“This man is dead! We know he’s dead, don’t we?”
So I suppose you could say that there’s good news, and bad news. The good news is that Dark Shadows hits its all-time ratings peak this week, thanks to the return of TV’s cool ghoul Jonathan Frid, who’s just coming back from a month-long vacation.
Barnabas has been off camera for four weeks now, chained up in a coffin with a stake through his heart. Yesterday, we finally saw him again — but he’s still staked, still chained, not getting much use out of that FitBit we got him for Christmas. And yet, here he is, the deceased Barnabas Collins, lying around in a doctor’s office and getting his pulse taken, like the show-off that he is.
We’re going to spend the next few days trying to figure out if this really is Barnabas, or some unlikely lookalike with the same name and address. Either way, there’s some kind of narrative sleight-of-hand going on, and everybody’s tuning in to see how they’re going to pull it off. The ratings have been going up steadily all year, thanks to Quentin and the 1897 storyline, and this week is the apex of Dark Shadows’ popularity. That’s the good news.
This storm-tossed Frid washes up on the shores of a doctor’s office, somewhat the worse for wear. He’s suffering from some kind of indefinable condition that makes you aimlessly groggy. In layman’s terms, he’s too sick to go to school, but not sick enough to take off his sport coat.
This man of mystery was moaning for Edward Collins, but when the doctor called Collinwood, he reached Count Andreas Petofi, appearing here in the guise and garb of Quentin Collins. Petofi just saw the staked Barnabas in the coffin yesterday, so naturally, seeing him here on the exam table comes as a shock.
“Leave us alone,” Petofi barks at Dr. Reade, who bristles.
“I can’t leave you alone with him,” says the bristling medico, “he’s still unconscious.”
“I said, go!” Petofi sneers. You know, for the first couple weeks of the body swap story, Petofi was making an effort to pretend that he really was Quentin, but that’s worn off. Charismatic Petofi is long gone; in his place, we have grumpy gun-wielding Petofi, who’s one “bungling fool!” away from just going ahead and becoming Doctor Octopus.
The patient regains consciousness, approximately, and the doctor reassures him that he’s safe. Looking up plaintively at Petofi, the stricken man mutters, “Are you… Edward Collins?”
“Am I what?”
“Edward Collins… I asked for Edward Collins…”
Dr. Reade says, “This is Quentin Collins; don’t you recognize him?”
The man says, “No, I don’t,” which proves how sick he really is. You have to be out of touch in a pretty definitive way not to recognize Quentin Collins in October 1969. What, has he been living in a cave? Oh, wait, I guess he was.
Petofi finally chases the doctor out of the room — he doesn’t actually say “bungling fool,” but it was touch and go for a second there — and then he pulls a loaded revolver out of his pocket. This does not inspire confidence in the patient.
“Now I don’t know what you did,” Petofi purrs, “or how you did it. It doesn’t matter — because I’m going to kill you!”
But then Dr. Reade bursts back into the room — he’s been in the waiting room for the last thirty seconds, coming up with a retort — and he shouts, “Mr. Collins, drop that gun!”
Petofi doesn’t drop the gun — he just kind of lowers his hand, and turns away — but Dr. Reade considers this a significant step in the peace process. He reassures the mystery man that he’s quite safe. “If he tries to harm you again, he’ll have to shoot me first,” says the doc, who has no idea how much ammunition Petofi brought with him. This is how health care works in Collinsport.
Edward finally arrives, and the two brothers stand around the bedside discussing whether they should shoot the patient or not. The new Frid gazes back and forth, bleary and perplexed.
“Why are you pointing that gun at me?” he breathes.
Edward says, “You know who you are, and so do we.”
“You know nothing about me,” says the newcomer. “I’m a stranger here, how could you know anything of me?”
He claims that he’s come from England, but he doesn’t know how long he’s been here, not with everything he’s been through. Edward asks what he’s talking about, but Petofi keeps waving that gun around, saying that he’s just trying to fool them again.
“Fool you again?” the stranger asks. “I’ve never seen either of you before!”
Petofi’s not having it. “Let’s finish him off now,” he says, raising the pistol. This must be one of those Obamacare death panels.
And then, just when we need it the most, there’s an invigorating round of dialogue chicken.
It’s Edward’s turn to serve. “In a few minutes, it will be dawn,” he says, cracking open his pocket watch. “When the time comes, we’ll be able to prove that he’s not as innocent as he says he is!”
Petofi returns the serve: “All right, Edward. What do you have in mind?”
That volley leaves Edward in a tricky position; he’s just said what he has in mind, and he doesn’t have anything more in mind to say. He checks the pocket watch again, as the dead air ticks on by.
“In a few minutes, it will be dawn,” Edward sighs, so that’s one point for Petofi. “And when it is, we’ll be able to prove to Dr. Reade, just as I told you, that he’s not as innocent as he claims!”
