“SHUT UP I WILL HEAR NO MORE!!!”
Today’s episode of Dark Shadows did not air on July 21st, 1969, because over the weekend, a couple of crazy kids from the Kennedy Space Center went and landed a rocket ship on the entire moon. This amazing stunt was picked up by the press somehow — I guess they had viral videos back then — and there was continuous commercial-free coverage of the event on all three networks for 34 straight hours.
The Eagle landed on the moon on Sunday afternoon Eastern time, and on Sunday night, Neil Armstrong was the first person to step onto the surface of the moon. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left the moon on Monday afternoon, and at the time that Dark Shadows would have been on the air, the Eagle was approaching Command Module Columbia to prepare for the return trip to Earth.
ABC got hammered, by the way. All three networks were showing basically the same thing, but CBS had Walter Cronkite, who was that most elusive of creatures, a respected television news anchor. They also had a scale model of the lunar module, and a seven foot long conveyer belt so they could simulate what it would look like for the astronauts orbiting the moon. But mostly they had Cronkite, for 32 of the 34 hours of coverage. Apparently his keepers at CBS wouldn’t let him sleep.
So CBS got a 45 share of the viewing public, NBC got a 34 share, and ABC had a 14 share. Each network invested 1.5 million dollars to broadcast the mission, and they couldn’t run commercials in case something blew up or they found a moon monster. So ABC lost a lot of money, and everybody was watching Cronkite anyway. They might as well have showed Dark Shadows.
I wonder, on that sunny Monday afternoon, if there were any kids staring at the scale models pretending to dock with each other, and thinking, Come onnnnnn! They just ripped off Count Petofi’s hand on Friday! Enough already with the moon! I probably would have thought that, but I’m bad at priorities.
Anyway, enough about mankind’s great achievements. On pre-emption days, we watch an episode of the 1991 NBC revival series, because I can’t just talk about Walter Cronkite all day.
The 1991 Dark Shadows is basically the opposite of the moon landing, in the sense that it fizzled on the launchpad and was watched by nobody. The only similarity between the two events is that some people believe that the ’91 Dark Shadows was an expensive hoax designed to confuse and mislead the American public. I am one of the people who believe that.
Today, we’re watching episode 6 — here are the previous 1991 posts, if you want to catch up. So far, we’ve seen Barnabas rise from the dead and kill several people, including a throwaway Collins cousin named Daphne. Barnabas has decided that he’s in love with governess Victoria Winters, because she looks like his lost love, Josette. That’s actually Maggie’s job in the original series, but the revival gives Vicki both the Maggie and Vicki roles, which frees up Maggie to be Professor Stokes.
Julia has been trying to cure Barnabas of his vampirism, but the experiments backfired, and turned Barnabas into a horrible old man. He regained his youthful appearance by biting Carolyn, and that’s basically everything that’s going on.
Julia is terrible, by the way, and Carolyn is terrible. A lot of people are terrible on this show.
So here’s terrible Carolyn, being escorted back to Collinwood by terrible Willie, after she’s been bitten-on. This has not changed her performance in any way, except that she doesn’t have any lines, so she just stands there and quietly smolders. 1991 Carolyn’s performance is one hundred percent smoldering; she comes on to absolutely everything, and the attitude of the show appears to be that smoldery people should be given all the camera time. This episode is mostly about Carolyn. The last episode was, too. This is a serious problem that the producers apparently have no interest in correcting.
I have a lot of theories for why the casting was so bad in the revival. The current one I’m trying out is that the original Dark Shadows filmed in New York, and they cast mainly theater people, who are all pitching their performance at a super high level so that the people in the back row can hear them. The 1991 Dark Shadows cast is mostly made up of soap opera people, and not even the good ones.
Before playing Carolyn on Dark Shadows, Barbara Blackburn did a year of Ryan’s Hope, where she was the 4th recast of Siobhan, a revolving door role that was recast three times in three years. Ryan’s Hope just kept throwing Siobhans at people until they gave up and stopped watching. Barbara was the final Siobhan, and for all I know, she may have been the final straw that got the show cancelled. She’s certainly trying her best to get Dark Shadows cancelled, and she’s doing a very thorough job.
