It takes a lot to get me into a TV show. I don’t like being tied to something week after week, and I’m not the kind of person who just settles for a program because it hits one of my interest areas (I’m looking at you, people who watch everything on
SciFi SyFy). I like shows that are well made, that are smart, that are engaging and, most of all, that stick around. I rarely give a show a shot in the first season – besides the fact that every show needs time to get its legs, most shows get killed in 8 episodes. I like to see Televisual Darwinism in action.
While that may not make me a great TV viewer in the eyes of producers, it might make me a decent TV recommender in your eyes. And I’m recommending Supernatural to you now. The show, which recently finished its fourth season, looks like a CW prettyboy version of Buffy - essentially the worst thing ever. And while that description isn’t entirely incorrect, I’ve been surprised to find that the program is much better than I ever imagined.
Don’t get me wrong – Supernatural isn’t one of the Great Shows. It’s a really good show, but you’d be a fool if you were making the argument that this was one of the best you’d ever seen, or even that it was one of the best genre shows that you’ve seen. But it’s a damn good show, and it’s a show that’s been evolving over the course of its four years into something that’s more and more intriguing – think Buffy, if it took place in the Vertigo Comics Sandman theomythology.
The basic set up is this: Sam and Dean Winchester are brothers. When Sam was a baby, their mother was murdered in his nursery and their house burnt down by a yellow-eyed demon. Their father takes the two boys on the road with him as he hunts down ghosts, monsters, devils and other things that go bump in the night; over the years Dean becomes a hardcore hunter while Sam rebels and wants to go to school and make a straight living. When their father disappears, Dean grabs Sam from school and the two take to America’s back roads in search of their dad and the beasts that haunt our nightmares.
So here are 13 things about Supernatural – ten positive, three problematic.
The show is built entirely around the relationship of the Sam and Dean, and thankfully the leads, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, have chemistry in spades. The two bounce off of each other wonderfully, and the writers have truly found that brotherly relationship – they’re two grown men who sometimes bicker like an old married couple and solve disputes using Rock, Paper, Scissors. You get not just a sense that these guys are comfortable together but a sense of history from them. They feel like brothers, not like two guys co-leading a show on a fourth rate network. It’s the magic of casting, and I think that without this level of chemistry Supernatural would have failed years ago.
Remember those episodes of The X-Files, like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, where the show poked a little bit of fun at itself? And remember how the characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel had that rapid-fire banter? Supernatural meets both right in the middle: the show has lots of character based humor, especially from wise-ass Dean, and it also regularly takes the piss out of itself. When the quite good looking and metrosexual brothers check into a motel, the kid acting as a clerk asks if they want a king or two queens. When Dean says two queens, the kid says ‘I bet.’ Later, in season four, the Winchester brothers discover erotic fanfiction about themselves on the internet. In our world that stuff is known as Wincest.
The humor really amps up in season two, when The Tick creator Ben Edlund joined the staff as a consulting producer.
How can you not love a show where your heroes, when investigating a werewolf, use the fake names Landis and Dante? Supernatural is filled with little nods like that; some are metatextual, like when Sam and Dean investigate a haunted hotel with a familiar looking bar (it’s just a reference to The Shining, not a flat rip off, although the show does that as well) and others are in-universe nods, like Dean’s continued use of rock star names for his pseudonyms (are there better names for fake priests than Fathers Frehley and Simmons?). The show is layered with these references, ranging from the obvious – shouting ‘Who you gonna call?’ to amateur ghost hunters – to the sublime – an FBI agent named Henriksen. And if you watch the show keep your ears open for a seeming torrent of references to The Simpsons.
The references get even more meta – episode titles are often plays on or nods to songs or movies: In My Time of Dying, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Houses of the Holy, Sympathy for the Devil, Are You There God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester, The Monster at the End of This Book. And so on.
If there has ever been a non-variety TV show with a better soundtrack, I’d like to see it. The show’s stated vibe is working class, and to that end episodes are stocked with classic rock tracks. From Rush to Foreigner to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Boston to Alice in Chains to AC/DC to the Allman Brothers to… well, you get the point. I don’t know why there hasn’t been a Supernatural soundtrack released yet. God knows I’ve been building a playlist on my iPod.
Supernatural may air on the CW, a fourth (or fifth) rate network, but the show looks remarkably good. The cinematography is moody and often cinematic; while obviously a TV show it looks more like a movie (albeit a low budget B-horror movie) than most other shows. Part of the production value comes at the expense of the beasts – Sam and Dean fight more invisible foes than you might have thought possible – but in the end it’s worth it to have a show that looks like it might be worth seeing in high definition.
There were episodes of Buffy that made me laugh, episodes that made me nervous for the characters and even episodes that made me cry. There were never episodes that were scary, though. Eric Kripke, the creator of Supernatural, has said that his goal was to make a new horror movie every week, and I think he generally succeeds. Where Angel and Buffy were gothic fantasy and where The X-Files was mostly dark science fiction, the vast majority of Supernatural are straight horror. And they play like decent little horror films – scenes of tension that are allowed to play out (unusual for television), jump scares, gross out scenes. And the show manages to occasionally create images that haunt; there’s an evil clown in Everybody Loves a Clown that might just show up in your nightmares later on.
