“If you had murdered someone, what’s the most logical thing that you would do?”
It’s Monday, as you know, because here we are and it’s Monday. Just look around, this is what Monday looks like. Right? Okay.
Now, I’m going to tell you five things about this week on Dark Shadows, and one of them is going to be hard to believe, so you’re just going to have to trust me on this.
First: One of the main characters — who we thought was in love with one character, and has been drawn into a complicated relationship with a second character — is suddenly and without warning going to be madly in love with a third character, and then we’re supposed to pretend that it’s been that way all along.
Second: There’s an episode this week that only has four characters — one nice person, and three nasty people who spend the entire half-hour criticizing her, gossiping about her and openly mocking her.
Third: You know that rape subtext that sits awkwardly behind practically everything that happens on Dark Shadows, including the vampire bites, the possessions, the enchantments, the body swaps and the aggressive reincarnations? You know, the thing that makes us uncomfortable, because we enjoy a show that expects us to be interested in the love lives of serial rapists? Well, that’s going to graduate from subtext to actual text this week. In fact, we’re going to see a villain do a brief monologue on the subject of how great it’s going to be when he literally rapes someone you like.
Fourth: A relationship that you’re interested in, and that maybe you’re rooting for, will get blown to bits this week, and you will never care about it again. This is no longer a story about love triumphant in the face of evil, it’s just a story about things that happen to this particular set of complex, haunted people.
Fifth — and this is the one that’s hard to believe — this is what it looks like when Dark Shadows gets better.
Because Dan’s back, hooray!
The manically ambitious Dan Curtis — the executive producer and driving creative force behind Dark Shadows, when he’s not distracted by something shiny — has spent the last six months working on his first feature film, House of Dark Shadows, a period which roughly coincides with the show not being that great anymore. At the height of the madness, the six weeks of shooting the film, Dan and half the cast were in Tarrytown, New York, leaving the other half trapped in a parallel dimension of lookalikes and wanna-bes.
The shooting is over now, and everyone’s come back to ABC Studio 16. The two stars of the film were the last cast members to return — Jonathan Frid came back two weeks ago, and Kathryn Leigh Scott last week. Now Dan has wrapped up his work, leaving the film in the hands of the editors, God and MGM, and he can finally take stock of what’s happening with his daily television show. He’s looked at what’s going on, he’s not impressed, and he’s now fully engaged in the process of telling the entire production team that the show needs to get a hell of a lot better.
Now, I don’t know this from any behind-the-scenes information. Nobody wrote about this week, or talked about it in interviews. All of the information that you need is in the show itself, and we’re going to spend this week watching the show and reverse-engineering all of Dan’s instructions.
The show’s quality improvement program actually began last Tuesday, when Barnabas suddenly acquired an interest in one of the other characters.
Barnabas is currently stranded in Parallel Time, this strange desert otherworld where he finds himself a stranger in a sea of familiar faces. He’s cut off from his friends, loved ones and existing food sources, which means that he is the only character from Dark Shadows that’s currently appearing on Dark Shadows.
If we’re looking for natural connections — people or plot points that Barnabas actually needs to care about — then the only one he has is to Will and Carolyn, because they know that he’s a vampire, and they’re protecting him. If something happens to one of them, then that automatically impacts Barnabas’ story. But he doesn’t have a natural connection to anybody else, and Will and Carolyn have no natural connections, either. Carolyn’s pretty much cut off from her family — we haven’t seen her interacting with her mother or uncle at all — and Will is treated like a friend of the family who shows up sometimes to keep the liquor supply under control.
So there are currently two storylines — the Angelique/Quentin/Maggie entanglement, and Cyrus’ Jekyll-Hyde problems — and Barnabas doesn’t really have to know or care about either of them. His only concern is that he wants to get back to his home dimension, which right now he has no idea how to do. But nobody really knows or cares whether he does it or not, and there’s nothing he can really do about it, except go stand in the Parallel Time room and hope, which dramatically is not a rocket sled to adventure.