After Dark Shadows, Barbara Blackburn basically never did anything ever again, because she is terrible.
Willie brings Carolyn to Collinwood’s back garden, and then lets her stumble her way toward the door. As she leaves, Willie says, “And don’t you worry, Carolyn! Everything is gonna be fine.” Then he stands there and repeats, “Everything’s gonna be fine. Everything’s gonna be fine. Everything’s gonna be fine. Everything’s gonna be fine.” And he keeps on making uncomfortable facial expressions.
The producers, with a finger on the pulse of the American viewing public, have decided that their show should begin with a full minute of this. This was apparently their best shot at hanging on to the percentage of the Quantum Leap audience that had misplaced the remote control.
Carolyn enters the house, kind of sleepy and smug and still smoldering away. Elizabeth asks where she’s been all day, and Carolyn rubs her hands together, stares into space and says, “I had things to do, Mother.” Liz doesn’t realize that anything’s wrong, because this is the way that Carolyn always acts.
Carolyn says that Barnabas will be attending tonight’s party, which surprises Julia — she thought Barnabas wasn’t feeling very well. Carolyn pouts and smirks and smolders, and says, “He’s doing fine.” Then she walks away. I am not actually going to describe every single thing that Carolyn does in this episode and then say that she’s terrible, but I could. I just don’t want to.
It’s not actually that easy to come up with new things to say about this program, because we’re on hour six and they’ve settled into a pattern where nothing ever really has to happen. Barnabas lives in the Old House and he’s a vampire. Everybody else lives in Collinwood, and they do whatever they’re supposed to do. Pout, I guess, and throw costume parties, and not solve mysteries. And at this point, there’s no reason why that ever has to change.
Early on, Willie admits to Barnabas that he’s scared for Vicki. “And why is that, Willie?” Barnabas says, striking a number of austere poses.
“You know, Barnabas,” Willie stammers, “with everything that’s happened and all, and you being, y’know — y’know, like you used to be, again, and all that, and, uh, well, I don’t know. I guess I’m just — scared, that’s all.”
Barnabas says, “I understand, Willie,” which makes one of us. “And I want you to know that I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that she will not be harmed.”
That doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult thing for Barnabas to accomplish, since he’s the only person who plans on harming her, but Willie points out that every time he sees her, well, y’know, etcetera.
“I KNOW that, Willie!” Barnabas gets that bossy tone in his voice. “So I will find a way NOT TO SEE HER ANYMORE.”
Willie responds like this is one of the world’s all-time great plans, and it does seem pretty foolproof. Barnabas is only awake at night, and what with all the great TV shows on NBC’s primetime schedule, there isn’t that much time left for socializing. I mean, everybody does seem to have an open spot in their day planners on Friday after Quantum Leap, but still, you could just say you have a cold or something.
And it’s not like the show is super invested in the Vicki/Barnabas relationship anyway. Vicki has a total of one scene with Barnabas in this episode, and he doesn’t even look at her for most of it. She just stands there and says you’ve been avoiding me lately, and he says, there’s something that I must tell you, and she says what, and he says this will make no sense to you, but — and then they get interrupted, and they never finish that conversation. I don’t even think Vicki has any lines after that; she’s in the background for a couple of scenes while other people are talking. Barnabas spends the rest of the episode glowering at Julia and having intense eye contact with Carolyn.
It’s honestly shocking how little attention they pay to Vicki on this show, considering how pivotal the Barnabas/Vicki romance is supposed to be. I know I say that every time, but I keep getting re-shocked by it. I wonder what Joanna Going was doing the whole time, while everybody else was making Dark Shadows.
They’re at a costume party, by the way; that’s why they’re dressed like that. This is the annual Collinwood costume dinner, where everybody dresses up in old clothes and then does exactly what they would have done anyway.
