Supernatural: First Impressions

Late last fall, I asked for readers of this blog to pimp their favorite shows. Overwhelmingly, the most popular choice was a CW series called Supernatural -- of course, there was a concerted campaign within the show's fan community to write in and share the love for the series in hopes that it might generate greater awareness of the program. Here's just a few of the things readers had to say about Supernatural:

Every week is like a new little horror movie that, most times, is really quite frightening. But that's not what really drives it. The true strength of Supernatural lies in the absolutely touching family ties and brotherly love exhibited every episode by Sam and Dean.


The tight brotherly bond, driven by the love of their father is what keeps the fans coming back. The lore [hellhounds, demons, vamps, wendigos] keeps the fans sticking around for more and a crossover from the [Joss]Whedonverse thrills us! Each week a new puzzle piece is put down in the mystery of their family's trials and tribulations and we LOVE Eric Kripke for such a great show.


John, Sam and Dean are a dysfunctional family, and so intriguing with it that all the exchanges they have about their family issues have us fan(girls, mostly, I think) squee in delight. They all have a definite character, differences and similarities quite cleverly written and filmed (the way Dean and John move, the way in which John and Sam say the same words, etc). The feelings implied in looking out for each other not only as fellow hunters but as a family make the tension in the fighting/dangerous scenes raise up a notch. We want to see Sam telling it all to his father, we want to see what Dean would do, who would he side with, we want to see John worried about his boys. In short, we want to see MEN EMOTE for each other, and the family ties allow for a narrative that can play with this instead of justifying it.


Usually when there's a friendship that fan glom onto, there will be hints of it onscreen--banter, and maybe once or twice per season they save each other's lives. It's the fans who had the really deep, strong emotional undercurrent in fanfic. But in Supernatural, the intense bond between the brothers is part of the text.


It's got a lovely mix of an overall mytharc as well as standalone bits and episodes.


The arch narrative is threaded all throughout the first season, picked up in some episodes and just mentioned in others, but it's what gives the series a fundamental unity and reason d'eitre.


The continuity is fabulous, and works in all sorts of extra information, both on the characters and whatever myth they're investigating. I find myself re-watching episodes, figuring out what's going on, and the researching the history of the legends.

Each of the paragraphs above comes from a different reader but they represent steps in an argument that certainly got my attention. All I can say is that your campaign worked -- at least in my case. I had only a vague awareness of Supernatural before I started getting flooded by these earnest pleas and recommendations. Frankly, I had lumped it together with Medium and The Ghost Whisperer, seeing the whole lot as basically TV knockoffs of The Sixth Sense. But, once I read those recommendations, I know I had to see it for myself and so I put the Season One DVD boxed set on my Christmas list. I've been watching Supernatural while coping with jet lag during my trip to Singapore -- maybe not the best choice under the circumstances because instead of putting me to sleep, I keep wanting to watch just one more and end up staying up later than I should be. I more or less ended up inhaling Season One -- watching the last eight episodes more or less back to back on the flight back from Singapore, and I am now craving season two.

I kept planning to write a midterm report on my viewing but given the choice between watching another episode and writing about the series, I kept choosing to watch another episode. Every statement I quoted above is absolutely true -- this is a show which delivers real haunted house style horror every week and does so while giving us an extensive look into the emotional life and personal growth of its core protagonist. Each episode is self contained enough that you can watch it out of sequence and get something rewarding out of the experience, yet there's a powerful cumulative effect of watching the episodes in sequence and thus seeing the character's inner lives come bubbling up again and again. The writing is crisp; the characters have a distinctive voice.

You can try to compare it to X-Files or Buffy or Night Stalker, all of which it superficially resembles, but this series does things its own way (as I hope to illustrate in a moment).

It's hard to imagine how or why a series this good is suffering from such total neglect from the network, from the critics, though clearly not from its most hardcore fans.

Let me tell you I was nervous going in. Having decided I wanted to write something in response to the community's push, I was terrified I wasn't going to like the show and would then have to write something negative. I never want to pee on someone else's fandom but I was starting to see some folks out in LJland grumbling because I hadn't said anything about Supernatural while I had posted about Heroes, the runner up show in my contest (You know who you are). I was already writing Heroes; Supernatural took homework and the end of a term is not the best time to be adding on extra assignments.

As it happens, the first few episodes didn't quite grab me -- they were good enough, they worked well within the terms of the genre, the characters and plot had potential, but I wasn't hooked. For me, the episode that pushed me over the edge was "Skin." And from there, it just got more and more intense. Retrospectively, it was all there from the beginning.

For those who, like me, got it confused with some of the other supernatural shows that hit television around the same time, this one deals with two brothers who are traveling across America doing battle with demonic forces and searching for their missing father. The creatures they encounter in any given episode are the stuff of campfire stories -- they are inspired by roadside Americana and by urban legends. It is supernatural horror of a kind which movies rarely give us any more -- spin tingling without being overly gory (other than an odd preoccupation with dripping blood). Indeed, its dependence on shadowy figures owes something to the vintage horror films of producer Val Lewton (The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man) than anything in contemporary horror cinema. On the making of tape, Eric Kripke cites a range of filmic exemplars, including Poltergeist, An American Werewolf in London, and The Evil Dead movies.

The film scholar Robin Wood has identified the core formula for the horror film -- "normality is threatened by the monstrous" -- and suggested that the formula breaks down into three elements - normality, the monstrous, and the relationship between the two. And it is on that level that we can understand what separates Supernatural from many of the other horror series on television.

Joss Whedon has described the vampires and demons represented on Buffy as "metaphors" for teenage experience in America: they embody the horrors to be found in the hellmouth that is American public education.

