Number 11: Supernatural
‘Supernatural’ concerns the Winchester brothers, Sam and Dean, as they travel North America fighting the forces of evil. Raised by their father as ‘hunters’ following the death of their mother at the hands of a demon, each season follows them as they help people in small towns, often dodging law enforcement and investigating an overall, season long mystery.
Released with much fanfare in 2005, ‘Supernatural’ was almost immediately a success; the fact that the show was recently commissioned for a tenth season is a testament to its longevity. A labour of love for its creator Eric Kripke – writer of 2005’s middling ‘Boogeyman’ – it was in development for a decade before being picked up to series. Despite the fact that his original concept had been for a movie based on the characters, it was never pitched as so. After very high ratings for both the pilot episode and the next three, Warner Brothers picked up the show for a full season; Kripke at this time planned to wrap up the Winchester’s story arc by the end of Season Three, which he then extended to Season Five due to its success and to allow for a more organic growth of the plot machinations. Now extended to double that, the show is seen by many fans to follow two distinct cycles; the first five seasons are made up what could be described as the ‘Satan Series’, the latter five as the ‘Angels Series’. Widely acknowledged to have suffered a dip in quality in Seasons Six and Seven, the quality of more recent series has improved dramatically, and the shows continues to earn praise for returning to its more grounded origins.
Much of the show’s initial success can be attributed to Kripke’s writing. His scripts are witty and exciting, and each episode is fast paced if a little formulaic. One of the sustained draws however is the dynamic between brothers Sam, played by Jared Padalecki, and Dean, played by Jensen Ackles. A hunter from childhood, Dean is the more aggressive of the two; he is also the more skilled and knowledgeable. Younger brother Sam ends the pilot episode joining Dean to hunt down a demon that killed his girlfriend, the same one that murdered their mother years earlier, and early seasons deal with this search and the relationship between two men who have lived very different lives. As the seasons progress, more and more interesting aspects are introduced: Dean’s increasing resentment at the life he could have had; a sub-plot involving their missed father, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan; the idea that Sam might have supernatural powers of his own; the lengths that each brother is willing to go to save the other. Most of these are well-warn, almost clichéd, conceits but they are effective nonetheless and it is the strength and nuance of this central relationship that, when it clicks, makes ‘Supernatural’ such entertaining viewing. Both Ackles and Padalecki do good work though it is obvious that the former is the better performer, managing to give Dean an air of distinct menace whilst simultaneously being sympathetic and relatable. Padalecki is a solid action man and fares well in episodes that require him to fight; in more emotional moments he is less convincing, seemingly acting entirely with his Adam’s apple.
Despite the ‘monster-of-the-week’ format of the majority of episodes, there are a number of recurrent characters who cross paths with the brothers at various points. Most common in early seasons is Jim Beaver’s gruff and grumpy Bobby Singer who acts as both an expert consultant on cases and as a parental figure for the Winchesters in the absence of their father. Misha Collins’ confused angel Castiel takes regular billing in more recent seasons and it is his performance and the interesting new dynamic it brings that elevates later seasons of ‘Supernatural’. Originally appearing as a messenger from a disinterested God, Castiel quickly became one of the show’s more memorable and, often, humorous characters. As merely an observer sent to Earth to recruit Dean to foil a nefarious supernatural plot, he gives real pathos to a being who is both confused and fascinated by human life. His character develops to encompass far more interesting arcs too but to discuss these is inappropriately spoiler filled. For the upcoming tenth season Mark Sheppard’s scheming demon Crowley is promoted to season regular; a fitting reward for a solid performance as a recurring villain. Other characters have come and gone, some lasting longer than others, and for genre fans there is some fun to be had with the spotting of familiar faces over the seasons.
The series’ real strength though lies is the deep and detailed mythology that Kripke has created for his world; indeed, the show was born from his childhood obsession with urban myths and fables, and many familiar tales have new versions over the course of its run. In essence the plot revolves around the Winchester’s role in a war between Heaven and Hell but incorporates so much more than this would suggest; sub-plots about demons stealing children, retrieving the keys to the gate of Hell, the quest for a gun that can kill anything, and efforts to retrieve the soul of one of the brothers help to keep things fresh and interesting. ‘Supernatural’ is also home to single, one-off episodes featuring such diverse figures as angry Greek gods, shapeshifters, werewolves, cannibals, inbreds and experiments gone wrong; whatever your taste within the horror genre there is an episode you will love.
Unusually in the genre, on television at least, is the show’s wide streak of humour. Though many of the best moments come from the interplay between the brothers – Dean’s hard-drinking wry sarcasm juxtaposes well with Sam’s more traditional, wide-jawed, stoic hero – Kripke also litters the episodes with a large number of amusing references to the genre’s great and good; whether it is the brother’s fake identities named after famous rock stars, villains pulled straight from famous novels or movies, or Dean’s attempts to score with another hunter’s daughter, there is much here that is genuinely amusing. When some of the seasons cross into dark territory – some of it very dark – there is often a sly nod or reference slipped in to lighten the mood at just the right time. In fact, two of the absolute best ‘Supernatural’ episodes are inherently comedic: in the episode ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ Sam and Dean, whose exploits have been written by a psychic as a series of supposedly fictional novels, find themselves at a ‘Supernatural’ conference, where much fun is poked at the series in general as well as its more rabid fanbase; and in the ultimate meta-episode ‘The French Mistake’, the Winchesters are sent to a parallel universe in which they meet Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles playing Sam and Dean on the set of a TV show called ’Supernatural’.
For a show about people fighting demons, ‘Supernatural’ is surprisingly free of graphic violence; much of it is off-screen and there is very little blood. It is also not scary although there is a large amount of effort put into the atmosphere to compensate. The success of the show comes from the central relationships; through trials and tribulations aplenty there is never any doubt of Sam and Dean’s love for one another. It is the audience’s attachment to them that makes ‘Supernatural’ compelling viewing and Kripke’s overarching mythology that keeps them coming back for ten full seasons. Whilst it won’t make gorehounds happy, ‘Supernatural’ is that rarest of things – amusing and fun enough to attract the non-horror crowd, but smart and self-referential enough to hook the true genre fan.
Original Trailer Season One: