I have to admit, I’ve never been to an academic conference before. When The Winchester Family Business was approached about sponsoring and speaking at an academic conference honoring “Supernatural’s” tenth anniversary at the school of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University, I really had no idea what we were getting into. It ended up taking a lot of preparation and planning but after it was all over I was pleasantly surprised. It was a really great experience.
For the conference, my family and I packed up the car and made the 7 hour trek in the non-stop heavy rain to Downtown Chicago. I had never been to DePaul University. Sure, I’ve been to the Chicago loop many times, but for some reason the intersections of Jackson Street and S. Wabash never came up on my radar. I come from Columbus, Ohio, home of a sprawling college campus known as Ohio State, so I wasn’t familiar with packing learning facilities into small spaces in a historic old downtown building.
The 11th floor and the basement were ours for the conference, making it often times tight for the approximately 300 hundred of us in attendance, but we managed well.
I had the honor of attending a dinner the night before for conference participants. There I caught up with several old acquaintances such as Maureen Ryan, Lynn and Kathy of Fangasm, and Bookdal and Nightsky from our humble little site. We had pizza and loads of discussion, not just about Supernatural but other shows as well. I especially loved bending the ear of Mo Ryan about The 100, a show that both of us have been covering of late. We do wonder if creator Jason Rothenburg can keep everything as perfectly constructed as they have been over the last two seasons with increasing online pressure from shippers who weren’t particularly happy that their pairing was satisfied. It’s a common problem with all shows anymore, as we all know too well with “Supernatural.”
But that was just one highlight. The other one was Robbie Thompson was able to show after a little while. He was energized and ready to talk with all of us after a long day of travel. I gave him a big hug in greeting, and he was pleased to see me again as well. Every year at Comic Con, I have the honor of sitting in the VIP section with other journalists and SPN writers and actors (those not involved in the panel anyway). For the past couple of years, Robbie has taken on the role of SPN writing room ambassador along with Adam Glass. He is always there to greet us with smiles and hugs, and we talk and catch up with all that’s happened since our last meeting. Last year Robbie was approached by many fans as well, and he was super gracious in posing for pictures and meeting everyone. His wife watched all this next to me and smiled over all the attention he was getting. She doesn’t mind one bit that he embraces the fans this way.
Needless to say, Robbie was again very open and inviting to all of us at the conference for those two days. He talked freely and openly with a bunch of us in the bar for a while, talking about all sorts of things. One of the conversations he started was asking us how we all became fans. Robbie as many of you know was hired by Sera Gamble in season seven, so he had to play catch up with the DVDs. He was surprised to find that there were others in our group that had the same story, finding Supernatural in the later seasons. He is in awe how the show still manages to find audiences after all this time.
Robbie is from the Detroit area, as am I, and we both are big Red Wing fans. There was an NHL playoff game showing on a nearby wall and every once in a while his attention turned to a great play that happened. That mirrors a lot of my upbringing too in Hockeytown, when a game is on, no matter who’s on, it’s hard to look away. Of course being in Chicago we both knew we were kind of in enemy territory, so it was probably a good thing that the Red Wings had been eliminated in the playoffs early. Only one or two Blackhawk fans took the chance to gloat. 🙂
Robbie also talked a lot about putting together “Fan Fiction.” He admitted that he assumed the 200th episode would be the big demon cure of Dean episode, but when Jared’s injury changed how they had to write the first half of the season, Singer and Carver approached him to write something different. Supernatural the Musical. Robbie was a little freaked out about this at first. He had no idea how to approach it. Once he came up with the idea that it would happen at an all girls school, it all took off from there. He got to work closely with SPN composer Jay Gruska on some of the songs. He is a self professed production junkie and was fascinated to see how they managed to pull together such great songs and blend them so well with his script. He also paid for himself to be there in Vancouver when the episode was shot and managed to get a glimpse of all parts of the production. He was most geeked out by looking through the camera lens and seeing what the director did.
The evening was getting late and I had to get to the hotel with my family, so after introducing Robbie to my daughter we left, with him entertaining more fans that had come in. It would be an early start the next day.
Conference Day – May 9, 2015
Even though I was invited to pitch an idea of a panel and possibly speak, I decided that I would go there as reporter and sponsor and watch the panels from a far. Nightsky, Bookdal, and Far Away Eyes all did do various panels though, each on a variety of topics. I will share what Far Away Eyes had to say about her panel a little further in this report.
