You’re welcome for that header image, btw
So, the Primetime Emmy Awards were last night. People won! Stuff happened! But in case you missed it and are frantically searching the internet this morning, let me put your mind at ease: No, Supernatural didn’t take home a statue.
The absurdly long-running CW show is no stranger to awards. It’s picked up People’s Choice Awards for favorite sci-fi/fantasy show and even favorite bromance (duh, that’s basically a tailor-made category for this show). It’s a hit at the Teen Choice Awards too, which I’ve never paid attention to, but assume they must be largely underwritten by the CW anyway. But as far as the Emmys are concerned, Supernatural has only ever been nominated for sound editing and musical score, during the first few seasons. And it didn’t even bring those home.
After 13 seasons — THIRTEEN! — it’s unlikely that the Television Academy will ever recognize the episodic world-saving adventures of the Winchester brothers. But that doesn’t mean that Supernatural isn’t worthy of recognition by People, Teens, and more. In fact, I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say, without a drop of hyperbole, that it’s the best fucking show on TV. COME AT ME, THE HANDMAID’S TALE!
But before I dig into that mic drop, let me appease my bosses by pegging this whole tangent to something vaguely timely. Oh look! The CW released a trailer for season 13, which premieres on Thursday, October 12! Let’s take a peek, shall we?
Wow, shit looks cray! Dean’s praying to God (or Chuck or whatever)? Lucifer’s kid being all blasty? A new white-suited sheriff in town, and by town I presume they mean Hell? FUCKING CURLY FRIES?
BE STILL MY GODDAMN HEART!
Seriously though, is there any show that needs promotion less than Supernatural? Fans know exactly what they are going to get in any given season. At least one brother will sacrifice himself/die/end up in an other plane of existence, or get possessed by an angel/demon or something. There will be a lot of heartfelt discussions in Baby, their black Impala. And yet, one or both of the brothers will still pointlessly keep secrets, ostensibly to protect the other one, even though that has NEVER worked out well for anybody. There will be pie, and quips. And Kansas’s 1976 song “Carry On Wayward Son” will play during the intro of the season finale, just like it has for the previous 12 season finales.
It took a few seasons for Supernatural to perfect its formula — and sure, some seasons are more successful than others (let’s not talk about that whole Leviathan arc), but the formulaic nature of the story is one of the series’ greatest strengths. What began as an all-male urban legend riff seemingly put on air to plug the hole left by the end of Buffy The Vampire Slayer has developed into a comforting institution in its own right. Ok, maybe I’m extrapolating too much. Buffy ended in 2003 and Supernatural didn’t premiere until 2005. But when I sit back and imagine the development meetings that led to the Greatest Greenlight Decision in the History of Television (yeah, ok, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic), I like to imagine a WB studio exec very seriously telling a roomful of people that what they really need is a show to capitalize on all those young Buffy viewers, to keep them tuned in. And what do teenage girls love more than strong female role models? HOT GUYS. REALLY HOT GUYS WHO NEVER HAVE GIRLFRIENDS BECAUSE THEY ARE TOO BUSY HUNTING AND BRO-ING OUT TOGETHER.
That imaginary studio exec got a big raise by season 4, and now he’s retired and living on a yacht full of blow. I know, because I spend a lot of time imagining the behind-the-scenes fake history of Supernatural. It’s my kind of fan-fiction. But if you want a more accurate run-down of how the show came to be, Variety put together a pretty epic oral history for the series’ 200th episode back in 2014 (read it here).
It may seem counterintuitive to claim that a formulaic monster-of-the-week show is the best on television, especially in this so-called Golden Age of Television full of mold-breaking, auteur-driven “prestige” programming. But while movie stars and directors are crossing over to the small screen and everyone argues about whether TV is replacing Movies in the entertainment landscape, Supernatural has quietly been succeeding, an almost quaint throwback to the kind of standard, under-appreciated network fare that used to be the bread and butter of our national viewing habits. “Formulaic” isn’t a naughty word. And when I say it’s the best show on TV, maybe I just mean it’s the most TV show on TV. It is an institution built on the chemistry of the core cast and a genuine appreciation of the fans who have kept the show afloat. And it is smart enough to know how to play to its strengths every step of the way.
