“No — you can’t be who you look like!”
And I’m here to remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away
It’s not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me
You, you, you oughta know
Okay, fine, I’m not going to spend another post doing Now That’s What I Call Music 1995, but this really is a jagged little pill for Barnabas and Julia to swallow. Our heroes have been catapulted into the Lost City of Alanis, a civilization of angry women who blame them for pretty much everything.
Collinwood is gone now, swept away by some nameless ghostnado twenty-five years ago, and here’s an older version of Carolyn, furious about the destruction and betrayal and general decline in her standard of living. Barnabas and Julia have fallen forwards in time, landing with a bump in the mid 90s, and the mess they made when they went away isn’t going away anytime soon.
Except here, in this mysterious new playroom set, which is stuffed with the most luxurious props we’ve ever seen. Longtime readers may recall that I’m obsessed with the stuff in David’s room, and the playroom is even better. There’s a big plush lion that’s probably from FAO Schwarz, and a rocking horse, and a big drum, and a little drum, and a sweet toy carousel. The rest of the house has entirely fallen to pieces, but the playroom’s in perfect condition, frozen in time and camera-ready for the cover of Playrooms Magazine.
Barnabas and Julia have followed Carolyn to this weird entertainment center for fancy children because they thought it would help them understand what’s happened to everybody over the last twenty-five years. It does help, but not very much. Basically, they now have a new noun to fit into the sentence “I know that [blank] has something to do with what’s happened here!” which doesn’t contribute much, but at least it helps to pass the time.
Carolyn’s here because it’s “his” birthday, another in a string of unheralded pronouns which are the only things that stand between us and understanding what the hell is going on. She throws the trespassers out of the room, but Barnabas says she can come to the Old House if she changes her mind about helping them.
Once the intruders are gone, Carolyn finally spits out a name, but it’s not the one we expected. “I won’t change my mind,” she smirks, talking to herself. “He wouldn’t like it. Would you, Tad?”
She doesn’t get an answer, so she looks around. “Tad? You can come out now. It’s all right, they’ve gone!” But Tad doesn’t appear, whoever he is, and she starts to cry. “Tad? Please come back. You’re angry…”
And then she bursts into sputtering rage. “It’s all their fault!” she screams. “It would have been a lovely party, and they spoiled it!”
This is the 1995 storyline, all in one scene: a weird set, an old character being angry about something we don’t understand, a name we don’t recognize, and most of all: people talking about whose fault everything is. That’s really the mystery that the characters are concerned about — not what happened, or how to undo it, but whose fault it is. Personally, I blame Judge Ito for allowing cameras into the courtroom.
Later on, Barnabas and Julia find a birthday card in the playroom, which says “Happy birthday to my dearest Tad, from your loving Carrie.” Then Barnabas does a take to the camera, asking, “Who in the world could Tad and Carrie be?”
These are new names we’ve never heard before. We know that the ghost that’s appeared at Collinwood is named Gerard, because he’s listed in the credits, although he hasn’t introduced himself to anybody yet, and in the next episode they throw the name Daphne at us. It’s like the characters are trying to catch up with a show they haven’t watched for years.
This is actually a perfect reflection of a daytime soap opera in 1995 — abandoned, unloved and unwatched, with a handful of original cast members getting older and lonelier, as the plot is driven by new characters whose names we don’t recognize.
Because 1995 is when it all went wrong for daytime television, thanks to the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Forget the ghosts, the vampire, the time travel and the magic playroom — the most unbelievable thing about the 1995 storyline is that nobody is talking about O.J.
Explanation, for younger readers: O.J. Simpson used to be a famous football player who became an actor, and then a murder suspect, and then an armed robber and a kidnapper and a prisoner, generally in that order. In June 1994, Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole and her friend and waiter Ron Goldman were brutally murdered by somebody, who knows who. An arrest warrant was issued for Simpson, who then got into his white Ford Bronco and drove around for three hours with the police more or less in casual pursuit, while every network in America interrupted every program in order to show helicopter footage of basically nothing. This set the tone for an interactive multimedia news story that was followed by pretty much everyone for the next sixteen months.
It was a riveting story, partly because it was a murder mystery about famous people, but also because it was about a black man accused of killing a white woman. The big question was whether the police rushed to judgment because the suspect was black, and every step of the investigation was examined and re-examined endlessly, both in the trial and in the endless media coverage, and then there was the media coverage about the media coverage, asking whether that was biased, and it went on forever. White Americans mostly thought he should be found guilty, and black Americans mostly thought he should be found not guilty, except everyone kind of felt guilty, about everything, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t do it.
The judge allowed cameras into the courtroom, and the trial — which lasted from January to October 1995 — was broadcast live on cable TV, with the networks cutting into daytime programming every time something important happened, like one of the lawyers got a haircut. Everyone connected with the trial became household names — the judge, the lawyers, the police officers, and the witnesses. There were camera-ready spectacles like Simpson trying on the gloves that were found at the scene, with the television-jingle catchphrase “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit.”
So if this is July 1995, then Barnabas and Julia are on completely the wrong track. They want to know where Elizabeth and Roger and Maggie are, and the answer is obvious — they’re watching the O.J. trial. Where else would they be?