I was really tickled to see every volunteer and the event organizers wearing their pink custom t-shirts. I had a part in designing those t-shirts, pulling on my sketchy at best Photoshop skills. Since we were sponsors and paid for the t-shirts, we got to put our logo and website info on the back of the shirts. Below is the design I ended up producing after a week of several tries. I can be found on our newly revamped Google Plus page.
At each hour there were two discussion panels planned, and then an airing of an old “Supernatural” episode in another room. The episodes were often of a meta slant, like “Changing Channels,” “The Real Ghostbusters,” or “The French Mistake.” For my first panel of the day, I slipped into a discussion about Genre and Supernatural. A lot of these panels were free form, where the presenters would start with a little introduction and then it would take off from there. This particular panel was one of the more lively ones and had a fair share of audience participation.
The most captivating part of that discussion happened when the subject wandered into, “How will Supernatural end?” One of the panelists suggested jokingly the “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” ending. Sam and Dean are leading the charge against the next big evil and sudden they’re stopped by the police and arrested for credit card fraud. Another suggestion was the “Quantum Leap” ending. Sam and Dean move onto the next level, the next big adventure. It only gets harder from there.
One thing was for sure, everyone agreed that Sam and Dean can’t die. That would be a disservice to fans and technically, they’ve already died enough. They would go to Heaven and get bored and start hunting angels or something. One person liked the idea of them growing as characters to the point where they could be happy with a normal life despite all that they’ve seen and done. “How about the brothers learn to stop lying to each other?” One person suggested. Yes, that was a very popular comment. Ultimately, it was decided whatever the end, we’d like it to follow what “Carry On Wayward Son” promises, there will be peace when they are done.
Maureen Ryan: TV Criticism Workshop
Next, I attended Maureen Ryan’s workshop on television criticism (or as she likes to be called, Mo). Ever since I became a blogger, she had been a huge role model to me and the way I approach criticism. I’ve had to honor of getting to know her since “Supernatural” season four and she’s been very supportive of me and the numerous ups and downs I’ve had over the years since starting this crazy adventure as a “Supernatural” blogger.
Mo’s history with “Supernatural” was a common one for mainstream critics. She saw the first five episodes as a critics preview from Warner Brothers, and didn’t follow it. Every once in a while she’d get a review copy for standalone episodes and write about it, only to get messages from fans that she was missing a lot of things because she hadn’t seen the episodes in between. In other words, she wasn’t “getting it.” It wasn’t until season four that she got engaged and began to see what fans told her she was missing.
Season four was a turning point for “Supernatural” and mainstream media. Warner Brothers had sent out a critics review packet that came in a black box sealed with a Rising of the Witnesses symbol. Inside was a bible and a copy of the first two episodes of season four in some really awesome packaging. I smiled when she mentioned that package, because I got one too. I still have it and it’s one of my most cherished possessions. The day that arrived on my doorstep, I had just got home from being let go at my job. No warning, no thanks for three years of service, just, “you’re done.” It was kind of soul crushing. Yet I sat down that night and saw two days before anyone else “Lazarus Rising”. I was blown away. I watched it multiple times that night and forgot all about being suddenly unemployed.
On a side note (since I started the diversion-y story), I took that package to my second ever con, which was the first New Jersey con. It was the very first con too of a suddenly popular “Supernatural” actor, Misha Collins. I put that package in front of him to sign, telling him the story about the day I lost my job. He was so stunned that a fan opened up to him and told a personal story like that. He signed the package “To Alice, From one angel to another, Misha Collins.”
Anyway, that package changed Mo’s life too, because that pushed her into the world of the “Supernatural” fandom. She was one of the first mainstream critics to embrace the show. It’s been a roller coaster ride for sure. She started getting what fans were annoyed with previously. At the dinner the previous night, one of our discussions came up what was the best “Supernatural” season. We both instantly said season four. No wonder, because along with the show’s quality being the highest, it came with a lot of wonderful memories for us.
Mo is no doubt a fan of genre TV and a big part of her success is her commitment to giving genre TV it’s due while other mainstream critics stay away from it. She loves shows that raise moral questions through their stories, and genre TV does that a lot despite the nature of the circumstances. She started writing a lot about “Supernatural” because of the values that were important to the show and were well conveyed through the stories. It was exactly the kind of show she wanted to write about.
