“Go back to Collinsport and bury someone!”
First there was the unconscious Roxanne from Parallel Time, who talked like a jungle girl and got mesmerized by random objects. Barnabas fell in love with her, and then the house burned down, while she was trapped inside.
Then there was the vampire Roxanne from 1970, who talked about astral twins and punctured Maggie on the neck. Barnabas fell in love with that one too, and then the house burned down again, while she was trapped in a box.
In fact, every time we run into Roxanne, there’s an omega-level apocalypse just around the corner; clearly, the universe wants nothing more than to destroy this girl, and murder everyone who comes into contact with her.
But every time we leave Roxanne behind, we get to the next place, and guess what we find? Roxanne! This girl is the unshakeable Droopy of Dark Shadows.
So, yeah, it’s another post about Roxanne that’s probably going to end badly, which isn’t entirely fair because this time they’re actually trying. This is the third Roxanne that we’ve been introduced to over the last four months, and each time they reboot her, she acquires additional worthwhile characteristics.
This is the 1840 Roxanne — the original, you might say — who we met as a vampire in 1970. This is the optimistic, romantic one, who thinks for herself and has clear motivations. This offer is available for a limited time.
Currently, time-tumbled black ops agent Julia Hoffman is deployed in the past, tasked with discovering and averting the events that will someday lead to Collinwood’s destruction. The mission is going okay so far. This is her fifth episode in the nineteenth century, and she’s successfully established herself in the house as a cousin from Pennsylvania. She’s also unboxed Barnabas, who it turns out is a dangerous vampire serial killer who doesn’t know her, and has no idea why she claims to be from 1970. It’s Julia’s first solo mission, and she’s still finding her feet.
Julia meets Roxanne at a slightly disadvantageous moment — she’s standing in the drawing room, looking at a silhouette of Barnabas and saying semi-incriminating things out loud. And sure enough, somebody overhears, and Julia’s startled when Roxanne walks in and asks, “Do you always speak to inanimate objects?”
It’s not that funny of a line, and Roxanne delivers it in a not that funny way, but I appreciate that they’re making the effort to give the viewers a reason to care.
As we’ve discussed many times, there are three steps to getting the audience to like a new character — make a friend, make a joke, and make a plot point happen — and surprisingly, 1840 Roxanne scores on all three, just in her first scene.
Making a friend gives the new character a place in the show, and a reason why the camera is pointing in their direction. On Dark Shadows, that usually means they need a tie to somebody at Collinwood. In Roxanne’s case, she’s the sister of Quentin’s wife Samantha; I don’t really care a lot about Samantha and we don’t actually see her in this episode, but the family connection establishes Roxanne as a credible contributor to the storyline.
The plot point certainly isn’t a problem; in this episode, she starts out with one and closes with another, so that’s handled.
It’s the “make a joke” part that often trips people up, even in Dark Shadows, where at least one of the writers has a lively sense of humor. This step isn’t about making everything into a comedy; it’s just an acknowledgement that the character recognizes that it’s their job to entertain you. That’s the step where the Parallel Time version of Roxanne failed; she was unconscious and/or mute for the first three weeks, and once she started speaking, the situation didn’t noticeably improve. So we didn’t like her or care about her, and then she got caught in a housefire, at which point she became another one of Barnabas’ tragically doomed girlfriends.
But this is the new and improved Roxanne, who’s allowed a limited set of human characteristics. Her father’s trying to marry her off to a handful of sharp objects called Lamar Trask, and this is the way she deals with the situation.
Roxanne: Lamar has his business in Collinsport! Can you guess what business he’s in?
Lamar: I’m sure Miss Collins isn’t interested.
Roxanne: I just wanted to see if she could guess!
Julia: I’m afraid I’m not very good at guessing.
Roxanne: Lamar is a very successful — undertaker! (He grimaces.) Or do you prefer mortician, Lamar?
Lamar: It really doesn’t matter!
Roxanne: Anyway, that’s why he never smiles.
That’s not funny, per se, but it’s a sign of life. At this point in the show, teasing a Trask is a sure-fire way to get the audience on your side; that’s basically what they’re for. Trasks are pompous, gloomy and self-satisfied — it’s surprising that this is the first time they’ve made one a mortician — and being forced to marry a Trask is intolerable.
So this passive-aggressive LinkedIn routine marks Roxanne as a woman of spirit, who stands up for herself and refuses to play along. This is an especially good move for a soap character; soap audiences like to see women taking an active role. I don’t think that women in 1840 would talk like that, and just walking around the grounds alone with a gentleman that she isn’t related or married to would probably be reckless and scandalous, but for a young woman in 1970, Roxanne is appropriately liberated and right on.
I mean, she’s weird, because it’s Roxanne, and the way that she smiles is entirely upsetting, but they’re giving her a semblance of a human personality for this brief period before something terrible happens to her, and sometimes people smile in upsetting ways. You can’t spend your whole life judging people for the way that they smile.
And she’s a full-blown romantic, which is also a soap audience attractor. She has the same weird fantasy that the audience does, the one that compels them to write naughty letters to Canadian character actors.
“Someday, I will meet a man,” she muses. “A stranger! His goodness and gentleness will overwhelm me. And I’ll be amazed by an air of mystery that surrounds him. And he will be courtly, and charming, and he will love me as I want to be loved. I’ve always dreamed of such a man, and I know that we’re destined to meet.”
