Somethingâ€™s been nagging at me the last few months about this favorite show of mine, and I couldnâ€™t quite put my finger on it until I read this fantastic article from an editor of â€œThe Vampire Diaries.â€ Nancy Forner shared a lot about the editing process for a genre vs. a procedural show. How tone plays a huge part of how they edit scenes. How they go for more emotional impact with "The Vampire Diaries", how they edit knowing the show thrives on tension and is incredibly stylistic, unlike some of the procedural shows she worked on in the past like â€œLaw & Order: SVU.â€
No doubt about it, ever since Eric Kripke stepped down as showrunner at the end of season five, the style and tone of the show has changed. The question Iâ€™ve always had though is what exactly changed? Itâ€™s going to take a least a couple of parts for me to give an acceptable analysis, but in this article, I try to tackle the question, â€œHas â€œSupernaturalâ€ gone too procedural?â€
Whatâ€™s a procedural?
Definitions are probably in order. Hereâ€™s the definition of a â€œproceduralâ€ per Wikipedia:
In television, "procedural" specifically refers to a genre of programs in which a problem is introduced, investigated and solved all within the same episode. The general formula for a police procedural involves the commission or discovery of a crime at the beginning of the episode, the ensuing investigation, and the arrest or conviction of a perpetrator at the end of the episode.
We know just by watching â€œCSIâ€ that a lot of the times the end of the episode will also lead to the death of the perpetrator (I heard all of you shouting, â€˜Bieber!â€™). Hereâ€™s another interesting tidbit about the procedural. Procedurals are sometimes criticized for their lack of character development, with little attention being paid to the lives of the recurring characters outside of their jobs. That hit a little too close to home for me when looking at season 6 and 7 Sam and Dean Winchester.
Nancy Forner had this to say about editing for â€œLaw and Order: SVU.â€
Law & Order: SVU, to take an example of a more classic TV show, is cut very straightforward and formal: you start with a wide shot, go to a medium and then over-the-shoulder. Rarely does the editing stand out. SVU is only about the story, not about the visuals.
Itâ€™s only about the story. Could it be that â€œSupernaturalâ€ in the last two seasons has been too focused on the story?
In a show like â€œLaw and Order: SVUâ€ though, a lot of the story strength comes from the dialogue. Thatâ€™s how they make the episodes engaging. â€œSupernaturalâ€ is not a dialogue intensive show for the most part. Sure, there are episodes and writers that have been more inclined toward sharp dialogue. Eric Kripke was a brilliant dialogue writer, as was Jeremy Carver. However, in terms of dialogue that is fast and off the wall unique, Ben Edlund is king.
â€œSupernaturalâ€ is classified as a, appropriately enough, â€œSupernatural drama.â€ The genre has a wider range of rules, but one thing is pretty clear. When Eric Kripke forged the vision for his supernatural drama, a procedural mentality wasnâ€™t close to what he visualized. Sure, season one was a little rough at first, but they needed time to find their footing. They figured out rather quickly the show couldnâ€™t thrive alone on urban legends. Following the formula that worked so well for â€œThe X-Files,â€ a mytharc had to be built and balanced with the stand alone cases. By the second season, that perfect balance of horror, action, family drama, and humor was established. Not a procedural, thatâ€™s for sure!
Now letâ€™s seen what Ms. Forner had to say about editing for â€œThe Vampire Diaries.â€
The stylistic uniqueness is in part due to the young adult and teen demographic who form the majority of the viewers. MTV was revolutionary for its fast cutting, but this is the post MTV generation, which grew up with music videos and fast editing. These kids watch TV, do homework, talk on the phone and IM at the same time. They can take in a lot more visuals than older people can. They get bored if it's not a tight pace.
I haven't read any studies, but having kids myself, I can tell you that they're used to taking in a lot more information, and they listen to tons of music, so they love that high energy. And we have to match that in The Vampire Diaries. That doesn't mean everything is very fast, however. If we have a beautiful love story or a tearful moment, we will play it long and slow. It's cut to express the story.
