“Well, you know how he gets when he possesses someone.”
Behold the educated viewer, watching an episode of Dark Shadows. Charity Trask is looking at the unfinished portrait of Quentin Collins, on the night of the full moon. To her surprise, she sees the portrait change before her eyes, the painted face transforming into the image of a werewolf.
“Ah,” one nods appreciatively, “an allusion to The Picture of Dorian Gray.” One says this to oneself, because nobody else can stand to be around one while the television is on.
But in reality, this storyline is based on The Picture of Dorian Gray in the same way that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is based on an Ewok lunchbox. There’s a family resemblance in there somewhere, but anything more than that is a stretch.
I’ve written a lot about narrative collisions, the mash-up moments when the Dark Shadows writers throw in characters and plot points from other stories, just to see what happens. It’s one of the defining features of the show, fueling all kinds of crazy storyline twists and surprising shifts in tone, and creating a mad Frankenstein patchwork of Universal Monsters films, avant-garde black box theater and pretty much everything you remember from English Lit.
The first and most important narrative collision on the show is Jane Eyre vs. Dracula, in spring 1967. At the time, the Collins family was drifting gently in the direction of exposing their final terrible secret — not a mad wife in the attic, but a dead husband buried in the basement, which is practically the same thing. The orphan governess was well on her way to falling in love with her dark and mysterious Rochester, at which point you either introduce a triangle with a creepy missionary dude, or you finish the book and everybody writes their term paper.
And then Renfield opens the chained coffin in the family mausoleum, and all of a sudden Count Dracula moves in next door, and he tells everybody that he’s a long-lost cousin from England. He gets started on Mina Harker while everybody else is still messing around in the basement, and — in a stunning upset — Dracula actually wins. He faces off against two different Van Helsings and several wannabe Jonathan Harkers, and in the end, he demolishes them all, and then he just keeps on snacking his way through a four-year menu of Minas.
That works out great, so the writers start raiding the bookshelves for more story ideas. To everyone’s surprise, they follow up with a science-fiction version of The Crucible, seasoned with The Monkey’s Paw, The Cask of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart, Pride and Prejudice, Jack the Ripper and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
No, seriously. They intentionally reference all of those things during the show’s four months in 1795. Millicent starts out as Lydia Bennett, and ends up as the Rosencrantz version of Ophelia. It is an age of wonders.
Now, the standard way that people talk about Dark Shadows’ narrative collisions is that they were a pragmatic shortcut for the writers, which helped them to come up with new story ideas. If you’re stuck for a storyline idea and you’re allowed to go to the library and borrow one, then obviously that’s very appealing.
But it also becomes an inside joke between the writers and whoever’s well-read enough in the audience to notice it. This was 1960s daytime TV, watched mostly by housewives and teenagers, and if the kids haven’t read Pride and Prejudice all the way through, then that story point sails over their heads. But some of the housewives went to Barnard, and the reference is a shout-out to anyone who cares.
And besides, Sam Hall had a weird sense of humor, and some of the obscure references are clearly just Sam amusing himself. He thinks it’s funny to do a scene from Waiting for Godot in the middle of a vampire soap opera on ABC’s dime, and he’s right — it is funny, even if nobody else gets it.
He really did that, by the way, in episode 537. He was a madman. I bet there are more literary references hidden in Sam’s scripts, which nobody’s figured out yet. I leave this challenge for the lit-crit archeologists of the future.
So by late 1968, the outside influences start piling up in surprising new patterns. The lead-up to the 1897 trip was a direct reference to The Turn of the Screw, but with a less frantic governess and real ghosts.
Then Count Dracula travels through time by meditating over an ancient Chinese divination technique — attention people of the future, please figure out where the hell that came from — and the storyline goes into narrative collision overdrive, borrowing from Jane Eyre (again), Nicholas Nickleby, Nancy Drew, Mummy movies, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Wolf Man (again), The Telltale Heart (again), The Monkey’s Paw (again), The Cask of Amontillado (again) and The Maltese Falcon (for, like, the fourth time). Narrative collision is now the thing that Dark Shadows does.