There would be no Supernatural without Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki. The central Winchester siblings, Dean and Sam (SAMMY!) are everything. Come angels, demons, wendigos, ghosts or shapeshifters, the Winchester boys will stand in their way. It’s conceivable that there is another reality where different actors were cast in those roles, and that might have worked for the first few seasons. But the fact is that the show wouldn’t be on the air today if it weren’t for the chemistry between Ackles and Padalecki — a chemistry that seems to be genuine, even off the screen. Creator Eric Kripke had a central plot in mind, pitting the brothers against each other with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. And its resolution could have been the end of the show. But it turns out that all the monsters and mythology weren’t the real secret to the show’s success. The brothers, and those actors, were. The hunting and the danger was all just a window into the relationship between these two men. And with a reasonable enough contrivance to keep Sam and Dean Winchester together on screen, that was enough to justify the show’s continued existence. Hence all the sacrifices, deaths and resurrections. And somewhere along the way, the show went from being on the bubble to being untouchable, ratings-wise.
In fact, part of the formula that defines Supernatural is the way it will bend its plot into knots in order to capitalize on cast chemistry. Misha Collins and Mark Sheppard, who played the angel Castiel and the demon Crowley, both joined the show a few years into the run. What started as guest performances soon became integral to the fabric of the show, because both characters also had amazing chemistry with the rest of the cast and because they represented something new, storywise: that angels aren’t always angelically good and that demons don’t have to be pure unrelenting evil. It all lasted seemingly until the end of last season, when Lucifer seemed to kill Castiel and Crowley sacrificed himself to trap the archangel in another dimension. It’s been revealed that somehow Castiel will appear again in season 13 (he’s even on the poster!), though it seems that Crowley’s exit may actually stick this time around. But even saying that comes with a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ because death doesn’t really mean much on this show. Hell, Castiel killed a fucking Reaper last season. Even if a character does die, they can come back as a ghost! Or a memory! Or in an alternate reality! Or even as a gift from powers that be (looking at you, Mary Winchester).
Ok, to be fair Supernatural isn’t always as concerned with bringing the ladies back into the fold in the same way that it holds on to its many bromances. Mary’s return came out of left field, considering her character was already dead when the show launched. Mommy issues aside, there has been plenty of criticism about the series’ treatment of its female characters — namely all the fridging. It’s something that came to a head a couple of seasons ago with the death of Charlie, played by Felicia Day — a character that hit the holy trifecta of being a hacker, a woman, and an LGBTQ character all in one. And it’s something that the show seems to be trying to atone for in some way, notably by NOT killing off the wonderful Sheriff Jody Mills (and even planning a spin-off for her). I too wish that the show had treated many of its female characters better, and let them ride off into the sunset or fade into obscurity instead of insisting on killing them off to motivate the guys (or contriving a way to bring them back the same way it does with some of the guys, because EQUALITY).
But I will give Supernatural credit for staying true to its DNA, and at heart it’s a show about the bond between these two brothers and the insane, illogical lengths they’ll go to for one another. This isn’t a show about romance or even the families we make for ourselves, it’s a show about the bonds of blood — and no one, not even surrogate daddy Bobby, is above being sacrificed in order to propel the Winchesters to their destiny. Representation matters, and the show is no beacon of diversity (gender or otherwise). That’s just the honest truth. And yet, rarely has any program, let alone a fucking horror/fantasy series on the CW, captured the love between two people the way Supernatural has. No, it isn’t sexual or romantic. But it is Love with a capital L. It’s the kind of emotion that makes you, well, sacrifice yourself, or make deals with demons, or risk the world to save just one person. And then continue to do that for 12 seasons. It’s easy to define the core relationship by falling back on the tired “bromance” trope, but Supernatural has explored and iterated on that concept in surprising ways — not just between Sam and Dean but with Bobby, and Cas, and Crowley, and even deep cuts like Garth and, yes, Charlie.
