“I know enough to send you back to prison, if I want to.”
Did you know that in July 1968, there were close to 8 million people living in New York City? It’s true; I just looked it up in my well-thumbed copy of What Month It Was When There Were Close to 8 Million People Living in New York City.
So how many of those people do you think were actors? I mean, the only real professions of any consequence in New York are actors, waiters and cab drivers; everybody else is scenery.
Doing a little demographic analysis on the back of this napkin, I would estimate that there were 7,000 young male actors who could have played the role of Harry Johnson on Dark Shadows. And yet they managed to pick the very worst one. How can you account for something like that?
I mean, it’s not a dream role; I get that. Harry is the Collins family housekeeper’s disreputable son, who showed up a few months ago for no particular reason and has been laying low off-screen all summer. It’s not a high-glamour project.
The script certainly isn’t doing him any favors. Harry has to say things like “Okay, so I had a few beers, what of it?” and “Oh, here it comes, lecture number forty-seven,” and “What kind of job could I get in this jerkwater town?” and “You don’t have to deliver your little speech tonight, mother dear,” and “Well, of course I haven’t been stealing food, what kind of question is that?” and “You know, I think you’ve lost what’s left of your mind.”
And I bet he’d go on saying repellent things if they let him appear on screen for more than three minutes at a time, which thank goodness they don’t.
The reason why Harry showed up today is to be an obstacle for Carolyn, who’s keeping an enormous Frankenstein-type fugitive hidden in a room in the deserted west wing of Collinwood. She’s been secretly bringing Adam his meals and engaging in full-contact poetry readings for a few days now, and the last thing she needs is a random recurring character asking impertinent questions.
Harry finds her carrying Adam’s breakfast tray, and tells her that a visitor is downstairs waiting for her. She wants to distract him from wondering why she’s taking the tableware on a stroll around the corridors, so she snaps, “Harry, when you were given permission to live here, you were not given permission to roam around the house. In the future, will you please stay downstairs where you belong.”
As she walks away, Harry says, “Yes, Miss Stoddard, anything you say,” and he means it to sting, too. So there.
Now, regular readers of the blog will recall the three steps to getting the audience to like a new character: Make a joke, make a friend, and make a plot point happen. Making a friend is a crucial part of that process — the audience needs to see the character as worth paying attention to, and when the newbie earns the respect of an established character, it gives them value in the narrative.
So far, Harry is disliked by everyone that he’s come into contact with, up to and including his own mother. It’s tough to warm up to the guy.
The real shame of it all is that “the housekeeper’s bad-boy son” is actually a very productive soap opera character type. You’ve got a lower-class guy living in an upper-class environment, mixing with a social set that he’s not accustomed to.
The obvious place to go with that character is a will they/won’t they relationship with the daughter of the house. Cast a reasonably attractive guy with dark eyes and a permanent five-o’clock shadow, give him a joke and a plot point, and then just sit back and let him smolder for a while. It’s sure-fire.
There are two problems with this strategy for Dark Shadows. First, the show isn’t really interested in the typical soap opera archetypes anymore. They moved into full-time spook show a while back, and now they’re casting nothing but monsters and eccentric occult figures.
The other problem is that Craig Slocum is just about the worst choice for the role. He’s got a whiny, petulant voice, and an eye-rolling technique that makes him look smug and self-absorbed. He’s not The Worst Actor Who Ever Appeared on Dark Shadows, because that prize belongs to Addison Powell, the actor who played Dr. Lang. But Slocum is easily the least likeable actor.
So when Harry investigates the west wing and finds Adam lurking in one of the rooms, it’s hard not to root for the other team. Harry claims that Carolyn sent him, and Adam releases his grip on the guy’s throat, wasting a perfectly good opportunity to kill a guy that nobody likes anyway.
And then they go ahead and do the silliest thing they can think of, which is to have Harry pull a knife on the 6’6″ giant monster man.
“You and I are going on a little trip,” he sneers. “We’re going downtown to the police station.”
