If you were a pre-teen in the eighties or nineties, you know the name Alvin Schwartz. Next to Stephen King, he’s probably responsible for warping more fragile little minds than any other author — between 1981 and 1991, he collected and retold tales of American folklore in his Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark series. Accompanied by Stephen Gammell’s black-and-white disturbing illustrations, these books introduced many kids — including myself — to the Wendigo, the Hook Man, the Phantom Hitchhiker, and other classic urban legends.
If you remember and if you loved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, you should be watching Supernatural, which airs Thursday nights at 9 on the CW. It’s a smart, enthusiastic show with a great soundtrack and a sense of humor. Oh, yeah — it’s also occasionally scary as hell.
The premise of Supernatural is simple: Brothers Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) Winchester cruise the United States, battling those urban legends and mythological beasts with homemade weapons stored in the trunk of their 1967 Chevy Impala. It’s a complete genre stew – a little bit of Buffy, Ghostbusters, The X-Files, Route 66, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker all rear their heads here, yet it’s a framework that creator Eric Kripke and his team of writers can tell pretty much any story they want.
Kripke’s said that he wanted to make a show where his heroes drive in and out of a horror movie each week, and that’s often the case: Supernatural is, at its core, a monster-of-the-week show. Luckily, the films Dean and Sam find themselves in aren’t the just the international horror and remakes currently in vogue — this show draws from a variety of influences, classic and contemporary, recognizable to any movie geek or genre fan.
This has been anything from a shape shifter right out of An American Werewolf in London to one of the most recent episodes, "Playthings," a full-on homage to The Shining. “Playthings” has the Brothers Winchester investigating a series of unexplained deaths at a hotel in Connecticut, and even though it’s not called the Overlook, the episode is wall-to-wall with Shining call-backs – anything from the Winchesters’ room number (237) to the bar that looks like the Overlook’s to the camera’s aping of some of The Shining’s most famous tracking shots. Even if the episode’s plot is lackluster, Supernatural throws in enough of these nods and references to keep you entertained. Other great homages include “Croatoan,” a John Carpenter’s The Thing throwback, right down to the music, and the show’s portrayal of vampires; restless, violent, dirty nomads recognizable to any fan of Near Dark.
Beyond its horror movie roots, Supernatural has the Brothers Winchester fighting foes recognizable to any kid who’s ever been told a scary story around a campfire. The greatness of Supernatural’s monsters is two-fold: First, they’re all based in actual folklore, unlike some shows that wouldn’t bother to do their homework before hand. I love Buffy to death, but that show made up stuff when it didn’t have to. Second, even though Supernatural takes from folklore and mythology the world over, it also makes sure that each week, the brothers find themselves in not just any old mystery, but a distinctly American one.
Over the course of two seasons, Sam and Dean have investigated (in addition to your standard spirits, demons, and vampires) the Wendigo, the Hook Man, phantom travelers, lunatic asylums, haunted paintings, what caused the disappearance on Roanoke Island, the ghost of America’s first serial killer H.H. Holmes, the demon that Robert Johnson sold his soul to, and everyone’s favorite … clowns. Yet it’s only when Supernatural uses these creatures to make some kind of comment – however subtle – on America itself does the show really shine. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work – as in the story about the old racist killing black people with his haunted monster truck – but when it works, it really works. One of the best episodes the show’s ever done is called “Faith,” about a faith healer who may be cheating death – and around this story, issues of religion, tolerance, sin, death, and redemption get brought up. Dean and Sam wind up living to fight another day, but the big questions still remain. Supernatural’s insistence that its monsters be rooted in both folkore and Americana is one of the things that sets it apart from other “monster of the week” shows.
Supernatural couldn’t survive on its genre throwbacks and folklore tropes alone. When your show only has two main characters and those characters are thrown into some pretty ridiculous situations week in and week out, you damn well better have the actors who can pull it off. Luckily, Supernatural does in Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki. Ackles is the breakout star of the show –- he’s charismatic, funny, and makes the action look believable. Padalecki, as the Luke Skywalker to Ackles’s Han Solo, often plays Captain Exposition and acts as Supernatural’s voice of conscience, but as the second season has progressed, Sam’s become more proactive and a little bit darker. While Ackles embodies off the blue-collar feel and tone of Supernatural better than Padalecki, both of these guys leave behind the pretty-boy roles they were known for before this.
While the two leads often struggle with the big dramatic moments of the series from time to time, their chemistry is undeniable. From the first episode onwards, you completely believe that these guys are brothers and it’s the relationship between them that makes Supernatural work. If the mission statement behind the early years of Buffy were “high school is hell,” then Supernatural’s mission statement seems to be “family is hell.” More often than not, the urban legends the Winchester face wind up reflecting their own upbringing in some way, and while they may beat the external forces week-to-week, watching these two brothers come to terms with their relationship is what keeps me hooked on Supernatural. Ackles and Padalecki banter, fight, and support each other like real brothers and all that entails. Their relationship is one of the best on TV, and it often reminds me of the very similar relationship I have with my younger brother Rick, who suggested I start watching this show in the first place. (Note: We did not fight demons growing up.)
Of course, Supernatural being a genre show in the era of The X-Files and Lost, there’s an underlying mythology to it all as well. When Sam was six months old, their mother was killed by a demon, and the boys spent the next 22 years on the road being raised as fighters by their former Marine father (the always-awesome and totally bad-ass Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Terminator style. It’s this quest for the demon – and his plans for Sam, who begins to develop psychic powers – that runs throughout Supernatural. While I tend to prefer the urban legend and folklore episodes to the Demon-centric ones, I’ve enjoyed the way they’ve pumped up the stakes and expanded the world of Supernatural in its second season. Discovering the network of hunters like Dean and Sam has been great – this is a world of auto repair shops and roadhouses, of credit card scams and pool hustling, where your genius from MIT has a mullet and drinks PBR, the hotel rooms are stuck in time and the music is wall-to-wall classic rock.
The soundtrack of Supernatural could easily support its own essay — it has one of the best on TV right now. From the Allman Brothers to Bad Company to ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’, the music is the self-described Greatest Hits of Mullet Rock. (The Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane have also been featured.) It fits perfectly in with the grimy road-trip through America vibe that Supernatural gives off, and like the show, the music choices never take themselves too seriously. Many of them are predictable – a show about death just screams for ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ – but just as many aren’t, and most of them will leave you with a big grin on your face.
Kind of like Supernatural itself. The show takes it scares seriously, but it never takes itself too seriously, which makes tuning in for the latest pit stop on Sam and Dean Winchester’s road trip through old weird America always an entertaining time, and why I can’t recommend it enough. Even though, it’s in the worst time slot on television, opposite Grey’s Anatomy and CSI. Still, if you get a chance, check out the first season on DVD or TiVo an episode or two.
The good shows often come few and far between for genre fans, which is why we’ll settle for crap like Smallville and Heroes or the ridiculously uneven Masters of Horror. Supernatural deserves a long life and the success of Lost or Battlestar Galactica. I know you watch both those shows, so while Supernatural is never going to be called groundbreaking television, it is, without a doubt, the best genre show you’re not watching.