“I said you were my friend, and how I wish that were the truth. But I am past the point when friends are possible.”
Signs that your life may not be going the way that you hoped: You walk into your best friend’s house, and you find him moaning in an armchair. You reach out to touch his collar, and you see bite marks on his neck, and the only thing that you can say is, Oh, man. Not this again.
Barnabas Collins has been chewed on by his ex-wife, vampire soap vixen Angelique, and now his friends Julia and Willie have to figure out what to do about it. They stand around the scene of the crime and spitball ideas for a minute — they want to hide Barnabas someplace, but the next time the vampire summons him, he’ll go. They need to store him someplace safe, where she can’t get at him. But where?
Then Julia says, “Downstairs, Willie — the cell!” like that’s suddenly the greatest idea ever. So they hoist Barnabas to his feet, wrangle him downstairs to the basement, and lock him up in the dungeon cell, because today’s episode was written by Ron Sproat, and he never does anything else. God damn it, Sproat!
Welcome to The Great 1968 Wrap-Up, an emergency narrative house-cleaning that ties up every tangled story thread that we’ve been watching all year. Once again, Dan Curtis and the writers have realized that they’ve painted themselves into a corner, and they’re just as bored and frustrated with the current storyline as the audience is.
Over the next two months, they’re going to write eight characters out of the show, including two core members of the original cast. For better or worse, we’re going to see a hurried conclusion to the following stories:
the Frankenstein mad science experiments which created Adam and Eve,
demonic mastermind Nicholas Blair’s plot to breed a new race of beings to serve Satan,
the love triangle between Nicholas, Maggie and Joe, including Joe’s mental and emotional unraveling,
Eve’s obsession with Peter Bradford,
the question of whether Jeff Clark is actually Peter,
Vicki and Jeff’s relationship, and their mutual connection to the tragedies of 1795,
Barnabas’ relationship with Vicki,
Elizabeth’s obsession with being buried alive,
and Angelique’s revenge plot against Barnabas, including the Dream Curse, her masquerade as Cassandra, and her tenure as a vampire.
They even wrap up the Tom Jennings vampire story, which we thought was already pretty conclusively wrapped up. Dark Shadows is open for business.
In fact, they’re so determined to clean up the 1968 mess that they actually go back in time to the very end of the 1795 storyline, and stage a do-over, so they can basically go on like the whole summer never happened. It’s a level of self-imposed retcon humiliation that we won’t see on television again until Pam Ewing finds her dead husband in the shower, and it turns out that the whole ninth season of Dallas was a dream.
So this is the end stage of the writers’ room conflicts that I wrote about a few weeks ago, in “The Last Days of Ron Sproat“.
During this period, there are three people on the Dark Shadows writing team — Ron Sproat, Sam Hall and Gordon Russell — who are aggressively supervised by their manic, hyper-ambitious producer, Dan Curtis. As the show has become more outrageous and more popular, Dan has been pushing the writers to deliver more thrills-per-hour, in an intensifying battle between Dark Shadows and common sense.
This doesn’t sit well with Ron, who joined the show back in the day when you saved your surprise plot twist for Friday — and if you didn’t happen to think of anything this Friday, then there’s always next Friday. This was the way that daytime soap operas worked, a tradition going back to the very beginning of television, which at this point is about fifteen years ago.
It’s the ancient truce between writers and audience — the viewers want more surprises and more action, while the writers try to conserve story progression, because you never know when you might need it. If you use up all your story points, then you have to think up new ones, and that isn’t easy, especially for Sproat.
During the early Barnabas episodes, when Willie first popped open the mystery box and evil was loosed upon the world, they were still ending episodes with Vicki staring off into the distance and looking vaguely unwell. Those anti-cliffhangers were basically postcards from Ron Sproat’s comfort zone.
But then came Sam Hall, like an angel from heaven, and he’s quick-witted and funny and easily bored. He’s figured out that if you burn through all your ideas, then you can just sit down and think up some new ones, a radical new theory that’s inspired Dan to declare that “every day is Friday” on Dark Shadows.
What we’ve seen over the last seven months since we came back from the 18th century is a fierce tug-of-war between the two writers. Sam wants to send the monster out on Frankenstein rampages; Ron wants to hide him in the attic and have conversations about him. Sam wants Jeff and Joe and Carolyn and Maggie to get sucked into spine-tingling supernatural adventure, while Ron wants to wipe their memories, and put them back on the shelf where he found them.
So the show has been lurching along awkwardly — coming up with bold, dramatic plot twists, and then pausing or downplaying them just when they’re starting to get good. Dark Shadows is far from the only soap opera to make sudden swerves like this; it’s actually a defining feature of any long-running serialized narrative. But the new ideas they’re coming up with are so outrageous that the story’s been stumbling around like a belligerent drunk at last call, bumping into people and asking if they want to start something.
So if you’ve found the last couple months of the show to be mostly disappointing and frustrating, then trust me — nobody hates it more than the people who now find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to clean it all up and start over. You don’t do this kind of story purge when you think things are going super well.
So this new phase of the show begins, as they always do, with Barnabas stuck in a box. And once again, he’s been put there by the people who love him the most, because they’re trying to protect him from himself.
Julia: Barnabas, we want to help you.
Barnabas: I want no help. I feel nothing that I don’t want to feel.
Julia: That’s not true.
Barnabas: It is!
Willie: Barnabas, don’t say that.
Julia: You’re only saying that now because you’re weak, and it’s night.
This is basically an intervention run by the charter members of Vamp-Anon, the support group for Adult Children of Vampires. This is an addiction they’re accustomed to dealing with, and they’re determined not to be enablers this time.
They start reminiscing about the past, rewriting as they go.
Willie: Barnabas, we want to help ya.
