“We can only hold ourselves to the secret dreads and confessed fear of an evil soul seeking to control a saddened heart!”
But enough foolishness; let’s get down to business. We’re taking a break from Dark Shadows this week, to watch the opening episodes of the contemporary Canadian knock-off Strange Paradise. This daily supernatural soap opera aired for ten months in 1969-1970, to progressively smaller audiences.
It’s easy to imagine why a production company in fall 1969 would look at Dark Shadows, and want to take a crack at trying their own version. DS is at the height of its popularity during this period, and they’re making it look easy. Five or six characters per episode on a limited number of sets, taped as a stage play without retakes or editing, and using a mix of Freshman Lit and Universal Monsters for story ideas. That seems doable.
And if you’re a busy professional in 1969, you’re probably not watching Dark Shadows very closely. They didn’t have VCRs back then, to tape episodes and watch them at a more convenient time. You had to sit down in front of a television at 4 in the afternoon every day, which is a lot easier for housewives and teenagers than it is for people working on a medium-to-low-budget daily TV show in Ottowa, where I’m not even sure DS was being broadcast.
So it would be easy to miss Dark Shadows’ insanely detailed narrative complexity during this period. There’s probably a dozen overlapping story threads on the show right now, and the writers are expecting the audience to remember complicated plot points from more than six months ago.
Barnabas explains to Julia that Chris Jennings is stuck as a werewolf, locked in the secret room of the mausoleum, because he’s the grandson of Quentin’s infant daughter Lenore, who’s being raised in town by Mrs. Fillmore because Quentin’s wife Jenny went mad and couldn’t take care of them, and Quentin’s werewolf curse is being passed down to the male children of each generation — and four out of five of those characters haven’t even been on the show for months. We haven’t seen Chris since late February, and it’s currently mid-September and counting. For a daily soap opera in late 1969, the required cognitive load on the audience is staggering.
In other words: Sure, try and make your own Dark Shadows. Good luck with that.
So I’m not spending a week looking at Strange Paradise just because I want to have a new set of things to make fun of. I mean, that’s part of it, obviously. But I also want to know what a failed version of Dark Shadows looks like right now, to see what we can learn about why the actual show is currently a smash hit.
If you’re just joining us mid-week, here’s the other Strange Paradise posts, and if you’d like to watch along, there’s a YouTube channel with all of the episodes. I’m not saying that you should do that, necessarily. But it’s your life, and you can waste it however you want. Now that I think about it, that’s actually the motto of this blog. “It’s your life, and you can waste it however you want” T-shirts are now available in the Dark Shadows Every Day store, which does not exist.
Okay, on with the show. We’re on the extremely fictional island of Maljardin, which means “you’re bad at gardening” in Caribbean talk. The wealthy landowner is Jean-Paul Desmond, who’s currently grieving the recent loss of his beautiful wife Erica, who he’s planning to bring back to life as soon as somebody figures out how. His current plan is to keep her body packed in dry ice until the gentlemen from the Cryonics Society arrive. This is a typical Caribbean problem.
While the wife slowly hardens in her coffin, Jean-Paul cuts a deal with an oil painting that’s hanging in his front parlor. It’s the portrait of the apparently wicked Jacques Eloi des Mondes, a 17th-century ancestor who’s spent the last three centuries stuck downstairs in the family crypt, thanks to a voodoo doll with a silver spike in its head. Communicating through the painting, as people do in this kind of story, Jacques told Jean-Paul that he could bring Erica back to life in exchange for his freedom. So Jacques has disturbed some sacred artifacts, releasing the allegedly evil spirit.
Horrified, Jean-Paul’s aggressively spooky domestics have decided this needs to get resolved, so they’re opening the passage to the secret underground voodoo temple that can apparently be accessed through the basement of the Desmonds’ mansion. I don’t know why they have a secret voodoo temple. They just do.
Now it’s time for histrionic housekeeper Raxl to look straight into the camera, and try to convince us that this is a major setback for the human race.
Raxl: Where are you, Jacques Eloi des Mondes, now that you have risen from the grave? We can only hold ourselves to the secret dreads and confessed fear of an evil soul seeking to control a saddened heart!
