“You know of such things as zippers and machine wash, and you do not even know the year?”
Vampire playboy Barnabas Collins has been out of his box for six weeks now, and to be perfectly honest with you, he has not used his time productively.
Twenty years ago, Barnabas was bound up in chains and sent into cold storage, because ABC Daytime couldn’t think of anything else to do with him. In 1991, he was released for good behavior, and given a sweet prime-time slot on NBC. Yes, I know it’s on Friday nights, but think of all the starving vampires in Africa who don’t even get a show on Fridays.
The way that I understand it, this new iteration of Barnabas is supposed to be a charismatic bloodsucking charm machine, fascinating and sexy and passionate. What we’ve got is more in the area of mopey and spiteful, a self-involved bully who’s unable to form emotional connections with other people. He’s murdered at least four people so far, including a member of the Collins family, and last week he turned another Collins girl into his blood slave, and made her commit crimes that absolutely would have resulted in a prison sentence, if she’d turned out to be any good at it.
Barnabas’ big redeeming feature is supposed to be that he’s pining for girl governess Victoria Winters, who reminds him of his long-lost love Josette. But apart from a couple candlelight dinner dates, he’s hardly even talked to her, and instead he’s been using up all his romance time on blood-fueled makeout sessions with his own descendants.
Fortunately, Dark Shadows comes equipped with a built-in escape hatch, constructed in 1967 because the original series couldn’t figure out what to do with Barnabas either. It’s a custom bespoke time portal, carrying Vicki back to the late 18th century, on a sightseeing tour of the Collins family history.
So Vicki goes tumbling down the ruby slipper hole, to take another shot at rebooting the reboot. Look out below!
The real Dark Shadows was pre-empted today, by the way, that’s why we’re time traveling to 1991 again. On this afternoon in August 1969, there was a ticker tape parade in Chicago for the Apollo 11 astronauts, who took a giant leap off the Moon several weeks ago. When they got back, they had to go into quarantine for three weeks to make sure that they weren’t carrying any icky Moon germs, and then they went to Chicago, to ride in a car and watch people make speeches about them.
On pre-emption days, we watch an episode of the revival series — here’s the other 1991 posts, if you think it’ll help — and today we’ve arrived at episode 7. So far, it hasn’t exactly been a giant leap, because they’re trying to retell the 1967 story, and repeating Dark Shadows plot points is basically the opposite of how Dark Shadows works.
As it turns out, the Barnabas storyline is not actually one of the great works of literature; it’s a sprawling mess of half-baked plot ideas that don’t lead anywhere in particular. The writers and producers just made up the story as they went along, reacting in more or less real time to emphasize the elements that the audience responded to. Like all competent long-form serialized narrative, Dark Shadows was an ongoing conversation between the creators and the audience.
The 1991 creators are essentially trying to write down that conversation as they remember it, and handing the script to new actors so they can say it all over again. It’s going great so far.
Last week, the spirit of young Sarah Collins told Barnabas and Julia that Collinwood is doomed, so the family held a seance to find out what she was getting at. During the seance, Vicki went into a trance, and Sarah announced, “Everyone at Collinwood will die, unless — someone must come! Someone must try to change things, to make them different!”
And here we are, in the far-off space year of 1790! Sarah’s transported Vicki back to Barnabas’ pre-vampire days, on an emergency deep cover mission with no training or intel. She didn’t even get three weeks in quarantine, and I bet she’s dripping with moon pox.
Astonishingly, 1790 is even more foggy than 1991, which had cloud cover like you wouldn’t believe. This is a production where they turn up the smoke machine as an alternative to set design, so given a stage direction like “Vicki emerges from the fog,” they really roll up their sleeves and express themselves. That’s why these screenshots are so terrible. It’s not me, the show actually looks like this.
Arriving on the tarmac with nothing but her clothes, an old book and a puzzled expression, Vicki is greeted by the young set, who are outside playing some kind of low-visibility freeze tag. Thinking that she recognizes them, Vicki gulps, “Sarah! David!”
The little boy screws up his face and says, “I be Daniel! Who be you?” so already I have an issue with the 18th century.
Then a bewigged Barnabas emerges from the murk, and the vox humana kicks up on the synthesizer.
So what we’re getting here, apart from the air quality, is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the first four days of 1795. It’s actually the most direct lift from the original show that they’ve done — not copying any actual dialogue, but the same characters doing the same things.
Once again, the 1790s roles are all played by the actors from Dark Shadows, enjoying the opportunity to play dress-up and answer to different names. Barnabas is still Barnabas, of course, but servant Willie is now servant Ben, matriarch Elizabeth becomes Naomi, and as we’ve seen, David be Daniel. Mrs. Johnson gets a promotion and becomes Abigail Collins, and Julia swans around in a fancy dress and calls herself Natalie DuPres, putting on a French accent that I’m sure is perfectly adequate.
So Vicki stands there, utterly perplexed, as these shadows of her friends and employers agree to accept her as the new governess — giving her a home, a bed and a hand-me-down dress, because she lives in 1790 now.
And, yeah, it works. This was a brilliant idea, back in November ’67 — a moment of pure creative inspiration, where they slipped out of the noose of a tangled storyline by going somewhere they never expected to go. It’s fun to see everybody with new names and outfits, and there’s a sense of purpose at last — they’ve got a clear story to tell, and six weeks to tell it.
Most importantly, Vicki finally gets something to do. The revival has been super erratic about Vicki’s role — sometimes acting like she’s the female lead, and sometimes just forgetting about her for long stretches. Personally, I don’t agree with the idea that the relationship between Barnabas and Vicki is the heart of Dark Shadows, and I don’t really understand how somebody would ever come to that conclusion, but if that’s your premise, then you should probably point the camera at them once in a while.
The problem with restaging the early Barnabas episodes with a special focus on Vicki is that she wasn’t really involved with his storyline in any meaningful way. He was kidnapping Maggie and engaging in secret experiments with Julia, while Vicki was supporting the Liz/Jason blackmail story, and going on dates with Burke. In the new show, they cut the blackmail story and didn’t include Burke, so there’s nothing for Vicki to do, except stand there and look like Josette.
But once you take her outside of her comfort zone, stranding her two centuries too early, the storyline snaps into focus. Vicki needs to survive her first day in the past, she needs to figure out what difference Sarah wants her to make, and she needs to get back home. For the first time, Vicki gets to step up, and make important decisions that determine the story progress.
Except that she doesn’t, of course, because 1991 Dark Shadows still can’t get a handle on what girls are for. There are two scenes in this episode where Vicki’s asked to explain how she got here, and both times, Barnabas is the one who comes up with the alibi. Vicki’s contribution is that in the first scene, she says that she fell off a horse, and in the second scene, she forgets that she’d said that. I don’t know how you forget a concept like “I fell off a horse” when it’s the entire explanation for who you even are, but give Vicki half an hour and a running start, and she can forget anything.
So she basically spends the entire episode just opening and closing her mouth in dull surprise, while the guys around her do all of the actual decision-making. You know, maybe she did fall off a horse. That would explain a lot. I bet if you looked closely at the production team, you’d find a lot of horse-related concussions in the recent past.
The big value add in this version of the story is the washing label scene. Suspicious Aunt Abigail gets her hands on the dress Vicki was wearing when she arrived, and she zeroes in on the symbols on the back of the label.
“What strange language be these?” Abigail demands, and Vicki chuckles. “Haven’t you ever seen a washing label?” Vicki says, which is entirely the wrong tone.
Catching Abigail’s expression, Vicki slows her roll. “Well, that means machine wash, lukewarm, tumble dry, cool iron.”
Abigail looks at her, and repeats, “Machine wash.” And she means it to sting, too. Aunt Abigail is not to be chuckled at.
