Saturday, November 27, 2010

Story Time vs. Emotional Time in Dark Shadows

I've been re-watching Dark Shadows on DVD, beginning with Dark Shadows: The Beginning. I've noticed a conflict between what I'll call the series's story time vs. its emotional time.

One nice thing about watching a series on DVD is that you can watch several dozen episodes (about 22 minutes each) in under a week. The experience differs from watching one or two episodes a day, as was the case when the Dark Shadows was broadcast, most recently on the Sci-Fi Channel in the 1990s.

DVDs offer a more compressed viewing experience. Seeing so many episodes at once enables one to see the "bigger dramatic picture" because the story isn't parceled out in little bits.

The first 37 episodes pf Dark Shadows cover only the first three days of Victoria Winters's stay in Collinwood. But it feels so much longer for the viewer. Those 37 episodes cover over 7 weeks of broadcast time -- yet so many events are compressed into those 3 days!

Day 1: Victoria arrives at Collinwood, the Collins fear the arrival of Burke, Sam warns Victoria, as does Maggie, Carolyn is smitten with Burke. And much else.

Day 2: Carolyn brings Burke up to Collinwood, David tampers with Roger's brakes, resulting a Roger's car crash. And much else.

But let's focus on ...

Day 3: Roger leaves the hospital, the police investigate Burke, Burke travels to Bangor then returns to Collinsport, during which the police have searched his room, the police then learn that David's fingerprints were on the wrench under Burke's fingerprints, David tries to plant false evidence in Burke's room, Burke brings David back to the house, they both lie and claim Roger's car crash was an accident, Victoria has dinner with Burke, making Carolyn jealous, Victoria returns yet again to Collinwood, and late that night, after 1 a.m., Victoria hears a ghost sobbing. And much else.

These events consume over 7 weeks in broadcast time -- yet occur over 3 days in story time. Pay attention as each episode segues into the next, from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. No days in between. Three days.

I suppose one can say that it's a bit over 3 days, because it's 1 a.m. by episode 36. Yet the morning of Day 4 doesn't start till episode 38, so I consider the first 37 episodes the first 3 days.

What's the aesthetic effect? A disconnect between what I'll call the story time and emotional time The story time as experienced by the characters is 3 days, yet the emotional time corresponds to the broadcast time as experienced by the viewer.

For instance, the characters undergo significant emotional shifts over those 37 episodes, as a person might over 7 weeks -- rather than as a person might over 3 days. Victoria decides to leave, then stay, then leave, then stay, several times. Carolyn refers to Victoria as a longtime family member by the end of Day 3. On the morning of Day 4, Carolyn says to Victoria, "Since you're one of us now..."

These would be odd statements to make after only 3 days of knowing someone. Yet it feels right to viewers. They've been watching these characters for over 7 weeks, so it feels like these characters have known each other for 7 weeks.

That's the disconnect between the story time and broadcast/emotional time. The characters behave -- and the viewers emotionally respond -- to however long viewers have watched the characters, not to however long the characters have lived in their fictitious world.

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King remarked on a curious feature of soap opera time. I don't have the book before me, but King referred to soap opera's "mysterious growing kid phenomenon." (His exact term may differ.) A woman on a soap has a baby. Within six months of broadcast time, the baby is a young child. In another year, the child is a teenager. No explanation is given. The characters all take it in stride.

Dark Shadows likewise pretends that its broadcast time corresponds to the characters' story time. Four years into the show, characters refer to events as happening four years ago. Yet if one were to observe closely, I wonder ... does the show's entire five years of events occur over only about 3 and a half months?

(1250 episodes / 37) * 3 = 101 days of story time.

Yes, parts of Dark Shadows's story occurs in other time periods. But that would only shorten the story time. For instance, as I recall, Victoria disappears during a seance, then reappears soon thereafter. Several months of broadcast time in 1795 reduced to a few seconds of story time in 1967. So perhaps all the events at Collinwood occurred in only a couple of very busy months.


Thomas M. Sipos's interview with Dark Shadows actor Jonathan Frid is available in print form in Sipos's horror collection, Halloween Candy. While the book contains much else, those who wish to purchase only the interview can find it in a Amazon Kindle edition or as a Barnes & Noble Nook ebook.

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