But fine, let’s do it their way. The search for the real killer takes Barnabas and Julia to Ye Olde Professor Stokes, who has gray hair and wrinkles and a hearing aid, unless he’s done some time travel of his own and it’s actually an iPod.
“I warn you,” Stokes says, “you must stop going to Collinwood. Your lives are in danger!”
“We already know that,” says Julia, as if knowing it means they’re not in danger anymore. They keep grilling Stokes, and wondering why he won’t tell them anything, when obviously the answer is that if you tell people about the ghost, then the ghost will kill you. That just happened to Mrs. Johnson yesterday, a fact that they don’t acknowledge in any way.
Julia finds a letter on the desk that mentions Quentin Collins, and after a brief period of Stokes denying that he knows anything, Barnabas snatches the letter out of Stokes’ hand and reads it.
“Good lord,” Barnabas cries, “Quentin’s in a mental institution!”
“The astounding thing,” adds Stokes, “is that he looks exactly the same as he did when he was committed in 1970.” No, the astounding thing is that the rest of you aren’t in a mental institution, where you clearly belong.
They finally persuade Stokes to testify, and he tells them his alibi — that he was away in Europe when the disaster at Collinwood happened. “I asked questions everywhere, with as little success as you’ve had. If you feel frustrated after just a few days, you can imagine how I feel, after twenty-five years.”
“I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me this when we ran into each other the other day,” Julia says.
“I was terrified for your safety!”
“But why?” Barnabas asks. The answer to that question, obviously, is because the ghost kills people who try to investigate. You just watched him try to cave in Julia’s skull with a stone bust. Why is this such a hard concept for you to grasp?
I’m making jokes, but it’s actually a wonderful scene, moody and thrilling, as Stokes tells his story. Barnabas and Julia are on the edge of their seats, and so is the audience, leaning forward in anticipation, hungry for any details. This is what happens when you let something actually happen on your soap opera.
Stokes: Shortly after I returned, I heard rumors of strange happenings at Collinwood. I thought if I could undo what had been done, I might at least restore poor Carolyn’s mind. I attempted an exorcism, and very nearly paid for it with my life.
Barnabas: Then you never found out what happened to the rest of the family?
Stokes: No one has. They vanished. For all we know, they may all be buried somewhere in the house.
(Stokes gets up, and walks across the room.)
Stokes: The night it happened, Quentin Collins was found wandering in the woods, totally incoherent. Carolyn was found cowering in the tower room. They had both gone mad. I’ve always suspected that Carolyn was the only person who knows what really happened, but the secret is buried, perhaps forever, in the darkest corner of her mind.
It’s fantastic. If anybody was watching soap operas in 1995, they would have loved this.
As it happens, 1995 was a turning point in the history of daytime soaps. The genre was already in a process of demographic decline — the top soap in 1980 got a 14.0 share; by 1990, the #1 soap was pulling an 8.0 share. Still, things had more or less stabilized by the early 90s — for five years, the #1 soap stayed above 8.0, and the #2 soap hovered around 7.0. Then O.J. happened.
In 1995, the soaps were constantly interrupted with bulletins about the O.J. trial. People who were especially fascinated by the trial started watching the daily feed on Court TV, and the broadcast networks — aware that they were losing daytime viewers — started interrupting more and more, using any excuse to issue bulletins from Brentwood.
The immediate hit in the soap ratings was obvious — the #1 soap, The Young and the Restless, went from an 8.6 share to a 7.5 in a year, and it never recovered. By 1998, it was getting a 6.8 share. A sizeable chunk of viewers had just gotten out of the habit of watching daily soap operas, and they didn’t come back. The trial didn’t kill the genre completely, but starting in 1995, it went into a slow but steady decline, especially with young people.
For example, here’s a young person who can hardly recognize the main characters of the show that he’s actually in. It’s Quentin, hooray, who slipped through the leaky colander that is any Dark Shadows mental institution, and now he’s here, tousled and damaged and permanently bewildered.
He’s picked up a huge carving knife somewhere, probably out of the take a murder weapon, leave a murder weapon tray in the foyer, and he’s planning to destroy the portrait that’s kept him young and handsome since the late 19th century. Naturally, he doesn’t succeed, because you can slather old age makeup on Carolyn and Stokes, but it’s best to leave Quentin the way he is.
Barnabas and Julia disarm him and try to get him to recognize them, but he refuses to believe it. “No, you can’t be who you look like!” he says. “They went away, a long time ago.” Barnabas persists, and Quentin starts to giggle, staring at nothing in particular. “It’s one of his tricks!” he chuckles. “The attendant’s always playing tricks on me.” You have to wonder how the attendant could dress up as two people; he must be one of the world’s great pranksters.
They manage to wrangle Quentin downstairs, and then they stand around with their heads cocked at an angle while he does a kind of Flowers for Algernon / Of Mice and Men / Contemporary Monologues for Emotionally Disturbed Young Actors performance piece.
Quentin: I still don’t understand how you got here, and why you look the same.
Barnabas: But you do accept that we are here, and who we are.