Then she asks about the metal stitchery, and Vicki says, “Well, that’s a zipper!” And then she zips it closed, which scares Abigail out of a year’s growth. It’s lovely. Watching Abigail, you can get a sense of what they were hoping the whole show would be like. As with the original series, I am Team Abigail for life.
Then Vicki asks what year it is, and Abigail’s eyes bulge. “The year?” she cries. “You know of such things as zippers and machine wash, and you do not even know the year?” And then she summons the bailiff, because honestly, how much nonsense are you supposed to take from the domestics.
It doesn’t last, of course; nothing truly beautiful ever does. Next thing you know, Vicki’s run off to Collinwood, which is still under construction, and she starts to get the idea that maybe this isn’t just a big April Fools’ joke. So she sits down on a barrel and tries to communicate herself back home somehow, and then along comes Joe Haskell, and this is the face he makes. He keeps making it, too; it’s not an accident. He has been given the role of Peter Bradford, and this is the acting choice that he’s made. This. The whole time.
So that’s the thing about using your cast like a repertory company; you need to have a talented cast. That’s the area where Dark Shadows ’91 cut some corners, and it’s coming back to haunt them as of right now. We knew that Joe was one of the weak links, but come on, how weak can you get. It’s not like it’s difficult to find handsome young actors in Los Angeles. Go out to eat.
And then, in the very next scene, the doors open, and in walks Adrian Paul, the first and only hot guy on the entire show.
If you’re not familiar, Adrian Paul is about eight months away from being cast as Duncan MacLeod in Highlander, a TV reboot of a fantasy franchise that actually managed to last longer than twelve episodes.
Highlander is the story of a Scottish guy with a sword who for some arbitrary reason is immortal, and he has to fight all the other random immortals, because of this thing called the Gathering, and every immortal has to kill every other immortal by chopping off their heads. Or something like that.
It’s an idiotic premise that doesn’t even work for a two-hour film, and they managed to spin it into six seasons of television entirely on the strength of Adrian Paul’s early 90s hotness. He’s not the hottest actor on television, and I’m not saying that he is. He’s not even the hottest actor on mid-90s Vancouver-based action-adventure syndication packages. But he’s personable and funny, and when Adrian Paul is in a scene, he’s the person that you’re looking at.
And they gave him Jeremiah!
Honestly, I could have saved us all a lot of time when I started writing these 1991 posts, if I’d just posted a picture of Adrian Paul and the words “They gave him Jeremiah.” Then I drop the mic and walk away. That is everything that’s wrong with the whole concept of retelling Dark Shadows.
Here’s what you do with Adrian Paul, if you’re lucky enough to find one: Make him Burke. Have him on the show in episode 1, and make the Vicki/Burke/Barnabas triangle the heart of the show. Give the audience some reasons to root for both sides. While you’re at it, make Vicki a worthwhile character, so the audience has a reason to care who wins.
End of episode 5, Burke discovers that Barnabas is a vampire. And just before he manages to warn Vicki, halfway through episode 6, Barnabas arranges for an accident, and Burke is dead.
And then, while Vicki is reeling from the loss, she’s knocked sideways through time, and there’s Barnabas and Jeremiah.
In 1790, it looks like everybody could get what they want — Barnabas is engaged to Josette, and Vicki finds herself drawn to the Burke-alike Jeremiah. But then there’s Angelique, who has other plans. So what happens next?
The correct answer to that question is: I have no idea what happens next. That’s the whole point of television.
The thing that makes me crazy is that the producers said that Adrian Paul was supposed to play Quentin in season 2. The producers of the revival series actually had a plan to make Adrian Paul an attractive romantic lead, and they made the deliberate choice not to use him in the first six weeks of the show. And during those first six weeks, the American viewing public came to the correct conclusion that the Dark Shadows revival was not worth their time, because it didn’t have an attractive romantic lead.
Yeah, I know that Quentin didn’t appear on the original show until the third year. I know that Jeremiah is supposed to have a crucial but time-limited role in 1795. I know that Burke, Jeremiah and Quentin don’t actually have anything to do with each other.
