From Dark Shadows to True Blood
This month, I'm going to make a declaration of opinion - an opinion that, well, may tear the very Comic Related community asunder. But this Halloween, I think this statement needs to be said:
It's an easy comparison to make - after all, both shows came on in the 1960s as unusual takes on their genre (for Who, it was a science fiction take on children's television; for Dark Shadows, it was a Gothic/horror-oriented soap opera). Both shows often took their plot lines from classic literature and used familiar storytelling devices to create fantastic worlds. In addition, both shows featured a main character simultaneously young and ageless, moving about through time to create an almost fairy-tale like quality to its stories. In fact, both shows even saw revamped versions long after their initial run (although in all fairness, Dark Shadows came first ). In fact, both series even have audio versions available through Big Finish.
However, I'll argue, for this Halloween-themed TV Party, that Dark Shadows had much more impact upon popular culture - in fact, much current American genre series takes its cue from Dark Shadows in multiple ways.
Dark Shadows was the initial brainchild of Dan Curtis (who would later adapt many horror stories, and helped give birth to Carl Kolchak, and who directed the famous Trilogy of Terror), who was making an effort to create a " Gothic soap opera" around the Collins family, a wealthy to-do clan who drove the goings-on in the town of Collinsport, Maine. However, the initial run of DS was relatively unsuccessful, and in an effort to boost the ratings that Curtis and his team began injecting more direct supernatural elements - ghosts, magic -- and the ratings began climbing. In fact, seeing that there was nothing left to lose with the show gaining slightly in the ratings, Curtis decided to go all-out and add a vampire to the cast.
And thus was born a show that, to talk to many fans, "everyone ran home from school to watch."
Barnabas Collins (as played by Jonathan Frid ) was a vampire who lived in the 1770s, but chained in a coffin for reasons unknown. Once revived, he decided to pursue local waitress Maggie Evans, who was the reincarnation of his long lost love, Josette DuPres. (And yes, they were played by the same actress ). He even presented himself as a "cousin from England", placing himself in the middle of the normal Collins family dramaHowever, something wonderful happened - rather than lead towards getting a stake in the heart, Barnabas Collins' story had people fascinated...so much so that he became a reluctant vampire.
Yes, you read that correctly. Stephanie Meyer did not invent the "reluctant vampire"...and anything Twilight does, Dark Shadows did much better.
Granted, it was a technically limited show, but what it lacked in effects (much like Doctor Who), it made up for in atmosphere. Soon, Curtis and his crew were raiding their "horror Rolodex" (or, to use 21st century language, "engaging the power of Librivox ") for stories, and this led to the creation of select story arcs. (One of the great things about a daily soap opera - you have an hour and a half to move a story forward). Viewers went back in time to see how Barnabas became a vampire. We met a man named Adam made from the parts of dead men. Two children were haunted by ghosts from the Collins' family's past. We met Quentin Collins, a former bad boy turned reluctant werewolf. (Yes, Dark Shadows did more to push supernatural concepts and myths than The Munsters and The Addams Family combined). Viewers even caught a glimpse of "Parallel Time" - another band of time where different choices led to different results for the cast. No matter what happened, we always saw that the vast array of characters both in the past, present, and in parallel....were played by the same people.
That was another strength of the program - a cast of actors who were able to play multiple parts, much like a repertory theater troupe . It's hard to call out particular actors - there was a heady mix of both stage-trained veterans and newcomers - but there's an energy to the performances that brings the original series to life. Yes, at times it is campy, but when it works - especially the 1897 storyline, which is one of the best, most complex story lines ever created for a soap opera - it works beautifully, and is quite magical to watch. Creating that kind of mix of otherworldliness with overlapping arcs...well, I'm sure many of you can name shows like Lost, or Dollhouse, or Life on Mars. Maybe you're even willing to go back as far as Buffy, or Moonlight, or even Night Stalker, or any other show that mixes fantasy with strong, overlapping arc-style storytelling..
But most importantly, there's a show that is the closest we'll see to a 21st century version of Dark Shadows...and that's True Blood.
Granted, there are many ways in which True Blood is different....mostly, it's like a smarter, sexier, more sharply written version of Twilight.
Taking place in the fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana, True Blood tells the story of reluctant vampire Bill Compton and his relationship with telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse. Based on the novels of Charlaine Harris , True Blood contains a similar mix of soap opera dramatics, horror elements, a whiff of melodrama, and some very sharp acting. (Unlike Dark Shadows, True Blood also contains a very slight - but potent - thread of social and political satire). Plus, much like Dark Shadows, True Blood cranks up the atmosphere - in short, you actually can feel the humidity of that deep Louisiana town as you view. It has the right feel to it, and it cleverly mixes real world relationship dynamics with fantasy elements, and provides some really world class viewing in the horror genre.
Admittedly, I was prepared to dislike True Blood - mostly because it didn't seem like my kind of show. However, after the first few episodes, I was hooked - it doesn't quite overdo the angst likeTwilight, and really has some clever touches and shows some creative thinking and ideas. (Such as, for example, vampire blood being a near-narcotic for humans). Although no one will ever claim that Dark Shadows was "realistic"....its mix of both human relationships (in a soap opera context, mind you) and sharp plotlines made it one of the progenitors of genre television...a legacy which True Blood boldly continues.
So this Halloween, check out both series - seasons one and two of True Blood are available on DVD. If you're going to check out Dark Shadows, I would suggest that you begin with the 1991 revival - much like the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, it is very new-viewer friendly, and will help you understand many of the relationships and characters. If you do decide to jump into Dark Shadows the 1960's series, be warned...it moves at a much slower pace, and you may find yourself impatient. Give it time.
Until next time - keep watching!
Read More! For more of Gordon's writings, insights, and
general information, please visit his blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com.
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