But you have to feel for Edward and Petofi, because they have more dialogue than usual. Aristede was only on screen in the teaser, and ran off without a word; Frid only moans things occasionally; and they keep sending Dr. Reade out of the room. That means Edward and Doctor Octopus have to do most of the heavy lifting today.
As advertised, in a few minutes it’s dawn, and the patient doesn’t scream or burst into flames or anything. It’s the darnedest thing.
“He’s not the man we thought he was!” cries Edward, baffled. “I don’t know who he is, but I’m going to find out.” He rushes to the man’s side. “Now, who are you?”
“My name,” croaks the stranger, “is Barnabas Collins.”
So this is just trolling, on an epic scale. 27 percent of households with the television set on right now are tuned to Dark Shadows — just think of it, one out of every four houses — watching Frid, as he trolls the 19th century. Pure magic.
According to this brave new Barnabas, he came from England to Boston, and then read in a newspaper about his cousins in Collinsport. Petofi considers this entirely applesauce, but Edward urges the man to continue his story.
“I would rather not,” he groans. “This part of the story is so horrible, it terrifies me to tell it.” By horrible, he means implausible, but pay attention, this is the good bit.
“Barnabas”: I came to Collinsport… and as I set out for this house… I met him.
Edward: “Him”? Who was he?
“Barnabas”: I don’t know. I don’t know!
“Quentin”: What did he look like?
“Barnabas”: Exactly like me!
Edward: Exactly like you?
And oh, if Petofi had just said, “Exactly like him!” then it would have been the intro to the greatest musical number the supernatural soap opera genre has ever seen. Alas.
The closeups get even closer.
“As he came close to me, I could see the terrible cruelty of his face, the need to destroy! From that night on, he tried to destroy me… by putting me under some sort of thrall! I could do nothing… I could remember nothing, from that night on… except when he would come to me, every now and then… approaching me in the same manner… with his mouth open wide — the two terrible fangs in his mouth!”
“I don’t believe a word he’s saying,” Petofi snaps, and neither do I, but who cares? This new Barnabas is even crazier than the last one. It’s possible that the entire rest of the series will involve Frid lying on his back and muttering.
Petofi still wants to shoot him, or at least shoot Dr. Reade — he’s been carrying this gun around the whole episode, he has to shoot somebody — but Edward has another idea, which he stumbles his way through.
“There’s one more way that we can test him,” Edward says, “one more way. We can give him…” He winds down for a moment. “It’ll take more than words, though, for him to prove it.” So yeah, I guess so. This new Barnabas is basically unraveling the entire show, from the dialogue on down. Soon there will be nothing left.
So there’s only one thing they can possibly do, here in the twilight of the heat death of the universe, and that’s pick up the dead guy, thrall and all, frog-march him out of the office, and go play Weekend at Barney’s.
So they head for the cave, natch, where they open up the coffin, and there’s the vampire, the two terrible fangs in his mouth, and guess what? He looks exactly like me.
“Oh, God,” Edward cries. “What’s going on here? WHAT’S GOING ON?”
So, you know how I said there was good news and bad news today? The good news, obviously, is that this is the all-time ratings peak for the show. The bad news is that a peak has two sides.
The ratings have never been this good before. On the other hand, they’ll never be this good again. And right here, standing on this ridiculous peak, you can see forever.
Tomorrow: Schrödinger’s Vampire.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Dr. Reade tells Petofi, “Look — you may be in the habit of running Collinswood and Collinsport…”
Barnabas is happy there’s no marks on his neck: “He’s gone! He’s finished with me! He’s never really going to come back to me anymore!”
When Edward leads Barnabas out of Dr. Reade’s office, he asks Barnabas, “Will you — are you willing to come with us?”
When they opened Barnabas’ coffin in yesterday’s episode, it opened the other way, with the hinges on the left side of the box.
Behind the Scenes:
The Dark Shadows Almanac has a Nielsen ratings chart, which says that the show’s ratings in June 1968 were 7.5, with a 28.8 share. (The ratings are the percentage of households with a TV that are watching the show; the share is the percentage of households with a TV on during that time period.) In 1968-1969, the ratings were 8.4/27, and then it dropped in 1969-1970 to 7.3/23. For the final year, the ratings went down to 5.3/16.
Dr. Reade is played by Alfred Hinckley, who appeared in the first episode of Dark Shadows as the conductor on Vicki’s train. This is his second and final appearance on the show. In the late 50s and 60s, Hinckley appeared in lots of police officer/public defender type shows that I never heard of, like Decoy and The Defenders and Naked City and The Reporter and For the People, and he had a role on the NBC soap The Doctors for a while. He was also a stage manager and understudy on a couple late 60s Broadway plays — More Stately Mansions, which ran for four months, and The Wrong Way Light Bulb, which ran for four days.
Tomorrow: Schrödinger’s Vampire.
— Danny Horn