Episode 667: Take the Actors, Please

“And once you’ve seen that action, you will look back on that dialogue as manna from heaven combined with the balm of Gilead.”

One year ago on Dark Shadows, a man shot his wife in the drawing room, in the shoulder, and in the middle of ABC-TV’s afternoon programming lineup.

As she lay there, weltering in gore, she set a terrible curse upon his house, which summoned a marionette bat from the gates of Hell. The bat swooped at the man’s throat as he screamed and screamed and screamed, and I think you could make a good case that this was the moment when sensible grown-ups should have intervened.

And yet it runs on, this perpetual bad-influence machine disguised as a harmless daytime soap opera, because normal working adults in 1969 have exactly zero interest in what the housewives and teenagers of America are doing at four o’clock in the afternoon. As long as everyone’s mopped up the blood and erased the chalk pentagram on the floor by the time Dad comes home, there are no further questions.

667 dark shadows local girl newspaper

Remarkably, the mainstream press has been unbelievably kind to the show so far. But this is life before the VCR, when a reporter who wants to write about Dark Shadows has access to the following: a) the episode that airs today, provided that you’re looking at a television set at precisely four pm, and b) nothing else.

There’s no highlights reel, no way to sample the best episodes, or the worst episodes, or the one that you heard about where a demon performed a Black Mass while a werewolf killed a hotel clerk. You have today’s episode, and if that’s not enough material for an article, then you have to wait 24 hours for the next one.

667 dark shadows fan raves

So the Dark Shadows coverage tends to focus on the tangible elements, namely the gum cards, the Halloween masks and Jonathan Frid’s fan mail.

In November, The Saturday Evening Post ran a four-page feature on Dark Shadows, which acknowledged the undeniably perverse appeal of the show, and then dismissed it with an indulgent smile.

The December article in The New York Times was positively giddy about the show, counting Frid’s mail and generally giving the impression that a television show this successful must be contributing to the public welfare.

So it’s about time somebody took a stand, telling the world the awful truth about this awful television show. Enter TV Guide and its crusading critic, Cleveland Amory. Yeah, the cat guy.

667 dark shadows tv guide review

Amory’s one-page review of Dark Shadows was published in the February 1st, 1969 issue, and it’s based on the week of episodes that we talked about two weeks ago — episodes 656 to 660.

Monday and Tuesday of that week were mostly about David and Amy doing inexplicable things on Quentin’s behalf — making a prank call to a funeral home, packing and then unpacking their suitcases, talking to gramophone records, and grinning inanely for very little reason. Wednesday was Joe’s mental breakdown, and was approximately 50% dream sequence. On Thursday and Friday, Barnabas fretted about Vicki’s fate, and decided to talk his way back in time.

Sadly, this was not the most inspiring week of Dark Shadows. If Mr. Amory had tuned in the week before, he would have seen multiple werewolf attacks, which were a lot more lively. But that’s show business for you.

So the TV Guide review is not a positive one. It begins with the assessment that Dark Shadows is “the worst [TV series] in the history of entertainment,” and moves on from there. Given the week that he saw, I can’t really argue with his conclusions.

Where I take issue with Mr. C. Amory is that he is under the impression that he is hilarious. I believe that I am uniquely qualified to speak on the subject of funny critiques of terrible Dark Shadows episodes, given that I’ve spent almost two years doing nothing else with my evenings, and Amory is not funny. In fact, if I was comfortable using the word “douchey” in print, then I would use it here, because that is what this review is. It is unquestionably douchey.

656 dark shadows johnson barnabas will

But here, take a look for yourself.

A few weeks ago, when we were down with the flu, we watched this show for a whole week. And you know what? Sick as we were — and we were a very sick boy — we were, compared with Dark Shadows, in the pink.

But then a remarkable thing happened. At the end of the week, by which time we had decided that this series was, in our considered judgement, the worst in the history of entertainment, we found that when Saturday came and there was no show, we missed it. And thus we arrived at a true understanding of the secret of Dark Shadows’ success — the worse it is, the more you’ll love it.

And take our word for it, this is the show for that. The people who run it obviously have their standards — and above them they will not go. When it comes to quality, they will never compromise with the lack of it.