The problem with a show like this in the modern day is how you handle the mythology; you can’t have a show that’s just Monster of the Week, but you also are afraid of creating something like Lost, a show so dense that it repels newcomers. Supernatural finds an interesting middle ground (one that has its negative side, as well – see The Monster of the Week problem below) – it includes elements of the overarching mythology into almost every single episode. Whether it be actual metastory movement or just character development, it’s a rare episode of Supernatural that’s totally detached from the bigger picture. And the mythology they’ve been developing is fascinating; influenced by the likes of Neil Gaiman it approaches Judeo-Christian mythology in a way that feels totally different from what we’ve seen before.
Going with the blue collar aesthetic the show has a down-to-earth approach to the mythology, one that feels like it comes from actual folklore and not just retreads or spins on older movies. The boys carry guns that shoot rocksalt, and many episodes end with them trying to burn the earthly remains of angry spirits. There’s a sense of repetition that comes from this but also a sense of a show that plays within its own rules, and doesn’t just make up new stuff every week to be cool. As a nerd I appreciate that.
As Sam and Dean travel America they run into some very American monsters. The show takes much of its inspiration from American folklore and mythology; while there are demons and werewolves and other standard beasts there are also killers with hooks for hands, female ghosts who get summoned when you say their names three times, wendigos, ghost towns and more. One of my favorite episodes (and one that becomes massively important in the show’s mythology) is one that tackles the idea of Robert Johnson selling his soul to be the greatest bluesman who ever lived (and that episode contains many elements that are on this list, including use of Johnson’s music and invisible hellhounds).
This might be a bit of hyperbole, but I think Dean Winchester might be one of the best characters on TV today. The original concept for the show describes Sam and Dean as Luke and Han, and being Han definitely gives any character a step up over others. But there’s something more about Dean than just a Harrison Ford riff. The character is a study in fascinating contrasts; one one hand he grew up a good soldier under his father, who was a demon hunter since their mother was killed when Sam was a baby, and on the other hand he’s a completely solitary wise-ass bad boy. Props to the writers and Jensen Ackles for finding that perfect line and staying on it. It’s easy to make Dean a hard drinking, sarcastic womanizer, but they also manage to make him the mom of the show. In the present day of the show he’s taking care of his younger brother Sam, and as we learn more about the characters’ pasts, when they monster hunted with their dad, it becomes more obvious that Dean was the glue that held the family together.
Maybe I’m just an old man, but at least every other episode of Supernatural shocks me with the level of blood and nastiness. You might expect a show like this to be essentially PG-13, but Supernatural definitely hits R-rated levels of violence – people get torn to shreds, body parts get lost, blood and brains splatter walls and windows.
The show tries to have its cake and eat it too – every episode of Supernatural is a Monster of the Week episode, but most of those are actually tied into the larger picture. The problem is when the Monster of the Week becomes a repetitive time waster, or just a nuisance to keep the Winchesters busy for 20 out of 38 minutes of the show. And the fact that the show insists on sticking to a Monster of the Week format means that in the first two seasons it has only one two parter, and every episode comes to a pat conclusion at the end. Since the Winchesters are always on the move, the next episode picks up in a different town than where the last one left off, so almost every thread of the episode gets tied up at the end.
While I think that the show sports some really wonderful, smart and funny dialogue, the actual structuring of the episodes often leave a lot to be desired. The show keeps relying on semi-mystery formats, but since there are only about three guest stars a week the identity of the killer/possessed person/shapechanger is often easy to guess about six minutes in. Episodes that aren’t predicated on mysteries seem to be just as easy to guess – six minutes in you’ll figure out how the baddie will be dispatched, and you’ll be able to guess what the obstacles will be. The good news is that the chemistry of the leads and the writing of the main characters take center stage, making the predictable plotting less of an issue.
As a semi-serialized show, Supernatural has an overarching storyline, and each season has its own mini-storyline. But the show has a significant problem with pacing those storylines out. This isn’t unique to Supernatural - every serial show suffers from lulls in the story – but Supernatural does have an added problem in that it seems to be scrambling to find the story throughout the course of the season. To be fair I’ve just made it through season two, and season three is truncated due to the writer’s strike, but in the almost 50 episodes I’ve watched to date I’ve noticed that the show keeps trying to find its exact stance. For example, season two introduces a roadhouse where Sam and Dean can mix and mingle with other monster hunters, but it quickly becomes obvious that having a home base drags the show down, as does having a whole stable of secondary characters who serve functions that weren’t needed last season. But it takes the show forever to extricate itself from that situation before finally leaving it behind forever. That pacing is also reflected in the meta-story and the Monster of the Week format – at the very beginning of season two we find out that the demon that killed Sam and Dean’s mom has plans for Sam, but the show can’t commit to having the characters pursue that mystery or commit to Monsters of the Week and instead mixes the two. This leads to the meta story being told at an excruciating rate, with viewers sometimes getting annoyed at the stalls along the way.
I don’t think Supernatural is a guilty pleasure. This is no Smallville or Stargate. For one thing, I don’t even believe in guilty pleasures – you like something or you don’t. But the reality is that the show is a pleasure with its own limitations, and if you can accept those limitations there’s a lot to really enjoy and into which to sink your teeth.
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