So, here’s a challenge: diagram that sentence. Anyone who can explain what that actually means gets a free “We can only hold ourselves to the secret dreads” T-shirt.
Raxl: Now we are all trapped in the cursed cauldron of the doomed, until we find that doll and pin, and return the Devil from whence he came! Where are they — and where is HE? In the body of our master? Or an evil spirit, free to roam in defiance of God!
Here’s my problem with the Raxl rants: we do not know a single evil thing that Jacques Eloi des Mondes has ever done.
So far, we’ve seen a grand total of one flashback scene to explain Jacques’ diabolical past, and in that scene, all he did was say nice things to his terrible wife at their wedding party. That is the beginning and the end of the Jacques Eloi des Mondes backstory, as we currently know it at the start of episode 3.
Raxl has been talking about Jacques nonstop for two episodes, halting the show every few minutes to give us an update on how she feels about him, and she has never shared with us even one example of his crimes. Did he murder somebody? Steal property? Did he voodoo-sacrifice his African slaves, which we are not acknowledging ever existed? I’m not being snarky about this; the central idea of the show is that Jacques is unbelievably dangerous, and they haven’t given us even a hint about why.
And this is important, because it’s the only current conflict on the show. We’ve met nine characters so far — ten, if you count the dead girl in the box — and they don’t really have any problems. Jean-Paul is upset that his pregnant wife suddenly died, and he wishes he could bring her back to life, but that’s a more-or-less understandable response to the situation, with very little impact on the world around him. He’s going to make the Cryonics guys fill her corpse with magic dry ice juice, and then she’s still going to be dead, and that’s about it. Everything else is absolutely fine.
I mean, even if Raxl is correct and everyone on the island is doomed, then that currently threatens exactly three people. As far as I know, the only living residents of Maljardin are Jean-Paul, Raxl and Quito, and they could leave whenever they feel like it. So who cares?
Ian Martin, the daytime soap veteran writing this show, has had sixty-five minutes so far to offer the audience a compelling argument for why this is a story that deserves to be told. That is his only job, and he has failed. Strange Paradise was an immediate ratings train wreck, with its American distributors dumping it after only four weeks on the air, and it’s easy to see why. This is not competent storytelling.
It’s very common for a daytime soap opera to go through a rough patch, but often that’s a result of not having enough time to think something through, or trying to correct for a mistake, in the middle of continuous daily production. But you have plenty of time to figure out the first week; all you have to do is go out on stage, hit your mark, and tell your story. Botching the introduction of your main villain by the beginning of episode 3 is essentially an act of self-sabotage.
I know that there are aspects of this show that have some appeal — for example, I’m really enjoying Colin Fox’s decision to play Jacques as an evil gay eight-year-old narcissist, hopped up on Sugar Smacks. And as a lifelong fan of both Dark Shadows and Doctor Who, I absolutely understand that it’s possible to love a flawed television show. But this moment — a two-minute straight-to-camera denunciation of a villain, without giving us a single example of his villainy after two episodes — this is bad television.
Then we’re in a church, for some reason. We transition straight from Raxl’s “free to roam in defiance of God” line to a shot of a cross, and then we pan out to discover Reverend Matt Dawson, finishing up his service.
“And it’s not surprising, then,” he says, “that wherever God builds a house of prayer, the Devil builds a chapel there.”
That little limerick seems to go over well, but it’s an interesting — oh, he’s still talking.
“Now, for the rest of this day,” he offers, “and for all your days to come, may the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with us all.”
And that’s the end of the service. So the interesting — sorry, wait, he’s not done.
“Ever more. Amen.”
All right. Is he done? Is it my turn? Excellent. So the thing that I think is interesting is that Raxl apparently believes in some kind of weird island voodoo, which is clearly presented to us as the correct way to interpret what’s going on. A work of fiction only gets one secret magic number of the universe, and Raxl called dibs on it. Voodoo is the real thing; all the other world religions can hit the showers.