No matter how terrible you think an idea is — wait, hold your judgment. The execution of it will be so bad that, in retrospect, the idea seems terrific. In the same way you may, on occasion — say, 10 times per episode — think some dialogue is utterly ridiculous. Again, don’t be hasty. Look at the action that once a week or so accompanies the dialogue. And once you’ve seen that action, you will look back on that dialogue as manna from heaven combined with the balm of Gilead.

661 dark shadows julia barnabas cemetery

Take the actors — please. Start with Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, mistress of the horror house of Collinwood. Miss Joan Bennett, an old favorite of ours, plays this part as if she’d just forgotten where she’d put it. All right, we know that a few weeks ago they had her killed off. But to count on a thing like that in a show like this is madness. They think nothing of digging up people who’ve been dead 200 years.

Next take Barnabas Collins, your friendly neighborhood vampire. Mr. Jonathan Frid, who plays this part, is at his best — i.e., worst — when he’s discovering something for the fourth time that somebody else already discovered for the third. “You mean,” he will say, “the second time you went back to the grave, it was freshly filled in?”

Go through the rest of the cast — every last one of them speaks his or her lines as if on the witness stand and paid by the word — by the prosecution. They can’t all be that bad, you say. Of course not. Some are worse than others.

656 dark shadows david amy smiling

The very worst, though, are the children — Amy (Denise Nickerson) and David (David Henesy). We swear to you that if we see those two talking to that ghost Quentin through that disconnected telephone one more time, we will call them on a connected telephone and read them this review collect.

Finally, take the executive producer. His name is Dan Curtis. Remember that name. And if you meet him on the street, speak kindly to him, and do not make any quick motions. For Mr. Curtis is a man who has, for publication, declared that he actually dreamed the whole story of Dark Shadows during, he says, “a big sleep in upstate New York.” In that case all you can think, or hope, or even pray is that Mr. Curtis never, ever gets that tired again.

656 dark shadows david amy stairs

After writing this douchey and not funny review, Cleveland Amory fell into total obscurity and was never heard from again, except for the three bestselling books that he wrote, the influential animal rights organizations that he founded, and the many whales, chimpanzees and baby seals that he rescued. So everything turned out okay.

Tomorrow: The Aristocrats.


Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

When Barnabas tells Amy and David that he missed them, a camera moves into the shot behind him.

Barnabas sits on the couch with Amy, and says, “Now, Carolyn, what happened?” When she asks Barnabas to tell Carolyn not to punish David, he says, “Oh, I can’t do that, Carol — uh, Amy.”

Tomorrow: The Aristocrats.

656 dark shadows david amy swing

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

31 thoughts on “Episode 667: Take the Actors, Please

  1. Dig me, I’m Cleveland Armory and I smoke a pipe, thus making me scholarly, and an intellectualizer, I mean intellectutaunte, I mean intellafraud. OK, a douche. Next, I’m going to sit with my back to you, and then swivel around quickly, while dramatically yanking my glasses from my face. Then you’ll know who’s a smarty pants, and who isn’t.

  2. In addition to the cat books, I believe he wrote “The Trouble with Nowadays: A Curmudgeon Strikes Back.” The use of the royal we in his review is quite wearing–I wondered at first if he and someone else were sick and watching the show. Yet even he fell under the spell of DS, missing it come Saturday. Did he secretly speed home to watch it ever after? One can only speculate.

    1. Right. He is full of shit. He has watched the show from then on. Dark Shadows past and present does that to people. After watching this series again within the last 2 months, I was annoyed at the end…lol. So he can critique all he wanted, it was cool and worthy, he did not stop watching it. I do agree that the children are horrible. I cant stand David or Amy. David would not have lasted in my house, when my mom told me not to do something and I did it anyway? Or lie to mom when I know damn well I am guilty? Naw…

  3. Amory uses “we” (or “to us”) in all of his TV Guide reviews, as a pipe-smoking critic should. Danny, for the record, this isn’t atypical, so Amory wasn’t just picking on “Dark Shadows.” I’ll have to scan his review of “Ozzie and Harriet,” including withering remarks about how the show is built on nepotism, and using the phrase “nepot” as a noun.