But the main character of the show happens to be Barnabas Collins, and he can’t leave unless he’s involved in the resolution of the existing storylines. He needs to earn his ticket home.
Last Tuesday, as I said, they took their first serious step in this direction, by giving Barnabas a sudden, uncontrollable yearning for Parallel Maggie. Apparently, she reminds him of Regular Time Maggie, who reminds him of Regular Time Josette, his natural yearning target.
Now, the other connection that Barnabas has been forging over the last couple weeks is a friendship with Quentin that appears to be based on a kind of meta-cross-dimensional awareness that they’re both appearing on the same magazine covers and trading cards, and Barnabas taking an active interest in how Quentin’s wife tastes is exactly the kind of irresponsible behavior that we need right now. This is Barnabas’ core strength as a soap opera character, his ability to locate areas of structural instability and then do everything possible to make them worse.
So now Barnabas cares about Maggie, which gives him a reason to get involved in the Angelique story; obviously, he doesn’t want anyone else to harm Maggie until he gets a chance to harm her first. Then we have to get him involved in the other current storyline, which is his job for today.
So that brings us to the latest felony. On Friday, our hero was finishing a perfectly ordinary social call at Collinwood when he was suddenly struck with an urgent internal monologue.
“The lust! The LUST!” he cried, in thinks. “I must find someone to make me stop thinking of Maggie! I must find SOMEONE!”
And then he went out and found someone, namely: huffy barmaid Buffie Harrington, who already had enough problems before this came along.
For the last month, Buffie has been romantically ping-ponging between two guys who are actually secretly one guy — the mad scientist Dr. Cyrus Longworth and his alter ego John Yaeger. They’ve been Jekyll and Hydeing for a while, mostly circling in a holding pattern around Buffie. She’s attracted to Yaeger, who gives her presents and then beats the hell out of her, and she’s also attracted to Cyrus, who says nice things and then turns into Yaeger and beats the hell out of her. She’s kind of like Lois Lane, if Lois had really low self-esteem and if Superman was one of the bad guys that Superman usually saves her from.
So along comes this bloodlusting bat/man, which is the last thing she needs and unfortunately is one of the last things she’s going to get.
Buffie screams as Barnabas bites her, and then there’s a knock at the door. As Barnabas drops the girl to the ground, the door opens and it’s Cyrus, and what follows is one of the Great Moments in Dramatic Insincerity.
“What happened?” Cyrus asks.
“I don’t know!” Barnabas says through a mouthful of platelets, artfully arranging Buffie’s scarf to cover the open wound in her jugular vein. “I had just left her after taking her home, and when I heard her scream, I came rushing in here and found her just like this!”
“I heard her scream too, and I was just outside!” says Cyrus, who will apparently believe anything.
Barnabas kneels next to her, and says, “Are you all right, Miss Harrington?” which is fantastic.
“You’d better let me have a look at her,” says Cyrus, who’s a doctor. And Barnabas just stays where he is, doc-blocking.
Buffie comes to, finding herself in a scenario that she hasn’t been prepped for. “What happened?” she moans.
“You must tell us, Miss Harrington!” Barnabas prompts.
Cyrus says, “We heard you scream,” and Buffie tries to piece all this together.
She lands on “Frightened?” which actually works as a response. She’s better at this than you’d expect.
“Yes!” Barnabas says. “What was it? Something in the room? Something — at the window?”
“Yes,” says Buffie, groping for daylight. “I thought I saw someone at the window, looking in.”
Barnabas looks up, and says, “Cyrus, is there anyone there?”
And Cyrus, bless his little heart, actually goes and checks the window. It makes you want to cry, it’s so cute.
There’s no one at the window, obv, and Barnabas asks, “Are you sure you didn’t imagine it?”
“I guess I did,” Buffie says, because people are always imagining things that make them lose consciousness. “I do these silly things sometimes.”