So this is a fictional world where God — or BonDieu, as the enlightened say — is distant and unreachable. Instead of addressing God, practitioners of Vodou appeal to the loa, subservient spirits that each rule a different aspect of daily life. People reach out to the loa by constructing small altars, making offerings to the spirits in the hopes of a favorable response.
This is not a world where God is actively fighting the Devil — but Raxl insists on making references to them every time she opens her mouth, which is often.
And this particular scene transition is clearly meant to establish a connection between Raxl’s voodoo prayers and the priest’s discussion of Jesus and the Holy Ghost, as if they’re both local flavors of the same religion.
Everything that I know about voodoo indicates that this is absolutely not the case. Also, everything that I know about voodoo comes from reading the first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article, which I skimmed ten seconds ago.
I have to assume that as Ian Martin prepared to write a long-running daily television show about voodoo, he did a little bit more research than I did. And yet, I seem to understand the difference between voodoo and Christianity better than he does. How do you account for a thing like that?
The church service ends, and the parishioners all get up to leave, except for the weird blonde lady in the second row, wearing the lemon yellow jacket and sunglasses, who continues to sit there, absolutely immobile.
The priest shakes hands with everyone as they file out of the pews, and just as the last of the crowd drifts away, he does a little double-take, as he suddenly notices the girl right in front of him wearing Unabomber shades, and a neon yellow top that can be seen from space.
“Holly!” he says, approaching her. “Nice to see you here, what a pleasant surprise.”
“You mean, making the church scene?” Holly says, removing the shades. “Forget it, reverend. I’m not resting. I’m not praying, just resting.” So I guess they don’t do retakes on Strange Paradise, either. She stepped into that one eight words into the role.
So, Holly. About that.
I talked a bit in the first episode about Strange Paradise’s unflinching commitment to telling the story of middle-aged people. In the opening minutes of the first episode, they introduced the most attractive woman on the show by carrying her downstairs to the crypt, and packing her into a coffin. That was your human interest for the day.
I mean, I know it’s Canada, which finally reached 1969 sometime in the early 90s, so I can’t judge them too harshly for being as deeply square as they are. But they had an opportunity to cast a tantalizing will they/won’t they couple, and they settled on these two.
Anyway, Matt and Holly. He’s a priest. She’s a misunderstood teen. He smirks at her. She calls him “padre,” and when he offers her patronizing advice, she says, “Make it short, I’ve gotta split.” Clearly, they’re made for each other, literally.
As long as they’re sitting here in front of me, I might as well drop a little backstory. Her father died, and left all of his money to Holly, which is hers when she turns 21. For the character, this isn’t very long from now, and for the actress it’s maybe six years ago.
I don’t actually want to hit Holly too hard, because apart from her hair, her makeup, her voice and her grasp on her opening lines of dialogue, I kind of like her. She’s got an extremely tame backstory that she thinks is the most tragic thing anybody has ever experienced, and she’s spoiling for a fight about it at every moment. These are very good qualities for a soap opera heroine.
Plus, her response to a tricky social situation is to sit motionless in front of the dude that she’s pissed at, and then dramatically take off her sunglasses. I like Holly.
The problem is that her mother is evil, incessantly messing with her to get control of Dad’s money, and Matt helped her mother check Holly into Westley House, a sleepaway camp for the young and confused. Now she’s broken out of stir, and she’s come to this church just to indicate to Matt how pissed off she is. This is the correct behavior for a put-upon soap vixen in training.
By the way, I have no idea what the connection is between this story and the rest of the show. They’ve just decided that this is what we’re going to look at right now, between Raxl scenes.
She turns to leave, so he grabs her arm, and just leaves his hand there for a while. She looks at it, and then glares at him, and he lets go, which means there’s supposed to be some kind of romantic tension in the room. Matt is a patronizing dick, by the way.
And then back to this! Quito pushes aside the door hewn from the living rock itself, to reveal a voodoo temple. This place is just one crypt after another.
“We offer this pledge to the demon!” she hollers at I’m not exactly sure who. “Our powers of magic, so long asleep, shall be awakened to fight the evil that is his only ally!” She means it, too. Talk about making the church scene.
So there’s that. Then it’s back to the church, where Holly’s mother has to show up, to help demonstrate what we can expect out of the Matt/Holly experience.