    The remarkable point of this review isn’t really what it says about Dark Shadows (or even Cleveland Amory), but about TV Guide. I picked up a 1975 TV Guide anthology book, and to my surprise, for the first 25 years (some sources say until Murdoch bought it in the 1980s), TV Guide thought of itself as an intellectual publication. Sure, there were glossy covers and listings for roller derby. But content? Apart from Amory, from the 60s through the 70s, they had future movie critics Richard Schickel and Judith Crist; Dr. Margaret Mead and other docs for think pieces or clinical concerns over TV trends; guest pieces by novelists such as James Michener and John Updike; playwright William Saroyan on Mannix for heaven’s sake! Isaac Asimov tackled the Miss America Pageant.

    So in addition to profiles of Carol Burnett, you had articles like “Television: America’s Timid Giant,” “Television and the Feminine Mystique (by Betty Friedan even), “What the Negro Wants from TV,” and the inevitable panic piece, “What Is TV Doing to Children?” TV Guide took the “guide” part of its name very seriously, feeling that it shouldn’t just guide viewers as to when to watch, but how to watch.

    TV Guide’s pairing of shows with high brow critics could be perverse at times: East Coast intellectual Gilbert Seldes, author of the 1923 media study The Seven Lively Arts (and over sixty years old at this point), was given “Beverly Hillbillies.”

    Amory wasn’t even the most curmudgeonly. Louis Kronenberger (former TIME film critic, and his blurb boasts that he’d taught at Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Columbia, etc.) wrote “Uncivilized and Uncivilizing” in which he says “There has been nothing too elegant for it to coarsen, too artisitic for it to vulgarize, too sacred for it to profane.” And this was only 1966. He arguably had a point, but still, not what one expects from TV Guide.

    Basically, this is the opposite of the “Cool Ghoul” school of TV writing. (Although they still churned out headlines like “Batty Over Batman,” so TV Guide did cover their bases).

    1. It’s interesting that a magazine that exists to provide TV listings will then publish articles telling you how horrible said TV shows are. I mean, negative reviews are certainly justified, but one gets the feeling that most of these are written by people who actually hate television or believe that only 1% of the programming has any merit.

      1. Looking at the book (TV Guide:The First 25 Years, for the curious), you’re not far wrong, Pedro, especially when it came to their regular critics and reviewers (say, 60-75 percent) and in most cases, pretty much anyone whose background is mainly as an Ivy League professor or sociologist or (as Amory was termed) a media curmudgeon.

        In fact, a 1992 scholarly book on TV Guide notes one editors tendency to “plead with readers “to give Shakespeare or the symphony a try, and scolded them when they didn’t.” argues that the magazine’s theory was that “readers were amused by articles that denigrated the intelligence of viewers,” perhaps assuming the “viewers” would just skip straight to the “Beaver’s friend Larry runs away” listings. The Encyclopedia of Journalism describes TV Guide as “a guardian of the public taste, harshly judging television shows that the editors considered to be beneath America’s public intelligence.”

        There are exceptions (the book tries to balance it). Most of the guest pieces by non-doctor/professor types are basically “Hey, this famous person is a fan!” articles: James Michener raves over British import “The Forsyte Saga,” which isn’t a surprise. Less expectes is playwright Saroyan (although his is mostly full of his own anecdotes) on “Mannix,” where he discusses Mike Connors’ real name, moonshining past, and also makes it clear that he just likes watching “Mannix.” Asimov explains why he enjoys the Miss America Pageant and that its appeal isn’t limited to one gender. Regular staffer Dwight Whitney (never a name writer outside of TV Guide) does the “This show/star is cool and interesting” pieces.

        Movie critic Judith Crist is underrepresented in the book, but her review of “The Fugitive” is anti-Amory: she uses “I suspect” (she only uses “we” when it’s a clear “we the audience” context) and dissects elements of the show (one of Amory’s tendencies, to awkwardly describe scenes or actions in a condescending way, was partially a pre-home video tic, but she avoids this). She does carp that Kimble seemed too nattily dressed for a fugitive laying low, but she does discuss several weeks worth of shows and their highlights (and even uses this sentence: “The secret of full enjoyment lies in letting the illogic of the format go by and riding with its presumptions”; that’s a more formal way of saying “Sit back and relax, it’s TV, not real life,” as opposed to Amory’s “Arent I clever” classical illusions or turns of phrase).

