Television networks are a strange thing in every country. In some countries, there’s only a handful of stations and most of the popular ones are funded directly or indirectly by the government ( See Canada and England for examples). Here in America, our “Big Four” networks are owned by huge media conglomerates while our government-funded station (PBS) is confined to, a breakout hit here or there, largely a niche audience.
And then there’s the “Fifth Network”: an independent network that sets itself up on local stations to compete with the “Big Four” and then usually doesn’t succeed, outside of one or two big hits. That used to be both the WB (which gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Smallville) and UPN (which had Star Trek: Voyager and Everybody Hates Chris), but now that’s the CW, the network formed when those other two merged a few years ago. It consistently trends toward the bottom ratings-wise, but it has its moments of victory.
I bring all this up to emphasize that Supernatural, the long-running horror procedural show currently in its eighth season on the CW, because of the fact that it doesn’t have as much money as a show on one of the other networks, really can’t be judged the same way. Of course, you can still judge it aesthetically, but the fact that it doesn’t have a huge budget like, say, Lost, must be acknowledged.
So how is it as a show? Well, having just finished the complete first season on Netflix, I’d say..well, pretty good. It’s not a groundbreaking show, but it’s entertaining.
Here’s the plot: Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) is a senior at Stanford, preparing to apply to law school and living with his wonderful girlfriend Jessica. On Halloween, someone breaks into their house. Sam grapples with the intruder, only to discover it’s his older brother Dean (Jensen Ackles), who he hasn’t spoken to in years. “Dad’s on a hunting trip,” Dean says, “and he hasn’t been home in a few days.” Although a little reluctant, Sam eventually agrees to help Dean track their dad down, but only for the weekend, as he has a law school interview on Monday.
So what sort of hunting trip is it? Well, after they get away from Jessica, Dean plays Sam a voicemail from their dad, John (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), which contains audio of a woman saying, “I can never go home.” If that sounds creepy to you, then you’ve figured out that this woman’s voice is, in fact, the voice of a ghost, and what the Winchesters “hunt” are paranormal forces–ghosts, demons, and what have you.
Why? Well, as we see in a flashback at the beginning of the first episode, when Dean was four years old and Sam six months, at the family home in Lawrence, Kansas, their mother was pinned to the ceiling and burned alive by a mysterious shadowy figure. Because of that, John quit his job and devoted his life–and the boys’–to destroying the paranormal, with the end goal of tracking down the creature who murdered his wife and killing it.
For the most part, the first season is a procedural: Sam and Dean roll into a town somewhere in America, using coordinates and clues from John’s journal, to fight a monster, kill it, and save any people they meet along the way, then ride out in their sweet 1967 Chevy Impala.
Yeah, that’s a pretty sweet ride. There’s also a lot of classic rock on the soundtrack, which really is unlike a lot of TV.
Anyway, with a premise like that, two observations come to mind: 1. The first is that this is a show that could have easily aired decades ago, in the age of Night Gallery or The Outer Limits or Starsky & Hutch…and that’s a good thing. It’s the sort of “on the road” show that TV period doesn’t have much anymore in the age of serialized drama. Granted, this has elements of serialization, too, but for the most part, it’s a throwback show.
Observation No. 2: With basically no supporting cast, the two leads of a show like this have to have good chemistry and they do in spades. Ackles and Padalecki actually LOOK like siblings and they behave like them too, constantly sniping or bickering with each other in the middle of some crazy event. For example, in the episode “Hell House,” while investigating a string of deaths connected to a supposedly haunted house in Texas, Dean starts a prank war with Sam that carries on throughout the episode; before the big fight at the end, Dean has to tear a beer bottle that Sam put superglue on off of his hand. To give another example, in the finale, when breaking into an apartment building dressed as firemen, Dean remarks, “Always wanted to be a fireman when I grew up.” “You never told me that!” Sam exclaims.
Little moments like those and the warm bond Ackles and Padalecki have really reinforces that they could be brothers. But they each have strong characteristics of their own: Sam is the earnest hero who actually has more darkness than he’d like to admit, while Dean acts the part of the charismatic funnyman but really has a strong sense of compassion underneath it all.
Really, the only recurring character besides the brothers in this season is their dad, John. To my knowledge, I haven’t really seen Morgan in anything, but he’s a hardworking character actor and he has talent, something that pays off well in his multiple appearances, which happen more and more frequently as events go on. Morgan plays John with the intensity of a man haunted by death and with one true desire: to take revenge for everything he’s lost. It could come off cheesy in the wrong hands, but Morgan plays it close to the chest and very well at that.
The show was created by Eric Kripke, who left after five seasons to, among other things, helm the highly-rated but highly-hated NBC series Revolution. Rather than end after his departure, however, because Ackles and Padalecki were under contract still, the show kept going and is now in its eighth season, will be getting a ninth and possibly a tenth, which means that this, the last surviving show from the WB (the show ran there for its first season, then moved to the CW), will potentially be around for as long as Smallville. But because Kripke is no longer there, my friend who introduced me to the show only considers the first five seasons “canonical”–he refers to the show now as Supernatural: The Search For More Money–and I’m sure there’s some portion of the fandom that thinks that too.
But I digress. While on the whole, I prefer the show’s largely anthology-based format, I do enjoy when it delves into serialization, because the anthology format can get a little stale at times. Also, some episodes have a slower pace than others. And the special effects–again, this is a show that originated on a “Fifth Network,” so it doesn’t have too much money–are a bit silly at times. But for the most part, the atmosphere and tone of the show offsets these things and usually makes it work to its advantage.
So, in the end, is Supernatural groundbreaking television? No, but it’s not bad either. Honestly, it’s just entertaining and fun. It’s really the first time I’ve ever enjoyed–and more importantly, never been bored by–this sort of lower-budget genre series that proliferates on the CW as well as places like SyFy; I find myself entertained by every episode. So I’ll keep watching and let you know if it gets any better from here.