But when you find somebody like this, you change the story. That’s what made Dark Shadows a hit in the first place. It is literally the single most important thing that they did.
Dark Shadows introduced new characters on a regular basis, and when they found somebody really great, they found a way to give that character more air time. Harry Johnson faded away; ditto Tony Peterson and Adam and Ned Stuart. But David Selby showed up to do a walk-on part as a non-speaking ghost, and six months later he was running the show. Dark Shadows isn’t a destination; it’s a process.
Season two. For fuck’s sake. I can’t even.
But they did some things right in 1790, so let’s talk about that for a minute. Once Jeremiah’s been introduced, they have a little three-handed bro time scene with Barnabas and Peter teasing Jeremiah about their rich cousin Millicent. Jeremiah’s father has invited Millicent to stay at Collinwood, and he’s decided that Jeremiah will marry her. Barnabas and Peter laugh and slap Jeremiah on the back, and it’s all very jovial.
Then there’s a shot of a battered old coach driving up to the Collinwood stables, with some bouncy violin-and-tuba background music that indicates this is a comic relief sequence. Barnabas and Jeremiah are there to meet cousin Millicent, who turns out to be played by the terrible Carolyn, finally relegated to the small part she deserves. Millicent barrels out of the coach like an angry drunk and yells at Jeremiah for basically no reason, while he stands there and makes amusing facial expressions.
Again, not one of the all-time greats, but at least I can recognize the relationship between what’s happening on screen, and how I’m supposed to feel about it. This has been one of the big problems of the revival series — that they can’t figure out what the tone is supposed to be. Are the vampire scenes scary, or sexy, or funny? Do we care about Julia, or is she an obstacle getting in the way of the Barnabas/Vicki romance?
The big change with 1790 is that they’ve thought about tone, and made consistent decisions about it. When Barnabas has a scene with Vicki, it’s romantic; when he has a scene with Angelique, it’s passionate; and when he has a scene with Jeremiah, it’s bro-time comic relief. Millicent is ridiculous. Peter is a loyal friend.
And when they have a character like Abigail, who falls somewhere between comedy and threat, they set up a scene where Barnabas tells Vicki, “I must warn you, my aunt might appear eccentric, but she can be very dangerous.” It’s spoon-feeding — we can figure out that Millicent is funny without the tuba, thank you — but they’ve made decisions about what kind of story they’re telling, and that’s a step up from the first half of the season.
Finally, let’s talk about Angelique, who’s the other bright spot in the storyline. I’m not going to get into a lot of detail, because this is already a long post and we’ll have plenty of time to talk about her over the next several episodes. But she’s an example of everything that the series is doing, as of this week.
Like Adrian Paul, Lysette Anthony is the right actress for the show. She’s entirely convincing in everything she sets out to do — disarming with Vicki, passionate with Barnabas, cruel and crazy with Ben. Also, she’s gorgeous and breathy and weird, and you can absolutely understand why Barnabas is drawn to her.
So far, the revival series has had a lot of trouble with sex appeal. It’s 1991, and nighttime soaps like Dallas and Falcon Crest have had ten years to establish the boundaries of PG-rated soft-core sex scenes. Essentially, you’re allowed to rip open shirts and paw at each other as long as you keep your underwear on, and for women, you can put your mouth pretty much anywhere above the waist. Those are reasonable guidelines that can make for a decent scene, if you’ve got the right people. But the pairings we’ve seen so far have involved actors that don’t have a lot of screen presence — Maggie and Roger, Carolyn and Joe, Barnabas blood-humping with Daphne and Carolyn.
But Lysette Anthony delivers. Again, not an award-winner and I have some reservations about the French accent, but she’s exciting and sexy, and she shows up for work and does her job.
She does good crazy, too. She has a scene with Ben and a homemade voodoo doll near the end of the episode where she gets to spread out and flex her muscles a bit — transitioning smoothly from flirty to bossy to power-mad psychotic, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. The scene is probably the best that they’ve done so far, and if they can keep shooting for that standard, the show might live up to the limited expectations it’s set out to meet.
