“You have brought me to the edge of disaster, and I must find a way back.”
This week, we hit another minor milestone in our uncertain and frightening journey through Dark Shadows. It’s one of those trivial production changes that probably nobody notices when they’re watching the show on DVD, but which I will now spend the next few minutes trying to convince you is critical to understanding this period of the show.
The change is: each episode has four commercial breaks, instead of five. I know, I probably should have asked if you were sitting down before springing it on you like that. I hope everybody’s okay out there.
It’s easy to miss this particular transition, because people who are watching Dark Shadows today are either watching it on DVD, where there aren’t any commercials, or on Hulu, where they’ll put a commercial break in the middle of a sentence if they feel like it.
The running time for an episode of Dark Shadows is somewhere between 20 and 22 minutes of show per half hour. The opening theme is 25 seconds long, and the closing credits are usually a little over a minute, so on average you’re probably getting around 19 and a half minutes of drama per every nine minutes of promotional announcements for Dream Whip topping and Diaperene Baby Powder.
The switch from four acts to three didn’t actually give them more show; it just made the other commercial breaks a bit longer. But that change does loosen up the format a little, and give them some more room to spread out.
The area where this really makes a difference is with the act-break cliffhangers. Back in the early days of Dark Shadows, they didn’t bother to make every scene end with a dramatic sting. The show was slower, and scenes would kind of trail off, with someone looking wistful or puzzled. They’d save up any plot points they might have for the end of Friday’s episode — and if they couldn’t think of anything this Friday, then there was always next Friday.
But now, thanks to Barnabas, the show has mutated into a 24/7 shock factory. Now they treat every day like Friday, with a special bespoke cliffhanger every half hour. In fact, if they’re really cooking, they’ll actually hit you with a tension sting before each commercial break. Dark Shadows viewers expect danger around every turn, so if the DS team wants to keep us in our seats through a word from Windex with Ammonia-D, they’re going to give us a reason to stick around.
I don’t usually pay attention to the act breaks on the blog, but since they’re changing the format this week, it’s a good opportunity to check in on how they’re doing in this area.
Today’s pre-credits teaser ends with a fairly standard Dark Shadows violin trill. Julia’s getting everything set up in the laboratory she’s thrown together in the Old House basement, in preparation for the upcoming Bride of Frankenstein experiment, but Barnabas comes downstairs with some stop-press news: Maggie Evans has regained her memory, and she now remembers the months when Barnabas kidnapped her and tried to turn her into his dead ex-girlfriend.
He demands that Julia take care of the situation right away, by hypnotizing Maggie and erasing her memory all over again. Julia objects, saying that she has to get this mad science experiment off the ground, but Barnabas insists that Maggie is the top priority.
To finish the scene, Barnabas turns to Julia and says, “If you will not silence Maggie Evans… I must.”
And then there’s a shot of Julia, which is always helpful for these pre-commercial moments. One of Grayson Hall’s notable talents is her ability to quickly cycle through three completely different facial expressions during any given shot, which is usually enough to keep the viewers tuned in all the way through the Listerine commercial.
As we come back from the first break, Willie comes downstairs to join Barnabas and Julia. That’s the entire episode today, just people in the Old House walking upstairs and downstairs.
I could actually point out that this episode follows the Aristotelian unities of action, time and place, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t what Aristotle had in mind at the time.
Anyway, Willie’s also worried about Maggie’s memory coming back, and over the first act, he and Barnabas browbeat Julia into going and hypnotizing Maggie again.
So Julia goes upstairs, and Willie stays downstairs, and Julia calls downstairs to tell Willie to come upstairs, and like I said, that’s pretty much what we’re doing today.
But then Adam walks in, and he’s upset that Julia isn’t downstairs bringing his new girlfriend to life, and that’s how you close act 1. It’s a nice turning point in the episode, which neatly puts the kibosh on where we thought this was going.
Naturally, it also gives us the opportunity for another one of Julia’s pre-commercial facial expressions. She has hundreds of these. That’s actually why they made the last few months of the show, when they went to 1841 Parallel Time. They were going to stop early, but Grayson Hall still had a bunch of facial expressions that she hadn’t used yet.
In act 2, everybody comes upstairs, and they have kind of an all-staff meeting in the drawing room. The main topic of discussion is that Adam wants everyone to go downstairs to the laboratory, and they don’t want to.
Then Willie decides to go upstairs, which is getting things completely backwards, as far as Adam is concerned. They have a whole argument about whether Willie should be allowed to go upstairs or not.
Adam finally lets Willie go, and then he crosses his arms and mutters sarcastically. He’s a Frankenstein monster, by the way.
Once he’s up there, Willie grabs a gun and decides to play American Sniper. So I guess Adam was right about the stairs after all; they’re terribly dangerous.
So Adam goes upstairs and basically just slaps the gun out of Willie’s hands and takes it, which is a baller move if I ever saw one. It’s kind of like Die Hard, but without elevators or explosions or breaking glass.
And we end act 2 with another Julia reaction shot, because Julia is the money.
By the time we come back from commercial for the final act, everybody that was upstairs has come back downstairs, and now Adam wants everyone to go down to the basement laboratory and get to work on the experiment.
The third act is actually extra long today — acts 1 and 2 were about four minutes each, and then act 3 is eight minutes long. I wish that I could say that they use all of this time wisely, but honestly it’s just more arguments about who’s going to the laboratory, and who’s going to the mausoleum, and so on. I mean, I’d rather be watching this than another word from Ken-L Ration Burger for Dogs, but it’s a close thing.
So the episode ends with Julia making adjustments to the equipment, which is basically what she’s been doing for the last three weeks, and there’s no end in sight.
At one point, she frowns and says, “There’s something wrong with this gauge,” and then everybody stares at her for thirty seconds while she fiddles with some knobs. She lets out a breath, and says, “It’s all right now,” and everyone relaxes.
Julia says, “I think we’re ready to begin,” which should be good news, except she immediately follows it with, “I’ll just check everything once more,” and then it’s just another two minutes and thirty seconds until the episode finally drags itself to a merciful close.
Monday: The Sound of Science.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Willie tells Julia, “Well, it started with the music box, and her thinking that she was Josette. And her remembering about Barnabas, and — and how she frightened him, how she couldn’t do anything about it.”
Barnabas tells Julia, “I’ll make the decision. I cannot help you effectively, as long as I know that she might be get free.”
Soon after, he says, “Julia, I can’t thank you — or, appreciate enough, what you’re doing.”
Julia tells Adam, “I won’t be gone long.” Adam growls, “Any time is long — too long.”
When Willie emerges on the landing with the gun, he has to look at the camera a couple of times to check for his cue. Also, a boom mic drops into the shot above his head.
Barnabas orders Willie to go keep an eye on things at the mausoleum. Willie whimpers, “Well, what am I gonna say to Maggie?” Barnabas answers, “Well, say anything you want, but — keep it down.”
Monday: The Sound of Science.
— Danny Horn