And over her shoulder, out in the back pasture, there’s a necrotic ghoul staring at her jugular and preparing to feed off her life essence. This isn’t the feet-sweeping fantasy that she was hoping for, but sometimes you find yourself on the wrong end of the food chain. Besides, the other option is Lamar.
But I understand what they’re getting at, and I agree with the general approach: a young woman who’s a little smarter and more headstrong than she needs to be, whose naive wish for an exotic Prince Charming puts her in the path of a dangerous predator. She arrives on the scene with an unbearable prospective fiancee, and then throws him aside in full view of the audience, securing our esteem. Then a grand piano drops on her head. This is a perfectly acceptable unit of televised entertainment.
So why do I hate her as much as I currently hate her? She’s in almost every scene in the episode, minus a chunk of act 1 and a brief interlude in act 3 with Julia and Lamar, and by midway through act 4, I’m desperate to watch anything other than this.
I want to say that there’s something about her acting style that I don’t like — she feels stiff and stagey to me — but lots of people are stagey on Dark Shadows, and usually I call it “theatrical” and make a big deal about how great it is. She’s not doing awkward Jungle Girl dialogue like she did back in Parallel Time; she talks like you’d expect a character like this to talk.
The problem, as always, is Barnabas Collins. Of all the tragic characters on this tragic show, Barnabas is the one who’s absolutely forbidden to have a normal love life. His girlfriends, gal pals, ex-wives and mad crushes shape the world. They travel through time and pop out of portraits; they curse and bite and kill and dream. You’re not allowed to be in Barnabas’ love orbit unless you’re a reincarnation of somebody. Barnabas’ love stories have to be epic.
And this girl is just not epic; there’s nothing epic about her. The best she can manage after three incarnations is normal baseline human.
So here’s Barnabas — not the one that knew Roxanne in Parallel Time and 1970, but a fresh Barnabas, with no particular reason to focus on this particular girl — and he falls in love at first sight with the side of her head.
“You may not understand this,” he says, ten seconds after he first saw her, “but when I first saw you, I had the feeling that somehow we were always destined to be together, and meet.” This means about as much as it usually means.
The idea is that the connection between these two is so integral that any version of Barnabas meeting any version of Roxanne in any time or place throughout the multiverse will automatically grind the world to a screeching halt in order to get at her. This is the love that he was always destined for, this is the one who just had to wait for the supply of Josettes to dry up. This one. This girl.
And I don’t believe it, obviously, because they haven’t invested the time in building up their connection. They’ve had four months to come up with any storyline that would establish why Roxanne is important to Barnabas — what he likes about her, what she brings to the table. And this is Dark Shadows, where you can do basically anything you want. This girl could have been anything or anyone that would make a splash — a witch, a dream, an astral twin, a secret, a psychic, a reincarnation, a fairy princess, a sketch come to life, a vision of the future. She could touch Barnabas three times and cure his vampirism. She could even be Josette DuPres somehow, the real one, and it turns out the woman that we thought was Josette was actually a sneaky impostor who rewrote Barnabas’ life when he wasn’t looking, and it turns out this is Josette after all, reunited with him at last, for the first time and forever.
Or something, I don’t know. It could be anything, as long as it had some kind of metaphorical mythological narrative kick behind it. But the show had four months to develop anything at all for her, and they have not used that time productively.
“Somehow we were always destined to be together” is what Barnabas Collins does. That is his mission statement. He says it in 1970, and 1840, and if the show kept going he would probably be saying it up until the mid-2000s. He has earned the right to make everything he touches an epic. But the other side has to earn it, too. It’s not a one-person game.
Still, it’s not like this is Roxanne’s only chance. We’ve had three of them in the last four months; at this rate, we can expect nine Roxannes per year. They’re bound to get it right sometime.
Tomorrow: The Gun Runner.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Barnabas tells Stokes, “I don’t know, and I don’t know anything, but all I know is that I must find a way, and I must do it within these next three days!”
The fountain turns off very suddenly at the beginning of Roxanne and Trask’s terrace scene, and it stays off for the rest of the episode.
Barnabas tells Roxanne, “When I first saw you, I had the feeling that somehow we were always destined to be together, and meet.” Then he asks, “May I call at you at home?”
Behind the Scenes:
Trask says that Barnabas went to England in 1797, a new date that the show has decided to use lately. Originally, back in 1967, Vicki traveled to the year 1795, and she stayed there until early 1796, which is the date of Barnabas and Josette’s death.
I believe they started using 1797 in episode 866 (Oct 1969), when Kitty was being slowly overtaken by Josette — she dates a letter 1797 instead of 1897, and then she goes to Josette’s room and sees that the portrait is signed 1797. I think they wanted a nice round century between the two time trips.
Oddly, they then used 1796 a month later, in the opening narrations for episodes 886 and 887 (Nov 1969), when Barnabas followed Kitty back into the past.
But they switched back to 1797 after that: In episode 938 (Jan 1970), Barnabas tells Julia that he travelled to 1797, in episode 967 (March 1970), Peter tells Jeb that he and Vicki were killed in 1797, and in episode 1063 (Aug 1970), Carolyn tells the Sheriff that Barnabas’ portrait was painted in 1797.
Also, a props note: Barnabas tells Stokes, “The family plot from the 19th century is over here” — where Julia’s grave is next to Minerva Trask’s, from 1897.
Tomorrow: The Gun Runner.
— Danny Horn