“The cards — they have anticipated you!”
But that’s the thing about epic tragedies, you know? You don’t need spoiler alerts, because everybody knows how this is going to go.
Against all odds and two decades later, Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis managed to sell NBC on a prime-time revival of the show, reintroducing the characters and the stories that America once loved so deeply and temporarily. But this time, the show would have prime-time network production values, like shooting on film and doing retakes and thinking about things in advance. And they could tell the story properly now — introducing the vampire right from the start, and making sure that Josette is the lookalike of the right person.
And it’s here, in episode 8, when the show gets noticeably better. They’ve got some grown-up writers at last, and a tighter focus on the more appealing members of the cast. They know where the story’s going, and they don’t waste time trying to introduce two simultaneous female vengeance fire demons, like they did in episode 4. Things are finally starting to go uphill.
But we know what happens when things go uphill, especially if it’s Widow’s Hill. That road leads to a messy death on the rocks below, which is exactly what happens to our star-crossed revival.
Yes, the show gets better, here in the back half of the season, but not better enough, and it’s too late anyway; the ratings have sagged to such an extent that the gods have already decided the series’ fate. After this, NBC gives 9pm Friday to some equally doomed comedies, and then the NBC Friday Night Movie, and then Dateline. Twenty years after the lights go out on the great estate at Collinwood, NBC will finally manage to put a successful fantasy drama in this timeslot, but I’m afraid it’s going to be Grimm.
There’s more astronaut action, by the way, that’s why we’re not watching real Dark Shadows. Today’s episode was pre-empted by coverage of the Apollo 12 splashdown, with another courageous crew of moon-botherers returning to their home planet, and on pre-emption days, we watch an episode of the 1991 show. Here’s the other 1991 posts, if you need to catch up.
Actually, there’s two pre-emptions this week — Apollo 12 on Monday and Thanksgiving on Thursday, so we get to watch two 1991 episodes, lucky us. Then there’s Christmas next month, and New Year’s right after that, so we’re going to be finishing up the revival series before you know it. That’s the good news.
So here’s where we are: A seance has been held at the great house of Collinwood, a seance which has suspended time and space, and sent one girl on an uncertain and frightening journey, and so on. Girl governess Victoria Winters has taken the red pill, sending her tumbling through time to the year 1795.
It’s all Barnabas’ fault, of course; we wouldn’t have to go through this if he’d just settle down and be a decent character. But frankly, he’s gone off the rails completely — shouting and sneering and consuming his cousins, and not taking any positive action to further his own interests. He’s completely stuck, and Ben Cross is taking that frustration and turning it into a kind of super-entitled obnoxious one percenter fury. It’s just not working.
But slipping backwards through the centuries has given them a coherent story to tell, and things have started to click. The last episode was the least bad so far, and this one is even more least bad, so they’re going in the right direction.
There are a couple reasons why the show is improving. For one thing: the grown-ups are here. There are three new writers this week, and they actually know what they’re doing.
So far, the episodes have mostly been written by the producers, who are not actually writers, and even the writers haven’t been good writers. Steve Feke, who contributed to episodes 1, 4 and 6, wrote the 1988 film Mac and Me, an E.T. ripoff with a well-deserved 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Jon Boorstin, who wrote episodes 2, 3, 6 and 7, had previously written a James Spader thriller called Dream Lover, and an episode of Deadly Nightmares, which I am not familiar with. They also had Sam Hall, one of the best writers on the original show, but he left the series angry, and his episode was heavily rewritten by the producers.
But here’s the new team: William Gray, M.M. Shelly Moore and Linda Campanelli. Gray wrote a bunch of horror movies, including the 1980 Jamie Lee Curtis slasher movie Prom Night, which isn’t amazing but at least it’s not Mac and Me.
Moore and Campanelli were a writing team who co-wrote some episodes of not-terrible mid-80s TV, including Misfits of Science and Newhart, and then became executive story editors for the semi-popular slash-fic sensation Beauty and the Beast, a late-80s romantic confection about a savvy New York attorney gradually falling in love with a shaggy, lion-faced Ron Perlman.
And hey, speaking of huge hairy animals, that’s the other improvement on the show this week: they’re using Adrian Paul correctly.
I spent a lot of the last 1991 post complaining that the first half of the season completely wasted some of their best cast members. Lysette Anthony, who’s playing a super-crazy wild-eyed Angelique, and the hunky Adrian Paul, who makes a visually appealing Jeremiah, were both held back in the first half of the season, when they really could have perked things up. Instead, the show doubled down on Carolyn, who’s played by one of the worst actors in Dark Shadows history.