So while the action is fast paced, the emotional moments are long and slow. I could go on and on about the times â€œSupernaturalâ€ has excelled in this tactic of selling the emotional moment in between the action packed story. This is Sera Gambleâ€™s wheelhouse, at least as a writer. Among many great scenes thereâ€™s the end of â€œChildren Shouldnâ€™t Play With Dead Things,â€ Deanâ€™s tearful speech to Sam in â€œAll Hell Breaks Loose Part II,â€ Deanâ€™s last words to Sam as the clock strikes midnight in â€œNo Rest For The Wicked,â€ the end of â€œHeaven and Hell,â€ and Samâ€™s vivid hallucinations in â€œWhen The Levee Breaks.â€ The pace practically stops and itâ€™s up to the actors and the dialogue to sell the story. â€œSupernaturalâ€ has two very strong actors that can sell any scene by just sharing glances. Itâ€™s what makes them extraordinary.
In seasons six and seven, itâ€™s not that these emotional moments are completely gone, but theyâ€™re fewer and farther between. Story is taking priority. The brothers are distant and not talking like they used too (half a season of soulless Sam didnâ€™t help). They now carry more of a resemblance to partners in a cop show. So the question becomes, is the editing to blame? The writing? Perhaps both? Directors and actors just do whatâ€™s on a page. Was there an intentional tonal shift made and we ended up finding out the hard way?
In earlier seasons, the pacing was sharper and dialogue more interesting. â€œMystery Spotâ€ is a classic example of this. Not all episodes of course are as wildly paced and as well written as â€œMystery Spot,â€ â€œA Very Supernatural Christmas,â€ â€œLazarus Rising,â€ â€œOn The Head of A Pinâ€ or â€œChanging Channels.â€ But when the episodes werenâ€™t heavily paced with action, usually there was something entertaining filling in the gaps. A suspenseful story, or a dramatic character study. Or humor.
Ah yes, the humor. â€œSupernaturalâ€ has defined itself through the years for the uniqueness of the comedy. Dark and completely offbeat. The show has had both whole episodes or little golden scenes written in between the intense story. Comedy episodes have always been the best paced and most well constructed episodes. One reason though is because most of them have been written by Ben Edlund.
â€œSupernaturalâ€ in the first five seasons was mostly praised for itâ€™s perfect balance. If you strip away all the elements that â€œSupernaturalâ€ has used in the past, youâ€™re left with story. Think about a typical season one through five Monster of the Week episode. Now take away the humor and brotherly banter. Take away the emotional moments, like the brotherly bonding talks. Take away layered and focused character studies. Take away the fast paced action of the story. Whatâ€™s left? The story. Youâ€™ve got yourself a weak procedural. Naturally that hasnâ€™t been happening with all the episodes, but itâ€™s becoming a more and more consistent problem.
Sam and Dean Winchester - FBI
You know what can easily slant a paranormal show into procedural territory? Making your leads cops of course!
Sam and Dean are hunters. Plain and simple. Hunters are dishonest and do what they can to get to the truth. This involves some creative methods and interrogation. In seasons one and two, Sam and Dean were posing as something different every week. In season three they became a bit more cop oriented, and the FBI guise was introduced. With each season since then, â€œSam and Dean Winchester - FBIâ€ has become more and more common place, especially with MOTW episodes. For something that was once a folly in earlier seasons, itâ€™s become the weekly norm now in season seven.
