Bay of the Living Dead: Remembering “Passions:” A Dark “Bewitched” and New Cult Classic

Welcome to the latest installment of Bay of the Living Dead, a monthly column dedicated to horror films and scary TV shows.

When NBC premiered Passions on July 5, 1999, it seemed as though it was going to be a fairly innocuous daytime drama.  Before the week had finished airing, the series attracted quite a bit of attention. 

As its premiere episode concluded, Grace Bennett (Dana Sparks) was visited by an angel sent by God. A few days later, wealthy heiress Sheridan Crane (McKenzie Westmore) had a friendly chat with the ghost of her late friend Diana, Princess of Wales (the Royal Family wasn't very happy about that, according to press reports at the time). By the time that first week ended, eccentric Bennett neighbor Tabitha (Juliet Mills) was revealed to be a 300-year-old witch who was determined to bring “pain and suffering” down upon the residents of Harmony, Maine. Tabitha was often seen with her best friend, a doll named Timmy. When no one else was around, Timmy (Josh Ryan Evans) came to life. He served as Tabitha's conscious.

[jump] For the next nine years, Passions offered up a delicious brew of wildly comic supernatural storylines. The deliberately tongue in cheek series was a satire of traditional daytime TV storytelling techniques which combined elements of Dark Shadows (the legendary, albeit serious, 1960s horror themed soap) and the classic supernatural sitcom Bewitched. There had never been anything on TV quite like this soap opera, which has been fondly remembered by some as one of the most bizarre shows in television history. Others have reviled Passions for being “stupid” and for making little sense. Both assessments are valid in retrospect.  

The connections to Dark Shadows and Bewitched were more than thematic. Early on, Tabitha was visited by Bewitched characters Dr. Bombay and Esmeralda, complete with Bernard Fox and Alice Ghostley reprising their 1960s roles. Years later, Tabitha named her newborn daughter after “my dear friend Endora,” and fondly recalled her ex-boyfriend Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows' resident vampire.

The series' storylines were consistently bizarre, to say the least, such as the time Tabitha and Timmy, on a road trip, spent the night at the Bates Motel. There they encounter Norma (Marianne Muellerleile), Norman Bates' lesbian sister. Muellerleile, a seasoned character actress, was wonderful as the murderously maniacal Norma, who would often talk to her father's skull, which she carried around in a backpack.

Passions could at times be quite magical, as when Timmy literally journeyed to Oz, appearing in drag as Dorothy. Or when star crossed lovers Sheridan and Luis are revealed to have been a certain star crossed couple aboard the Titanic in a previous life! True to form, the scriptwriters informed us that Tabitha, who was also on board ship, cast a spell which sent the doomed ocean liner careening into that iceberg. Over the course of four episodes, NBC impressively recreated scenes from James Cameron's $200 million, Oscar winning blockbuster on a soap opera budget. 
And at times, it was somewhat satanic. When teenage Kay fails to steal the hunky Miguel from her cousin Charity, she resorts to witchcraft, sneaking into Tabitha's house and stealing the Book of Spells. But the novice Kay isn't quite sure of what she's doing. She accidentally zaps herself and Charity into the “flaming pits of hell,”  where they spend several fiery days surrounded by demons. Ultimately they're rescued by a shirtless Miguel — the series often showed its male cast members in various states of undress in order to please and titillate its younger female demographic.

Passions was quite dark at times, even scary, yet it never lost sight of the fact that it was an homage to the shows which preceded it. No matter how creepy it got, creator/headwriter James E. Reilly always kept his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek; the series ultimately became a camp classic.

But before it hit the airwaves, back in 1995, longtime soap scribe Reilly was hired to save a then ailing Days of Our Lives, a traditional soap which had been a pivotal part of NBC's daytime lineup since 1965. Reilly shocked viewers with his initial storyline, a straightforward, serious, and daring tale of demonic possession. The possession of Marlena (Deidre Hall), Days' leading lady, was intense and disturbing, and the show's ratings rose considerably. Days of Our Lives was saved, and Reilly was given Passions — his own show.

Obviously a fan of classic horror and pop culture, Reilly had a ball writing bizarre plots with constant in-joke references to the movies and TV shows he loved. Audiences didn't quite know what to make of it all. Some were mesmerized, others found the show embarrassing — indeed, Passions' didn't always make sense, and not all story lines were resolved, but the three million viewers who tuned in for much of the series run didn't care.  Silly, absurd, often hard to swallow, the show was also great fun to watch.

Though never a huge hit, Passions amassed an intensely loyal cult following, many of whom continue to share clips, and even complete episodes on YouTube. The series ended its network run in August, 2008. Except for diehard fans (count me in), it's a barely remembered footnote in daytime television history. It may be worth a second look. And as Retro TV prepares to begin airing The Doctors, a classic soap from the 1960s and 1970s, we can only hope that Retro programmers will give some thought to Passions.

This column is dedicated to the memory of beloved Timmy, Josh Ryan Evans (1982-2002). 

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