For those of us old enough to experience urine flow impairment at 3 A.M., there was a time when television was simpler but much more entertaining. In the 1960s, there weren't 600 channels of home shopping, batshit insane religion, neanderthals yammering about professional athletes as if they were Nobel laureates, or 24/7 sewers of shouting, political propaganda, and infotainment disguised as "news." In those days you could usually count the number of available channels on one hand, and in most American cities, that meant local affiliates for CBS, NBC, and ABC, plus maybe PBS or some syndicated/independent channels. There were also about half as many commercials, and a lot more opportunities for unique, locally produced weirdness to peek out of the cracks, like Mr. Peppermint in Dallas, Hoolihan and Big Chuck in Cleveland, or Doctor Sanguinary in Omaha, Nebraska.
Sure, it was still mostly crap, but it was much more endearing crap, because it felt like somebody was actually trying to have fun in addition to just selling you something that you didn't need. One notable seeping fissure of endearing 1960s TV crap was Dark Shadows, a horror soap opera blessed with the technical execution of Ted V. Mikels, and a lethargic pace that made The Ray Conniff Singers seem like Norwegian death metal.
In 1966, ABC was being righteously bitch slapped in the ratings, particularly during the daytime hours. That's probably why they took a chance on Dark Shadows, which began as a gothic drama and almost bit the big one during its first year. But right before ABC swung the axe, producer Dan Curtis hit on the idea of injecting a strong supernatural element into the series, and introducing an obscure Canadian actor named Jonathan Frid as a vampire. Within a couple of weeks, Barnabas Collins posters were showing up in bong shops, the ratings spiked, and Dark Shadows would be spared for another four or five years. Unlike most shows of the day, every episode but one was preserved in one form or another, and the whole mess has been vomited up for your viewing pleasure by MPI in twenty-six DVD box sets, excluding the earlier episodes that bored the shit out of the half a dozen housewives who bothered to watch.
I've made it to box nine of the series, and if the flying spaghetti monster is willing and the creek don't rise, I'll probably get around to watching it all, even though I can't offer an unqualified endorsement. To say that Dark Shadows has flaws is like saying that Long Dong Silver has a penis, or that Sarah Palin is an idiot. For example, if it gets on your nerves when a writer uses hypnosis to twist his way out of every dead end he backs himself into, Dark Shadows will make you want to push baby strollers off a suspension bridge. Or if you aren't charmed by actors who constantly fuck up their lines and glance nervously at cue cards, then you might want to consider mainlining with industrial solvents as an alternative. Fortunately, I love these things, and the ever shifting cast contains so many quirky eccentrics that I'm willing to grit my teeth through the slow parts, even when the insufferable Lara Parker dominates an episode.
There's Louis Edmonds as the persistently indignant Roger Collins, always with a bug up his ass and running out of patience. Jerry Lacy, who switch hits as a psychotic 18th century, witch burning, religious psychopath, and as a 20th century lawyer who can't decide whether to stick with a Humphrey Bogart impersonation. Grayson Hall as the perpetually squinting Dr. Julia Hoffman, whose medical credentials mutate to suit any situation, and who somehow manages to permanently move into the Collins family's home with a stupid pretext which conveniently, everyone eventually forgets. Thayer David as a self-appointed expert in the supernatural, who waxes eloquent about a platter of sharp cheddar cheese while the forces of evil conspire to kill him. Fortunately for Thayer, all of these characters are completely incompetent at whatever it is they do, even Humbert Allen Astredo in the role of Satan. This widespread ineptitude proves essential in keeping the story plodding along, a confusing jumble of Dracula, Frankenstein, Edgar Allen Poe, All My Children, The Time Tunnel, and the Salem witch trials, with a generous splash of Harriet Craig. Plot threads are introduced then quietly abandoned. Personalities change and characters shift alliances over time, often with no explanation. In an attempt to spackle over this, actors disappear for weeks at a time, then suddenly drop in again, with no apparent motivation for their disappearance or changed behavior. Paying attention will only hurt you.
I prefer consuming Dark Shadows in one or two episode intervals, usually with an alcoholic beverage to heighten my affection for the inane. But I've found that viewing three or more episodes in a single session induces the kind of existential emptiness that I felt as a twelve year old when I would plow through an entire bag of candy corn or Ruffles, while watching The Match Game and Tattle Tales in succession, followed by a Hogan's Heroes rerun. The short term rush of Charles Nelson Reilly and Patti Deutsch exchanging uproarious barbs sadly gave way each weekday to the stifling blandness of Bert Convy and Larry Hovis, leaving me with homework assignments not yet contemplated and the smell of pot roast and root vegetables wafting from the kitchen.
But each of us must explore that fine line between pleasure and pain for ourselves. For some, it's dinner at Appleby's with an obligatory salad bar visit. For others, it may involve driving to a trailer park on the outskirts of town, where a woman in a plastic rabbit suit will insert a greased riding crop into their rectums for sixty dollars an hour. For me, it's an occasional controlled dose of Dark Shadows, and comfort in the knowledge that the television has an off switch, and that I still need to go buy eggs before the supermarket closes.