As television goes, particularly by 2013 standards, “Supernatural” is ancient. Coming to the close of its eighth season and having been renewed for a ninth, “Supernatural” is a veteran in a world whose current loves include learning how people’s addiction to eating vaporub began and deciding whether or not Obnoxious Housewife Number One is more irritating than Obnoxious Housewife Number Five.
Most days when I’m in front of the TV rather than actually being able to find something to watch, I’m left marveling at the poor state of television and the dying art of scripted entertainment. “Supernatural” stands as a rare gem among the wreckage. So what keeps “Supernatural” successful, strong and thriving even after all these seasons? Many would argue nothing, I’m sure. For those that still tune in and watch though, like we did back when Sam and Dean rode around looking for John and following coordinates, there are many elements that make up the core skeleton of “Supernatural” and those are what I want to talk about here today ““ what keeps a show like “Supernatural” alive?
First let’s be clear that I’m neither an expert in television marketing, scripts or design nor do I purport to be. Everything I’m going to say is based on years of observation and opinion (not to say that make me any less right). Second, this article will contain spoilers for current and past series including “Buffy,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Lost,” and “Once Upon a Time.” Read and your own peril”¦
Okay, let’s get to it.
First, before we delve into the deep stuff I simply have to get this off my personal checklist of issues: kids. As far as I’m concerned, children are rarely a positive thing on a television show. Usually they aren’t any better in film either, but that’s not exactly our concern at the moment. It’s not that I don’t like children I just find they add very little and mostly detract from realism of a television series. Also, they’re annoying. Somehow, “Supernatural” has managed to avoid falling into this trap. Even writing the child characters, “Supernatural” avoids the stereotypes for the most part: the kids they write are unique, fit their situations, react appropriately and, most importantly for me – act their ages.
“Supernatural” also understands that, given the nature of the show, it would be inappropriate and out of sync with the world that the viewers have come to value and love to have a regular child character. Long term child characters on these types of shows, particularly when added later, often mark that “jump the shark” moment of desperation for something new. They also mark the beginning of the end, in my experience. Two prime examples being of course Dawn on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (much controversy over that character) and, for a non-supernatural example, the introduction of April on “Gilmore Girls” (I have nothing positive to say about this character whatsoever). Both introduced towards the end of their respective series to shift energies and bring change, both, in my humble opinion, detestably annoying and a huge blow to the series success.
“Supernatural” could have done this with Ben, and one could argue they even teetered at that edge for a hot minute. Luckily, the writers recognized that this is not the atmosphere for a child, or at least, our main characters aren’t ones who can properly develop as we’ve invested in watching them do once you throw a child into the mix full time. Instead, the writers remained grounded in the initial premise of two brothers hunting things ““ sans children ““ and that works pretty well I’d say.
Okay, onto the real pillars of successful and enduring television”¦.
Strength of Script
Without question there are brilliant minds on the “Supernatural” team, including but certainly not limited to the writers. “Supernatural” has unquestionably developed into a complex show, but it did so with grace, good pacing and thoughtful writing ““ an area where so many shows have floundered. Have you ever wanted to love a show but just could not get beyond the B-grade dialogue and shockingly unshocking plot reveals? (Ahem ““ I’m looking at you “Arrow.” How I want to like you!). Meanwhile, other shows start so strong only to drown themselves in their own pretentious clever work. Some “Lost” viewers, for example, will tell you the show simply became over complicated too quickly and got itself so tangled up viewers couldn’t follow the threads.
An advantage of simplicity of premise such that “Supernatural” has (which we’ll expand on in a moment) is the thoughtfulness it allows when considering a long term possibility for the characters and the universe of the show. Not only can writers ensure, for the most part, that plots aren’t overly or unnecessarily complicated but you can also take care not to limit the show by painting characters and storylines into a corner. Consider the show “Joan of Arcadia,” for example. The first season was clever and had mostly well written scripts. It was even based on a unique and intriguing plot device. The problem is that it didn’t allow much room for development in the long run. The premise of a girl in high school who gets seemingly innocuous tasks from God that in the end have a life lesson attached and/or impact somebody around her profoundly quickly finds itself weighed down by redundancy. At the same time, when the show attempted to tackle more serious issues and move beyond this, it was tripped up by darker storylines outside of the nature of the lighter atmosphere of the show itself and the age of the main character herself.
“Supernatural” has never suffered from these problems; it is a show that understands its own nature and always has. I have never had an episode so totally out of line with my expectations for “Supernatural,” be it in terms of character nature or atmosphere; that it made me question whether I’d ever tune in again. There are few other shows for which I can say this.