        Later, a 1970 TV Guide piece by Crist discusses her philosophy of criticism, and really echoes Danny’s own approach to Dark Shadows: “Why bother to criticize if you don’t care?” comparing it to parents who expect more from their favorite children, and “There’s little joy in negativism, even though, alas, it attracts the most attention.”

  4. “What the Negro Wants from TV,” I…after face palming as hard as I can, we really have made some progress over the years. We subscribed to TV Guide for a while and it did try to have insightful commentary mixed with more prosaic articles about TV. I think as a kid I read the article on DS and was angry. They were being mean to my show! And he wasn’t funny to boot.

    1. Percy, after 50 years, I am of the observation that no African Americans were cast in Dark Shadows. Did I pay any attention to this back in 1966-1971? No I did not.

  5. TV Guide also broke the news in 1971 that Dark Shadows was about to be cancelled. My 7th grade Biology teacher bought the latest issue during Lunch Period, saw the announcement and passed the sad news along to the Monster Kids in her class that afternoon.

  6. Given Mr. Amory’s proclivity for animal rights activism we think he should stick the werewolf storyline in his pipe and smoke it.

  7. I once pitched a story to TV Guide in the mid-1980s about how the medium has covered gay characters and received back an outraged letter from an editor telling me they would never cover such a salacious subject in a positive way. It was the first and only rejection letter I received written in block letters.

    1. That sounds about right. A lot of the non-review/star profile articles worry about how TV is affecting society. Also, according to the journalism encyclopedia, in the 1970s (and evidently into the 1980s), publisher Walter Annenberg took a hand in making TV Guide more right-wing (really!) and apparently being more active in editorial policy than in the post. Annenberg (photographs have him hanging out with then-President Ronald Reagan) made sure the magazine published columns by Pat Buchanan!

      The same book notes that by the time Annenberg sold out to Murdoch in 1989, though, celebrity pieces replaced the critical examinations and think pieces. This was probably after your submission, Mark (or else during the transition, the current editor had a “Don’t scare the horses” attitude).

      1. The rejection Mark got also has a lot to do with the times a-changin’. Gay representation on TV was an outrageous subject in the mid-80s. By the mid-90s, there were gay characters on Northern Exposure and Melrose Place, and by the late 90s, there was Will & Grace, and Ellen coming out. I don’t know when TV Guide finally did their first “discussing the controversy about gay characters” article, but my guess would be during the Melrose Place years.

      2. To be fair, Buchanan has also been employed by PBS and MSNBC (before the latter kicked him off not too long ago). Circa 1990, my parents stopped giving to PBS because of its constant kowtowing to the right.

    2. I love your site and the episode summaries, and I was wondering that instead of skipping some episodes, have you thought of putting posts like this as an extra while still going over the episode.

      Not complaining but I miss your comments on posts like this without the episode summary.

      1. I usually do this kind of thing when I just don’t have anything to say about the episode. Nothing happened in this episode that didn’t happen in the day before or the day after. So I keep a little list of possible topics that I can plug in when the episode is uninspiring. 🙂

  8. Well, pop critics used to be critics. They weren’t expected to be cheerleaders. And readers weren’t threatened by critics who knew more about a topic than they did–in fact, they expected this to be the case. And experts, by definition, are people who know more than you probably do. Thus, experts were there to enlighten, to inform. Forty-plus years later, it’s the ultimate heresy for a reviewer to play that role. They’ve been forced to play the “But you already knew that” game, which flatters the reader’s ego without challenging him or her to learn anything. I don’t blame journalists for catering to that trend; they have to eat.

    The journalistic we was the norm back then. In fact, even Amory’s TV Guide successor used it. I typed a humorous letter to him, teasing him about the “we” stuff, and he promised to change his ways. I have his reply tucked away in a folder someplace. It’s very funny and friendly.

    I don’t think it’s completely fair to judge a 46-year-old piece by its tone. I mean, naturally, it’s going to sound wrong to modern ears. (Imagine what our stuff would have sounded like to 1969 readers.) To me, the great virtue of Amory-era pop criticism is the way it acknowledges popular products like DS AS popular products. Entertainment as entertainment. I don’t find the journalistic we half as annoying as flippant, snarky pieces comparing “Breaking Bad” to Shakespeare. Bring back Cleveland.