Plus, they’re putting Joanna Going front and center, in the dual role of Vicki and Josette. I’m not crazy about either character, but if you’re going to decide that Vicki is the female lead of the show, then you should point the camera in her direction and give her some lines, which they really didn’t do for most of the series so far.
So they’ve got new writers with romantic-fantasy experience, and a tighter focus on the actors and characters that matter. These are both very helpful.
Unfortunately, the new team was handed an episode with a cliffhanger in the wrong place, which they now have to deal with.
The big exciting story that’s happening right now is that witch-vixen Angelique is fatally jealous of her rich mistress, Josette, who’s coming to Collinwood to marry the rich and presumably handsome pre-vampire Barnabas Collins. Determined to win Barnabas for herself, she casts a love spell on Josette and Barnabas’ brother Jeremiah, who suddenly can’t keep their hands off each other.
This is a fantastic soap opera premise, and clearly the cliffhanger in last week’s show should have been the beginning of that fateful curse, with Josette and Jeremiah giving in to their forbidden passion. Then we’d come back this week to see if they could manage to hide their betrayal from Barnabas. That’s soap opera dynamite, just sitting there waiting to be lit.
Instead, they decided to end last week’s episode with Josette arriving at Collinwood, and Vicki noticing that they both look alike. Josette turns, and takes off her hood — and Vicki, watching from the balcony, gasps, “She’s me!”
That was a ridiculous cliffhanger, because not only is it not a surprise — we already knew that Vicki looked like Josette from the last six episodes — but it’s not even meaningful to the story. It’s not like they’re about to switch places or develop a synchronized swimming routine. There are a couple scenes this week where people say, “gosh, you two look a lot alike,” and that’s it. So the “she’s me” cliffhanger is a dud.
And then they hand this damp fizzle to the new grown-up writers, who have to squeeze the entire romantic quadrangle into a one-hour episode.
This is what they have to establish:
* Barnabas and Josette are madly in love, and they’re made for each other.
* Angelique casts a spell on Josette and Jeremiah.
* Josette and Jeremiah are drawn to each other, against their better instincts.
* Josette and Jeremiah decide to run away together.
* Josette and Jeremiah actually run away together, and get married.
* Barnabas finds them, and challenges Jeremiah to a duel.
* Barnabas shoots Jeremiah at the duel.
* Jeremiah’s funeral.
* Abigail accuses Vicki of being a witch.
There is no earthly reason why they have to do all of that in an hour, and they even take time off in the middle for an unnecessary “meanwhile, in the future” sequence set in 1991. This is several weeks of storytelling, squeezed into three quarters of an episode.
But this absolutely positively has to get there overnight, so here’s what they do.
First up: Barnabas and Josette are super horny for each other. He greets his newly-arrived fiancee in the foyer, and one scene later, he’s got her pushed up against the door.
The scene begins with him giving Josette a music box, as an early wedding present. She asks why he’s giving it to her now, and he says, “Because I just couldn’t wait.” He stares into her eyes. “All my control is concentrated somewhere else.” She finds this terribly romantic, as naturally you would.
Within moments, they’re pawing at each other, and he whispers, “Meet me outside, now.” She asks where, although in my opinion the immediate question is, how can I meet you outside now when it already is now, and I’m not there?
But they figure it out somehow, probably with mirrors and a vortex manipulator, and we find the young lovers leaving the enormous mansion with lots of unused bedrooms, so they can grind on each other in public.
We don’t really get to know Barnabas and Josette as a couple, and we have no idea what they have in common. This is the only private conversation that they have in the whole episode, and the only thing they talk about is how much they want to bone. But they don’t have a lot of time for establishing things, so they use a sex scene as shorthand for they love each other.
After this meeting of the gardening club, we get a scene of Josette, lovestruck and happy, cooing about her conquest with Angelique, who would rather talk about absolutely anything else in the world.
Josette is a spoiled rich girl at heart, who thinks of her ladies’ maid as a friend — call me Josette, she says, like they’re equals — but it never occurs to her to give any thought to what Angelique’s life is like, following her mistress around and not really having a life of her own. This all happens in the bath.
They’re doing this very economically, because they have a lot of plot points to burn through. Every scene ticks a box, and then we move on to the next thing.
Jeremiah is the next thing. Angelique has spiked some rosewater with love potion, which she pours into Josette’s bath and sprinkles all over Jeremiah’s bed. When they go to sleep that night, they share a passionate sex dream.
