“I’m sure that you can recognize the difference between a cellar with a coffin, and a cellar without a coffin.”
In 1948, James Thurber wrote a five-part series of articles for The New Yorker called “Soapland”, an in-depth look at the world of radio soap operas. One of the many strange things that he learned was that some listeners apparently had a hard time understanding that the shows were fictional. When a popular heroine on Just Plain Bill was going to have her first child, listeners sent hundreds of baby gifts to their local network stations, and when the child died, the stations received stacks of sympathy cards.
That stereotype of the half-deranged soap audience lasted for a long time, and every Dark Shadows-era interview with Jonathan Frid would include at least one paragraph on the weird mail Frid received from female fans, begging for a bite.
But from what I’ve seen, soap opera fans are exactly the opposite of that stereotype. There are currently two weekly magazines on newsstands that are exclusively devoted to documenting the behind-the-scenes mechanics of daytime television production, where producers and head writers are expected to explain and justify every single storyline and casting decision. Following a daily soap opera is like getting a graduate degree in Open-Ended Serialized Narrative in Theory and Practice.
This means that we’re constantly analyzing the soaps we enjoy, measuring the current state of the show against what we’d like it to be. We’re an audience of active backseat drivers. When a favorite character dies, we don’t send sympathy cards — we write letters and emails and furious tweets, actively campaigning to bring the dead back to life.
It’s not just that we don’t believe the characters are real. We barely believe that the show is real.
Continue reading Episode 334: All Those Dead People
“There are a dozen reasons why that’s impossible.”
So here’s your standard, kitchen-sink soap opera situation: Willie was shot a couple days ago, and he’s still in a coma. Barnabas is pacing around the drawing room, waiting for Julia to come back from the hospital to report on the patient’s recovery.
But this is Dark Shadows, and what he’s really worried about is that if Willie pulls through, he’ll tell everyone that Barnabas is a vampire. So when Julia tells him that Willie is still alive, Barnabas explodes with anger.
“I know what you’re going to say!” he shouts. “You’re going to tell me to remain quiet and forget it. Well, I refuse to do that any longer! Willie must die!”
Continue reading Episode 328: Look! A Ring!
“I just don’t care. I know that I should… but I just don’t.”
Up to this point, Dark Shadows has been one of the slower-paced soap operas, which is quite an achievement given the pace of the other shows in its weight class. But they’ve started experimenting recently with new storytelling techniques, including “creating interesting characters” and “having things happen”, and so far it’s working out okay.
So this episode plays kind of a mean trick on audience members who missed yesterday’s installment. The entire episode is about characters reacting to the news of Maggie’s death.
Continue reading Episode 262: Feelin’ Gloomy
“How did you happen to come by these wounds in your throat?”
Maggie’s not feeling very well after her trip to the graveyard last week, and by not feeling well I mean she’s unconscious and somebody’s perforated her jugular vein. Sam and Joe hover around her bed, fretting and recapping. A dog howls, and Maggie starts moaning restlessly.
For a minute, it looks like the entire episode is going to be Sam and Joe standing around looking at Maggie. (Spoiler alert: That kind of is the entire episode.)
Continue reading Episode 231: Bedside Manners