“No one will find me, including the thing in that room!”
It’s difficult to build up an audience for a daytime soap opera; you have to catch lightning in a bottle just to get people’s attention in the first place. You need to create likeable characters that people can relate to, and put them in interesting and dramatic situations. You have to write dialogue that speaks to the audience, and touches on their concerns. You have to create an intimacy, a real connection, that makes the audience want to tune in every single day.
I mean, unless it’s the last two months of Dark Shadows, in which case don’t bother. Who even cares?
So here we are, nine weeks away from cancellation, and the Dark Shadows writers have decided to scrap the entire existing series and start over from scratch, with a new Collins family played by the same actors in different roles, with no connection to any previous characters or storylines. This is an absurd thing for a soap opera to do, because the format thrives on continuity, grabbing an audience and then holding onto them for as long as possible. The only thing that keeps this from being the most peculiar decision that a soap opera ever made is that they kind of already did the same thing several times, and it always worked before.
But the previous reboots were essentially prequels, and they always had something to do with what we think of as the main storyline, with at least one 1960s character in the mix somewhere. Admittedly, that approach did fray a bit over the last couple months of 1840, when the familiar characters were pretty much sidelined, and the supposed connections between the 1970 story and the 1840 story were almost entirely ignored. Still, what they’re doing as of yesterday is a clear step down the road of soap opera suicide.
With that in mind, it is incredible how little they’re doing to make the audience interested in what’s going on. The core storyline is that the entire Collins family in this timeline is trapped, cursed, cut off from the rest of the world, and just waiting around to be cancelled. Nobody cares about them anymore, there’s nothing they can do about it, and the only character that openly gives a shit about living or dying is an alcoholic who literally begs for booze in every scene, to dull the pain of the foreknowledge of their inevitable destruction.
You see, there’s a spooky door somewhere in their creaky old mansion, which demands to be fed a Collins every once in a while, selected by lottery. There’s no real explanation for this, it’s just a reality show where someone gets voted out whenever the producer decides to thin the herd. There are no challenges and no immunity idols, just a general sense of foreboding.
The patriarch, Justin Collins, was the last person to be traumatized by the spooky door, and now he’s dying, which means, according to some of the dialogue, that they’ll have to have the lottery again. But he won’t die until he sees the Woman in White, which is a whole other stupid thing that we’re supposed to care about.
The Woman in White is a spectral harbinger that people always see before a death that triggers the lottery. That is the sum total of information that you will ever receive about the Woman in White.
So we find Morgan Collins, posing dramatically during another one of those bone-dry lightning storms that I guess they have in Parallel Time as well. “Collinwood is a house of death,” he muses. “She will make it live. Catherine will make it alive! I know she —”
He breaks off, and they play a more urgent music cue as we zoom in on his face. “No!” he boggles. “The Woman in White! Oh, Father… tonight is the night!”
And that is essentially that, as far as the Woman in White goes. Melanie and Justin see her through the bedroom window as well, but we sure don’t. I don’t know how expensive it would have been to give us two seconds of an actual ghost, but they have decided that it is not worth it.
I’m probably being either too hasty or far too late to say “This is when Dark Shadows is over,” but if you want the perfect example of how little they care, then the Woman in White is your gal. They used to rig up skeletons with wigs and eyeballs just for a two-second gag that nobody would have noticed if it wasn’t there.
But now they’re making an actual story point about people seeing the Woman in White, and we don’t get to see it, and it doesn’t do anything except to make people say that Justin is about to die, which everybody has been saying all the time anyway. Dark Shadows has given up the ghost.
In lieu of spectacle, this storyline has fam dram, which technically I should find appealing. One of the things that I like about Dark Shadows is that it’s not just a spook show; the crazy visuals and plot twists are layered on top of a continuing soap opera narrative, where the focus is on family relationships and feelings.
There are three brothers in the family — Morgan, Quentin and Gabriel — and they spend a lot of time knocking around the house, and talking to each other in various combinations. Gabriel is the one with the most obvious quirks: he’s super nervous, and he drinks all of the time.