But they’ve got the same problem with Lysette Anthony that they had with Adrian Paul — they’ve waited too long to get her involved. For weeks, they’ve been showing us Carolyn, Vicki and Joe, and the whole time they’ve had this wide-awake nightmare up their sleeve. It’s a relief that they’ve finally let her out of the box, but they’ve burned through six weeks of good will, and for me and the other 100 percent of American viewers, six weeks is too long to wait before you introduce the best actors in your cast.
Again, I know that on the original show, Angelique didn’t appear until Vicki landed in 1795, but the point of a reboot is that you can look at the entire story with the advantage of hindsight, and do the foreshadowing properly. One of the problems with the original story is that Angelique comes out of nowhere, becoming the major antagonist halfway through the 1967/1795 storyline. If somebody wrote the story as one finished piece, you’d get some Angelique foreshadowing right from the start.
The thing that breaks my heart is that they knew this, and they tried, and they did it wrong. They mentioned Angelique back in episode 4, and they showed her emerging from the fire as a screaming demon lady, but that was the same episode where they also tried to introduce Laura as a screaming demon fire lady. I know it doesn’t sound possible, but that’s the thing that they did. It was an utterly bizarre piece of self-sabotage, and it went a long way toward explaining why the ratings tanked.
Then in last week’s episode, they gave foreshadowing another shot. In the middle of a scene, they presented a hovering Angelique, screeching wordlessly at Barnabas for twenty-five seconds, and then fading away for no particular reason. It was annoying and unhelpful, a bit of haunted house theater based on the idea that a ghost is terrifying even if it doesn’t do anything.
And they had Lysette Anthony there, on set — an attractive, energetic actress who could have contributed a lot to the first six episodes, and instead of giving her lines, they strung her up on wires and told her to look spooky. Angelique is an important character. She is not a pteranodon.
As the episode draws to a close, we see Vicki in her room, scratching on a blank piece of paper with a feather.
“I, Victoria Winters,” she writes, “begin this journal, in the hope that no matter what happens to me, there will at least be a written record of these extraordinary events.”
She writes that entire sentence with a feather, and she doesn’t take a moment to dip the quill into an inkwell at any point. Apparently, this feather is equipped with its own independent ink supply; it must have come from a Bicbird.
She pauses for a moment to think, and then keeps on writing. “Somehow, I have been thrust backward in time.”
Obviously, when I say that she pauses to think, I’m taking it on faith. The only thing I can verify is that she pauses. If she’s thinking, then I can’t imagine what she’s thinking about, because keeping this journal is the stupidest thing she could possibly do. She already has a book in her possession that was printed in the twentieth century, plus a dress with a demonic washing label. Now she’s just manufacturing bonus evidence. This just goes to show that you can take any Victoria Winters that’s available, and put her in any time period you like, and she will always be the same. Vicki is an idiot.
Then she hears a carriage pulling up to the house, and she runs to the upstairs landing to see the new arrival. It’s the long-awaited Josette, and as Vicki watches, the beautiful young heiress turns to survey the room — and she’s a dead ringer for the girl governess.
Vicki gasps, “She’s ME!” And that’s where we have to leave things, until the next pre-emption in November. She’s me. She is me.
Tomorrow: The Green Light.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Abigail shows Trask the label on Vicki’s dress, and translates: “Tumble dry… cool iron… permanent press!” But Vicki never said “permanent press” — she said, “Machine wash, lukewarm, tumble dry, cool iron.” I’m not actually complaining, because Abigail saying “permanent press” is pretty much the highlight of the entire revival series. I’m just saying.
There are a couple minor visual continuity errors today. In the opening scene, look at Barnabas’ hands when Julia asks if he knew Phyllis Wick, and keep an eye on where Angelique puts her hand when she has Ben backed up against the wall.
Tomorrow: The Green Light.
Next pre-emption special:
Time Travel, part 8: She’s Me.
— Danny Horn