One topic that came up a couple of times was about TV criticism in this modern day and age, especially with fan sites and intense fan literacy. According to Mo, critics that have a following are aware there’s a lot of content out there. She admitted that there are many good writers out there that are writing for fan sites and blogs that she regularly reads (Yes, she gave my reviews at the Winchester Family Business a shoutout. Thanks Mo and I’m honored!).
How is fan literacy making traditional criticism different? It’s opened the doors for a lot of lively, funny writing. Traditional criticism is very dry and limited in length. Mo admitted to being told by her editor numerous times to cut the content down. Fans don’t have that kind of limitations and they take what’s in each episode seriously. Fan criticism has made content more expositional with an increased level of engagement. That’s resulted in a huge shift in the TV critic role. The job used to be reviewing premiere episodes or standalones.
A site example brought up was one of my favorites, Television Without Pity (aka TWOP). She even admitted she remembered when it was Mighty Big TV (so did I!). These guys came along and took fan criticism to a whole new level. Their writing was funny, insightful, expositional, and the articles were long yet deeply engaged. Everything in an episode was picked apart. That was some great writing to read and it got you excited about a particular show. 12 years ago no one knew what a showrunner was. Now it’s very common knowledge because of fan engagement.
Fan interactions through websites and later social media though has negative influence as well. Back to the TWOP example, the forums where fans could discuss TV shows were heavily moderated, to the point where any post that didn’t agree with their point of view was edited and posters banned. This was especially bad for Supernatural because Eric Kripke and some of the writers would go there for feedback. In a way, it influenced what they did. They weren’t getting the whole fan viewpoint, yet these opinions were grouped into the generic “fan reaction.” “Oh, the fans didn’t like this.” There are too many fan factions out there for one place to represent the overall fan viewpoint and this is where writers engaging with fans online can be dangerous if they don’t have their own strong point of view.
Whether you’re a writer for a TV show or a TV critic, a writer shouldn’t lost sight of their vision because of what’s online. There must be a reason behind what they choose to write, however they should always be able to defend their actions. “Fans” should never be the reason, however, they must be sensitive to fan reaction as well. This is especially important when TV writers decide to kill off characters. That choice especially cannot be taken lightly because if it doesn’t service the story, then it will upset a viewers. As we know with “Supernatural” fans, we don’t easily forget! Mo did mention later that one of her greatest criticisms of “Supernatural” is that they keep killing off the recurring characters. That’s not really necessary as a show matures and it ends up being a low point.
Of course, the level of engagement that one has in a show can be hard to sustain over time, especially with a long running show like “Supernatural.” It burns the “brain circuits” after a while and dampens enthusiasm. Mo mentioned that by the time “Lost” had finished, she was fried with that show. There were too many dangling threads and plot inconsistencies and she couldn’t follow it anymore. With “Supernatural” and many other long running genre shows, everything becomes a moving target after a while. “Supernatural” is like ten different shows now. They’re always changing things and the characters involved. It’s hard to do a unified take on show that’s been going for a while. It’s best to take it in smaller chunks and try to relate to different eras of the show.
As for other topics, someone asked how does Mo approach a review? When starting, Mo doesn’t read anyone else’s reviews until after she writes hers. That avoids any outside influence in her opinion. She asks herself what are three things she can say about the show. How would she describe it if she was telling a friend about it? She tries to figures out what the writer cares about and what are they trying to accomplish. Does the week to week material balance with the overall arc? Are they killing off characters for no good reason? (For the record, no matter who I talked to that day, Charlie’s loss was a sore subject for everyone, especially Robbie Thompson. More on that later).
She loves covering shows that are escapist yet can be inspiring to others. There are too many shows out there to write about and not all shows are reviewable shows. “NCIS” is not a critic friendly show, but “Mad Men” is. She loves the pleasant surprises, aka what she calls the “Stealth Show.” That kind of show looks like it’ll be one thing but ends up being something beyond the original pitch. The best example she can think of is “House.” That show’s premise was a doctor solving mysterious cases. But it dug into so much more, like morality and complex character traits. “Supernatural” is like that too. Sam and Dean don’t have to do the family business, but they do. That leads to all sort of moral dilemmas.
She has to think about what she wants to put in front of people’s eyeballs. Criticism is 99 percent subjective and what is the point of criticism unless you have a point of view? She likes speaking out against common tropes and bringing attention to an issue. Critics need to have an argument and justify their viewpoint. She also avoids pre- answering questions that haven’t been asked yet.