Letâ€™s trace through the seasons. In season one, the first time Sam and Dean put on the suits was â€œPhantom Traveler.â€ They were after all playing NTSB agents and needed to look the part (The black suits were hot!). There was only a couple other times in season one they put on suits for their â€œpartsâ€. â€œRoute 666â€ (as insurance agents) and â€œSomething Wickedâ€ when they posed as Center of Disease control officers. Sure they impersonated other forms of law enforcement like marshals and police detectives (the first time in the Pilot) but they didnâ€™t dress the part and spend most of the episode acting the part. They often talked to people using other forms of persuasion. In â€œBloody Maryâ€ they were â€œfriendsâ€ of the deceased and college students researching a paper (from Ohio State!). In â€œHookmanâ€ they were new students. In â€œBugsâ€ they were two brothers looking for real estate. In â€œScarecrow,â€ â€œAsylum,â€ â€œFaith,â€ â€œRoute 666,â€ â€œHell House,â€ and â€œDead Manâ€™s Blood,â€ they were normal hunters. â€œNightmareâ€ was the most delicious alias, for who couldnâ€™t resist Sam and Dean as priests? â€œShadowâ€ they were security system maintenance men, art collectors in â€œProvenance,â€ unidentified and unsuited officers in â€œSalvation,â€ and firemen in â€œDevilâ€™s Trap.â€
Season two starts off with them being themselves in the hospital, then theyâ€™re carnival workers, regular hunters asking questions through giving bribes, friends of the deceased again, insurance agents (no suits), and Iâ€™ll just stop there. Oh wait, prisoners in orange jump suits (commence drooling here). Even when they posed as officers in â€œHeartâ€ they werenâ€™t wearing the suits and doing the FBI thing.
When did the FBI guise start then? The first time they both put on the suits and played the law enforcement part for a chunk of episode was â€œBedtime Stories.â€ They werenâ€™t FBI though, they were detectives with the county sheriffâ€™s office. They had to whole routine down by now though, officially questioning the witnesses, following up on leads, etc. They were still dodging real law enforcement though! Remember that humor thing? The police sketch artist bit to this day gets me rolling. Thatâ€™s how I remember average episodes.
The suits were on again as sheriffâ€™s department investigators in â€œRed Sky At Morning.â€ In â€œFresh Blood,â€ it was Gordon and Kubrick who were law guys in the suits, and that reinforced like Bobby in â€œThe Magnificent Sevenâ€ the guise of dressing up and playing law enforcement types was part of the hunterâ€™s job description. By â€œA Very Supernatural Christmasâ€ putting on the suits and posing as some form of agent/detective became an established thing. This was the first episode where Sam and Dean were FBI. In â€œMalleus Maleficarumâ€ they were detectives in suits. Dean put on the suit as a detective (briefly) in â€œDream A Little Dream of Me.â€ In one brief and very hilarious scene in â€œMystery Spotâ€ which Sam got unhinged with the owner, they were in the suits as reporters. The next to eps, â€œJus In Belloâ€ and â€œGhostfacersâ€ broke that string of dressing up for the part, but they were back to dressing up again in â€œLong Distance Callâ€ as corporate guys. Then thatâ€™s it for season three as they got to the heart of Deanâ€™s deal. So, if youâ€™re counting here, they were FBI once, and law enforcement in suits four times.
The FBI thing gets more frequent in seasons four and five. Season four the suit action didnâ€™t happen again until the fifth episode, â€œMonster Movieâ€ but honestly, the suits had to be on in that one. Sharp looking G-men were a must for a black and white throwback! However, kind of interesting that this far into the series, they have only been FBI guys twice.
Theyâ€™re FBI in â€œYellow Fever,â€ â€œItâ€™s the Great Pumpkin Sam Winchester,â€ â€œWishful Thinkingâ€ (very briefly, without the suits, also Sam was a writer, they were teddy bear doctors, and wedding planners), â€œCriss Angel is A Douchebag,â€ â€œSex and Violence,â€ and finally the beginning of â€œMonster At The End of This Bookâ€ (which was too priceless since they were that way only to be caught â€œlarpingâ€).
Season five they were suited for the Feeb roles in â€œFree To Be You and Meâ€ (okay it was just Dean and Castiel in a fun twist), â€œFallen Idols,â€ â€œI Believe The Children Are Our Futureâ€, â€œChanging Channels,â€ â€œMy Bloody Valentine,â€ and â€œDead Men Donâ€™t Wear Plaidâ€ (although it was an awesome backfire). In â€œThe Devil You Know,â€ they were CDC instead, same suits though.