Adam is currently wanted by the authorities for kidnapping, reckless endangerment and possession of someone else’s life force, and Harry wants to collect the reward.
He plans to accomplish this by holding up a giant with a tiny switchblade, and walking him through the corridors of a huge mansion, and all the way downtown to the police.
Harry snarls, “Don’t be smart, because I know how to use this,” but I’m not sure that he actually does. Walking outside with a knife at someone’s back opens up a pretty obvious counter-strategy, namely: he walks a little bit faster than you. If you want to discourage that, then you’re going to need a ranged weapon of some type.
So you’ll never guess what happens next. Forty-five seconds after Harry brandishes the cutlery, Adam grabs it away from him, and now we’re all set up for another Harry-extermination scene. Harry brings this out in people.
This is all leading up to an emergency lesson in basic morality, with Carolyn explaining to Adam that he’s not supposed to hurt people, even if they’re annoying and showed up on your television show without permission from the audience. Apparently, there’s some kind of rule about that.
After the class is over, Carolyn takes Harry out into the hall, and he tries his hand at blackmail, threatening to tell the police that Adam’s hiding here. Carolyn is not having it.
Carolyn: I happen to know quite a lot about you.
Harry: About me?
Carolyn: About some of the things you’ve done. Your mother told me all about you, when she asked if you could live here. She thought I ought to know. So, you see, I know enough to send you back to prison, if I want to.
That explanation doesn’t actually hold up to any reasonable scrutiny. Why would Mrs. Johnson tell Carolyn that her son has committed crimes that he hasn’t been charged with yet? I could see telling the family that he’s been released from prison and is turning over a new leaf, but I can’t imagine that anyone in the family would agree to harbor a guy who’s currently wanted by the police. I mean, apart from the monster in the other room, of course.
Anyway, Carolyn enlists Harry’s help in taking care of Adam, and as a cover story, she hires him as the family chauffeur. This is also an unlikely scenario that I can’t quite get my head around, but it gets Harry off-screen again, so fine.
And there’s a happy ending to this story, which is that Harry pretty much stays off-screen. They won’t do the smoldering bad boy romance with Carolyn — and in fact, there’s a genuine sexy working-class guy showing up in two weeks, taking the role in the story that Harry probably would have filled if he hadn’t been played by Craig Slocum.
Slocum makes an appearance in another ten scattered episodes between July and Christmas, filling in when they absolutely need a disinterested party to carry information from one character to another. He finally gives up in January, and somebody else subs in for Harry’s last episode.
This is one of the natural advantages of daily serialized television — they’re able to adapt quickly if something’s not working out. The Dark Shadows writers are only planning about three weeks ahead, so if Slocum turns out to be a dud, they’ve got time to hire Don Briscoe and think up another name for the character.
Daytime soap operas make a lot of mistakes, because they’re overworked and under-resourced, and they have to put something on the screen every weekday. But they’ve also got a strong immune system, which allows them to identify and expel unproductive stories and characters very quickly. And so life goes on.
Tomorrow: The Facts of Life.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the very beginning of act 1, Harry is clearly waiting for his cue. When he gets it, he starts acting like Adam is strangling him.
As Cassandra switches on the tape recorder, you can hear Harry saying, “Open that…” The scene then shifts to Adam’s room, and Harry says, “Now, open that door, will you?” The scene begins with Adam staring off to the side of the camera for his cue.
When Carolyn exits Adam’s room to join Harry in the hall, there’s a long pause before he starts speaking.
A voice bleeds in from the control room during Cassandra’s thinks monologue in the foyer.
In act 4, Cassandra steps on one of Nicholas’ lines just before he walks upstairs.
Behind the Scenes:
Speak of the Devil — Addison Powell comes back for one final appearance as the ghost of Dr. Lang; the character died back in May. Powell’s voice is still heard on the tape recorder until Friday, when they finally play Lang’s message for the last time. We’ll see Powell again for one more episode as a judge in December 1970.
Tomorrow: The Facts of Life.
— Danny Horn