“Killed? Revenge? We?”
Okay, one more lap around the track, and then we’re done with this forever, I promise. This week, we’ve been taking a break from Dark Shadows to watch the first week of the failed 1969 Canadian knockoff, Strange Paradise, and it’s even stranger than I expected it would be. This is the fifth episode — here’s the other Strange Paradise posts if you want them, and if you’d like to watch along, there’s a YouTube channel that can scratch that itch. But I have to warn you that there’s a strong possibility that the show does not actually exist. We may be experiencing a shared dream, and this is all an illusion.
Because when you think about it, the whole concept seems unlikely. Dark Shadows is on television every single afternoon, fifty-two weeks a year, minus a few days off for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Apollo splashdowns. And the people who like Dark Shadows really like it a lot; when Strange Paradise debuts in September 1969, it’s the high point of Dark Shadows’ popularity.
So if you’re launching a second half-hour daily supernatural soap opera at that time, then there are only four possible theories that might justify such a thing.
#1. The people who are currently enjoying Dark Shadows for 30 minutes every day would like it even better if there were 60 minutes of supernatural drama in the afternoon.
#2. There’s an untapped audience of people who don’t currently watch a daily spookshow soap opera, who might turn on your show by accident and get hooked on it.
#3. You think that you would be better at making Dark Shadows than the people who are already making Dark Shadows, very successfully.
#4. You have a television production company, and you know that Dark Shadows is popular, and you honestly can’t think of a single other thing to do.
So what we have here is the Shadow of Shadows, a muck-encrusted mockery of a mad-science duplicate, trying to capture somebody else’s lightning in a bottle. They’re tampering in Dan Curtis’ domain, with predictable results.
And they must be feeling sensitive about this, because the main storyline is about pretending to be somebody that you’re not. Jean-Paul Desmond, a man so rich that he owns his own Caribbean island and never even bothers to go outside and enjoy it, has recently suffered the loss of his wife and unborn child. He’s called in the men from the Cryonics Institute, who stored Erica’s frozen corpse in a sealed ice chest, because rich people have to throw their money away somehow, and they’re not all lucky enough to have their own TV production company.
But that doesn’t actually bring Erica back to life in any noticeable way, so Jean-Paul has been seduced by an oil painting of his allegedly evil ancestor, Jacques Eloi des Mondes, who’s now taking control of Jean-Paul’s body at irregular intervals. I’d like to say that Jacques has tricked Jean-Paul with promises that he can revive Erica, because that would make some kind of sense, but he hasn’t, really. It’s not actually clear what Jean-Paul thinks he’s getting out of this arrangement.
All week long, the main character of the show has been swapping personalities back and forth, essentially at random. Sometimes he’s the tortured Jean-Paul, and sometimes he’s the wicked Jacques, but there isn’t a specific trigger for the change. Jacques seems to take over whenever he wants to, and sometimes the change happens off-camera, between scenes. To make things even more obscure, Jacques doesn’t seem to be asserting himself in order to accomplish anything in particular — in yesterday’s episode, Jacques took control just so he could have lunch with the Cryonics guys. This is a confusing television show.
For example: the cold open for today’s episode. Erica’s sister Alison has just arrived at the mansion for a visit, and nobody’s told her that Erica is dead; Alison thinks she’s just sleeping upstairs somewhere.
The spirit of Jacques has been secretly driving Jean-Paul’s body around since half past yesterday, to no specific purpose; he’s just standing around and being strange. And then they do the following thing.
“I think a portrait of Erica would add a modern touch to the family gallery,” Alison says, making conversation.
Jacques casts an eye around the room. “It’s a thought,” he admits. Then he raises his eyebrows at her, and smiles. “To think about,” he says. I have no explanation for why he says that.
Alison cocks her head, and says, “You know, you baffle me,” which makes two of us.
Jacques raises several more eyebrows. “Oh? Why?”
“Well, you’re just not the man I thought I knew.”
