Monday, August 27, 2012

Guest Blog: Adam Stovall Believes in 'Supernatural'...

"I Believe In Supernatural"

I keep hearing that Season Three is where the series turns toward being very mythology-heavy. As this may be my last chance to talk about maintaining balance on a television series, let’s talk about maintaining balance on a television series.

I’m going to begin with a very obvious statement, so bear with me: For the most part, we watch television in our homes. We begin here, because this is the most fundamental and essential truth that must be understood when taking into account the myriad obstacles in place for a television series to be successful. When we watch TV, we are in our home, our comfort zone, our kingdom. When we invite others into our home, it is either out of a sense of obligation or because we genuinely enjoy their company– with the latter being far more common, in most cases. We dictate the terms of our home, or share that duty with the person with whom we share our home. We choose color scheme we want for our walls, the way we want our furniture arranged, the least obnoxious place to put the litter box. Our homes are ourselves, our happy places. Home is where we go when we have traversed the numerous compromises that every day in the outside world requires of us. It is where we put on our comfy pants, our zombie slippers, and collapse onto the couch to wind down with our old friend, the television. And what do we watch on said television? Well, if you’ll forgive another obvious statement, we watch what we want to watch.

Some shows seek to service this by offering up familiar storylines and punchlines. They (looking at you, CBS) want to reassure the audience that while the world may be going to hell outside, but that everything will be okay if you just hang with them for a few hours every night. Mark Harmon, who reminds you of your attractive neighbor, will take care of everything, and The Who will soundtrack it, to remind you of a time when you had sex just because. Other shows seek to provoke, or prompt a discussion. The expansion (some might even say explosion) of original programming on cable channels has led to many, many essays on how we’re living in a Golden Age of TV. These arguments, however, tend to forget the importance of the former group. Just as you can’t have Lars von Trier without Steven Spielberg, you can’t have Vince Gilligan without Chuck Lorre. And if you think I’m kidding, listen to interviews where filmmakers talk about their influences– filmmakers are constantly watching everything, taking cues from the unlikeliest of places.

Supernatural belongs to a cadre of shows which exist between these two groups. It’s no surprise that so many X-Files veterans have worked on the show, both shows try to maintain a balance between episodes that service the larger mythology of the series, and episodes that are more “monster of the week” in nature. It is also not surprising, given the X-Files veterans on staff, that this show would tilt towards the mythology so heavily and so early.

I was fourteen years old when The X-Files premiered on Fox. I was instantly smitten. As a little boy, I would stay up late Friday nights and watch Monsters and Tales From The Darkside and Nightmare CafĂ© (during its brief but memorable run). I loved stories of things that go bump in the night, and given their minimal budgets, these shows often specialized in catering to the fear of the unknown. Also, they tended to have beautiful women in their episodes…which mattered a great deal to me. When The X-Files happened, it was revelatory. Here were those same stories that I watched every Friday, only this time we followed two smart, capable, flawed people as they investigated each case. It was funny, it was terrifying, and most importantly– after a life of moving and changing schools– it was consistent. It was my new best friend.

Of course, I was not the only person to feel this way. The X-Phile movement was not an insignificant one. Because of this, most major magazines and entertainment shows featured it regularly. It was the job of the X-Phile to consume every bit of this, and I did my job with aplomb. As the show went on, and its rich, dynamic mythology was developed further, camps started to emerge in the X-Phile movement. Some people loved the show without reservation. Others were fascinated by the mythology, and had little patience for the “Monster of the Week” episodes. If the opening credits didn’t include William B. Davis (the Cigarette Smoking Man), they said they would turn it off. They said this in magazines. They said this in newspaper. They said this on TV. As you might imagine, in a world where ratings directly effect earnings, this was not music to the ears of the network, the creator, etc. What do you suppose they did? They sacrificed balance.

They were not alone. Just as every network had tried to create their own X-Files, they were now trying to create such a thing using the new mythology-heavy mold. This is how you get shows like Lost, which was either compelling or confounding, and often times both at once. This happens because most (I am being generous and not saying all) networks are more concerned with satiating the masses in pursuit of the almighty dollar, than in taking a chance on something truly groundbreaking and original. This is not meant as an insult, but rather a statement of fact concerning the marketplace. In fact, it is a compliment to those who navigate these waters that they are able to do so. I would point to another JJ Abrams pilot, that for Alias, as one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on television. It was smart, thrilling, and demanding of its audience. It refused to slow down in service of the cheap seats, and I firmly believe that had it stopped for a single commercial break, it would have lost half its audience. I was fortunate enough to speak with JJ Abrams once, and he said that it was pure luck that they were able to go commercial-free that night. They knew they had something special, and the network helped them by going out and finding a sponsor for the entire hour-plus. He worked with the Money People, not against them. And now…well, you may be aware of his resume since then.

Supernatural is clearly a show with something on its mind. I will not beg indulgence for another obvious statement, as I’m not sure that’s an obvious statement to most people. They see two hunks, they hear it’s about hunting ghosts, and they check right out. It’s similar to explaining Game of Thrones to someone who thinks “There are dragons? I’m not watching that.” You can tell them about how the show is more preoccupied with the balance and pursuit of power. How it is actually grounded in the interactions between people who are, for the most part, only talking to others instead of killing them because etiquette deems it so. But, for a large swath of the potential audience, words like “dragons” and “evil shadow baby” will serve as an automatic deterrent. Again, people want to watch something that they want to watch, and certain buzzwords are just not their cup of tea.

Yet, here’s the thing: You cannot just ask people what they want to see, because people simply do not know. Henry Ford has this great quote, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Truly great storytelling lies in the ability to tell a story that is uniquely your own, but in a language that everyone speaks. Supernatural resonates so greatly with people because it understands how to take a formula with which everyone is comfortable, and use it to tell a story that is utterly and completely its own. Dean and Sam are not Mulder and Scully, but Kripke and Co. are more than happy to use The X-Files as a means of explaining to people what they’re trying to do. Because they’re smart, and they realize that audiences may immediately enjoy the spoonful of sugar, but they will later appreciate the work that went in to making the medicine.

Let us now appreciate that work.

Season One saw the estranged brothers Winchester joining forces to find their Dad. It was a simple mission, and from what I saw of the season, it was executed well. They found him, and the family was reunited…only to then be torn asunder in a vicious car wreck. Fans were left wondering just how severe the damage was, and how each character would be effected by it. Which, yes, is me going out of my way to avoid saying that it left the audience wondering if they had survived or not. I don’t want to say that, because frankly, WHAT SHOW KILLS ITS LEADS? There is marketing. There are contracts. There a million reasons why the faces of your show cannot be killed. This is a device often trotted out on dramatic series, and it bothers me pretty much every single time. And beyond the fact that most shows contrive this cliffhanger, only to back their way out of it, your damn show is called SUPERNATURAL. Most weeks are spent with someone who is dead, so stakes– which drama is somewhat dependent on – are rather difficult to establish.  

Of course, as I’ve previously said, creating a TV series is to create a world – and part of creating a world is creating the stakes of that world. Yes, we see dead people all the time. But it’s largely with goal of either helping them move on or compelling them to move on. We salt and burn bones, why? Because stakes. We have a gun that kills that which is already dead, why? Because stakes. So as Season Two begins, we see that Dean is…not dead. But he’s also not up and walking around like Sam and Dad. He’s in purgatory– which looks a lot like a coma, but is purgatory, because we’re told that it’s purgatory. There’s a story here, about a Reaper and whatnot, but it doesn’t really matter. The point of “In My Time of Dying” is to execute the task of a season premiere. It provides closure to the story of last season– Dad Is Dead, Demon Has The Colt– while setting us up with a “where do we go from here” for this season– We Must Avenge Dad And Retrieve The Colt– in a tight forty-two minutes. Which it does, swimmingly.

