“I don’t understand how to believe these things.”
I talk a lot on this blog about how serialized narrative is natural selection for stories, and when I say that I talk about it a lot, what I really mean is that it’s my incessant catchphrase that I’m really hoping will catch on, because otherwise I don’t know what to do with all these T-shirts I’ve printed up.
But the idea is that once your story makes first contact with the audience, you’ll find out how strong it is, based on whether they keep watching or not — and if you’re smart and lucky, you hang on to the good ideas and you let the bad ideas fade. That’s how Dark Shadows got this way in the first place. Barnabas was only supposed to last a few months; for Julia, it was six weeks. But the show kept following where the audience signalled that they wanted to go, in a complicated push-pull dance that winds up here, in the late nineteenth century, with a legendary magical Hungarian nobleman from Boston inhabiting the body of an eleven-year-old boy, and turning the boy’s family into butlers, showgirls and oil paintings. How else could you possibly get here?
Now, some people might argue that this requirement for following a fickle audience’s feedback means that the people who produce a show have to sacrifice their artistic integrity in order to satisfy the public’s short-term desires. The correct response to this criticism is: Yeah, it’s called television.
So this week on Dark Shadows is all about taking the strongest idea that they’ve got right now — the mad god Count Petofi, and his magical technicolor Hand — and figuring out how to build story around it. And I’m talking real, productive story ideas that you can use to fill up half an hour of daytime TV, every weekday from now until they let you stop.
Count Petofi has been walking around in Jamison’s body since early last week, creating a spectacular smokescreen of funny character turns. Jamison’s father Edward has turned into a confused comedy valet, straight-laced Charity Trask is a Cockney showgirl, and the malevolent Reverend Trask is being haunted by a confession that he arranged to have his wife killed.
But none of these sidebars actually add up to more story. I mean, you say: Edward thinks he’s a butler. And then what? It’s entertaining, for maybe three episodes, but it doesn’t actually go anywhere. Eventually you have to turn him back into Edward, and we’re right back where we started. In fact, the idea that Count Petofi is revealing the secrets of every character on the show kind of signals that this story is basically over.
The only real story that’s left is that Quentin doesn’t want to be a werewolf anymore, and the magical Hand of Count Petofi is the only thing that can lift his curse — but nobody knows how to use it. Then Count Petofi turns up, and he wants his Hand back. The obvious next step is to say, we’ll give you the Hand if you promise to lift Quentin’s curse, and Petofi says it’s a deal, and then everybody goes home. There’s actually not that much left to do.
Unless — they figure out an additional story idea that gives everybody something brand new to talk about and fight over. And guess what happens today.
Hypnotized by his kiss, Magda brings the sinister sprout and his servant Aristede to the place where Barnabas is hiding his coffin these days. I’m not really sure where this is supposed to be; the set design has been kind of conceptual lately. They put up a couple of brick walls and throw some crates and candles around, and that’s as far as they’ll go. If you actually want to understand where the scene is set, you’ll have to make your own arrangements.
Aristede walks over to one of the crates and picks up a jagged piece of wood, announcing, “This’ll do for a stake!” And then he picks up a hammer that’s lying right next to it. And I have to say, that won’t just “do” for a stake, it’s a perfect stake, and why is there a hammer, two steps away from the coffin? Barnabas needs to do a better job of cleaning up the immediate area around his bed.
But the coffin is empty, obviously, because it’s the beginning of Wednesday, and nothing important ever happens on Wednesdays. This is just one of the decoy coffins that Barnabas scatters around, wherever he can find a bit of loose scenery.
Count Petofi seems pleased by this development, for some reason. “I’ve become very interested in Barnabas Collins,” he grins. “He has found a way to defeat death. That interests me very much.”
And sure, that would interest anyone, so all of a sudden we’re doing a research project in somebody else’s house.
