates the picture in a number of profound ways. The narrative weaves together a collection of distinct strands — sometimes as many as ten, though at least half of the threads involve only a few quick scenes scattered through the episode. The number of primary characters — and not just bit parts — swells dramatically. And the episode has fuzzy borders: picking up one or two threads from previous episodes at the outset, and leaving one or two threads open at the end.”
“Critics generally cite Hill Street Blues as the origin point of ‘serious drama’ native to the television medium — differentiating the series from the single episode dramatic programs from the fifties, which were Broadway plays performed in front of a camera. But the Hill Street innovations weren’t all that original; they’d long played a defining role in popular television — just not during the evening hours.
“The structure of a Hill Street episode — and indeed all of the critically acclaimed dramas that followed, from thirtysomething to Six Feet Under — is the structure of a soap opera. Hill Street Blues might have sparked a new golden age of television drama during its seven-year run, but it did so by using a few crucial tricks that Guiding Light and General Hospital had mastered long before.
“Since the early eighties, there has been a noticeable increase in narrative complexity in [prime-time] dramas. The most ambitious show on TV to date — The Sopranos — routinely follows a dozen distinct threads over the course of an episode, with more than twenty recurring characters… Almost every sequence in the show connects to information that exists outside the frame of the current episode.”
Now, I’m not going to argue that Dark Shadows is more interesting and more complex than The Sopranos. I don’t have to. It’s obvious.
Willie: Hey, what’re you doing out here?
Maggie: I don’t know. I was in the cottage, and I was putting on my earrings… and I started to think of the Old House.
(Thumping noises are heard from downstairs.)
Maggie: What’s that?
Willie: What’s what?
Maggie: I thought I heard a noise. Listen!
(More pounding noises.)
Maggie: There it is again.
Willie: Don’t be scared, Maggie. This house is full of old noises. It was probably just a mouse or somethin’.
It’s not a mouse, of course, as indicated by this apparently random shot of a brick wall in the basement.
The sound is actually Barnabas, who was chained up a couple episodes ago and trapped behind this wall. Now he’s kicking at the wall, desperate for someone to come and rescue him. Not that they tell you that in the episode; they just show you the wall, and let you figure it out at your leisure.
This is, in fact, an unexplained reference to storyline #6, and we’re still only five minutes into the episode.
To understand this story thread, you have to know that it’s Reverend Trask’s revenge against Barnabas, who chained him up behind this wall three months ago, back in the 18th century. Also, Willie has a weird idea of what mice sound like.
A couple minutes later, and we cut to Liz on the phone, with an update on storyline #7.
Liz: Are the descriptions accurate? Sheriff, do you think anybody could jump off Widow’s Hill and survive? Well, neither do I, so it must have been someone else. I see. Well, how many people have described him this way? All right, will you let me know the minute you hear anything? Thank you.
She hangs up the phone, puts on a thoughtful coat, and leaves the house. That’s what Dark Shadows is like now: Never apologize, never explain. They don’t even mention the name of the person she’s talking about. You’re expected to keep up.
So Liz goes over to the Old House, where she has a conversation with Willie about the man who abducted Carolyn a few weeks ago. This is story thread #7, although it’s connected to #5, as seen above. You could make the case that this is #5b, if you cared, which I’m pretty sure nobody does but me.
Liz: The Sheriff has had several reports of vandalism in this area. And everyone who’s seen the man fits Adam’s description.
Willie: Adam? But that ain’t possible, I mean, Adam is dead! We both know that, don’t we? Well, don’t we, Mrs. Stoddard?
Liz takes a step forward, and stares off into the distance.
Liz: Death isn’t always as swift or as certain as people would like it to be.
Willie: Well, I wouldn’t know about that, I mean, but I know that these people who say they seen Adam, they’re wrong, that’s all.
Liz: Sometimes it seems to take forever, and the waiting becomes unbearable.
Willie: Mrs. Stoddard… you feelin’ all right?
She’s not, actually, thanks to story thread #8: Cassandra putting a curse on Liz, and making her think about death all the time. This happened yesterday, so anybody who missed a day is lost all over again.
And so it goes on, forming ever more elaborate patterns of narrative complexity. This is the summer of ’68, when America’s housewives and teenagers fell down the rabbit hole and landed on the storm-tossed shores of Collinsport, Maine.
Two months ago, the show threw away practically every storyline that they had, in order to focus full-time on Barnabas and Angelique. All of the other characters were just left standing around, wondering where the cameras went.
But today, Barnabas is a sound effect behind a brick wall, and everybody else has so much to do that they hardly even notice him. There are so many story threads right now that they can’t slow down to explain any of them.
Come to think of it, that might not even be Barnabas after all. He’s been chained up behind that wall for two days; he’s probably dead by now. Maybe that noise really was a mouse — a giant, angry Frankenstein mouse that’s about to bust loose and terrorize the countryside. You never know.
Monday: When Adam Attacks.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Maggie tells Joe, “We’ve got to be as patient as possible with Pop. He’s got a very difficult adjudge– adjustment to make, and it’s going to take time, that’s all.”
The rolling credits at the end of the show are crooked.
Monday: When Adam Attacks.
— Danny Horn