As the Regular Time Gabriel in 1840, Christopher Pennock demonstrated that he could inhabit an exciting character who was fun to watch and full of surprises. Gabriel had a wheelchair and a chip on his shoulder, a tragic backstory, a huge secret, a wife that didn’t love him, and a desperate need for attention from his father that would ultimately drive him to murder and suicide. He was cruel and manipulative and suspicious and sarcastic, and I don’t think he had a single bad scene.
Here in Parallel Time, Gabriel drinks. He drinks a lot, he talks about drinking a lot, and if you wonder what he’s thinking about at any given time, it’s probably drinking. He doesn’t have a job, or a love interest, or a goal of any kind. He doesn’t want to inherit Justin’s fortune. He doesn’t want revenge on anybody in particular. He just wants to live in his family’s mansion and drink all day, and he’s afraid of dying in the spooky room because it might impair his plan to be a world-record alcoholic.
Meanwhile, Quentin’s main characteristic is that he’s brave, which serves only to contrast with Gabriel’s cowardice. Quentin isn’t brave enough to actually do anything, like break down the spooky door with an axe and face whatever’s in there; he’s just brave enough to say sure, maybe I’ll die in the lottery, so let’s keep pacing around the drawing room and wait for Justin to kick off.
So if the saving grace of this storyline is supposed to be that we’re not doing monsters anymore in order to focus on relationships, then they’re not giving us much to work with. Everyone in the family seems to vaguely irritate each other, and there’s a lot of intra-family scolding. But the equivalent family members in 1897 — Edward, Judith, Quentin and Carl — had motivations and grudges and secrets and individual eccentricities right from the start, even before their nutty storylines drove them off into weird directions. I don’t see how taking the monsters out of the monster show has improved the show’s ability to create character-based conflict.
As everyone who reads this blog knows, there are three steps to getting the audience to like a character — make a joke, make a friend, and make a plot point happen — and there is not a single funny character in this whole crew. Julia is the closest thing to humor that we have, based entirely on tone of voice and facial expression, but the three brothers can bicker and that’s about it.
The only character that seems to be good at making friends is Bramwell, the self-proclaimed outcast from the family. He’s got a nice moment in this episode, after they learn that Justin has died, when Bramwell heads out of the drawing room, and Morgan blocks his way.
Morgan: There is no reason for you to stay, Bramwell.
Bramwell: I’m going to see Melanie.
Morgan: She is not up to it. She was with Father, at the end.
Bramwell: She will want to see me.
And then he gives Morgan a look, and walks out of the room. The point of that little moment is to establish that Bramwell has an individual, caring relationship with another character that has nothing to do with the lottery.
There are also a couple moments — one in this episode, and one in the next — where Bramwell expresses sincere condolences for Justin’s death, which makes Bramwell’s feelings and motivations more complex than just “I’ve always been treated badly, and now I want revenge on everyone.” I know that people dislike Bramwell because he’s not Barnabas and also he’s kind of a rapist, but in this episode, at least, he’s the only thing close to a living human character.
For the big finale of the week, Morgan reads the letter from Brutus Collins about the family curse, which tells us basically nothing new about the lottery or the spooky door, and then he starts cutting paper into strips, because the lottery must begin immediately.
Except that it doesn’t. This is kind of an anti-spoiler, talking about something that won’t happen in upcoming episodes, but they are not going to go through with the lottery on Monday; in fact, they won’t do it next week at all. You would be amazed to know how far you are between right now and the lottery. Years will pass. Civilizations will rise and fall. These characters will continue talking about how imminent the lottery is, and who’s going to be part of it, and what happens if we don’t do it, and they still just keep on not doing it. It turns out that the Woman in White is not so much a harbinger as a suggestion.
Monday: Willie Loomis Must Die: The Movie.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Morgan asks, “Are you willing to have Mother join in the lottery too, Gabriel?” Gabriel says, “There more there are —” and Morgan finishes, “— the less chance there is of you being one.” Being one what?
Gabriel says that Morgan can’t keep him here: “Will you keep me in my room — locked?”
At the beginning of act 4, when Bramwell stands up from his chair, the boom mic can be briefly seen overhead.
Monday: Willie Loomis Must Die: The Movie.
— Danny Horn