They haven’t actually established who Jeremiah is, in this episode. They haven’t had time to show him actually meeting Josette; he hasn’t even appeared on camera so far. But here he is, sweaty and heaving, because this is what Jeremiah is for. Time elapsed between sex scenes: 2 minutes and 10 seconds.
And they really go for it, too. The writers and the director have come to the inescapable conclusion that Adrian Paul is made of meat, and there must be some way to leverage that. So they drench him in glisteny chest moisture, and that is the focus of the scene.
Josette’s body is remarkably low in the mix here; she’s wearing a tasteful nightgown, and the camera doesn’t linger on her at all. In the early stages of the sequence, when we see them each tossing and turning in their sleep, he’s got his shirt open and pointed in our direction, while she’s got a heavy blanket pulled up to the neck.
Once the dream begins, Jeremiah’s chest gets all the good lighting, and then she rips his shirt off and starts chewing on his shoulder area.
Then he picks her up, and lays her down on the bed, like Tarzan the ape man with his long hair and moist torso. Then we get a shot of his sweaty back. It’s basically the cover of every romance novel.
And then there’s a little scene of them looking at each over the breakfast table, which he can stand for about forty-five seconds before he has to excuse himself. I guess they have to put their clothes on sometimes, because otherwise the wardrobe department is just sitting around idle.
And then, bafflingly, they spend five and a half minutes on Phyllis Wick, the 1795 governess who’s changed places with Vicki. She’s lost and terrified, struggling to understand why everybody is suddenly talking funny and wearing indecent clothes and driving horseless machine-beasts.
This is a pure 1991 innovation, cutting back and forth between the past and the present, rather than freezing the 20th century family between two ticks of the clock, as they did in the original show. It’s a clever idea, because we get to see the characters that we know all worried sick about what’s happened to Vicki, plus a traumatized Phyllis makes for some interesting comic relief.
Unfortunately, we don’t really have a lot of time to waste this week, when we could be showing Barnabas and Jeremiah interacting with each other, which they basically don’t. Plus, Sheriff Patterson’s irritatingly thick Maine accent is just unbearable.
Oh, and also Phyllis has diphtheria, so that’s a lucky break for the 1795 family; it’s a lot safer here in 1990s Collinwood, where everybody has vaccinations. But Barnabas doesn’t see it that way, because he’s worried that if Phyllis dies, then Vicki will be trapped in the past forever, whatever “forever” means under these circumstances. Julia tells him that Phyllis may not recover, and he says You’d LIKE that WOULDN’T YOU DOCTOR! and it’s another terrible narcissistic rage scene.
You know, I’ve been reading up on pathological narcissism lately, for presidential election-related reasons, and it’s basically a character description of 1991 Barnabas. He’s got an exaggerated feeling of self-importance, and a lack of empathy for others. He fails to acknowledge that his behavior is the root of his own problems. And when anything happens that he doesn’t like, he’s prone to shouting, fact distortion, making groundless accusations, and threatening his potential allies. 1991 Barnabas is doing his best to make America great again.
And then he sneaks into Carolyn’s room for some weird semi-consensual blood-based sex play, because 1991 Barnabas is seriously the worst.
Time elapsed between sex scenes: 7 minutes and 40 seconds.
Switching back to the late 18th, Jeremiah is sitting around in the stable having sweaty sex dream flashbacks, and then Josette joins him, and what is happening to us, it’s so strong? “No, we must not, Jeremiah,” she whispers, and then they totally do.
Time elapsed between sex scenes: 3 minutes and 50 seconds.
Meanwhile, between love scenes, Vicki actually gets some screen time, which is nice. They put her on screen every chance they get — she gets a “we look alike” scene with Josette, and then she sees Jeremiah and Josette going at it in the stables. She tells Natalie about Josette’s betrayal, and in a few minutes, she’s going to be the one who sees the pair scuttling out of Collinwood en route to a justice of the peace.
And she’s not telling everybody that she’s from the future all the time, which is a step up from the 1967 version. Abigail does start piecing some clues together and suspects that Vicki is a witch, but they don’t overdo it.
Keeping a journal is a pretty dumb move in-universe, because the prosecutors are going to love getting their hands on it, but they don’t have a lot of choice. If she’s not going to talk to anybody about her predicament, then she needs some way to express herself.
She’s even asking the right questions. “But if one moment of history is changed,” she writes, “how much else changes with it? And will I then be permanently trapped in this time?” There’s a big thunderclap at that moment, which is only fair.