Someday maybe we’ll have a show that presents that kind of bond between two women, or between people of any gender identity. We can hope.
And in the meantime, fans can indulge in their own fantasies and tease out all manner of sexual subtexts from Supernatural, from incest to whatever it is you call it when a dude and an angel totally want to bang (“Destiel” to shippers everywhere). If cast chemistry is one part of Supernatural’s secret formula, then the other part is the way the creators respect and encourage the show’s fandom. Sure, there have been the famous “meta” episodes, like the one where Sam and Dean get trapped in other sorts of TV shows (like a CSI: Miami rip-off):
Or the one where they wind up in an alternate reality where they are actors named Jared and Jensen on the set of a show called Supernatural (Dean is dismayed to discovery he used to be a soap opera actor, while Sam discovers he’s married to the woman who played the demon Ruby — all of which is totally real):
Or the time Jared Padalecki was in a horror movie with Paris Hilton, so they brought her on as a quest star and then killed her (“I’ve never even seen House of Wax” = CLASSIC DEAN BURN):
Supernatural has progressed from acknowledging the fourth wall to demolishing it. And while winking at the audience is usually a sign that a show has outlasted its own creativity, Supernatural has turned it into a strength. Every season fans wait to see which episode will be the “meta” one (in season 13, supposedly the bros will get animated Scooby Doo style). The show even turned its own 200th episode into a love letter to their fans — titled “Fan Fiction” no less — which featured a Supernatural-themed high school musical staged entirely by teenage girls (who are attacked by a monster and the real Winchesters have to save the day, natch). It was a beautiful and surprisingly nuanced look at the life something takes on in the mind of a viewer, and an acknowledgement that a show like Supernatural is nothing without a passionate fan base — even if those fans sometimes think they could do a better job telling the story than the writers can. It acknowledged the lack of women by recasting every character with one. It acknowledged all the “boy melodrama” (called “B.M. scenes”). It even acknowledged the dangling plot thread of the third Winchester brother, WhatsHisName (the show may be about brotherly love, but not all brothers are created equally). Also, this happens:
And it isn’t just on screen that Supernatural embraces its own fandom. From elaborate convention appearances to bizarre social media accounts like the Supernatural Tape Ball instagram (literally just a growing ball of multicolored gaffers tape from the set of the show, started last season), the series quietly finds new ways to engage viewers and invite them into the fold. And why not? Everyone’s careers are made at this point. This shit is in syndication, and there is no sign of cancellation just yet. The cast and crew seem to be having a blast after all these years, and no amount of changing showrunners or never-ending cycles of apocalyptic showdowns will change that.
One day, will the Winchester boys be old and grey and still driving across America, finding new inexplicable monsters to fight in Baby? It could happen. And maybe that’s why I think it’s the best show on TV: Because there is no stopping it. And even better, there is no such thing as going too far. It makes jumping the shark look good. It knows how to seize something that’s working and run with it. It even knows how to film an entire episode from the point of view of a fucking car and have it be the best episode of the season. It won’t run out of plot (if that were possible, it would have happened years ago), and it doesn’t seem like the actors will quit. Anthologies and limited series, streaming and bingeing and “Lynchian” programming may be all the rage, but there is something comforting about a show that can still surprise and move us without ever changing at all, even after all these years. They don’t make TV like this anymore. And we may never see its kind again. So it’s a good thing Supernatural isn’t going anywhere for awhile.
ETA: Writing this whole ode to the Winchester boys, in the back of my mind I was all like “Tori, don’t forget to add that Hillywood parody video with most of the cast dancing around and making fools of themselves because they are fun and totally down for anything” and then I submitted the article without it. So here it is, in all its glory. I would have included it somewhere in the fandom discussion, for what it’s worth. I’ve seen a lot of parodies from The Hillywood Show and as clever as they are, you don’t see this level of actual cast involvement in them.