“Tell me, why do you insist on being a bad historian?”
Quentin Collins is broadcasting on all frequencies, into the unknown. “We seek the spirit of our dear, departed ancestor,” he candle-calls, “who remains so very close to all of us!” That’s a bit of a stretch. Quentin is currently organizing this let-your-fingers-do-the-walking seance slumber party in order to find out why that dear, departed ancestor left him and his family with a hundred and sixty-one years’ worth of tedious curse, and Brutus isn’t even going to pick up the phone.
Instead, Melanie shuts her eyes, moans and arches her back, which is the seance version of clearing your throat. “Lottery!” she chokes. “Now!” Quentin and Flora look on, in horror. “Lottery!” she repeats. “Now! Or — all — will — DIE!”
She begins to scream. “PLAGUE!” she chants. “DIE! PLAGUE! DIE! PLAGUE! DIE!”
So obviously Quentin’s wondering, ummm, is it possible there’s someone else there that we could talk to?
So I thought we’d rid ourselves of the orange man weeks ago, but apparently he’s still with us in spirit, because here in 1841 Parallel Time, people are getting the plague, and the vaccine rollout is apparently not going well at all.
“Carts, going through the village!” the blonde press secretary moans, making contact with the near future. “Bodies, burning! The smell of bodies, burning!” She hasn’t mentioned injecting bleach or letting sunlight inside your body yet, but maybe she’s working up to it.
“He was — cruel!” she shudders, so yeah, we’re talking about the same guy. “He killed… he was so cruel!”
“Did he kill you?” Quentin asks, because it’s that kind of conversation.
“PLAGUE!” she shrieks. “It is JUST! IT IS JUST!” And Quentin thinks, it’s just what?
So it turns out, no, I can’t watch television properly anymore, because now Julia and Flora are talking about organizing a family meeting with six people in the drawing room, and I’m thinking, wait, why aren’t they social distancing? My actual lived experience is finally weirder than Dark Shadows, and it isn’t as much fun as I’d hoped it would be.
Now, a few weeks ago, a bright young commenter named phrankenstign called me out for this kind of talk, writing in the episode 1188 comments:
I’m all for keeping current political events and leanings out of these reviews. I only came upon this site earlier this year. I found nearly all of the reviews were rather timeless. Many of the comments are separated by years, yet it’s difficult to know that without looking at the date/time stamp. Once comments about current events are added, the date becomes intrusive.
Now one has to try to understand what was going on that specific date to understand the context of the statement. I think it’s nice to learn about direct influences on the show itself from then-current events of the 1960s and 1970s, but today’s events don’t have a bearing on the show at all.
It’s an interesting point, and it’s something that I’ve thought about from time to time, especially lately, as the state of the world itself has become increasingly intrusive. It’s hard to consider a blog “timeless” when one of the major underlying themes is based on the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but I understand what phrankenstign means. I’ve written about a dozen posts with Trump references since he first encroached on my life in the summer of 2016, and I’ve wondered whether those are going to date well.
I mean, some of those posts make references to very specific tweets and press conferences, like for example the bleach-and-sunlight joke that I just made a few paragraphs ago. I don’t really know which moments are going to stick in people’s minds in the long term, as the Trump era blessedly recedes in the rearview mirror. On the other hand, I bet in ten years there are going to be a lot more people who remember Trump’s coronavirus press briefings than remember what happened to Gabriel Collins’ cufflinks, so maybe it’s not such a big deal after all.
But that’s not really the point that phrankenstign is making. They’re saying that it’s weird to expect that a person in 2031 who’s trying to read about a Dark Shadows episode from 1971 should have to factor in that that specific post was written in 2021. The context matters when it’s about the show’s era in the 1960s and 70s, but the context that I’m currently living in today is only important to me, right now, and will be immaterial for everybody who reads this in the future.
I mean, first, I have to acknowledge how refreshing it is to hear from someone who thinks there’s a future. The intrusive date when I’m writing this intrusive post happens to be thirteen days after an enormous bloodthirsty mob of terrorists, traitors, grifters and lunatics swarmed the United States Capitol, in an attempt to overturn the Presidential election and establish Donald Trump as a dictator autocrat for life, destroying our democracy in the name of some twisted misconceptions about truth, freedom and the Constitution, organized and supported by one of our two major political parties, which has apparently become entirely devoted to validating and amplifying insane white supremacist conspiracy theories, and if there’s ever going to be a more specific context than that, then I don’t want to hear about it right now. This one is plenty.
