“He only wants to marry her when he’s normal.”
It’s Christmas Day 1968, and Dark Shadows is taking a break so that ABC can show a basketball game. On pre-emption days, as everyone knows, we spend the day talking about The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
So let’s do a little time travel, to September 1970. Mary Tyler Moore has spent five years playing Laura Petrie, the wife of Dick Van Dyke’s character on the much-loved sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show. Now she’s making her own show, the story of a woman who leaves her disappointing fiancee, and takes off for the big city to make a new life for herself.
It’s a bold idea for 1970, when everyone thinks it’s not possible to get the American public to relate to a woman who’s decided that she doesn’t need a man in her life. In the ’60s, female leads in comedy shows were housewives, widows, girlfriends, domestics, devoted genies and flying nuns. The number of successful shows about non-aerodynamic single women is precisely zero.
So The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a new idea for network television, a medium that is traditionally allergic to new ideas. To make this work, the show needs people to instantly fall in love with Mary, and the people around her.
Luckily, Mary Tyler Moore is one of the most appealing actors in television history. Her character is brave, and smart, and vulnerable, and emotionally present in every scene.
But if the audience can’t warm up to the other characters, then the show fails. That would mean that a single woman can’t actually lead a TV show, so everybody has to be a housewife forever, there’s no such thing as the ’70s, and our civilization grinds to a halt. But no pressure.
As the pilot episode begins, Phyllis shows Mary her new apartment, with Phyllis’ daughter Bess tagging along. Mary is enchanted.
Mary: Phyllis, I just love it! It’s charming!
Bess: I thought this was gonna be Aunt Rhoda’s apartment.
Mary: Who’s Aunt Rhoda?
Phyllis: Oh, that dumb, awful girl who lives upstairs that Bess likes. She’s not your aunt, Bess. That dumb Rhoda thinks this is going to be her apartment, so I signed a year’s lease for you.
Naturally, when they open the curtains, that dumb, awful Rhoda is out on the balcony, washing the windows. Rhoda is a loud-mouthed New York transplant, who’s introduced as an antagonist but quickly becomes Mary’s best friend and confidant.
Mary and Rhoda have a funny scene about who owns the apartment. Rhoda says that she’s already spent a month’s salary replacing the carpet, and Mary feels sorry for her, until Phyllis comes back in and says that these are old carpets. Rhoda shrugs, and admits she was lying.
So it’s established, Rhoda’s a tough cookie — and, hopefully, an appealing opposites-attract contrast to Mary’s eternally sunny disposition.
Except it didn’t work.
When they filmed the pilot, the live audience hated Rhoda. They thought she was rude and obnoxious. She gets all the funny lines for the second half of the scene, but the audience just didn’t care about her, so the first scene tanked.
That carried over to the second scene, which introduces all of the newsroom characters. This includes Lou Grant, Mary’s grouchy new boss, who delivers the soon-to-be-famous line: “You’ve got spunk. I hate spunk!”
But after the bad experience with Rhoda, the live audience didn’t have patience for another character who’s critical of Mary. That scene tanked too, and the audience just sat there through the rest of the episode, grim and stone-faced. The show was a disaster.
But the producers believed in the cast and the script. They brought in a new audience and filmed the pilot again, with only one script change:
Just before Rhoda’s entrance, Bess smiles and says, “Aunt Rhoda’s really a lot of fun. Mom hates her.”
And everything just falls into place. They’ve already established that Phyllis is bossy and judgemental, so “Mom’s” opinion doesn’t carry a lot of weight. The little girl likes Rhoda, which means it’s okay for the audience to like Rhoda.
So once the audience sees that Rhoda can challenge Mary and still be a lot of fun, then it’s okay for Lou to be grouchy, because he’s going to turn out to be a lot of fun too.
The apartment scene works, and the newsroom scene works, and the show runs for seven years, and the ’70s are saved.
Rhoda’s introduction is the clearest possible demonstration of the rules for new characters: Make a joke, make a friend, and make a plot point happen.
Getting approval from Bess is key. If there’s somebody on the show who likes Rhoda, then that gives her value and worth in the narrative.
This process of wariness-before-acceptance is rooted deep in our primate psychology. Even if the show is only two minutes old, Mary, Phyllis and Bess have become our tribe. They’re our only connection to this fictional world, and we feel safe with them, and with this huge open set that is clearly going to be our home.
So when Phyllis opens the curtains to reveal Rhoda, she’s an outsider, crashing the party. Everything about her is a contrast to the tribe that we know — she has a New York accent and attitude, she wears dark colors, she’s not quite as pretty, and she’s trying to take our people’s land away.
But little Bess — the weakest, most vulnerable member of our family — says that the interloper is okay. She’s not an invader; she’s just a member of the tribe that we haven’t met yet.
“Make a friend” turns out to be the single most important rule for new characters. In fact, one of the most successful television shows of all time is called Friends. This is not a coincidence.
So bringing this back to the 1991 Dark Shadows reboot — and yes, this is still a blog about Dark Shadows — we find a show that is desperately struggling to establish a set of characters that we care about.
I’ve been doing these Time Travel posts since Thanksgiving 1967 — here’s part 1, if you need it — and now we’ve reached episode 5. The four-hour miniseries event is behind us, and the show needs to prove that it’s something more than just a reheated collage of scenes from the original series, but darker and with more retakes.
They’ve managed to scrape together some plot points by now, so that’s not an issue, and they’re making progress on the friends.