Mom comes on strong, saying things like “Don’t tempt me!” within moments. Holly gathers up her stuff, and spits at Matt, “Actually, I came here to tell you what a fink I think you are.” Then she turns to Mom and says, “But compared to you, he –” and breaks off, fleeing from the room.
Mom stands there and yells, “Holly, come back here!” which is a thing that you say on TV in lieu of actually going after the person. This never works.
We return to the scene of the crime, where Raxl spends another two scenes and a commercial break shouting at whoever she thinks she’s shouting at.
“Throw off all deception and hate,” she cries, “and let LOVE return to Maljardin! And the DEVIL, to the DEPTHS of DEFEAT!” Again, with the Devil.
But I kid the Vodouista. Obviously, I don’t actually have a problem with a television show visiting an underground cave to scream at the loa for a while — it’s interesting to look at, and interesting to listen to, and that’s all I require from a scene. My issue is more with what’s happening on the other side of this two-scene structure.
Over at the church, Mom and Matt are having a tense backacting scene. He’s still in lecture mode, priestsplaining away. “All my authority permits is advice and reason,” he emits, making acting faces. “I offered both. Her mother could have offered much more.”
Then it’s her turn to get a line again, which he follows with “You cannot legislate love and respect, Mrs. Marshall, they have to be earned!” He could do this all day if he has to, which he does.
Here’s some more: “She also needs love, Mrs. Marshall! Parental love, the kind of love that most kids take for granted!” Also: “A father Holly idolized is suddenly taken from her — and when she turned to her mother for comfort and security, what did she get? Westley House.” Oh, snap.
Man, Raxl’s still at it. “You are the EVIL that faith will conquer!” she yells. “A heart, girthed with a serpent the truth will crush!”
Meanwhile, the living room is just getting dustier and dustier. Honestly, what do they pay her for? If I had a housekeeper who crawled into caves just to complain about me to Hounto, the spirit of the drums, I would probably want to reassess my personnel decisions.
Then back to the church. This whole episode just cuts back and forth between the two locations, basically turning two 15-minute conversations into an overlapping sequence of snippets.
This is when Mrs. Marshall starts insinuating. “It’s one thing to preach the truth,” she snaps. “It’s more difficult to face it.” And then she gives him a look.
And we know exactly what’s going on, because we’ve seen this a hundred times, on television and at the movies: groovy priest attracted to the beautiful young girl that he wants to take care of.
It’s so familiar, in fact, that you can cut it into forty-five second strips and splice it into the pauses in a black magic ritual, and it doesn’t change a thing. This plot and these characters could fit into the first week of literally any soap opera on the air, and it wouldn’t make a difference. Well, except for Dark Shadows, of course, because “something familiar” is no longer part of their modus operandi. That’s the whole point.
Whatever people may think, Dark Shadows is not actually an equal mixture of monster movies and traditional soap opera sequences, where the monsters create obstacles for the romantic leads. This is a show where the monsters are the romantic leads.
When Nicholas Blair wanted to marry the pretty girl next door, he drugged her, brought her to an altar, and performed a black mass over her. And they didn’t splice in a dull romance conversation in the middle — they cut to a werewolf attack. Dark Shadows has no interest in generic plot points that could appear on any other soap.
Now, I understand that Dark Shadows spent a long time building up to that, with the soap tropes gradually eased out of the way by the advancing forces of mad science and marionette bats. You need to establish some human characters before you unleash the full crazy. But that’s not a license to reach out your hand, and just grab one of the old standards.
And this isn’t the only familiar set-up we’ve seen this week. Yesterday, we had “I’m in debt with the mob, because I had to pay for my mother’s medical care,” which is such an old chestnut that those script pages must be written on parchment.
So this episode is essentially half incoherent supernatural ranting and half traditional soap opera, with no apparent connections between the two. This is not actually what Dark Shadows is like.
Dark Shadows takes Edgar Allen Poe stories and turns them into soap opera. This episode is just turning soap opera into more soap opera, which is not a productive use of people’s time.
Tomorrow: The Cryonic Woman.
— Danny Horn