“Well, is that good?” Jacques winks. “Or bad?”
Then Alison makes this face, which she holds for a second as they run the opening credits.
And I think that’s how the producers expect the rest of us to feel, too. A polite, puzzled smile, because that line had the shape of a joke, but without any actual joke content. Alison is trying to be a good sport, but there’s a faraway look in her eye that says, I am not one hundred percent sure that I should even be on this show in the first place.
She’s on the fence, really, and so is the audience. We’ve given this new show five days to make the case that it’s worth coming back next week, and Friday is the soap opera’s traditional opportunity to actually make something interesting happen. This is the day to deliver that dramatic punch that’s going to make us stay tuned.
Happily, when they come back after the titles, they do something surprising. They make me feel something.
Alison is tired of waiting around to see Erica; she wants to go upstairs and find her. Jacques makes an insincere sad face, and says, “She’s not upstairs. She’s… below. In the family crypt.”
Alison chuckles. “What on earth’s she doing in the –”
And then she does this lovely little turn. She realizes what he means, and it stops her cold.
“No,” she says. “No, she’s not. She’s not!”
“Only temporarily,” Jacques winks.
There’s a little catch in Alison’s voice, and she says, “What kind of a man are you? Take me to her!”
It’s not a complex moment, for a competent actress. Pretty much anybody could do you a decent “I’m surprised by the news that my sister is dead”, complete with the little catch in the voice; it’s part of an actor’s basic training.
The surprise is that this is the first time all week that the show has tried to make us feel something. It’s mostly been shouting and preening so far. People enter the room, say something ridiculous, and then leave the room. It’s nice to know that they recognize how to do this.
So we get a nice crypt scene, where Alison can’t even see her sister’s body, because Erica’s been hermetically sealed inside a cannister. Alison has a few lines, and then she just starts to cry, and Jean-Paul — who’s Jean-Paul again, just in time — is there to comfort her. She doesn’t overact, and it doesn’t go on for too long — just a fifty-five second scene, and then they cut to something else, so she gets a chance to pull herself together.
Alison is liked by other characters (Dan, Tim and the waitress at the tiki bar), and she cares about other people (Erica), so that gives her value in the narrative, and we care about what she does and how she feels. And if Jean-Paul acts like he cares about her (as he does in this scene), then that gives him value, too.
We’ve seen Jean-Paul staggering around the studio acting like he has more feelings than anybody, but everyone else in the scene (usually Raxl) is always concerned about something else (usually yelling at the portrait). And Jean-Paul’s emotional state needed to be exaggerated beyond reason, to set up his big blasphemy line (“On this island, I am God”), which unlocked the plot point (Jacques possessing Jean-Paul).
But for the first time in five episodes, there’s a human moment about two people having a feeling together, and it makes us care. It’s too late, really — they should have done this four episodes ago, instead of stranding the emotional center of the show at a tiki bar for most of the week — but they got there eventually, and that counts for something.
After the commercial break, they do the longest scene they’ve allowed themselves so far — a five-minute Jean-Paul/Alison scene, talking about how Erica died, and how they feel about it. It turns out she died of eclampsia, which is helpful, because it’s realistic and not some wacky voodoo-related event.
And they don’t present the scene to us in forty-five second bites, alternating with Raxl in the crypt, yelling at nobody about dolls and the Devil. They just do a scene.
And then — wonder of wonders — a moment with Jacques’ portrait that actually makes sense. Jean-Paul glares at the oil painting of his ancestor, asking why Jacques brought Alison here.
The portrait smirks, which is what it’s designed for. “She’s so delectable a woman,” it purrs. “How could I — you — we — ever resist?”
Jean-Paul screams, “You swine!” and stomps his way upstairs. And at last, at long last, we have a motive for something that somebody does.