From there, we’re thrust into Episode Two, “Everybody Loves A Clown” and begin to glimpse the story of Season Two. Where Season One was basically Find Dad, it would seem that Season Two is more along the lines of Become Dad. As the sibling dynamic was established so thoroughly in the previous season, this one shows them building a support network– a new family, if you will. We see what life must have been like for John as he began hunting, the way that tragedies build a cadre of like-minded people. In this case, we revisit Ellen and Jo and Ash in their roadhouse. I mean, yes, there’s an evil clown-thing in this episode, but that’s pretty beside-the-point. The point, it seems to me, is the idea that John had built himself a life that he loved, and in one moment it was burned down by the Yellow-Eyed Demon (seriously, I want so badly to call him That Yellow-Eyed Bastard). After that moment, his boys were a reminder of what he so briefly had, and he built a new life out on the road, on the hunt. This became more real to him than anything back home, which is why the boys were largely denied anything resembling a normal childhood. Of course, as we get older, we come to understand our parents more and more. So it is that Sam and Dean, as they meet Ellen and Jo and Bobby, et al, begin to understand the life their Father lived. Season Two, it would seem, is to be a coming-of-age tale for both Sam and Dean.

Episode Three, “Bloodlust,” furthers this theory. As the old sage Jerry Maguire once said, “This is the world and there are five billion people on it. When I was born, there were three.” One of the most fundamental parts of growing up is learning empathy and perspective, that every coin has two sides. In this episode, we meet Gordon, the hunter, who sees the world in very black-and-white terms, much like Dean. Which, when your life is spent fighting, makes sense. Fighting and hunting are very simple things which leave little room for nuance. They are missions that must be executed, nothing more. Years of evolution have not relieved us of the impulse to assert dominance, but they have made us feel bad about it. When one defines themselves by a single label– be it fighter, hunter, lover, disciple– they remove the need, or even desire, for nuance or doubt. This is the story of Lenore, the reason for doubt. She, too, has gained perspective on her plight, and wishes to do as little harm as possible. Dean doesn’t see this, because it conflicts with his mission. But he loves Sam, and Sam, ever the doubter, sees her predicament, and conveys this insight to Dean. It’s pretty much the core of dramatic writing, to externalize the internal, and having Dean literally tie Gordon down does that nicely.

Conversely, I had major issues with Episode Four, “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.” This was the one about the beautiful girl whose friend loved her and brought her back from the grave. First of all, this story has been done eleventy billion times before, and I didn’t see anything new in this treatment. Secondly, Dean makes a big deal out of her being “a little too good” in both the accounts of her friends and her journal…and then that is just dropped completely. I realize this sets up the question of how bringing someone back from the grave might change them a bit, a theme this season will explore much, much further. When it is explored further, however, it this episode isn’t echoed at all. This felt like introducing the gun in Act One and then forgetting about it. To the show’s credit, moments of seemingly lazy writing stand out, because of the overall high quality of the rest of the episodes.

We’re damn near 2500 words now, so I’m not going into detailed paragraphs for every episode. Episode Five, “Simon Said,” builds the world further by introducing more of the Psychic Kids Club – most notably Andy, who we will discuss later. Episode Six, “No Exit,” was a lot of fun, and it was nice to have Jo around for a little while to shake up the brothers’ dynamic. Episode Seven, “The Usual Suspects” was the one with Linda Blair, who puts on a clinic for why stunt-casting is not always a good idea. Seriously, every time she spoke, it took me out of the show. Next up is Episode Eight, “Crossroads Blues.” It should be noted that I am a big Robert Johnson fan, so as soon as this episode started, it had my rapt attention. The story was good, the stakes understandable, and obviously it’s an essential episode for the story of the season– but mostly I remember Robert Johnson music playing throughout the episode, making me OH SO HAPPY.