The monsters in The X-Files ultimately became clues within the vast governmental conspiracy that Scully and Muldar wanted to uncover: the truth was out there and each monster we unmask brought us closer to the truth. Earlier in the series, everything hinged on the debate between faith and science, with the two partners contesting the validity of each other's world views.

Something similar can be said of Lost where the supernatural elements are few and far between but seem to be just one more tantalizing clue to the puzzle that constitutes the series.

In Supernatural, the monsters are, in effect, emotional scars and psychic wounds. They represent unresolved emotional issues, often within the context of family life, and they are also external correlatives for the emotional drama taking place in the lives of the series' protagonists. Sam and Dean go out there looking for things that are strange and unfamiliar and they end up seeing themselves and their relationship more clearly.

This is the stuff of classic melodrama: Peter Brooks tells us that melodrama externalizes emotions. It takes what the characters are feeling and projects it onto the universe. So that the character's emotional lives gets mapped onto physical objects and artifacts, gets mirror backed to them through other characters, gets articulated through gestures and physical movements, and on a metalevel, speaks to us through the music which is what gives melodrama its name. Supernatural is melodrama in the best sense of the term.

On one level, it is made up of classic masculine elements -- horror, the hero's quest, sibling rivalry, unresolved oedipal dramas -- but on another level, it seems ideally suited to the themes and concerns which have long interested the female fan community. Heck, this series is one long hurt/comfort story. Every episode seems structured as much around the character moments as around the monster of the week plotlines. Everything here seems designed to draw out the emotions of the characters and force them to communicate with each other across all of the various walls which traditional masculinity erects to prevent men from sharing their feelings with each other. Dean in particular seems to hate "chick flick moments" and has a running commentary on how much he would like to avoid getting in touch with his feelings but this doesn't prevent us from having some real emotional revelations in almost every episode and the last few episodes of the season force each character to decide what matters most to them and to weigh their goals against their ties to their family in the most immediate ways possible.

I am someone who is definitely closer to Sam than to Dean in my outlook on life and indeed, there are moments in the series that I absolutely hate Dean, yet the series is well enough constructed that each time you reach that point, they peal back another layer and show some other aspect of his character. There are several episodes near the end of Season one which show us why he acts the way he does and suggests that his emotions run a lot deeper than his machismo will allow him to admit.

What gives the series its epic structure is the quest for the demon that took the life of the boy's mother. The goal is what holds the dysfunctional and centrifugal family together; it is also what pulls them apart (since each of them holds within them some secrets about what happened that night that they have never shared with each other and the trauma has hit each of them on a different level.) Not every episode contributes directly to this core quest narrative -- though many of them are connected to it in ways that are not immediately clear and the quest gains momentum as you move into the last third of the first season (and perhaps beyond). This is not an ensemble drama of the kind which most often wins recognition from critics these days: the focus is strongly on the two protagonists but around them, we accumulate, episode by episode, a richly drawn set of supporting characters, some of whom are recurring, some of whom appear in only a single storyline. It is not always clear which is which when we watch an episode and a real strength of the series is that what may at first seem to be throw away or one shot characters may resurface later. The series spends enough time setting up many of these characters that it produces considerable negative capability: we want to know what happens to these characters after the episode ends and in the case of the various family friends we encounter, we'd like to find out more about their history with the father before the series itself starts. There's more than enough suggestions of back story here to sustain an army of fan writers for a long time to come.

A real strength of the series is the construction of female secondary characters, all the more unusual in a series which is so centrally about its core male leads. But each week, we seem to introduce one or two women who are struggling not only against supernatural forces but against the circumstances life has thrown their way. As Carol Clover suggests in Men, Women, and Chain Saw, horror films have traditionally offered a range of strong roles for women in part because men can accept the experience of risk and vulnerability at the heart of horror by mapping it onto the female victim. Clover describes the role of the Final Girl in the slasher film genre, for example, showing how the women overcome and ultimately face down their fear in the course of the action. These women sometimes surface as romantic interests for Sam and Dean but more often, they are extensions of their emotional drama: that is to say, each of them is dealing with some aspect of family drama which strongly parallels the issues which Sam and Dean are grappling with in their own lives. The men do not so much desire them as romantic or sex objects as they use them as mirrors to see into their own and each other's souls. Each woman teaches them something they need to learn before they can become emotionally whole again and in the process, each teaches the viewer something about the men that we would not know otherwise. The show never patronizes the women, never denies them their core humanity, and indeed, often, it is clear that the men admire the women's courage, intelligence, integrity, and passion. The result are some of the most compelling male/female relationships I've seen on prime time network television.

I am trying to write this without giving away too many spoilers. Part of my pleasure here was going into this series without knowing what to expect. Yet, I am hoping that I can lend my voice to the other fans of the series who wrote in this fall to pimp this show. You can certainly discover some of the virtues I've identified here in a single episode seen out of context but there really is a value in going back and watching this series from the beginning. There is a growth in the emotional life of the characters which is best experienced watching several episodes in a gulp. This is the kind of series that dvd box sets are made for.

I hope to write some more about Supernatural down the line. One of the things I am still working on are the parallels between Supernatural and Heroes, the other show which did very well with readers of this blog. There are several plot elements here -- the theme of dopplegangers in "Skin" for example parallels the Niki/Jessica storyline in Heroes and the slow discovery of the extend of Sam's powers has a lot in common with what happens to the various protagonists on the NBC superhero drama. I also think there's a fair amount to be said here about what I see as the surprisingly negative portrayal of fans in "Hell House," especially given the discussions we've had here about the "Love & Monsters" episode of Doctor Who.

I still have read none of the fan commentary beyond what's been posted here or the fan fiction so I don't know for sure what elements fans are picking up on in this series. That will be the next step once I get caught up with season two. But for the moment, I think you can add me to the list of Supernatural fans.