Quentin: Oh, yes, yes. I accept anything and everything. Except…
Julia: Except what?
Quentin: My own innocence. I will never accept that!
Barnabas: Tell us what you mean.
Quentin: Oh, I came here to do something. Yes, and I failed. I failed again. I’ve got to go now.
He’s adorable. They can’t really decide what kind of crazy he is — he gives us the full One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest assortment, one after the other — but the point is, here’s a loveable version of Quentin, to help wash away the sour taste of the nasty Parallel Time version. His hair’s all askew, and he doesn’t have a tie on, and you just want to hug him and tell him that everything’s going to be okay, and then see where the evening takes you.
Ultimately, it wasn’t really the O.J. trial itself that caused the decline of soap operas after 1995; the trial was just the precipitating event that shook the networks’ confidence in a long-running soap’s ability to hold an audience on a daily basis.
Timing was a real problem for the daytime soaps to grapple with, during the trial — they were trying to get important story beats across, and they didn’t know whether a given episode would get interrupted, or pre-empted altogether. It lasted for ten months, and the interruptions got more frequent, and longer, as the American public gave into their growing fascination with their own reactions to the media coverage of the media coverage of the trial.
So what could the soaps do, except slow down? There had always been a lot of recap and repetition on daily soap operas, that was just a basic fact of the genre, but now they had to repeat themselves even more, just in case a plot point was obliterated by the breaking news that Kato Kaelin would testify on Thursday instead of Wednesday.
Once the trial was over, they couldn’t just speed up the stories again, because they didn’t know when it would end — so when viewers came back to their soaps, there were weeks of episodes that were specifically designed to be watched maybe three times a week. So the audience took the hint and stopped paying as much attention, and that set up a feedback loop that so far has turned ten soap operas into four soap operas.
The three new soaps that they tried to launch in the late 90s — Passions, Port Charles and Sunset Beach — were all intended to appeal to younger viewers, with flexible schedules that could accommodate a couple episodes a week. They were all super slow-paced, and the one thing they were really good at was training people to watch them less often. They were all dead last in the ratings until they stopped altogether — the slowest one, Passions, lasted all the way until 2007, because they couldn’t even get cancelled quickly.
So that’s how it was on daytime, in 1995 — everybody’s trying so hard to figure out who’s to blame that they don’t realize they’re looking in the mirror.
O.J. promised that he would find the real killer. Afraid that they were losing their audience, soap operas started down a path to losing their audience. White America and black America examined and re-examined their own inability to understand each other.
And Barnabas and Julia tried to reassure Quentin that he wasn’t responsible for the disaster that destroyed Collinwood, even though he obviously was. The “haunted Collinwood” story was so popular last year, when Quentin was doing the haunting, that they’ve brought it back for a return engagement. He had his turn of the screw, and now it’s Gerard’s turn, and Quentin is standing at the threshold of this new storyline, driven mad by the thing he used to be. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
Monday: This Is How We Do It.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Carolyn tells Barnabas and Julia, “You may not stay here any longer,” you can see a studio light at top left.
When Carolyn calls for Tad after Barnabas and Julia leave the playroom, the camera swings to the right a little too far, and you can see the edge of the set and a studio light.
The playroom apparently moves in the middle of today’s episode. At the end of yesterday’s episode, which is repeated in the teaser, the room is around a corner, in the middle of a hallway. When Barnabas and Julia approach the door on their second visit, it’s at the end of a hallway, next to a grandfather clock.
When Barnabas and Julia enter the playroom for the second time, they’re off mic for a couple sentences.
Barnabas says, “Poor Stokes… he’s so baffled by the fact that Quentin isn’t as young as he was in those years.”
Behind the Scenes:
The Smith Brothers mustache photo is back on the wall at Professor Stokes’ place. We’ve recently seen it in Timothy Stokes’ house in Parallel Time, and before that in Alexis’ room.
Since I’m already obsessed with David’s toys, I might as well catalogue the playroom toys too. Here’s a list:
Musical instruments: Mandolin hanging on the wall, big drum, little drum, curved horn, straight horn, tambourine.
Plush toys: Dog with googly eyes, lion, tiger, sheep, rag doll, three Raggedy Anns.
Toys: Horse-drawn carriage, full-size rocking horse, toy-sized rocking horse, toy carousel, a kite with a picture of an eagle and the words “AMERICAN EAGLE”, set of croquet mallets, toy chest, toy egret behind the big rocking horse. There’s also a yellow kite in the corner under the mandolin, which you can’t really see here, but it’s in the credits of 1069. In 1066, they add a toy sailing ship on top of the wardrobe, next to one of the Raggedy Anns.
So, about the Raggedy Anns. We’ve seen a Raggedy Ann doll in various places over the years: Sarah’s room in 1795, Nora’s room in 1897, Windcliff in 1968, and Buffie’s apartment in Parallel Time. In episode 632, there are actually two Raggedy Ann dolls at Windcliff, but they’re replaced by flowerpots during a commercial break for no reason. Now we’ve got three Raggedy Ann dolls in the playroom. The Raggedy Army is on the march…
Monday: This Is How We Do It.
— Danny Horn