As you and I both know, because we are televisually literate people, there are two reasons to have a costume party on a television show. Reason number one is to reveal something about the characters based on their costumes, and reason number two is to set up a mistaken-identity plot point that kicks off either a comedy sequence or a murder mystery, depending on what kind of show you’re watching. Dark Shadows is doing none of those things.
They’re just having a costume party because Dan Curtis remembers that they did a costume party episode in 1967, where Vicki caught a glimpse of the ghost of Sarah on the upstairs landing, looking down at the family. In ’67, this was a nice little atmospheric moment. Barnabas thought he was making progress with his governess-kidnapping plan, but Sarah was there — watching her big brother, and worrying about his victims.
In 1991, Sarah’s at the party too, but she’s a happy spectator, just hanging out and watching everyone having fun. She’s smiling like this is a big day for her, because Dan Curtis has a decent memory for the major incidents in the original story, but can’t quite remember what they actually meant.
So they do Dave Woodard’s death, and Barnabas as an old man, and Sarah watching the costume party, but they don’t actually remember what it’s supposed to mean, or how the audience is supposed to feel about it. There’s just a quick shot of Sarah watching the party, but nobody notices her, and the sequence continues until eventually they run into a commercial break.
Oh, and they also do something that proves that prime-time network shows can have bloopers too, if the actors are really dumb and the director doesn’t care. Carolyn is at the costume party with Joe, who used to be Daphne’s boyfriend and has now drifted into being Carolyn’s boyfriend, because otherwise there’s no reason for him to be on the show. Joe approaches Carolyn with a glass of champagne, but she’s so distracted looking out for Barnabas that she hardly notices him.
So he says, “Caroline? Caroline? Are you all right, are you feeling well?” And she says “I’m fine,” which I guess is Barbara Blackburn’s way of saying, Can we cut? Because he pronounced the name of my character wrong.
I know, this is a tiny nitpick for me to fixate on, but I can’t understand how that mistake could possibly happen. Joe’s entire job is to stand next to a Collins girl, which for the last three episodes means Carolyn. He hardly ever talks to anybody else. How can he not know how to pronounce her name? How can he say it right to her face, on camera? Did they rehearse this scene? And why didn’t they do another take? This bothers me a great deal. I might need to find something different to do on space-race related pre-emption days.
Oh, and Barnabas hates Julia now; that’s the other thing that happens in the costume party sequence. He’s angry because her experiments failed, and now he’s a vampire again.
On the original show, this plot point set up a week-long farce sequence where everybody chased each other around the foyer trying to get their hands on Julia’s notebook, and there was real suspense, because Julia was the most interesting character on the show, and it seemed like there was no way for her to stay, if Barnabas hated her.
In this version, Julia just kind of stands there, stunned, and then Barnabas walks away and they’re still at a costume party.
Besides that, nothing much happens at the party, and the act closes with an upsetting hyper-sexualized vampire scene where Carolyn rips open Barnabas’ shirt and rubs her face against his chest until his eyes turn red and yellow, and then he bites her. There is so much terrible Carolyn in this episode.
So let’s do a quick rundown of the next act, and see how many Carolyn scenes they can do in a row before somebody makes them stop.
Scene #1: Carolyn tells Joe that she wants to go shopping for antiques.
Scene #2: Carolyn leads Joe around Collinsport for a while, looking in the store windows.
Scene #3: Carolyn finds an old apothecary case and makes Joe pay for it, even though she’s rich and I think he lives on a boat. The antiques dealer tells her to be careful, because the box is basically just packaging for an enormous bottle of arsenic. She says it’ll be fine.
Scene #4: Carolyn offers to take the tea tray into the drawing room.
Scene #5: Carolyn dumps a bunch of arsenic into Julia’s tea. Julia drinks it, and dies.