Simplicity of Premise
Every show, the good, the bad and the frighteningly bad started with an idea. Some of those ideas are too complex to ever get off the ground, while some get slight lift off only to crash and burn in their own complications. A successful show, at least in my opinion, has to start with a straightforward and simple premise. Like “Supernatural.”
Now, some of you are sitting there thinking, “Umm, have you even seen the show recently? It’s the anti-thesis of simple.” You’re right. “Supernatural” is comprised of a complex mythology that never stops evolving, delving deep into many worlds and involving untold numbers of rules. At its core, however, “Supernatural” stems from one very simple foundation: two brothers hunting things along the back roads of middle America. To break it down further one could even say that the heart of the show is as base as family, but I don’t want to go that deep right now.
Two brothers hunting things. Yes, there was more plot development necessary than this before the show was set to film however with this simple idea the show was able to grow in so many directions, to never be either limited or tangled right out of the gate. Supernatural was not tripped up in its own mythology from the get-go, as some shows might be. This concept also allowed for the world to evolve and carry the show forward without getting stale. Could there have been eight-going-into-nine seasons of Sam and Dean just looking for their father while staking demons? Nope. But, two brothers hunting things leaves many doors such to open ““ why are they hunting? What happens when they find what they’re hunting? What are the rules of this world? The possibilities for “Supernatural” were broad from the get go and the show has taken full advantage of these opportunities at almost every turn.
Roots & Growth
While growth is significant, everything depends on the roots of a show to keep it strong and thriving throughout its lifetime. Much like remembering the simple premise on which a story was conceived, the roots keep the characters and audience connected, because despite the people they’ve grown into, the things they’ve survived and loss they’ve endured, we know where they come from and who they are. It’s no secret that my other most beloved fandom was/is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” This show, like “Supernatural,” knew its roots and how to stem strongly from them, rather than break away entirely. The show was about Buffy and her destiny, her strength as a slayer (not just her physical strength either). It was about how she grew into herself from the relationships she had, being the first slayer allowed to have such relationships, and realizing who she really was. At the end of the second season there is a famous exchange between her and the big bad that was Angelus that I think sums up the theme as it carried forward for the rest of the show:
Angelus:Now that’s everything, huh? No weapons… No friends…No hope. Take all that away… and what’s left?
Established early, this foundation was recalled several times at the fundamental moments in the BTVS series (Buffy flings herself into a swirling Hell vortex, for example) and as a result, kept it strong (almost until the end, but let’s not go there).
My point is, like Buffy, “Supernatural” knows where it comes from. It constantly draws on and remembers the past. The characters grow and change and learn but without losing the things that made us love them and motivated them in the first place. Sam and Dean mature and come to understand things as pieces of the past and present click together to form the future in ways that didn’t make sense or they could not fully realize until now. To quote “Glee,” “roots before branches”. Luckily for the show and the viewers, “Supernatural” has done a radiant job of laying the foundation on which to build from.
Expansion is part of life and so too is it a part of television reality. “Supernatural” has excelled at growing its own world each season by building on the established mythology, examining huge concepts like fate, destiny, Heaven and Hell and not only managing to tie it back to our main characters in personal ways, but also managing to leave some of those larger concepts more ambiguous than ever. Growth and expansion are fundamental to successful stories that hope to endure for audiences don’t want to see characters learn the same lesson over and over each season, let alone each episode. A current example could be “Once Upon a Time.” Although the show has many aspects and plots that change and develop in interesting ways, every episode I get more frustrated with tired trope of evil, slighted, revenge seeking Regina who wants Henry. Time to change this up and move it along. (Henry is also one of those annoying TV children, by the way).
Ultimately, “Supernatural” has made it this far because it is comprised of a brilliant team all around and a loyal viewing audience. The team delivers when it comes to storylines that have emotional depth, humour, continuity and refreshing elements. They understand when to bring in new characters and how to say goodbye to old friends and why it’s important to not only be true to the heart and foundations of the show but also to the fans who’ve watched for eight years. “Supernatural” is certainly a rare find on television today and if you’re new to the series, welcome, glad you finally discovered this treasure. If you’ve been on the ride since the beginning, well you hardly need to be told what’s so great about the show, do you?
So, aside from the pretty faces and great acting, what mojo do you think “Supernatural” has got (or traps it’s cleverly avoided) that keeps a show running, and so smoothly, for this long?