So the new writers are doing everything they can to make this show work, fixing many of the mistakes made in the first half of the season. They’ve decided who the main characters are, and we spend most of our time with them. They also know what the tone is supposed to be — Angelique is spooky, Abigail is threatening, Josette and Jeremiah are sexy, Millicent is comedy relief. Barnabas in the present day is still a complete mess, but for the 1795 segments, at least, you can see what they’re aiming at.
Oh, and there’s more of this. Time elapsed between sex scenes: 4 minutes and 10 seconds. These Beauty and the Beast people are really excited about showing how passionate these people are. But I understand where they’re coming from. They never got to do this on Beauty and the Beast, because Vincent was a weird lion man and apparently that’s a problem. Now they can get down to business, and they do.
So they keep on sprinting through the rest of the story, every scene a big plot point. Josette and Jeremiah run away together, Barnabas discovers that they’re gone, and before you know it, he’s tracked them down in Boston somehow. He finds them together and he just whales on Jeremiah, grabbing him and pinning him down, because I swear to God, nobody on this show can keep their hands off Jeremiah for five seconds.
By the end of the scene, they challenge each other to a duel, and the next thing you know, it’s duel day. They’re really hurrying their way through as many plot points as they can manage.
The big highlight of the episode is Angelique, who’s up on the roof dry-humping a gargoyle, gyrating and moaning in order to get Satan’s attention.
“Spirits of chaos,” she gasps, scarcely able to control herself. “Spirits of the air! Come to me! Enfold me in your strength! Consume me!” And then she falls down on the roof, in ecstasy. All that, just to stick a bullet in Barnabas’ gun, and make sure Jeremiah dies.
The weird thing is that it’s not clear why Angelique wants Jeremiah to die right now, because it doesn’t help her at all. Josette is now safely married to another dude who she’s apparently really super into, which leaves Barnabas on his own. She should be shipping Josette and Jeremiah like crazy right now. So what does killing Jeremiah do for her?
Unfortunately, that’s true for the whole series, too. Jeremiah should not die in this episode. It’s another example of the show’s relentless self-sabotage.
They have two brothers, both in love with the same woman, and a magical soap vixen stirring the pot. This is good soap opera. Dallas and Knots Landing would kill for a hot scenario like this. So even as the show gets more interesting and better written, there’s still a huge problem hanging over it — a slavish imitation of the original show, repeating plot points that don’t actually make this a better story.
This would be a way more interesting story if Jeremiah lives, and Barnabas had to deal with Jeremiah and Josette as an actual couple. The only reason that Jeremiah died in the duel in the original show is that Anthony George was desperate to leave. He hated being on Dark Shadows, and wouldn’t even stay a few extra days so he could die on screen. They had to wrap bandages around a day player’s head, and pretend that Jeremiah was shot in the face.
And having Anthony George leave the show screwed up the relationship between Jeremiah and Vicki, which was obviously the path that the story was supposed to take. When Vicki first arrived in the past, Jeremiah found her at Collinwood, and she ran to his arms — because this was Burke, her presumed-dead fiancee. That’s where the story could have gone.
In the alternate universe where Jeremiah lives, he realizes that he and Josette aren’t right for each other, that some outside force has taken control of his feelings. He’s married to Josette, and he needs to stay with her — but his heart actually belongs to Vicki, the mysterious time traveler, who he’s strangely drawn to, as if he knows her well.
When Vicki is accused of witchcraft, it’s Jeremiah who leaps to her defense, putting him at odds with the rest of his family. He represents her in court, until he falls victim to the curse that wipes out anyone who loves Barnabas. And Jeremiah’s tragic death — just at the moment when Vicki needs him most — is what sends her to the gallows. And then Burke returns from the dead or becomes Jeff Clark or whatever.
With Anthony George gone, they had to draft a new guy to help Vicki — Peter Bradford, a total unknown, which means Vicki’s story hardly interacts with the Collins family at all. Vicki languishes in prison for months, while everybody else is doing whatever they do. It’s not effective storytelling.
The revival could have fixed that problem, the same way that they substituted Vicki for Maggie as the Josette lookalike. Instead they fixed the wrong thing. Jeremiah still dies in the duel, but the guy who has that early scene with Vicki at Collinwood is Peter, who’s played by one of the worst members of the cast.
There’s no reason why they need to hang on to the duel plot point, when they could have just looked at their cast and made the appropriate adjustments. But that’s the tragedy of the 1991 series, the fatal flaw that leads to certain doom. They could have made this work. But they’re following the history book, heading towards their certain destruction, and all we can do is watch.
Tomorrow: Curious People.
Next pre-emption special:
Time Travel, part 9: Frequent Flyers.
— Danny Horn