Retro TV Review: The Dark Shadows Diaries Vol. 1 (Episodes 1-20)

THE DARK SHADOWS DIARIES VOL. 1
(Episodes 1-20)

Starring: Alexandra Moltke, Joan Bennett, Louis Edmonds, Nancy Barrett, Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Henesy, Joel Crothers, Mitchell Ryan, and Mark Allen
Written by: Art Wallace
Directed by: Lela Swift
Series Created by Dan Curtis
Fashions Provided by Ohrbach’s

Fandoms can sometimes be an ocean. Meaning that something can seem so incredibly vast and deep that it seems almost impossible to wade through it all. Not only do you have the source material itself, but then you have the tie-in novels, audio dramas, tie-in COMICS, and even some spin-off movies. I personally have a few examples of this. The old Star Wars EU (which I am WORKING on, stay tuned, ghouls), the X-Men, various animes that look emotionally devastating, British crime procedurals. The list goes on and on.

There was always one fandom that I dipped my toes into the furthest. Cautiously testing to see if it was A) something I could be into and stay into, and B) something that was worth the time needed to properly take it all in as a new, but willing follower. That fandom was Dark Shadows.

This show was always something I was aware of, but I never really gave it its proper due. It would sometimes grace the airwaves late at night when SyFy was still Sci-Fi. I knew it dealt with all the spooky shit that I revel in. That was really as far as it went with me. It wasn’t until the ill-advised Tim Burton movie that I became aware of the sheer magnitude, passion, and endearing sincerity of the DS fandom at large. It had been kept alive and thriving by fan accounts like @CousinBarnabas on Twitter, the sprawling Big Finish Productions audio dramas (which often star members of the original cast), and writers like Phil Nobile, Jr, new EIC of Fangoria, and avid Dark Shadows fan.

But again, it just seemed like too much. And, I never had a way to watch the show from the very start. I had seen bits and pieces from when Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins bared his fangs on the ABC soap and made it a cultural phenomenon. I wanted in on the ground floor. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

BUT NOW the dark gods at Amazon have unleashed all 1, 225 goth-as-hell episodes onto their servers. I, dear reader, have vowed to take the plunge deep into them. I’ll be starting from the pilot and working my way through the whole filmic canon, including the feature films, thus transforming myself from a Fake Dark Shadows Gurl to a true blue member of a fandom that has sustained itself for decades through failed reboots, a severely campy motion picture, and ceaseless internet bickering. These semi-regular screeds will be my recollection and analysis of my dark descent, finally devoting myself fully to a fandom that I have too long experienced from the outside looking in.

Widow’s Hill calls to me, dear readers and I must answer. Come along… IF YOU DARE.

 


Travel with me back to June 27th, 1966. A new show was premiering on ABC, nestled between The Nurses and Where The Action Is!, a show called Dark Shadows. It promised to be a grimly entertaining saga about a crumbling Maine family and the town they once ruled over, Collinsport. Inspired by Agatha Christie’s Bleak House and pulpy penny dreadfuls, Dark Shadows is best known for its evolution into one of TV’s first hit supernatural dramas, but it has always been Gothic through and through. Nowhere is that more apparent than in these first episodes. Written by one of the pillars of the show’s writing staff, Art Wallace, and directed by Lela Swift, the Peggy Olsen of Network Television.

This first batch of episodes really leans into the conventions of Gothic literature. It neatly translates into the medium of day-time TV. The end result is a pretty capable and addicting mixture of both. I know it is easy to clown on soap operas. Dark Shadows, even before the monsters show up, is a good example of just how fun and engaging a soap opera can be when it takes an unconventional approach to a tried and true genre of television.

Pictured: Vicki displaying a dazzling range of emotion.

We are introduced to our female lead, Victoria Winters (a glassy-eyed Alexandra Moltke), as she rides the “train” into Collinsport. She is en route to take her new position as the governess of Collinwood, the Collins family mansion. She was beckoned by a mysterious letter sent to the orphanage where she resided. Vicki’s parentage and her connection to the Collins family is one of the show’s most enduring plots. These first 20 episodes are mainly centered around Victoria’s fellow passenger, Burke Devlin (your dad’s best friend Mitchell Ryan), a former resident of Collinsport and ex-con. You see, Burke was done wrong by the Collins family. He is sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Now, he’s back to exact some extremely complicated and petty-ass revenge on the whole family.