Episode Nine, “Croatoan,” was fine. Frankly, the story of Roanoake annoys me, as it’s a pat mystery that people drag out in an effort to sound smart (because history) and deep (because abstract). There’s a virus, Sam’s immune. That’ll be important, I’m sure. Moving on. Episode Ten, “Hunted,” brings Gordon back for an hour before sending him to jail. A black guy, in Indiana, with a trunk full of guns. Yeah, that’ll go well for him. At this point, they have to be setting Gordon up as a Massive Big Bad for some future season, because there are DEMONS who have more fondness towards the Brothers Winchester. Though, I do think it’d be interesting if his story played out that the fraternity of hunters actually trumps the desire for vengeance, and Gordon ends up sacrificing himself for them. Just a thought. Episode Eleven, “Playthings,” is fun, and typically the type of story you see on Doctor Who. Which reminds me, there are a few references to Doctor Who this season, was there something going on back in 2007, between the shows? Because, if so, AWESOME. (Yes, I’m a Whovian.) Episode Twelve, “Nightshifter,” was a cool heist film of an episode. Obviously they’ve established they can play with tone on the show, so it was nice to see them playing with genre as well. Episode Thirteen, “Houses of the Holy,” happened. 

There are two things about Episode Fourteen, “Born Under a Bad Sign”, that intrigue me. One, Evil Sam comes damn close to raping Jo. Seeing as how the CW audience is known to be largely young and female, I’m curious what the effect this had on them. Was this a major event back then? Was there a bumper or anything around the episode prompting people to call a hotline or something if they or someone they know has been through something similar? The other thing that intrigues me is the character of Bobby. Bobby, with his beer treated with holy water and doorways lined with salt and demon holding circles drawn all over his house, is that guy who comes back from Vietnam and can no longer hold down a normal job. He spends his time at either the VFW or the VA hospital, because he can’t even relate to people who haven’t seen the terrible things of which this world is capable. Which is awesome! A show about two good-looking brothers fighting demons needs precisely this kind of character. Their Dad was, well, their DAD. He’s a mythological being, someone they’ve romanticized heavily in their minds. Bobby is the face of what this life actually does to you. Bobby is the best case scenario, because he’s alive.

Great googily-moogily, I loved Episode Fifteen, “Tall Tales.” The trickster. The “he said, he said” structure. Bobby, again. LOVE.

Here, we arrive at a couple of episodes where I will go into detail. Episode Sixteen, “Roadkill,” presents us with an interesting idea. Sam and Dean are our leads. They are the first two names in the credits. They are who we follow in every episode. So I really dug seeing them presented as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern here. But you see, this is also where watching a lot of TV and writing about TV and keeping a critical eye to things becomes a burden, because I knew IMMEDIATELY that Molly, this episode’s main character, was dead. I mean, it’s a testament to how well the writers have built the infrastructure of this show, that I can immediately recognize what’s happening because of context. Also, I really liked the concept of doing a short story of an episode. This wasn’t just a self-contained episode, though, this was essentially a short film. And because of that, because of the repeated motifs and ideas from earlier in the series, I never connected to it. So I don’t know, it was a well-built episode, and I have no idea whether the execution was right or not. It probably was, and I’m just nit-picking. So I will move on to another episode I loved: Episode Seventeen, “Heart.” At first, I thought this was going to be a repeat of my “Roadkill” experience. As soon as the episode started, I guessed that she was the werewolf, and her neighbor was the one who’d turned her. I had settled in for another hour of “Yep, that’s what you do. Pass the M&Ms, please.” But then sex happened. The sex itself is not what made me love the episode, but rather what came next. Sam had to make a choice, and in an instant became the man Dean has spent a season trying to not become. Sam loves someone, and because the good of the many outweigh the good of the few, he has to shoot her dead. At first, I kind of chuckled when “Silent Lucidity” started playing as Sam walked down the hall, but then the camera stayed on Dean. And the episode brought it all home. And I had to step away and take a break.
But only just a break, because up next was Episode Eighteen, “Hollywood Babylon.” Because THAT is how you end a day-long Supernatural marathon, with Ben Edlund being meta and awesome.