Scene #6: Oh, sorry, Julia doesn’t die, because David runs in and spills her tea on the floor, yelling that it’s poisoned. This saves Carolyn from committing a first-degree felony with so much physical evidence that she would definitely go to prison for a couple decades. Carolyn is not grateful. She walks David back to his room and snaps at him.
Scene #7: Julia tries to talk to Carolyn about her relationship with Barnabas. Carolyn lights a match. Then she says that Julia will be sorry, and she blows out the match. That is apparently now a thing that people do in the middle of a conversation, they light illustrative matches.
Okay, so that’s seven Carolyn scenes in a row, and we’ve hardly seen Vicki at all today. If somebody’s going to be catapulted into the 18th century by the end of the episode, then obviously it must be Carolyn, because she is now the main character of the show.
Oh, sorry, we’re not done; there’s another two minutes of this. Scene #8: Barnabas stands on the patio and concentrates at Carolyn’s window, which wakes her up and gives her an idea for another murder plot that will absolutely put her in prison.
Scene #9: Carolyn goes to the kitchen and selects an enormous knife.
Scene #10: Carolyn walks into Julia’s bedroom with the knife and stabs the bed viciously four times. Julia isn’t actually in the bed, but apparently Carolyn can’t tell the difference between stabbing a live human being who screams and bleeds and stabbing some pillows. I mean, to be fair, she probably doesn’t have a lot of stabbing experience.
She leaves the knife sticking into the silent non-bleeding corpse that isn’t there, and walks calmly out of the room. On the way, she runs into Julia, who by the way is still living at Collinwood for some reason, and Julia sees the bite marks on Carolyn’s neck. Carolyn shrieks in frustrated rage, and flees the room. She probably runs straight to Amazon and starts shopping for crossbow bolts.
So there you go, a solid twelve minutes of Carolyn, who I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned is the worst actor on the show. If it helps, she doesn’t speak again for the rest of the episode, because that is how television doesn’t work.
Now, Julia can’t just shrug off two murder attempts per episode, so she goes over to the Old House for a big shouty Barnabas scene.
He comes down the stairs at her like Norma Desmond with a raging hangover, getting louder as he descends. “You turned me into something even more loathsome than I was,” he observes. “What did Willie tell you the night I sent him to you?”
Julia says it was something about him not feeling very well.
“Rather a benign description of what was actually happening,” Barnabas spits. “I was turning into a two hundred year-old MAN, Julia! Sadly for Carolyn, she came calling at the WRONG TIME!” He’s really letting loose with the facial expressions at this point. Julia asks why he bit Carolyn, and he keeps yelling, over-emphasizing the last word in each sentence. “Because it was the only way I could reverse what was HAPPENING! And now she’s MINE — and you can thank yourself for THAT, TOO!”
Julia keeps on giving him lip, so he finally shrieks
SHUT UP I WILL HEAR NO MORE!!!
And then I guess he kills Julia and that’s the end of the show.
Except then Sarah appears, and says that he shouldn’t hurt people. “Barnabas!” she cries. “No! You can’t do this!”
He turns and gets all moist and crackle-voiced as he approaches his dead sister.
She says, “Why can you not understand that some want to help you?” because ghosts are not allowed to use contractions. And it’s just unspeakably grim.
So I think this episode is the strongest evidence I can find for the idea that Dark Shadows is a story that can only be told once. This episode is almost entirely made up of story beats from the original show, all of them from a period of the show that I like a lot. The failed experiment, Carolyn and Barnabas scheming to get Julia’s notebook, Sarah stepping in when Barnabas is about to kill Julia, the seance that sends Vicki to 1795 — they’re great episodes, and if you haven’t seen them, then you should.
But 1991 has terrible actors and lazy directors, and the producers have completely misunderstood the appeal of the show.
We didn’t fall in love with these plot points because they’re objectively brilliant. They’re not, they’re a mess. During this period in 1967, the show was desperately struggling to figure out who the show was about. They knew that Barnabas was at the center, obviously, but then there’s this constellation of women around him — Vicki, Julia, Carolyn, Maggie, Sarah and the long-lost Josette — and they had no idea how to make this settle down into a viable long-term story.