For one thing, they finally take the time in this episode to establish a real relationship between Barnabas and Vicki. The emotional core of this night-time soap opera is an interlocking set of doomed love triangles between Barnabas, Vicki, Julia, Josette and the ghost of Angelique, with Barnabas and Vicki as the couple we’re supposed to cheer for. But they’ve hardly spent any time together — maybe one scene per episode, taking a walk somewhere.
Today, the show manages to settle down and show us some romantic date nights, where we can see the lovers eat and dance and relax on the couch, and now we can understand why this pretty young governess would be charmed by the dark, mysterious multi-millionaire who lives next door.
But there are some serious deficits in the “make a joke” area. The producers are still falling for the old legend that the secret of Dark Shadows’ success is that everbody always took the show seriously, which is not at all true, and it doesn’t mean what they think it means anyway.
There are lots of intentionally funny moments in Dark Shadows. When you think about Julia, Angelique, Quentin, Roger, Professor Stokes, Nicholas, Nathan — it’s easy to picture them smiling. Even if the joke is mocking or at someone else’s expense, they say funny things, and they engage in complicated farce sequences.
So far, the 1991 Dark Shadows has taken all of the fun out of these people — particularly Julia, as I’ve complained about at length — and given all the jokes to Willie the yokel blood-servant, the official comedy relief.
In this episode, they’ve decided that it’s crucial that the audience learns to love Willie. In the first scene, Barnabas has invited Vicki to a romantic candle-light dinner, and Willie has just finished serving the meal. He gets to do a little comedy schtick which goes on for longer than you’d expect, and then Barnabas sends him away.
As soon as he’s off screen, Vicki leans over and stage-whispers, “I can’t get over Willie. He’s a completely different person! You’ve done wonders with him.”
Barnabas cocks his head and says, “Yes, I have,” following it up with a smile, and that’s Barnabas’ first funny moment in the series, thank you very much.
Vicki doubles down. “I mean it!” she says. “He’s gotten so polite, he’s taking better care of himself. It’s quite amazing.” And then she settles back into her chair, and generally suggests that liking Willie is one of the most satisfying experiences of her life. Settle down, Bess, we get it.
But it works, damn them. I’ve spent the last four episodes hate-watching this show, and today — at least for the first forty-five seconds — they’re being playful. Vicki likes Willie, and Barnabas likes Vicki, and both of them like Barnabas, and so on.
So when Vicki and Barnabas get up and do a lengthy minuet sequence shot entirely from behind a lit candelabra half an inch away from the camera, I think they’re being cute, and instead of hating the characters, I can concentrate all of my hate-watching energy on the director, Armand Mastroianni, who is terrible.
But that’s not all for Willie. The show is so devoted to making us like him that they do a whole other sequence toward the end of the episode, where Willie offers to make breakfast for Vicki. When Willie exits, Vicki turns to Barnabas and says, “He’s sweet.”
Okay, thank you. I think we got it. Willie is liked. The Rhoda is strong with this one.
So now that we’ve confirmed that the producers understand the rules of character building, it’s even more baffling when they’re unable to repeat the process for any of the other characters. In fact, I’m going to propose some anti-rules that they’re deploying to make sure that the audience hates the characters.
First up: Make the same mistake twice.
We know by now that Julia has fallen in love with Barnabas, and she’s convinced herself that when their experiment is a success, he’ll be so grateful to be human again that he’ll return her affection.
The key moment in this scenario is when Julia learns that Barnabas is actually in love with Vicki, and then she gets jealous and does something dangerous. This is standard practice for this kind of show, and no real problem, except that this is the third episode in a row where they’ve done this same scene.
Julia — who spends all her time with Barnabas, and lives in the same house as Vicki — finds out from Willie that Barnabas and Vicki are dating, and every time, her eyes flash like it’s never occurred to her before. I hate this fake Julia.
Next rule: Make the same acting choice in every scene.
Carolyn’s back in this episode, so three cheers for that. She kind of drifted off-screen in the last couple episodes, but the audience remembers who she is. She’s the pouting girl, who licks her lips and makes every moment a seduction, no matter who she’s talking to.
Today, Carolyn’s come down to the Collinsport docks to visit Joe. You remember Joe; he’s the guy with the chest back there. His fiancee, Daphne — Carolyn’s cousin — died violently in his arms about three weeks ago.
And now Carolyn’s decided to stop by and touch her hair for a while, until he agrees to take her out on a quote-unquote fishing expedition. Nobody on the show is her friend, because she is utterly repellent.
This brings us to the third rule: Make baffling decisions.
Joe agrees to Carolyn’s plan, and he drives his boat — which has “Daphne” painted on the side — out to sea for a little adventure. Then he takes off his shirt and lies down in the sun, like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
So Carolyn does the obvious thing, namely talk about potato chips and then clamber on to the meat platter in front of her.
As she’s getting started, Joe says the following things: “Carolyn, cut it out,” “I can’t do this,” “You just cool it,” and “This cruise is over.” And the entire audience yells at the television THEN WHY DID YOU AGREE TO TAKE HER OUT ON THE BOAT?
So I hate him, and I hate her, and I hate this whole show, and I wish I was watching Mary Tyler Moore instead. The end. Merry Christmas.
Tomorrow: Half-Hour of the Wolf.
Next pre-emption special:
Time Travel, part 6: One Giant Leap.
The story about the Mary Tyler Moore pilot comes from the excellent 2013 book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds That Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. I recommend it highly; it’s got spunk.
Tomorrow: Half-Hour of the Wolf.
— Danny Horn