And I’m sorry, but it’s impossible for me to watch Dark Shadows right now, and forget about the noise that’s been filling my head for all these months. Here, I’ll show you how it works.
The Cabinet meeting comes to order, with Flora setting out the agenda. “There is hardly any need for me to tell you,” she begins, “that what has happened to Melanie can kill her. There is no normal way that she can be saved from the plague.”
Catherine is skeptical. “How can we be certain that it is the plague?”
“Under the circumstances,” Flora says, “I don’t see how it can be anything else.”
“Well, what if the doctor has another diagnosis?”
Flora tries to explain. “My dear, you are new here. There are certain things you don’t see as we do. We know, and believe, that time may be running out for us.”
And there’s Catherine, with the same stunned look that we’ve all been wearing, as we’ve watched people with responsibility for our welfare just throwing science out the window, and embracing monstrous delusions that will destroy us all.
Then the next thing that happens is they have a big dispute about who’s allowed to participate in the lottery, and they have a vote about changing the rules without consulting the state legislature, and at some point somebody’s going to start ranting about mail-in ballots. Plus it turns out that dead people really do vote, and their vote must have been run through the machine several times, because it counts more than anybody’s.
Do you see what I mean? Expecting me not to connect this specific episode to this specific moment in the history of spluttering nonsense in America is simply unfair. I mean, I’m only human.
But the larger question is whether it’s ever possible to watch Dark Shadows, without being affected by the context of whatever moment of your life you’re currently experiencing. I’m not sure that you can, especially because the way that we watch television has changed in just about every possible way.
To watch Dark Shadows, the audience of the time had to specifically make the decision to arrange their daily schedule around sitting in front of the TV at four o’clock in the afternoon, eager to watch whatever episode ABC-TV decided to broadcast in their direction. It is still technically possible to live like this, if you get up in the morning to watch the show on Decades at 5am every day, but that is such a grim and unnecessary thing to do that I can hardly believe people actually do it by choice, except as part of a tourist attraction in colonial Williamsburg.
The way that civilized modern people watch Dark Shadows is to choose the episode that you’re going to watch, and then access it via computer, smart TV, DVD or omnicontent data crystal, whenever the hell you feel like it. And if you just watched episode 1211 before reading this blog post, which I know many of you have, then you are probably painfully aware that a) the show is almost over, b) this is a storyline called “1841 Parallel Time”, and c) Dark Shadows viewers don’t generally like it very much. In fact, you’ve probably made the conscious decision to defy the received wisdom that it’s not worth watching.
That means you’ve made the appropriate mental adjustments to your expectations, because everything about Dark Shadows requires you to set aside five decades of advances in television storytelling. You live in a world where Buffy the Vampire Slayer — one of the great turning points in modern television, which transformed the rules for how we think about episode construction, character development and season-long narrative — happened twenty years ago, and is itself already kind of old-fashioned.
You’ve seen Twin Peaks, and you’ve seen Lost, and you’ve seen Watchmen — or at least, your culture has, and you should probably catch up — and that means that television is different now than it was even a couple of years ago. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen Watchmen, then you should go and fucking see Watchmen.)
The word “Netflix” means something to you now, and it meant something completely different when I started this blog in 2013. I can’t remember every detail of those olden days, but I think I might have actually owned a television back then that picked up broadcast signals, which seems hopelessly old-fashioned to me now. The experience of producing and watching television has completely transformed during this period that I’ve been writing about Dark Shadows, and if that doesn’t demolish the concept of a “timeless” blog post then I’m not sure what will.
Raging as always, Morgan says, “Mother still is the best politician in this house. She outmaneuvered Quentin and me. She saw the writing on the wall. She knew she had this whole thing sewn up. I want you to listen to me, Gabriel. If I could rig this lottery, I would see to it that you would get the losing slip.”
And god damn it if that isn’t 280 characters, right on the nose. I’m telling you, it isn’t my fault.