The last question was mine, and it stemmed from me not only doing “Arrow” reviews on TV For The Rest of Us, but becoming an avid watcher of “The Flash” and more superhero shows keep coming. How does she balance a show that is adapted from another piece of work like a comic?
This fad of creating TV shows based on intellectual property is what Mo calls, “The Blockbusterization of TV” and it concerns her. Studios are trying to do to TV what they’ve done to movies. Everything is an adaption and not original. When reviewing a show like that on television, she doesn’t care about the what was done in the books or comics. She analyzes how it worked on TV. How the characters were introduced, what kind of story was being told, does it make good television? The best example she can think of is “Game of Thrones.” It’s gotten better the more it’s moved away from the books. They have a good opportunity to do more with a story on TV.
She closed to say that “Supernatural” actually would have been a great graphic novel, but it wasn’t. See what happens when an original genre idea is born on TV?
Far Away Eyes’ Panel
Far Away Eyes did a panel, Love, Death and Codependence: The Family in “Supernatural.” Here’s what she had to say about her experience:
The panel I participated in dealt with family, co-dependency, and death within Supernatural. I had a co-presenter in Patricia Grosse. She was easy to talk to right away as we quickly decided how to kick this all off, and off we went. It was more like a great college discussion with respectful engagement and thought provoking statements than the squee I’ve so often experienced at cons. Much of the conversation felt like so many I’ve shared with fellow fans online. I couldn’t help but think that I never wanted this to end. So many of the intelligent questions built on one another providing deeper answers—and better yet, more thought provoking questions. It opened the door for so many different perspectives on family in Supernatural. It was more than I could have dreamed about. I went in wanting to make the #SPNFamily proud, and I left feeling even more proud of my #SPNFamily.
My contribution to the discussion centered on the nature of the nuclear family and how it is ripped apart. This destruction set up everything that follows, and we see how Sam and Dean not only have to cope with and react to this loss, but find new ways to bond with others around them that will create new families to replace the one they lost. My premise was largely that Supernatural, while being classified as a horror show, is really a family show hiding in plain sight. So many of the story lines center on or around the concept of family, fighting for it, rebuilding it, or seeing it destroyed yet again. Many times, Sam and Dean have built and rebuilt that family, all the while trying to protect some that can’t do it themselves.
Patricia brought up the co-dependency of Sam and Dean, discussing how their pair bond shaped so much of the show and the world around them. It highlighted just how they are the single pair that seems to survive any and all destructions we see happen throughout the series. For her, Adam’s death was something to ponder. Why, as a blood relative, did his death mean less to them than others the Winchesters lose? One reason raised was the concept that by the time Adam is lost to the ghouls and discovered by Sam and Dean they had already lost so many in both their parents.
For Patricia, she felt that Dean’s loss of Sam in “All Hell Breaks Loose Part I” had broken him far more than Hell ever could. In comparison, I mentioned that Sam has a similar reaction to the “Mystery Spot” experience—something that he’s possibly been trying to recover from ever since. It tied nicely to the concept that these two are a pair bond that holds the show together and why so many in their gravitational pull simply don’t survive the constant need to save one another.
The discussion also focused on death and the valuing or devaluing of human life within the Supernatural universe, and throughout the series we see lots of families or victims killed, the Winchesters rolling into town and eliminating the monster, only to leave a mess more or less in their wake. In comparison, connecting back to the pair bond concept, we discussed how Sam and Dean continually cheat death and are incapable of leaving the other one dead or dying—that they’ve become addicted in many ways to the supernatural fixes or deals that have gotten them out of several situations that should have resulted in at least one of their deaths.
By the end of the hour, everyone was so engrossed that it was hard to have it end. There was so many intelligent questions, answers, and all around discussion taking place that I was left once again struck by how special this fandom truly is. This show doesn’t simply entertain us. It makes us feel. It reaches inside us. It makes us look at our world, at complex concepts such as life, death, family, and what it all means. If you should ever have the chance to attend something like this, do so. You won’t regret it and you’ll be able to experience to true joy of discussing this awesome show with other super smart fans in person—a real treat all unto itself.
Coming up in the next report, our afternoon with Robbie Thompson, more panels, and a busy day for the dedicated people at Random Acts.