I will admit that I nearly opened with a joke about being given the keys to the Impala, but I figured, best just use that one to the once.
I don’t remember how I first encountered Supernatural; I’m sure it was an online discussion somewhere, but I don’t remember the specific pointer like I remember The Shakespeare Code. In fact, the first thing I remember about Supernatural is its Wikipedia page, which notes that its creator, Eric Kripke, cites Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and American Gods as influences.
That was really all I needed. I’ll state a caveat here in the interest of full disclosure: Neil Gaiman is the only person on Earth who has ever sent me into total fanboy catatonia. I had been 23 just a month when my best buddy trekked up to Jersey City from regions farther south so we could see Gaiman open for The Magnetic Fields at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. I had been corresponding (roughly) with Neil for nearly a year by then on The Well, but still I couldn’t bring myself to say hello (it took an introduction from Claudia Gonson of the Fields to actual render me speechful).
I had, by then, read everything Gaiman had written except Sandman, and I was totally looking forward to American Gods (the copy on my bookshelf, just a few feet away, was the first one signed on the American Gods tour, and it was signed at the Borders WTC. It has, of course, become somewhat of a talisman in my life).
I wanted to love American Gods, but I’ll admit, back then, I didn’t; my visceral reaction was that it read very much like exactly the debut novel it was–a writer learning how to write a novel as he did so. While it has grown on me in the years since, I still think Coraline and Anansi Boys are better, novel-wise, than American Gods was (Anansi Boys is, I believe, one of the greatest novels ever: very nearly fully achieved and perfect for what it is. It seems like it understands, in a way some few books do, what it means to be, and quite successfully achieves it).
My point is that I’d been reading Gaiman for a few years by then, and that he’s one of two novelists I continue to both read and enjoy (the same I cannot say for either King, Koontz, Carroll, or Pratchett [the other novelist is Rowling]). Which was why, when I saw that citation of influences, I just had to check out Supernatural.
Supernatural: two slightly dysfunctional but also very cool brothers drive around in a vintage Chevy Impala while listening to Asia and hunting things that go bump in the night.
And if that’s not very nearly a perfect logline, I don’t know what is.
Over three (so far) seasons, Supernatural has followed the brothers Winchester, Sam and Dean, as they drive back and forth across the country hunting . . . well, just about everything for which a season does not exist. Vampires? Check. Werewolves? Check. Djinn, changelings, and killer clowns (though not from outer space)? Check, double check, and wait, let me confirm–yep, check all over again.
And I think it’s way better than it has any right to be. I mean, one of the brothers is best known for a recurring role in the Gilmore Girls while the other has the sort of suitably pouty lips directors hire make-up people to moisten every ten minutes, but hell if it ain’t Tiger Beat heartthrobs battling evil, and boyhow does it work.
Don’t get me wrong; there are a couple of things about the series that, ultimately, unfortunately, fall flat, the single biggest being that the series seems to have an undue amount of trouble letting characters stay dead. Perhaps this is a reaction on my end, in that both television shows I’m currently most into (Supernatural and Doctor Who) don’t seem to want to let anyone actually die. And, of course, there is some wriggle room in Supernatural; when you’re dealing so much with things that go bump in the night, you are, story-wise, generally allowing that things do bump in the night, and the things that bump in said night probably used to be alive in some way, which means that there is acknowledgement of the afterlife. Especially when you’re dealing with demons and Faustian bargains and a bunch of characters who care about people they love more than they care about themselves.
When people keep dying but keep not exactly staying dead, it reduces tension for the viewer. It makes suspense and danger (not to mention: death) not mean nearly so much. You stop worrying when a character seems about to die, because you think, well, no biggie, they can just bargain that out of the way.
In most cases, the stakes are at least changed (and sometimes raised), but still, I feel the creators stumbled a bit with all the dead-not-dead stuff.
Even still, I remain impressed by the adventures of the brothers Winchester. Most of the episodes are self-contained, which is a hallmark of the shows I love (e.g., Doctor Who and House, MD), with development over arcs contributing to but not overwhelming the self-contained nature of each episode (or two-parter). I’ve always been the sort who avoids anything in multiple parts each of which can’t be enjoyed on its own, mainly because I’ve always felt like I’m being strung along (part of the reason I’ve always enjoyed TPBs to single-issue comics. Fuck single issues. Fuck waiting a week (or worse) to find out what’s going to happen next [the Harry Potter series is the notable exception, but then again, reading Harry Potter is a bit like watching a season DVD all in a go]).
Which is the other nit I pick with Supernatural; apparently, renewal goes to the creators’ heads, as each season pretty much ends on a cliffhanger of some sort. There’s a way to pique interest to keep people watching (or reading) and there’s a way simply to infuriate them.
But Kripke and McG (who exec produces) manage to avoid trouble by consistently putting together terrific, clever episodes. Some of my favorite bits: the names the Winchesters use to pose as detectives (Landis and Dante, Page and Plant, Bachman and Turner); the way Dean Winchester is written; uber-hot chicks in just about every episode; and layers. I’ve watched straight through Season 3, and all the characters seem so fully realized; the highest compliment I can pay, I think, is that you believe these characters had lives before you started watching, and you believe they had lives after the screen goes dark. I tend to think that in addition to the cited influences, Stephen King’s canon casts a long shadow across, at least in terms of character dynamics and interactions, as well as humor and story (and that’s one of the single highest compliments I would pay. Say what you will about Stephen King’s writing [hey, I like it], but you can’t claim he’s not a great storyteller).
I worry about next season; three seemed a bit uneven, though I wonder if that was mainly because it was truncated due to the writers’ strike (a lot like House, MD).
(cross-posted to Mightygodking.com.)