And they pulled it off, because they were inspired by whatever part-time discount muse looks out for the lunatic writers of vampire soap operas. They didn’t do it perfectly, by any means. There were lots of missteps and reverses and tedious periods when everybody had to walk in a circle because they couldn’t figure out what to do next.
But if you’re good at your job and you’re really, really lucky, the muse gives you a scene like this. Barnabas is about to kill Julia — his only friend, and the most interesting character on the show — and then Sarah appears, and tells him that he’s not a good person.
It doesn’t actually make narrative sense. Besides a brief flicker at the costume party four months earlier, they haven’t indicated that Sarah has been watching Barnabas, and judging his behavior. Most of the time, she just seems lost and confused. Her only real connection is to David, and he has nothing to do with this scene. Plus, why does she step in to save Julia? She liked Dr. Woodard — she says so, in this scene — but she didn’t stop Barnabas from killing him. She didn’t stop him from biting Carolyn either — or from killing Daphne, in the ’91 series.
The only reason why Sarah steps in at this particular moment is that the 1967 audience likes Julia more than anybody else. This scene comes at the end of a spectacular 20-episode run, four weeks where Julia was in every single episode, driving the entire plot, and the show doesn’t work without her anymore. We want somebody to step in and save Julia, because we love her, and she cannot be allowed to leave the show. Using this specific moment as a major turning point makes sense, and feels satisfying, but only because the show is doing what they know the audience wants.
This scene is not actually about Barnabas and Sarah. This scene is about saving Julia.
But 1991 Julia is nothing special. She’s not funny, she doesn’t have anything interesting to say, and she hasn’t really taken an active role in the story. ’67 Julia was an impostor, who manipulated the entire family with a dazzling spark shower of ridiculous lies. But in 1991, everybody knows that Julia is a doctor, and her patient died four episodes ago, so she has nothing to do except to not drink poison tea.
And at long last, Dark Shadows, why do you keep pretending that Vicki is a character on this show? At the end of the episode, they finally settle down into having a Collins family seance, which will transport the girl governess into the past. But why her?
Once they sit down at the table, Vicki has zero lines and zero close-ups, until suddenly she closes her eyes and starts speaking in a little-girl voice. Every other person at this table has had more lines than Vicki today.
In fact, Barnabas broke up with Vicki at the beginning of this episode, and it was such a minor event that they cut it short halfway through, and never actually finished the conversation. She didn’t even get a thirty-second scene where she thinks about Barnabas and has feelings. Then she sits down at the seance right next to him, and she doesn’t have any reaction to that.
If this story is supposed to be about the passionate romance between Barnabas and Vicki — and they keep saying that it is — then this is not competent television storytelling.
But Vicki’s off on her uncertain and frightening journey to the 18th century, where she will try to change Collins family history, because the entire point of this show is to relive the past, and get it all wrong.
So they can put a man on the moon, but they can’t make a decent Dark Shadows revival. And it’s not like any of the others got it right, either. The movies are like this too, paying attention to all the wrong things.
The original Dark Shadows got to the moon in the summer of ’69 by showing up every single day and telling new stories. They made ridiculous choices and terrible mistakes, and it worked, because they showed the audience things that we’d never seen before, and could never see anywhere else.
And in 1991, Dan Curtis thought he could get to the same place by doing the opposite, showing people a blended mix of old plot points and not even bothering to explain them, because the audience will fill in the gaps with their memories of the original show. It’s like saying that you’re going to the moon by driving north on Interstate 95, and hoping that at some point you’ll reach escape velocity.
Meanwhile, in the past, the real Dark Shadows understands how you get to the moon. You go outside, and you start howling at it, as long and as loud as you can.
Tomorrow: You’re a Crook, Captain Hook.
Next pre-emption special:
Time Travel, part 7: Here We Go Again.
— Danny Horn