It doesn’t stick. Here comes hysterical housekeeper Raxl, with an update from the Department of What Are You Even Talking About. I’m surprised, actually, that as we go along, I’m developing an allergic reaction to Raxl scenes. I usually love characters who bring the crazy like this — people like Reverend Trask, or Count Petofi, or Angelique, who are specially designed to kick a scene up to a higher level of intensity. But Raxl just isn’t working for me, probably because nothing that she says ever matters. She speaks truth to power, and power doesn’t care, end of story.
Alison has collared Raxl for a chat about Jean-Paul. Alison’s a smart character, which is extremely helpful; smart characters move the plot forward. Stupid goldfish people can keep having the same conversation over again and never get anywhere, but smart characters get bored, and start looking for trouble.
Alison wants to know what’s going on with Jean-Paul. Raxl makes some mouth noises about the master being greatly affected by his loss, but Alison isn’t having it.
Raxl comes clean. “We live in a strange world on Maljardin, this island called” — and here she turns, and gives Alison a look — “garden of evil!” Alison is unmoved.
But Raxl keeps going, like someone giving a PowerPoint presentation who knows she’s lost the audience, and just keeps on talking anyway. She advances to the next slide.
“Do you see this man?”
“Well, I see a portrait of a man,” Alison says, which is simply trolling. I like Alison more every time she opens her mouth. “He’s amazingly like Jean-Paul,” she muses, checking out the plaque. “Jacques Eloi des Mondes. He’s an ancestor.”
Raxl says, “Or maybe more!” which is difficult to parse. “He married, and brought his wife to this island to bear his child. Once he’d used her for that, he decided he didn’t want her anymore. As he killed her, we took our revenge.”
“Killed?” Alison says. “Revenge? We?” which just about covers it.
So there you have it! The thing I’ve been waiting for all week long — an explanation for why Jacques is supposed to be evil. He killed his wife, hurrah! We’ve seen his wife, in that flashback in episode 1, and I can’t really blame him for taking drastic action. I mean, I don’t condone wife-killing, but there is a limit to anybody’s patience.
“In my faith,” Raxl says, so this ought to be good, “we believe to God belongs the soul — to the Devil, the body. All my life is a struggle to escape the burden of sin.” Looking at her, I think so far she’s doing an excellent job.
“And the true Hell forever,” she continues, “is when man cannot escape the flesh he was born into.” This is a unique perspective that is shared by nobody.
Raxl explains, “To condemn someone, he must be trapped eternally in the body.” The fact that this is exactly what Jacques wants doesn’t seem to have occurred to her. I know, I’m interrupting every sentence, but what do you even do with this?
“An effigy, in the form of a doll, is the spell to bind him. And a silver nail, through the doll’s brain, destroys all hope of salvation.”
Alison is perplexed. “Doll? Silver nail? Why, you’re talking witchcraft!”
Raxl smiles. “There are many who believe. To those of us who do, it is not witchcraft.” That makes perfect sense, except for the fact that it is absolutely all the way witchcraft.
And then, just when it seems like we’re getting somewhere: Dr. Menkin.
I don’t know if you remember him, but Dr. Menkin was the walking lab coat in episode 1 who stood around in the front parlor, representing Your Modern Science. Then he drifted off screen for the rest of the week, and nobody mentioned that he was still banging around somewhere. Jacques even had a science-themed lunch yesterday with the boys from Cryonics, and Dr. Menkin didn’t get an invite.
So Raxl reports that Menkin is sick and tired of being ignored. He wants to leave the island, and go back where he came from. Concerned, Jean-Paul says that Menkin can’t leave tonight; the channel is too treacherous to navigate in the dark. Jean-Paul decides to go and have a talk with him, and exits the scene.
And then the next thing you know, there’s a horrible scream, and we’re minus one Menkin.
Jean-Paul is the devilish Jacques again, with no warning and no explanation, and suddenly Quito is carrying the murdered medico down to the crypt for safekeeping. Raxl asks what happened, and Jacques smirks, “Now, I really don’t know,” which is not a helpful attitude.