For seasons three through five, the FBI/investigators bit was pretty even and not dominant of the entire season or even the episodes for the most part. In season six though, there was a bit of a shift. For one, theyâ€™ve gone strictly FBI now. They were FBI in â€œTwo and a Half Menâ€ (Sam only), â€œThe Third Man,â€ â€œYou Canâ€™t Handle The Truth,â€ â€œAll Dogs Go To Heaven,â€ â€œLike A Virgin,â€ â€œUnforgiven,â€ â€œMannequin 3: The Reckoning,â€ â€œAnd Then There Were None,â€ â€œMommy Dearestâ€ (Sam and Bobby). These stories arenâ€™t just quick turns as G-men. With a few exceptions (â€œMommy Dearestâ€) theyâ€™re spending bigger chunks of the episode in FBI mode.
Still, season six wasnâ€™t that bad compared to the full on shift we get in season seven. â€œThe Girl Next Doorâ€ (Sam), â€œDefending Your Life,â€ â€œShut Up, Dr. Phil,â€ â€œThe Mentalists,â€ â€œHow To Win Friends and Influence Monsters,â€ â€œTime After Timeâ€ (Dean, with a super awesome twist), â€œThe Slice Girls,â€ â€œPlucky Pennywhistleâ€™s Magical Menagerie,â€ â€œRepo Man,â€ â€œOut With The Old,â€ and â€œParty On, Garth.â€
Notice a big rut forming? The real shame here is not only does season seven have the most, the season isnâ€™t even over yet. 11 out of 18 episodes aired where theyâ€™ve put on the suits and done the FBI thing? Only â€œTime After Timeâ€ counts as a out of the norm twist on what is becoming an overused vice.
So whatâ€™s wrong with the FBI thing? Simple. When playing FBI, the episode gets very formulaic as well. It all starts with a teaser (usually the gruesome death of the week), Sam and Dean with the suits investigating the crime scene, they talk to the witnesses in official capacity, go back to the motel for research, another death happens, they investigate in the suits, figure out who the perpetrator is, figure out how to trap it, and they end up either killing it or it gets away, all while maybe saving someone in the process.
Remember the construction of a procedural? â€œThe general formula for a police procedural involves the commission or discovery of a crime at the beginning of the episode, the ensuing investigation, and the arrest or conviction of a perpetrator at the end of the episode.â€
This structure actually has been very common in â€œSupernaturalâ€ for the MOTW episodes throughout the series. The difference is, the cases and the circumstances make the outcome and the story very unique. In a police procedural like â€œCSIâ€ theyâ€™re investigators following protocol. Thereâ€™s no protocol for hunters. They can be someone different every week. Remember great monster stories like â€œFolsom Prison Blues,â€ â€œNightshifter,â€ â€œYellow Fever,â€ and â€œThe Curious Case of Dean Winchester?â€
Whatâ€™s happening now is that so much focus is given to showing Sam and Dean in their FBI roles and unfolding their investigation by the book that other bits that used to fill time are being sacrificed. The brotherly banter, the humorous situations (Dean with a Dom in â€œCriss Angel is a Douchebagâ€ comes to mind), the emotional impact to the characters of whatâ€™s happening (remember the end of â€œHouses of The Holy?â€). This used to be a character based drama driven by story. Now story is driving the characters. That works great in a procedural. It doesnâ€™t work great for a show that even spent part of an episode mocking procedural cop shows.
Perhaps Iâ€™m being too harsh though. Maybe people like this procedural mentality more. Iâ€™ve read nothing but complaints about how the show got too bogged down by the mytharc in seasons 4 and 5. That could be true, but what we have here now is perhaps the pendulum swinging too far the other way.
