“Why, you –“
I was going to talk about free will today. I had it all planned out.
I’ve been reading up on determinism lately, and I’ve got a theory — you would’ve loved this theory, if I had the time to tell you about it — using the concept of a mad scientist as a metaphor to talk about whether moral choices are even possible, if mental phenomena are reducible to neurological materialism. Seriously, it would have blown your mind, literally and figuratively.
But that’s going to have to wait, because there’s a breaking news story that I need to cover: this is the episode where Roger Davis bumps his head.
I’m serious. About four and a half minutes into the episode, the actor playing Jeff Clark bangs his head on the set, and that’s what I’m going to write about today.
This may in fact be the stupidest thing that I will ever write in my entire life. It’s actually kind of a relief to get that out of the way, now that I think about it.
So here’s the stupid plot point that sets it up: Three weeks ago, girl governess Victoria Winters was kidnapped by Adam, the enormous teenage Frankenstein who’s been gradually running amok through the halls of Collinwood.
Eventually, Vicki was transferred from Adam’s hideout to Nicholas’ lair, and then after a while Nicholas decided to let her go, but hypnotized her so that she’d forget what happened to her.
Today, Adam is prowling around outside Collinwood, peering in the windows for no particular reason. Vicki and Jeff are passing by — and as soon as Vicki spots Adam, she instantly regains her memory of the kidnapping, which leaves us exactly nowhere.
Vicki cries, “That’s the man who kidnapped me,” and Jeff says, “Why, you –” and then he lunges at the enormous superhuman behemoth, because Jeff is a dick and he doesn’t plan ahead very well.
So here’s the wind-up…
And the pitch…
And this might be an opportune moment to review the concept of “live-to-tape” filming.
We’re in August 1968 right now, and videotape editing is difficult and expensive. By “difficult”, I mean that it’s done with an X-Acto knife and scotch tape, and by “expensive”, I mean that this is a television studio that can’t afford an X-Acto knife and scotch tape.
They actually don’t even have access to the physical videotape in this studio; if they want to make any edits, they have to go to the WABC/Channel 7 studio where they film the news, which is thirteen blocks away, and full of snooty news people.
So they film Dark Shadows “live-to-tape”, which means that once they start rolling, they do the entire show in one take, including all the special effects and music cues, and leaving empty space for commercials. That’s why Dark Shadows is famous for its on-air bloopers — when an actor says the wrong line, or the set wobbles, or a camera loses focus, they literally do not have the resources to stop filming, and fix the problem. The show goes on.
This problem wasn’t specific to Dark Shadows — all daytime programs were filmed this way, including all of the soap operas. That’s why every other soap opera in history tended to downplay the “giant rampaging monster hurls contract players around the set” story beats.
So Adam — who has the proportional strength of an enraged six-foot-six television actor — throws Jeff down against the stairs, with a sickening thud that sounds like the melodrama just got a little less mellow.
It’s clear that I’m not the only person who’s concerned about that, because Adam takes a moment as he’s fleeing the scene to stop and look back, to make sure that he didn’t actually just injure the guy.
And as our hero falls to the vaguely grass-colored burlap that they grow at Collinwood in place of a lawn, I find myself leaning forward anxiously, trying to figure out if I should call somebody.
But it’s tough to figure out if the actor is really hurt, because all of the dialogue is about trying to figure out if the character is really hurt. He’s certainly rubbing the back of his head a lot, and he’s breathing heavily, but isn’t that exactly how an actor would play someone who just hurt his head? Or am I over-thinking this?
All I know is that he keeps on rubbing his head like that for another three minutes, all the way inside the house and then into the drawing room. And instead of paying attention to the dialogue, because who cares, I’m spending the entire scene wondering if he’s all right.
Anyway, my point is that this is a television show where the welfare of the actors on a moment-by-moment basis is a legitimate area of concern.
It is actually possible that Roger Davis banged his head against a corner of the plywood railing and is now nursing a mild concussion, and they keep on filming the scene. That’s the kind of show that Dark Shadows is.
Like I said, this “damn the torpedos, full speed ahead” production style used to be the way that daytime television worked — when there’s a mishap on a soap opera set, the camera keeps rolling. This is part of how television worked.
But for modern audiences, we never see any other examples. There’s a good chance that most of the soap opera episodes taped in 1968 don’t even exist anymore — and if the master tapes do exist, then nobody has any interest in dusting them off and releasing them.
Dark Shadows is literally the only daytime television show from this period that the general public has any kind of access to. This style of production hasn’t existed for decades, and there’s a very good chance that this is the only show made in this style that you will ever see.
Watching Dark Shadows is a form of time travel, taking us back to a period when the audience could engage with a show in this kind of raw, visceral way. It’s live theater from the past, hurled forwards into the present day, and if it bangs its head when it lands, then all we can do is watch, and hope for the best.
Tomorrow: Do You Want Vicki to Die.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Towards the end of Adam’s scene in the Old House basement, as he threatens to come back sometimes and make sure that Barnabas doesn’t forget about him, you can hear people walking around in the studio.
During Jeff’s thinks in act 4, when he’s supposed to be all alone in the Old House basement, there’s a scraping sound from just offstage. Jeff turns, startled, and then pretends that he didn’t notice it.
Tomorrow: Do You Want Vicki to Die.
— Danny Horn