But the interesting thing about 1897 is that they’re not stealing from the classics in the same way that they used to.
Two years ago, they borrowed plots and themes that would inform the character development and long-term storylines. In 1795, they did a long-form adaptation of The Crucible, because it let them do dramatic riffs on jealousy and cruelty and fanaticism and injustice. They turned Abigail Williams into Angelique, and Reverend Hale into Reverend Trask, and those themes and characters were so strong that they’re still with us, a year and a half later. We’re still getting Jack the Ripper sequences every time Barnabas goes to the docks, because the theme of a cruel, selfish man preying on socially powerless women resonates with our ongoing focus on Count Dracula’s relationship problems.
But 1897’s collisions are mostly hit-and-run, just grabbing a bit of visual spectacle that lasts for an episode or two.
The second coming of Jane Eyre was the exception — keeping Jenny locked up in the attic was a symbol for the ruling class hiding their unhappy truths from the world, and the writers followed through on that theme for several months.
Besides that, the literary references just skip across the surface. The Tell-Tale Heart lasted for half an episode, and the guilty party wasn’t being haunted by his own conscience; it was an outside influence specifically trying to screw with him. The Pit and the Pendulum became a Batman-style action-adventure countdown. They started to do a riff on The Monkey’s Paw, with a “careful what you wish for” theme as seen in the actual story, but then the magical hand grew a body, and all of a sudden it’s a Bond villain.
There’s a story that I’ve heard about Armistead Maupin, the author of Tales of the City, a long-running love letter to San Francisco. The series was optioned by Warner Bros for a feature film adaptation, but the studio told him that they’d have to drop most of the gay characters to make the movie successful. He told them that taking the gay people out of Tales of the City would be like taking the poor people out of Dickens.
And here we are, watching a television show that actually takes the poor people out of Dickens. Reverend Trask’s punishment school, Worthington Hall, is a direct lift from Nicholas Nickelby’s Dotheboys Hall, but instead of being filled with the orphaned and forgotten, its student body consists of two immensely wealthy children whose family owns the grounds that the school is standing on.
And then there’s Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is stripped of all meaning and turned into another action-adventure cliffhanger. Count Petofi’s fiendish plan to get Quentin under his control involves commissioning a magical portrait that will change into a werewolf on full moons, so Quentin doesn’t have to. It’s a clever idea, and a funny allusion for you and me and the Barnard grads to chuckle over. It’s also a good example of the show’s new approach to narrative collisions, because this storyline is the opposite of The Picture of Dorian Gray in every respect.
Here’s a quick summary, for everyone who missed English class that day:
Basil Hallward is an artist in London in the late 19th century, who falls desperately in love with a beautiful young man that he meets at a society party. The moment that Basil claps eyes on Dorian Gray, he’s lost forever — Dorian is all that he thinks about, and all that he talks about, and capturing his unique beauty on canvas becomes the single focus of Basil’s life.
Basil is gay, by the way, although he never actually says so out loud, so maybe he’s one of those Jonathan Frid-style lifelong bachelors who are shy and collect antiques and have a great respect for women, and just happen to be born without the capacity to experience romantic love. It’s not a likely scenario, for Basil or anyone else, but his family says that he’s not gay, and he’s dead now, so nobody can ask him and that means we should change the subject. Also, he’s fictional. Basil is, I mean, not Jonathan. Well, they both are, I guess.
Anyway, Basil is super inspired by Dorian in several lifelong bachelor-type ways, and the book opens with him painting the portrait that will be his crowning achievement as an artist: Dorian’s beautiful and unspoiled soul, captured on canvas.
During a sitting, Basil’s friend Lord Harry Wotton drops by. Harry is a cultured, witty, utterly cynical agent of Discordia, and one of the most shameless Mary Sues in literary history. Harry is clearly Wilde’s self-portrait, a man who can drop six eye-opening epigrams during the course of a two-minute conversation. He’s full of theories about art and life and society, and every character in the book trips over themselves, they’re so eager to hear what’s going to come out of his mouth next.
By the way, Harry isn’t gay either, honestly, where do people get these crazy ideas? He’s married to a woman, hel-LO, and there’s women all over the movie poster, so what are you even talking about.