We learned yesterday that Petofi’s on a tight deadline, as Aristede explained: “When the Hand was taken from him in 1797, he was given exactly one hundred years to get it back. He was told that if he did get it back, he would live forever. If he fails, he dies.” Now, that’s what I call a productive story idea — an open-ended countdown with life-or-death stakes. The fact that it makes absolutely no logical sense is immaterial.
Although, while we’re on the subject, why would the gypsies make a weird deal like that with a powerful enemy? They took the Hand as payment for lifting his werewolf curse. And then they basically invite him to steal it back, because if he does, he’ll live forever? And why a hundred years? This doesn’t seem like a punishment, it sounds like an eccentric millionaire setting up the premise for a screwball treasure hunt movie. It’s this kind of sloppy thinking that caused the downfall of the gypsies as an important stakeholder group in American public life.
But like I said, it’s a productive story idea. In a countdown story, it doesn’t matter who set the clock ticking — the excitement’s all down at the other end, when time runs out.
“I will die soon,” says the pint-sized Petofi, rummaging through the Old House and searching for Barnabas’ secrets. “Or perhaps that is not necessary! Somewhere, in this house — somewhere, Aristede, there is something that can help me. I know that!”
Aristede mopes, “But we’ve looked everywhere.” And then Petofi yells, “His BOOKS!” and we’re off. Let the screwball treasure hunt begin!
Scanning the shelves in the Old House drawing room, they pull down a volume of the Collins Family History. Except, obviously, it’s not just any family history book, it’s THE family history book, the one that the time-displaced governess Victoria Winters brought with her when she fell down the rabbit hole from 1967 to 1795.
Two weeks ago, Barnabas and Magda made a huge deal about this impossible book, which they scavenged from the ruins of the old Collinsport courthouse, making up brand-new theories of time travel to explain why it’s not back in the 20th century where it belongs.
Barnabas wanted to find the date of Quentin’s death, but the book just says that Quentin went away on a voyage around the world, so apparently, he just put the history-destroying paradox on a bookshelf in the drawing room, within easy reach of any four-foot-eight agent of Discordia who might drop by, looking for storyline ideas. I swear to god, Barnabas Collins is the most irresponsible person who ever lived. He will be the death of us all.
They see that the publication date is 1965, and Petofi gets all worked up about it. The fact that the book is here means that Barnabas travelled through time — and if they could find out how he managed it, then Petofi could hitch a ride to the 20th century.
“Petofi — he could escape!” he cries, panting with excitement. “I could escape! I would be in another century! I would live FOREVER!”
Now, anybody in the audience who’s paying attention (and there must be a handful of us, surely) has to wonder how that plan matches up with the countdown Aristede talked about yesterday. The gypsies told Petofi that he had 100 years to get his Hand back, and that’s running out in a few weeks. Presumably, going forward in time means that he misses that deadline by decades. What is he trying to escape from, exactly?
But it doesn’t matter; these are just trifling details. The important thing is that we’ve got a whole new story path opening up — a time travel treasure hunt, starring a vampire, a werewolf, a gypsy, an evil wizard, a butler, a showgirl, and whatever the hell Aristede is supposed to be. This is natural selection at work. Nobody said it would be pretty.
Tomorrow: Twice Burned.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the top of the show, Aristede tells Magda, “You mustn’t lead us to somewhere that Mr. Collins is not.”
When Magda leads Jamison and Aristede to Barnabas’ coffin, the boom mic drops into shot at the top left of the screen. (You can see it in the second screenshot in this post.)
When they’re standing by Barnabas’ coffin, Aristede tells Jamison, “But you don’t know what he can do. He disappeared from me while I was looking at him!”
When Aristede is threatening Magda with the hammer, she waves him away, saying, “You don’t do — nothing.” Then she remembers the correct line, and adds, “I don’t know nothing.”
At the end of the episode, Charity finds Quentin in the woods, changed back into a human — but it’s apparently still dark out. When they reprise the scene at the beginning of tomorrow’s episode, it’s morning.
Tomorrow: Twice Burned.
— Danny Horn