Obviously, Episode Nineteen, “Folsom Prison Blues,” plays a large part in the story of the season, bringing back the agent from “Nightshifter” and continuing that plotline, but I would offer that this episode better serves as a reminder of the theme of community that this season has been building. When it’s revealed that the guard is Deacon, an old family friend, we are reminded that there is this whole world of hunters and those familiar with the hunt, and they are to be found in the darnedest of places. Had this not been established so well early on, the Deacon reveal would have felt like a cheap deus ex machina. As it is, however, it’s an awesome moment where the awesome Winchesters get to be awesome again. And with us about to plunge into a three-episode stretch that goes to some mighty dark places, it’s kind of exactly what we need at this point in the season. Get your smiles where you can, kids, because they’re about to go out-of-season.

Episode Twenty, “What Is And What Should Never Be.” Dean gets what he wants. Dad is dead (because nothing is free), but Mom is alive, Sam is in law school and still has Jess, and even he is very respectably dating a nurse. It’s a beautiful notion, and one that puts us in Dean’s head as well and as extensively as we have been this season. Dean wants with all of his heart for everyone to be happy, but he cannot shake the idea that something is wrong. On a personal note, the idea of never trusting a good thing rings much, much closer to home than I would like. So yeah, I get it when Dean gives up the semblance of a happy life for the reality of his calling. Oh Dean, things are not going to go well for you.

Like, not well at all. Like, “sell your soul to a demon” not well. Because that happens. Not in Episode Twenty-One, “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part One”, mind you. No, first Sam has to be abducted by That Yellow-Eyed Bastard and taken to Old Wild West Town with the rest of the Psychic Kids Club. I know I haven’t really talked about them yet, but I really liked the Psychic Kids Club. Bunch of kids in their early twenties, trying to figure out what the hell is going on in their heads, that sounds familiar. Especially Andy, of “Simon Said”, who realizes he can control people with his mind, and tries to do no harm with it. Sure, he satisfies some of his more base instincts, but his evil twin used the same power to kill people, so relatively speaking I’d say Andy was a good guy. So yeah, he dies. As does every other damn member of the Psychic Kids Club, except for an Army dude named Jake, who ends up killing Sam. Which brings us to Episode Twenty-Two, “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part Two.” In this episode, well, all hell breaks loose. Dean sells his soul and gets a year to live, in return for Sam being brought back to life. Ellen’s roadhouse is burned to the ground, killing Ash, the mulleted computer genius. That Yellow-Eyed Bastard now has a human agent, and the Colt that kills everything and can apparently open a door to Hell (Why do we even HAVE a door to Hell???) in Wyoming, because that’s where Samuel Colt built it. Again, it’s a credit to how well they’ve built the world of this show, that I can type all of that out, realize how ridiculous it all sounds, and think “Yeah, but it’s flippin’ awesome onscreen!” The door opens, some demons escape Hell, and John Winchester walks out long enough to grab the Colt and kill the Yellow-Eyed Bastard. So…closure.

Except that not. Now there’s a bunch of demons running around, and Dean only has a year to live. The finale brought the story of Season Two to a close, while also providing a good pivot to the next season. I really hope this is how the series is run in coming seasons, with finales containing resolution and pivots, rather than cliffhangers. Again, maybe I know too much about writing for television, but rarely does a successful show end a season with a cliffhanger; that is usually deployed by shows trying to convince executives to bring them back for another year.

Obviously, because I am writing this in the lull between Seasons Seven and Eight, they got that next year. It is my hope that my earlier point that death on this show is not a hindrance from appearing again, because I refuse to believe that Andy and Ash are truly dead. This is a show that knows it’s best to keep some light around when trafficking in darkness, and both Ash and Andy were excellent sources of light. Here’s hoping those troublesome stakes I mentioned earlier become part of Supernatural’s milieu, as there’s little I enjoy more in film and TV than having my expectations proven wrong in ways of which I could not conceive. Please, Kripke & Co, show me that I’m thinking of a faster horse, and you have a car in mind.

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

Actually, Dean kills the YED with the Colt. John grabbed onto the demon long enough for Dean to recover the Colt, which also was used as a "key" to open the Gates of Hell, and to kill the YED. John certainly helped, but it was Dean who killed the demon.