Barnabas helps her up. “I’ve been a little upset lately,” she explains, rising to her feet. “I hope I haven’t caused anybody any trouble.”
And this works, Cyrus has no further questions. Buffie should get assaulted for a living; she’s amazing at it.
Barnabas finally manages to get the meddling medico out of the room, so he can complete Buffie’s onboarding as his new rape-survivor blood slave.
“You will do exactly as I tell you, won’t you?” asks the hero of the show, flexing his supernatural muscles, and it turns out she will.
So Barnabas releases her back into the wild, advising her to stay away from Cyrus. This is rough on her, because Cyrus is pretty much the only person she knows, but she agrees.
Naturally, the next thing that happens is that Cyrus comes back to check on her, so she has to act weird and aloof and touch her scarf a lot.
She tells him to leave, but before he makes it to the door, she has one question: “Have you heard anything from John Yaeger?” She’s trying to make this sound like an offhand question, but it doesn’t work; it’s clear that she’s still interested in the guy.
So that’s Buffie Harrington. Even when she’s under the control of an abusive monster, she’s still longing for the touch of the other abusive monster in her life.
Up to now, this has been pretty standard-issue Parallel Time lunatic mayhem, but here comes the clever bit.
Cyrus leaves, and suddenly Barnabas is in the room again, because he’s wiretapped the apartment. “Tell me about John Yaeger,” he urges, staring intently at Buffie. “Tell me everything you know!”
“I don’t know hardly anything,” she stammers. “Besides, the doctor can answer all your questions, he knew him better than anyone!”
“I want to see him as soon as possible!” Barnabas cries. “I have some questions to ask him, important questions! They concern a certain basement room, not too long ago.”
Buffie is puzzled, but Barnabas has no interest in explaining; he’s back to issuing instructions. “I want you to find out from Cyrus Longworth everything you can about John Yaeger,” he says.
“But you told me to stay away from Cyrus!”
“Well, that was before I knew there was a connection between the two of them!” Barnabas cries. “I must find that man!”
Now, I don’t know about you, but up until Barnabas mentioned the basement room, I had no idea why he even knew the name John Yaeger. It’s a minor plot point from two weeks ago — Yaeger followed that unlikely secret tunnel from a cave on the beach to the Old House basement, and he was in the process of opening the chained coffin when Will interrupted him, by knocking him unconscious and dragging him upstairs by the feet. That moment was immediately overshadowed by the much bigger deal of Barnabas escaping from the coffin, so I’d forgotten all about it.
But this moment — Buffie asking Cyrus about Yaeger, and Barnabas overhearing — creates a natural connection between Barnabas and the Jekyll and Hyde story, giving him a foothold in both major storylines. That’s step one in the Dark Shadows quality improvement program.
Over the next couple days, they’re going to make some further moves along the same lines, building more connections between the only character that we care about and the storylines that they wish we cared about but don’t. I know it seems tenuous right now, but this is the right direction, or as close to it as you can get on a Monday.
Tomorrow: Suddenly Shipping.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
As Barnabas arranges the unconscious Buffie’s scarf, you can see a strip of blue marking tape on the rug. When Barnabas says, “She’s coming to!” there’s a full six seconds where part of his cape is covering most of the screen, so maybe she should have been on the spot where the marking tape was after all.
When Buffie is arguing with Cyrus, the camera zooms in on Cyrus’ face and has to refocus.
Buffie says, “I never want to see him again!” and Barnabas replies, “I, on the contrary, want to see him, as soon as possible!”
During Maggie and Quentin’s scene with the mirror, they stay on the wrong camera as Maggie crosses the room. It’s a bumpy ride, and then the camera pulls in on Maggie’s face with a jerk.
Cyrus says, “I must admit, Miss Tarri — uh, Harrington, I was a bit surprised to receive your invitation.”
Tomorrow: Suddenly Shipping.
— Danny Horn