Barnabas: No, you don’t. All you want to do is torture me! I know I’ve been terrible to you in the past, but…
Willie: We’re your friends.
Barnabas: I need no friends, I want no friends.
Julia: You need us, Barnabas. We’re staying.
By the way, Grayson Hall’s acting style depends on having both her face and her hands in shot, so she ends up framed in the cell window like a puppet, which is just one more thing to love about this scene.
And I do love this scene, and this episode, and the remarkable thing is that I love it because this is a Ron Sproat episode, rather than despite it. For all my complaints about Sproat’s scriptwriting shortcomings, and my undying allegiance to Sam Hall’s side of the conflict, Ron is the guy on the team who’s put the most work into establishing real relationships between the characters.
In the “Last Days” post, I quoted from Sproat’s 1990 interview with Ed Gross. Here’s another excerpt from that interview:
Ed: What do you think it was about Jonathan Frid that appealed to people?
Ron: I don’t know. I think, one, because he played a duality, and had kind of a lost quality as well. He said originally, and I think he was right, “Don’t write the evil. I’ll play that. I look that way.” That’s what he said. He also said that he’d done Richard III, and he was astounded by the reviews at the time, because they said he was the most evil Richard on record. He said, “I was playing for sympathy.” [Both laugh.] So he suggested that we write against the evil and he would play against it, which would make it more interesting. That’s what we did, and I thought it worked.
So a lot of the sympathetic qualities came from you.
It was a mixture of both he and I. Joe [Caldwell] had a script very early that talked about the sadness of Barnabas, of how he would like to see the sunrise, and Jonathan played it very well. He played it like somebody with a terrible affliction, can’t help himself, can’t control it, wishes he could, and all that stuff. […] Dan never wanted him to be sympathetic. He hated it. We felt that we couldn’t get that much mileage out of a character who is pure evil forever. It isn’t that interesting anyway.
Ron says that he created the character with the help of Joe Caldwell, but his memory is a little fuzzy here. Joe didn’t join the show until two months after Barnabas’ debut. That scene about Barnabas wishing he could see the sunrise? Ron wrote that scene. Ron created Barnabas Collins.
So, yeah. Ron Sproat. I’m deeply frustrated with his obsession with locking up characters for endless stretches, and his recap scenes drive me out of my mind. But he created Barnabas, and established that it was possible for the villain to make friends. And here we are.
Frankly, part of the reason that we’re in this mess right now is that Dan and Sam have been pushing for more crazy — Eve is possessed with the spirit of a French Revolution-era murderess! Now there’s a second vampire, and a third! Make everybody a vampire! Set things on fire!
But over time, Ron has been layering in quiet scenes, where the characters talk, and fret, and solve problems together. If the show needs serious clean-up work, then the first thing to do is reaffirm the most important legacy of this period — that the core family on this soap opera is Barnabas, Julia and Willie.
For all the turmoil of the last few months, there’s still only one game that counts on Dark Shadows, and it’s called Stand Next to Barnabas. He’s the central character, and anybody who wants to be important on the show needs to share a lot of face time with him. In the end, the really enduring characters are Julia, Angelique and Quentin — three people who devote most of their attention to either helping or clashing with Barnabas.
That’s why the recent storylines haven’t worked. Nicholas Blair is supposed to be this brilliant Machiavellian strategist, but that means he has to lurk in the shadows, acting through a team of operatives. After all this time, Barnabas and Julia still don’t know where Adam and Eve are hiding, and Julia doesn’t even know who the secret vampire is, or how it all connects to Nicholas. This is a mistake.
On Dark Shadows, we like our villains loud and stormy-eyed, and the best antagonists on the series — Angelique, Reverend Trask, Quentin, Barnabas himself — they’re huge kaiju creatures who basically live off confrontation.
Nicholas is trying to be a stealth kaiju, like Godzilla hiding behind a tree and thinking that he’s got everybody fooled. It doesn’t work. The show is broken.
To fix it, they have to go back to the basics, to the first principles that turned Dark Shadows into a success.
Once again, Barnabas is trapped in a box, pleading with Willie for release. The king of darkness is brought low and buried in the earth, down among the dead men.
But if there’s one thing Barnabas has learned — that we’ve all learned, really — it’s that you don’t stay in the box.
So as our hero smacks his devoted friend on the head with a bottle and scurries out the trap door, setting a course for who knows where, we turn to Ron, and we say: Thank you for creating this weird, complicated, deeply flawed character, who is now at the center of this fascinating, magical and entirely bonkers show.
I mean, I still want you to leave. But thanks.
Tomorrow: Roger to the Rescue.
Note: The Ron Sproat interview quoted here is from Edward Gross’ Dark Shadows Tribute Book, published in 1990 by Pioneer Books.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
There’s a tape edit at the beginning of act 1, when Julia urges Willie to look at Barnabas.
When Barnabas is standing at the cell door, pleading with Julia to let him go free, he has a quiet coughing spell.
In the middle of act 3, when they’re transitioning from Willie and Barnabas in the cell to Maggie speaking to Julia in the drawing room, it sounds like they give Maggie her cue too early. The audio picks up Maggie’s first word, from somewhere else in the studio, before Willie and Barnabas’ scene is over. There’s a tape edit, and then we pick up Maggie, mid-conversation.
The sound effect when Barnabas hits Willie over the head with a bottle is way over the top — it’s like three plate-glass windows breaking at once. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a mistake, because it’s fantastic. It sounds like the world is ending.
Then Willie falls to the ground, and you can see cables on the floor about a foot away from his head.
At the beginning of the credits, there’s a shadow on the wall — apparently somebody off-camera standing in front of a light. About ten seconds in, the person moves out of the way.
Tomorrow: Roger to the Rescue.
— Danny Horn