So obviously it all comes down to post-structuralist reception theory, as we always knew that it would. I happen to have a four-year college degree in French discordian trickster jargon, so I will be happy to explain; it’s not often that I get a chance to take this particular dog out for a walk.
Reception theory was first developed by Stuart Hall in his 1973 essay Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse, where he suggests that understanding a message has two parts. The sender encodes the message, expressing it in words, images, sounds or actions, and the receiver decodes the message, understanding and interpreting it. But it’s not a simple linear relationship, in which the receiver understands the message exactly as the sender intended it to be understood — the receiver brings their own personal experiences, interests and cultural background to this exchange of information.
So each person in the audience is an active participant, and understanding the text is a negotiation between the person sending the message and the person receiving it. We don’t passively sit back and accept a book or a television show, we create our own understanding of it. The meaning of the text is created through the relationship between the creator and the audience.
In other words, yes, it matters when I watch these episodes and write about them, because I am an active participant in this exchange, and the way that I respond to the show depends on who and where and when I am at the moment — in the same way that you’re an active participant in reading this blog post, and the fact that you think it’s gotten boring and you’re wondering if you should just skip this bit and see if there are any more Trump jokes is exactly my point.
So here they stand, these six luckless deplorables, facing an unknown future in the shape of a large blue vase. A plague is raging around them, there are enemies both known and unknown within easy reach, everyone feels wounded, and nobody is sure who they can trust. The republic stands, but it’s a lot weaker than it should be, and it probably would have been better if certain people hadn’t challenged democracy to a duel.
Tomorrow, from my perspective, is the day that Joe Biden is inaugurated as President, ending the hateful nightmare of the last four years and, I hope, ushering in a new day of stability and understanding and basic civic decency. That means that you — the one who’s currently reading this blog post, somewhere in the future — you’re living in a time that is different from mine, in a way that I can’t entirely foresee but can’t wait to experience. When you read this post, as phrankenstign predicted, you’ll have to locate where you currently are in relation to this specific day, and judge for yourself whether I’m right to feel as optimistic as I surprisingly do, in this moment. I hope that optimism still makes sense, from your perspective. Save me a seat; I’ll be there soon.
Tomorrow: Once in Every Generation.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
The opening narration says that two people have died in the secret room; previously, Morgan said that three people died.
Flora tells Julia, “We held a seance tonight. Quentin, Melanie and I. We tried to contact…” (healthy pause, before she remembers) “…Brutus Collins.”
When Catherine asks Morgan if he thinks the plague is the result of a curse, you can hear people walking around in the studio.
Flora asks everyone, “I take it there are no de- objections to the decision I have made?”
When Flora and Catherine are speaking near the beginning of act 2, the mic cuts out, and we can’t hear a couple of lines.
Quentin reminds Gabriel that “one past family tried to do that.”
Morgan trips on a word: “I said only the men would peh-pre-participate in this.”
Flora says, “I’ve already explained my Melanie will not participate under any circumstances.”
During act 3, the camera cuts to a shot of Catherine, with Quentin’s back in the way. They quickly move to another shot.
Gabriel says that if Morgan kills him, it’ll increase Catherine’s chances in the lottery. “But you decreased yours,” Morgan says, then switches tone. “Did you decrease yours, by voting yes?” Then he says, “Is that the reason you jeopradized the lives of three women?”
Morgan takes Gabriel’s cup away, and waves it around, making it quite clear that there’s no liquid in it. Then Gabriel takes it back from him, and pretends to drink.
When Flora marks the lottery slip with an X, the pen runs out of ink after one line; the other half of the X doesn’t show up on the paper. She tries to do it again, and it still doesn’t work.
After Morgan and Catherine kiss, the scene fades to Gabriel rummaging through some drawers for a flask. You can see his hand motionless on the drawer, waiting for his cue.
Quentin lectures Gabriel, “At least I won’t be afraid, like you. I won’t be cringing, seeking to find a refuge where there is no refuge. And look what it’s done to me, huh?” I think he means “look what it’s done to you”.
When the final scene begins, the camera pans across from the waiting family members to the door. Quentin and Gabriel are seen standing there, waiting for their cue, and then Quentin pushes Gabriel into the room.
Tomorrow: Once in Every Generation.
— Danny Horn