After six years on the air, Supernatural finally got its first TV Guide cover. But it wasn’t chosen by the editors; rather, an internet poll was what finally got the Brothers Winchester the front of the magazine. A magazine that has featured Burn Notice - a show so niche and under the radar that Saturday Night Live ran a skit based solely on the premise that nobody knows what Burn Notice IS - twice.
Supernatural just can’t get no respect. And I should know, because I never gave it any. I blew off the show for years because it looked like a tween girl-oriented version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the two pretty-boy leads just didn’t interest me at all. I scoffed at it, laughed at it, and probably wrote a snark-filled article about it. But I was wrong. Supernatural isn’t one of the Great Shows - it’s no Mad Men or Community - but it’s better than about 90% of the stuff that plays on the boob tube. It’s certainly much, much better than The Walking Dead, a show that got an Entertainment Weekly cover in its third or fourth week (as far as I know Supernatural has never had an EW cover).
For those of you out there who feel now how I felt about Supernatural a couple of years ago, here’s a basic primer: Sam and Dean Winchester are brothers. They’re also Hunters; they travel the country killing vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, weird monsters and any assorted things that go bump in the night. At the beginning of the series Sam, who wants to live a normal life, is pulled into the Hunter game by Dean when their dad, a longtime Hunter, goes missing. As the series goes on they begin to discover that they’re pawns in a major plot - that God has abandoned Creation and that the angels are plotting to bring about the Apocalypse. Sam and Dean, it turns out, have huge parts to play in the final battle between good and evil.
The show got off to a bumpy start; I can understand why anyone who wasn’t simply a genre obsessive might have given it a pass. But by the end of the first season and the beginning of the second, the show really started humming. Then in the third season Supernatural began what I believe is one of the great longform storytelling runs in television history; seasons three, four and five all build towards the Apocalypse, and the perfection of the story is ruined by only one thing: the show got too popular.
It’s not like Supernatural has ever been a ratings juggernaut, but by season five the show was getting good enough numbers that the network (The CW, another reason many folks have given Supernatural a wide berth) wanted to bring it back for a sixth season. When your fifth season ends with the Apocalypse, season six seems like a weird choice. Watching season five you can see where, in the final episodes, showrunner Eric Kripke had to do some real gymnastics to create an ending that worked for the story but also allowed the show to continue; I find the finale to be incredibly problematic and wish that the story had been allowed to play out as originally intended, but it works well enough.
With the end of the world averted, season six - the latest season - began rough. It was almost like launching a new show in some ways, as new showrunner Sera Gamble had to reestablish the world and the characters and create new stakes. But the show seems to have found its footing after the first few episodes, and it seems to have found a reason to exist in the aftermath of the Apocalypse.
One of the great secrets of Supernatural, and one of the things that people who don’t watch could never know from the promos and marketing material, is that the show is often incredibly funny. Ben Edlund, the creator of The Tick, is one of the producers and main writers, and he’s a master at writing episodes that manage to be hilarious (and usually self-lampooning) while also advancing the meta story and furthering the characters of Sam and Dean. The show has had episodes where it skewers other programs by having Sam and Dean stuck inside a TV, it’s poked fun at paranormal shows like Ghost Hunters, it took a great swing at Twilight this season and it even introduced the idea that Sam and Dean have a fanbase who attend conventions and write slashfic about the brothers getting it on. There have been a couple of times when it seemed like the humor might overwhelm the series - imagine if The X-Files had comedy episodes every second week - but the balance has remained perfect. Again, very much because the show uses comedy episodes to advance plot and character, not to just kill time by fucking around.
The show’s mythology will be very familiar to those who read Vertigo Comics. As you can tell from the description I wrote above Preacher is a big influence, as is Sandman; one of my favorite episodes of the fifth season saw a whole bunch of gods meeting to discuss the coming Judeo-Christian Apocalypse in a scenario very reminiscent of Morpheus’ dinner party in Season of Mists. I doubt that Kripke and company would deny the influence (Kripke is developing a Sandman series right now, in fact), but the show doesn’t wear it too heavily.
The other great aspect of Supernatural is the gore; I don’t know that I’ve seen a more violent show on broadcast television. People are regularly maimed, mutilated, destroyed, ripped to pieces, exsanguinated and defiled in extremely graphic ways. I recently had a chance to visit the FX shop that does most of the work on Supernatural and was pleasantly surprised to see how much of what is on screen is actually practical work. If you’re looking for some horror property that is keeping alive the wet and practical aesthetic of great 80s horror, Supernatural is the place to go.
There’s something funny about popular culture; it doesn’t matter that a show like Buffy or Battlestar Galactica doesn’t get the big ratings of sitcoms or procedurals - they were seen as cool and thus got lots of coverage in mainstream media like EW and TV Guide. Supernatural, which probably has ratings about on par with those shows, seems invisible to the mainstream press. I know that Buffy was a hard sell (to me, initially, and then to others once I became a superfan and evangelist of the show), but it’s no sillier than Supernatural. Maybe it’s the inherent silliness of Buffy that made it palatable for EW and others to give it a show; the show obviously couldn’t be taking itself seriously. Supernatural, on the surface, looks more serious with all the brooding pictures of stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki - but it turns out that Supernatural is way less serious than Buffy. It’s certainly much less serious than the very dour Battlestar.
I wonder if it’s the lack of a female lead that has kept Supernatural from hitting the pop cult heights that other shows have. The X-Files, another middling-rated show that got lots of media love, had a sexy lead for each gender and a will they/won’t they aspect. Battlestar is filled with sexy women, and Buffy of course had more than its share. You’d think that two hunky guys could sell magazines, but it seems like you need a lady or two in the mix.
As the show makes it to the second half of its sixth season I’ve come to the conclusion that Supernatural will probably never get the respect it deserves. I’ll remain a steadfast supporter of the show (and especially Jensen Ackles, who should have been Captain America and co-star Misha Collins, who plays the angel Castiel) as long as the show remains of quality, but I’ve also resigned myself to the fact that I’ll always get funny looks when I tell people how much I love Supernatural. Their loss. I’ve enjoyed traveling the nightmare backroads with Sam and Dean in their bitching black 67 Chevy Impala, cranking classic rock and engaging in endlessly homoerotic banter. I look forward to doing it for at least a couple more years.