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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Mild Passions vs. serious Shadows

Last week I resumed my ongoing paean to the old television series Dark Shadows and ventured the question: Has anyone tried to do anything like it since?

Other than an abortive resurrection of the old series in primetime in 1991, no one really has. I did get excited a while back when I read in a television column in The New York Times about a daytime soap opera on NBC, which has supposedly become all the rage because of its hip, cool, self-referential take on the soap opera genre itself. It is called Passions, a name which single-handedly dredges up the worst of the worst of what heterosexual men don’t like about daytime television. But there was an element to the description of the program that intrigued me. Along with the usual soap housewives and doctors and lawyers, the cast of characters included witches. And one plot line dealt with a teenage girl discovering that her bedroom closet contained the gates of hell. Okay, so this isn’t As the World Turns anymore. This sounded like it could actually be a new Dark Shadows!

So I told TiVo to capture me a few episodes, and I watched them. Frankly, afterwards I wasn’t sure what to make of them. It was one of the strangest things I had ever seen. Some plot lines were extremely conventional and could have been plucked from any daytime soap. But then you had plot threads that seemed to come from another TV show entirely and consisted of things like teenagers standing around and staring into flames roaring out of the aforementioned girl’s bedroom closet. One of the boys in particular (his character has the memorable name Miguel Lopez-Fitzgerald) always seems to have his shirt ripped to shreds or missing completely and his torso always glistening with sweat, even when he has been standing around for hours. (Hey, this isn’t a TV show. It’s a Calvin Klein ad.)

It’s hard to get a fair feel for Passions by watching for only, say, a month, since it has taken the time-honored soap convention of glacial plot development to new extremes. I actually followed it for one week in which the entire cast stood around watching a house sink into the ground. At the end of the week, it was still the same night in terms of the story. This isn’t real-time. This is slower-than-real-time. So it takes a really serious time commitment to really get a sense of the plots and the characters. But I saw enough to decide that this was not really the inheritor of the Dark Shadows mantle. In spite of both having story lines dealing with the supernatural, the two have very little in common.

In fact, the writers for Passions, who I’m guessing are very young and very bright, seem to be way more inspired by Bewitched than Dark Shadows. I caught a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle references to the old sitcom that starred Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York. One running gag had to do with a nerdy teenager who has copped on to the fact that a character named Tabitha (get it?), played by none other than Juliet Mills, is actually a witch but no one else believes him and he always winds up looking like he’s crazy. In other words, he’s basically Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor. Also, the plots dealing with a gaggle of teenagers trying to solve supernatural plots makes me think that there is also a bit of influence from Scooby Doo.

In other words, Passions is wry, winking, ironic, pop-culture-aware, and proud of its status as junk entertainment. It is therefore the very antithesis of Dark Shadows.

I’m not saying that Dark Shadows didn’t have a certain camp appeal. With all the time, budget and technical limitations of daytime television of the time (1966-1971), there was definitely entertainment value in watching for the inevitable bloopers. Actors regularly mangled their lines or stalled with panicky eyes that searched the distance for the ever-elusive cue card. Cues were missed, doors and walls sometimes moved when they weren’t supposed to, and the occasional boom mike or arm of a technician could be spotted in the corner of a frame. There wasn’t the time or the money to re-shoot any scenes except those visited by the most disastrous contretemps.

But what made the show compelling is that the writers, actors and directors took the stories completely seriously. There was never so much as a wink or a nudge. No actor ever tried to act superior to the material. And this was material they often did not understand since the active cast changed daily and the plots were extremely convoluted, and the actors generally had little context and had to take it on faith that their lines would make sense to the viewers at home. But they gave it their all. Not that all the actors on the show were great. The talent varied. But neither they nor the people behind the camera ever condescended to their audience. And that’s why the series worked. We viewers took it seriously because the people putting on the show took it seriously. No matter how ludicrous the plots got. And they got pretty strange. The writers pretty much lifted plots wholesale from every horror or gothic novel or movie ever made. Stories were borrowed from everything from Dracula to Frankenstein to The Turn of the Screw to Rebecca to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, ad infinitum.

Only in the very last episode of the series did the writers allow themselves to let their hair down and share a joke with the audience and, incidentally, write themselves some on-air bit parts. In the final moments of the series, a situation occurred that had occurred countless times through the series’ years. An unconscious woman was discovered in the forest with bites on her neck. Inevitably, someone said, “It must have been some wild animal.” Of course, it never turned out to be a wild animal. The residents of Collinsport never copped on to the fact that these attacks always turned out to be committed by a vampire or a werewolf or some other netherworld menace. Well, this time it turned out that the woman actually was attacked by a wild animal. Fade to black.

-S.L., 20 June 2002

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