Why doesn’t the mainstream television press pay more attention to The CW’s Supernatural?
The occasional story about this four-year-old franchise appears from time to time, but from its humble beginnings back on The WB, Supernatural has never received the kind of outsize coverage enjoyed by such genre series as ABC’s Lost or NBC’s Heroes, not to mention The X-Files during its nine-year-run on Fox or the vampire drama Moonlight during its all-too-brief single season on CBS. Fox’ brand new suspense drama Fringe, which continually crosses a moving line between science fiction and science fact, became a media darling even before it premiered and remains a favorite, even though it has yet to prove that it will over time live up to the early hype. (That’s not a slam against Fringe. It’s a perfectly decent series. It may evolve into a great series. But, to date, it is hardly the groundbreaking effort that the media mania surrounding it would suggest.)
Meanwhile, Supernatural sits on the sidelines, largely out of sight and out of mind, at least where television journalists are concerned. That may be due in part to the fact that they are more intently focused on the show’s formidable time period competition, including CBS’ CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; NBC’s The Office, and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. But Supernatural survives and thrives opposite those shows, so where is the love? In all likelihood, some members of the TV elite dismiss it as a “horror” show starring two “pretty boys,” the likes of which populate many dramas on The CW, just as they did many dramas on The WB.
Well, I’ve been watching Supernatural this season and I am here to say that this series about demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester currently offers the strongest and most satisfying mythology storytelling of any genre show at present. That’s an incredible accomplishment, given the problems that so many series with intense mythologies suffer after one or two seasons. Here’s another plus: Supernatural doesn’t extend its mythology simply by layering mystery upon mystery upon mystery, a storytelling construct first overdone by Twin Peaks, and then by The X-Files, and more recently by Lost and, now, Heroes. (Does anyone understand what is happening on Heroes this season? More to the point, does anyone any longer care about any of the characters on that show?) Rather, Supernatural simply extends and deepens a story that is always very easy to follow, even when the plot turns and makes clear that everything one might have thought one knew about the central characters may not be true at all.
One could rightly note that Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica does the same thing, but for purposes of this column I’m talking only about broadcast series, because their creative teams must produce more episodes per year than their cable counterparts. One might also say that The CW’s Smallville is similarly adept at expanding its mythology. But, as fond as I am of that retelling of the Superman saga, I am the first to admit that it has at times during its eight year run been somewhat cloudy and contrived, story-wise.
After three years of demon hunting and monster killing, Supernatural shocked fans when it ended its third season by killing Dean and sending him to hell. (This happened as the result of a deal Dean made with a demon at the end of Season 2 to bring Sam back to life after he was killed.) It was a truly jarring season finale, with an unforgettable final shot of Dean, suspended by chains and meat hooks, seemingly destined to spend eternity in torment, desperately calling out Sam for help. Season four began with Dean mysteriously clawing his way out of the grave four months later and looking none the worse for wear, except for a hand-print burned into his right shoulder.
The explanation for what happened made clear that two new supporting players were joining the Supernatural canvas, if off camera: God and Satan.
Supernatural could have jumped the shark right then and there. Instead, it popped the clutch. Viewers quickly learned that Dean had literally been rescued from hell and returned to life by an angel named Castiel (played by Misha Collins, pictured below), who identified himself as a “warrior of God” and is at times as creepy as some of the demons the boys have fought through the years. As Castiel explained, angels are suddenly interacting with humans for the first time in 2000 years because an all-powerful demon named Lilith (whom the brothers have fought in the past) is busy bringing about the Apocalypse (by breaking the seals referred to in the Book of Revelations), and if she succeeds Lucifer will be free to walk the earth. With his demon hunting skills so finely honed, Dean is much too valuable to leave in hell at this critical time. But his rescue came with a warning. “I dragged you out of hell,” Castiel told him. “I can throw you back in.”
Meanwhile, soulful Sam, who was infected in his infancy by the blood of the Yellow-Eyed Demon -- a hateful entity that murdered the Winchester brothers’ father, mother, grandfather and grandmother and countless others, including Sam’s fiancée – has developed the ability to exorcise demons from the humans they inhabit without harming said humans. The driven Dean doesn’t approve, because the exorcisms allow the demons to go free, whereas killing the host often results in killing the demon as well. Also, Castiel chillingly warned Dean that no good can come from Sam using his power. Apparently God isn’t cool with it. (The show revealed much more about Yellow Eye and his long-established connection to the Winchester family in a thrilling episode this season that further enriched the series’ past and present drama.)
Most of the credit for the continued excellence of this show goes to series creator Eric Kripke, a writer who knows how to tell a damn story, and his creative team. But the hard-working Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, who literally carry every episode as Dean and Sam, respectively, also deserve special notice. As I said above, I think much of the press looks at them as two more CW pretty boys. But that’s like dismissing Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Gellar as just another WB babe. Ackles and Padalecki bring just as much emotional depth to their portrayals of two brothers fighting to save the world from evil while continually sacrificing their own happiness as Gellar did to her sublime depiction of a tentative teenager tasked with the same challenge. Gellar, however, consistently received much deserved praise for her work throughout all seven season of her show. After four years it’s time for the press to throw the same support to Ackles and Padalecki.