“He tried to fight his way to the boat,” Jacques says. “I went to stop him, he pulled away from me. I think he was drunk!” Raxl objects that Menkin never drinks, and Jacques shrugs. “Well, there’s always a first time. At least it was quick.”
And that is the only dialogue that explains how and why Dr. Menkin died.
I went to stop him. He pulled away from me. And then what?
So, again, I don’t buy it. In this episode, they’re getting close to engaging me, as a member of the audience — a couple scenes with real feelings, a smart character calling people on their nonsense, an explanation for why we think the villain is villainous, and a potential threat to the most likeable character.
But this thing with Dr. Menkin undoes all that work for me. There are no clues to help us understand why Jacques killed him — or even how, which seems like it should be the baseline for competent television.
With Dark Shadows, I can only pretend that I’m watching the show in the same way that the original audience did. I’ve already seen the whole series, and I know where it’s going, even if my memories are a bit hazy on the day-to-day details. But for Strange Paradise, I’m pretty much in the same position as I would have been in 1969 — I’ve watched the show for a week, and I’m trying to figure out if I care enough to watch any more.
Actually, there is one thing that I know, which is that competent writers are on the way. Joe Caldwell joins the show in episode 69, and Ron Sproat in episode 70. Now, I know that I complained about Sproat incessantly while he was on Dark Shadows, but that was because he was getting in the way of other, better writers on the team. Ron Sproat scripts are slow, and full of functional dialogue like “Good night” and “What’s the matter?” But compared to this week — and especially this botched Menkin moment — he would be a huge step up.
I’m going to pretend to be Sproat for a moment, and restructure this week the way that I think he would have, given the chance. The key idea is that Jacques murdering Dr. Menkin is the big cliffhanger moment that the week is building up to. This is the first time that we’re actually seeing the villain do something terrible — after a week of talk, he finally kills somebody! — so that needs to be front and center.
Jacques needs a reason to kill Menkin, and that’s easy: he’s discovered something that puts Jacques’ existence at risk, which means Dr. Menkin Must Die. That’s easy for Sproat, he could do a plot point like that in his sleep. So could I, now that I think about it.
Menkin would be just another in Sproat’s long line of doomed doctors. He’s Dr. Woodard from the Barnabas storyline, and Dr. Guthrie from the Phoenix story. He’s Dr. Julian Hoffman, according to the original plan where Hoffman was a dude who died after six weeks. Clearly, there’s a required pre-med course in Uncovering a Dark Secret and Getting Yourself Killed.
And we’ve got a secret for Dr. Menkin to uncover — the location of the voodoo doll and silver nail, which could be used to send Jacques back to Hell. They were last seen mid-Tuesday, when Jacques was walking around with them in the front parlor, wondering where he could hide them. The obvious answer to that question is: somewhere that Menkin can find them, circa two minutes before the end of episode 4.
Now, if we’re spotlighting Menkin’s pre-murder activities late in the week, then we need to move Alison’s arrival up to Tuesday. She gets to have her sincere emotional moment in the middle of episode 2, where it would have done a world of good, and then she and Dr. Menkin can do some “there must be a logical explanation” stuff on Wednesday.
Of course, doing that means that we won’t have time for “Alison meets an artist who’s in debt to the mob” on Tuesday, or “mom accuses priest of being attracted to her daughter” on Wednesday, which is good news. Let’s leave the new character intros until next week, when we can give the audience some clues as to how they fit into the rest of the story.
Obviously, we keep the Cryonics stuff this week, and we keep Raxl and Quito and the underground voodoo temple, but they can fade back in the mix a bit, so we don’t have the long, awkward “Jacques has lunch with the Cryonics guys” sequence as the main focus of an episode.
Yeah, I think that would just about do it. These aren’t bad elements; they’re just badly structured. Of course, at its best, that would only bring Strange Paradise up to the level of mediocre Dark Shadows, but it’s a start. I’m not a miracle worker.
Monday: Everybody Hates Quentin.
— Danny Horn