  9. I have fond memories of listening to “The Trouble with Nowadays” on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Chapter a Day.” I keep meaning to read the cat books. This piece inspired me to do a quick peek at his Wikipedia page. One interesting (to me) item was that he and Vincent Price (and two other people, I guess) co-authored or co-edited a cookbook. This led me to wondering what Amory thought of Price’s non-culinary work and what Price thought of DS, and what a TV Guide article on DS by Price would have been like. Ah, well.

    1. I like that idea, Resa.

      “Presumably Collinsport would be a haven for seafood, yet the most we ever glimpse of food is the occasional cake at Maggie’s house. Barnabas himself lacks the spirit of culinary adventure. Instead of biting, he should use a proper syphon and funnel, carefully washed and perhaps with a light basil basting, through which to channel the blood. It can then serve as a gazpacho the next day, or placed in individual glasses and garnished with mushrooms.

      As I know from experience, being undead doesn’t mean being uncouth.”

      1. ..lol…he never ate any food. I never really seen him have a brandy or Sherry. Perhaps if he had a few brandies, he might have recognized Julia earlier.

  10. This, by the way, is a wonderful use of a journalistic we:

    “Presumably Collinsport would be a haven for seafood, yet the most we ever glimpse of food is the occasional cake at Maggie’s house.”

    This (to me) isn’t so great (and I like Cleveland Amory):

    “A few weeks ago, when we were down with the flu, we watched this show for a whole week. And you know what? Sick as we were — and we were a very sick boy — ”

    Um, okay.

  11. Amory has a point.

    The kids are supposed to be creepy, not silly.

    Mrs. Johnson is afraid, and at some point here, speaks of David being SLY.

    And Henesy is not playing sly.

    He’s channeling Craig Slocum. That kind of sly.

    Henesy has the ability to play smart. But he plays young Slocum.

    Which is bad for everyone involved.

    Maybe Henesy asked for help in character development here……

    But all the adults were “just too busy.”

  12. I’m going to be a little gauche here, and talk about the episode that is in this place . Something different did happen apparently Liz is now buried where Naomi is buried because Carolyn and Amy come in and lay flowers on Elizabeth’s tomb except that Elizabeth’s tomb is Naomi’s tomb. it’s supposed to be an entirely separate Mausoleum. I would think with an entirely separate single headstone for Elizabeth. A quick redress of the set could accomplish that. That is not the case. Naomi’s headstone has been taken away but it is in fact Naomi’s tomb. My question for the day, is whatever happened to Naomi Collins? One of those lovely inconsistencies but I only noticed it today ,and if you knew how many times I’ve been through the cycle you would find it embarrassing to me that I had not yet noticed this. Love this blog. Have a great day.

  13. When I was 15 I read Cleveland Amory’s review Dark Shadows and was positively outraged. Now 63, I just finished rereading it and think it is positively hilarious as well as very accurate. Make room, William Shatner, your “get a life, trekkie” speech has competition!!!

  14. About David and Amy and their inane smiles, I think David H. actually got worse as an actor on “DS” as he got older. This was brought “home” to me when he was shown in flashback on a recent DS episode. He seemed much more natural and comfortable than he’s seemed lately.

  15. Great comments for this entry! I learned a bit about the corporate culture of “Reader’s Digest”.

    re: Naomi/Elizabeth tombs, I think (maybe) Carolyn and Amy had already visited Elizabeth’s grave, and stopped by the Mausoleum to leave some leftover posies on the three sarcophagi there. Isn’t Liz’s resting place outfitted with buzzers and bells?

    re: David’s acting “getting worse”, I think he may have been coached to project differently at this point in the story due to being possessed by Quentin. We may be seeing a less natural David b/c he is trying to act a state of (intermittent?) possession.

  16. TV Guide had a TV ad back in the 1960s with two actors. One (off-screen) proffers a pack of cigarettes and says, “It’s what’s up front that counts” (parodying a then-popular cigarette commercial), and the other actor opens a TV Guide and says, “I dunno. TV Guide has some pretty good articles in the back, too.”

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