But Harry spouts all these quotable paradoxes about morality, which he doesn’t have a lot of respect for, and the rules of cultured society, which ditto. He encourages Dorian to take advantage of his youth and beauty while he has it — to make mistakes, and follow his passions while they still burn this brightly.
His mind awhirl, Dorian looks at the finished picture, and laments that the portrait will stay young and beautiful forever, while he will wither and grow old. Instead of a tribute, he suddenly sees the picture as a cruel mockery of what he’ll someday become. He wishes — with a fervor that cracks reality — that it could be the other way around, that the portrait could grow older while he stays young.
So guess what: it works! Dorian meets a young actress, and falls head over heels in love with the idea of being in love — but then he drops the girl, as soon as she exhibits a flaw. He tells her that she’s worthless and will never experience love again, and she takes the hint and commits suicide. That evening, he looks at the portrait, and finds that the picture’s face has a cruel line around the mouth, while he’s unstained. This goes on for quite a while, with an eternally-youthful Dorian enjoying all kinds of forbidden passions, while the portrait in the attic bears all the visible effects of his corruption.
Now, it’s important to note that this is not a science-fiction story. Wilde gives Dorian a brief lampshade moment where he wonders whether there’s a scientific explanation for what’s happening, so that he can shut down that line of thought and forget about it.
Might there not be some curious scientific reason for it all? If thought could exercise its influence upon a living organism, might not thought exercise an influence upon dead and inorganic things? Nay, without thought or conscious desire, might not things external to ourselves vibrate in unison with our moods and passions, atom calling to atom in secret love or strange affinity? But the reason was of no importance. He would never again tempt by a prayer any terrible power. If the picture was to alter, it was to alter. That was all. Why inquire too closely into it?
With that, Wilde closes the door on all things literal. You’re not supposed to figure out how Basil acquired his magical power, or anything horrid like that. This story is about the purpose of art, and the mechanisms of polite society, and most of all it’s about how clever and insightful Oscar Wilde is.
So as you can imagine, that story, that character and those themes have approximately zero percent to do with Quentin’s portrait needing a shave. Saying that this storyline is “based on The Picture of Dorian Gray” does a disservice to the main theme of Dark Shadows, namely how clever and insightful Sam Hall is.
Quentin isn’t being worshipped for his beauty and innocence. He’s not a fallen angel, who changes before our eyes into a degraded brute. In fact, if anything, Quentin’s character arc is going in the opposite direction, as we’ll see later this week when he spontaneously invents a whole suite of feelings about his lost daughter. Oscar Wilde is rolling his eyes so hard that his head might come loose.
Around here, if a character mutters something cryptic like “If thought could exercise its influence upon a living organism, might not thought exercise an influence upon dead and inorganic things?” then that’s a cue for Julia to shake her head, and try to get them back on script. On Dark Shadows, thought does actually exercise an influence upon dead and inorganic things. That’s kind of the show’s core competency.
So here we are in a brave new world, where the rumors of borrowing from the classics are greatly exaggerated. Dark Shadows is no longer in the business of copying storylines. Now they dash into the library just long enough to rip a couple pages out of a book, and then they run away, giggling and shouting, You’ll never catch me alive! As the man said, all art is quite useless, so you might as well enjoy yourself.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, as the painting transforms, Charity moves too close to the painting, and you can see a transparent image of her face over the portrait on the right side of the screen.
As Tate walks down the steps into Petofi’s lair, the camera zooms out and then in very suddenly.
Aristede tells Tate, “You learned that a long time ago, what are you so upset about it now?”
There’s a lot of studio noise while Aristede and Tate are talking, including a chair scraping on the floor several times.
Tate tells Aristede, “I have paid the price of things that you can’t even imagine.”
As Barnabas gives Magda the gun, he loses his line and checks the teleprompter. Then he says, “Now… when he comes, there’ll be no problem.” (Checks the teleprompter again.) “But if it becomes necessary, you must kill him.”
We can see Barnabas in the mirror as he’s leaving the Old House. Just last week, Barnabas told Evan that he can’t see himself in a mirror.
— Danny Horn