Look at episodes like â€œYou Canâ€™t Handle The Truth,â€ where most of the episode is sluggishly paced because the formulaic approach of these two guys handling the investigation takes precedence. Okay, there is one humorous bit with Bobby, but it isnâ€™t until the brotherly fallout at the end that thereâ€™s anything very compelling about that episode. How about â€œAll Dogs Go To Heaven?â€ That episode, other than following the standard investigation pattern, really suffers when one of our heroes is very poorly written as a total ass. All weâ€™re left with is one very hot looking sniper Dean Winchester. As much as I love that visual, it doesnâ€™t make the episode watchable. â€œLike A Virginâ€ did benefit from a fantastic brotherly reunion, but the rest of the episode was killed by a sluggish pace following the standard MOTW investigation routine. â€œMy Heart Will Go Onâ€ had itâ€™s moments, but again itâ€™s another case of poor pacing for the sake of unfolding a story in traditional fashion. However, that episode did excel in the emotional moments between Ellen and Bobby.
Not all though can be blamed on FBI/straight by the book. â€œMannequin 3: The Reckoningâ€ is just one of those episodes that was just plain bad. Ditto for â€œDefending Your Life.â€ Nothing could have saved those. They go in the history books with â€œRed Sky at Morningâ€ and â€œBugs.â€
Another problem with episodes taking too much time to follow standard procedure is that when the mytharc or character intensive episodes do get their turn, theyâ€™re overloaded. â€œLet It Bleed,â€ â€œThe Man Who Knew Too Much,â€ and â€œThe Born-Again Identityâ€ bring on an entirely different problem. Thereâ€™s too much story, so as a result, thereâ€™s an emotional and/or comical element missing because there just isnâ€™t time. The scenes are often jagged, rushed, and donâ€™t flow well because theyâ€™re trying to get in story as much as they can. This again can be blamed on horrible pacing. Sure there are a couple of great moments in each of these, but theyâ€™re swallowed by the frenzied pace of the rest.
Season six however did deliver one thing that season seven has been sorely missing. The comical episodes. Sure, in prior seasons there were more comical moments woven into the episodes, but season six as far as whole comedy episodes delivered a few of the best. You will not get better than â€œClap Your Hands If You Believeâ€ and â€œThe French Mistake.â€ â€œFrontierlandâ€ was a priceless novelty as well, even if the Back to the Future III references were a bit much. Not one episode in season seven can say itâ€™s made us laugh like these classics. â€œSeason 7: Time For A Weddingâ€ and â€œParty On, Garthâ€ were mild attempts at humor. They fell very flat.
In season seven, the FBI/procedural element hasnâ€™t been all bad though and makes a case for not being totally eliminated. â€œThe Mentalistsâ€ was a solid episode. â€œHow to Win Friends and Influence Monsters,â€ even though they had the suits on, was not a typical case by a long shot (Edlund!). â€œTime After Timeâ€ did G-man in the 40â€™s. A golden opportunity well delivered.
Did we really need 11 FBI investigation episodes though? â€œShut Up, Dr. Philâ€ was supposed to be a standard case bolstered by eccentric characters. It turned out to be slow and nothing memorable. â€œThe Slice Girlsâ€ followed a standard investigation pattern but had the great setup of an emotional conflict for Dean. It didnâ€™t deliver. Even though the clown attack scenes as well as the ending brotherly moment in â€œPlucky Pennywhistleâ€™s Magical Menagerieâ€ were great, they were woven in between sluggish and by the book investigation scenes (at least when Sam wasnâ€™t cringing at clowns). â€œOut With The Oldâ€ was a well done story, but FBI fatigue had set in for me by then.
I wouldnâ€™t mind throwing Sam and Dean back into the territory of seasons one and two, when they were forced into different situations every week. More bikini inspectors I say! I mean really, hasnâ€™t the FBI gotten wise about all these impersonations by now? Iâ€™m calling this my mandate for Season 8. You better be reading this Mr. Carver!!!
The question remains though, will getting rid of the FBI/cop guise be enough? Will that kill a lot of the procedural mentality thatâ€™s been dominating these plots? I do acknowledge thatâ€™s only one part of the problem. Itâ€™s a step in the right direction. Or is it? Now is your chance to share.
Coming up in the next part, Iâ€™ll examine some of the editing techniques used in seasons 1 through 5 vs. seasons 6 and 7 to see what changes may or may not have impacted the overall tone of â€œSupernatural.â€