Much of this first block of episodes is concerned with getting viewers up to speed with the core cast. We have steely Collins family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, played by horror icon Joan Bennett. Her hip but naive daughter Carolyn (the waifish Nancy Barrett), who is attempting to live her best life much to the chagrin of her snooze of a boyfriend, Joe Haskell.

Dump him, Carolyn.

We are also introduced to professional alcoholic and drama queen Roger Collins, Elizabeth’s brother, played by the hilariously stodgy Louis Edmonds. Most of these early episodes establish just what a world class pill Roger will be throughout the run of the show. It will never not be super goddamn funny to me. Most of his actions throughout these twenty episodes are him either throwing a fit about something, being super duper damn extra and drinking. Sometimes it’s a combination of all three. And finally, David, Roger’s son and the show’s version of Carl Grimes, but a million times shittier and way whinier. Later on, he becomes the focal point of a lot of the show’s spoopy hijinks. For now, he just super sucks.

But Dark Shadows isn’t just a show about the family up on the hill. No, no, Henry David Thoreau! Writer Wallace and director Swift also get us mixing it up with some of the long-time residents of Collinsport. Mainly one Maggie Evans, played by the magnetic Kathryn Leigh Scott and her lush of a father, Sam, who starts out a John C. Reily type but then is recast into kind of an Oliver Platt type.

Maggie seriously rules as a character. She, later on, becomes pretty much the female lead of the show. (Once everyone starts to realize that Vicki is about as interesting as a lukewarm plate of eggs). For right now, she is relegated to her position as a waitress at the local hotel and as a bystander for all the drama that surrounds her father. But being sidelined doesn’t stop her from shining through in every scene she graces.

“I was in Suspiria, ya know…”

This first block of episodes slowly but surely guide us through the major players, as well as their relationship with one another. It’s all in service of the show’s first major arcs: the parentage of Victoria and Roger’s car accident (which could very well have been blamed on port wine). They’re boilerplate soap narratives. The real fun of the show is seeing this cast gel into a fun, off-beat repertory company. The show settles early into a pulpy, theatrical tone. The actors really seem to have realized that and acted accordingly, anchored by the regal Joan Bennett. Are there some flubbed lines and wobbly sets? Absolutely. But that just adds to the charm and appeal of a show this old.

Sometimes the show’s production values can be described as “A local production of Our Town.”

 

This first bunch of episodes doesn’t really give much of an indication of just HOW crazy this show will end up being. They are really solid and shockingly engaging start to what was a pretty novel take on soap operas. Episodes 1-20 really set a tone and pace for the show. It rarely ever breaks this while confidently introducing us to our core cast and the kind of soapy dramatics it is going to be putting them through. A lot of this stuff I am going to be seeing for the first time. I cannot wait to see how all of this turns out, while also seeing the early stages of what became a genre institution.

 

NEXT TIME! We get an insane lesson in car maintenance! Joe Haskell scowls again! And Vicki stares through more windows!        

Jesus, Vicki, get away from there! She’s like a bloody cat.
A writer, a dandy, a Friend of Tom, and a street walkin' cheetah with a heart fulla napalm. He has loved comics all his life but he hasn't quite got them to love him back just yet. That hasn't stopped him writing about them or about any other media that hoves into his sights. He can usually be reached via the hellscape that is Twitter @J_PartridgeIII or by e-mail at justin@betweenthepanels.com.

Justin Partridge

A writer, a dandy, a Friend of Tom, and a street walkin' cheetah with a heart fulla napalm. He has loved comics all his life but he hasn't quite got them to love him back just yet. That hasn't stopped him writing about them or about any other media that hoves into his sights. He can usually be reached via the hellscape that is Twitter @J_PartridgeIII or by e-mail at justin@betweenthepanels.com.

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