Monday, August 13, 2012

Guest Blog: Adam Stovall's (Heavily-Qualified) Review of 'Supernatural' and Its Role in My Horror Renaissance...

Those of you who have known this blog since its conception know that one of my favorite shows to write about is not one I watched from minute one of its pilot premiere on the then-WB. That's right, I came to Supernatural later than most. After receiving the assignment to cover the 2008 Creation Entertainment fan convention in Los Angeles, I was taken by the passion and camaraderie of the fandom, renewed in my impression of Jensen Ackles, and decided to give the show I had previously written off as "just another genre procedural" a second look.

Once I did, I was hooked, and I would tell anyone who would listen about "the little cult show that could" on the (now) CW. But it took some longer than others to agree to give it a shot. 

This summer I learned that not one but two of my friends are actually watching Supernatural from the beginning, and intrigued by their fresh sets of eyes, I asked them to guest blog their experiences and reactions for Made Possible by Pop Culture. I admit, I take an odd pleasure in knowing what's to come, spoiler wise, before my friends do (it's probably why I cherish my screeners so much), and then seeing their genuine response and whether or not they saw it coming, thought it was "too easy," or enjoyed the mythology and twists more than they expected, prompting them to go back and watch from the beginning again.

The jury may still be out on that as my friends are still early on in their marathons, but the good news for all of you (potentially as jaded as I am) Supernatural fans is that you can experience their first times alongside with them, in guest blogs per season. And today starts that journey with blogger, feature film screenwriter, and my former editor at CS Weekly, Adam Stovall's take on season one.

For the record, I will never edit the words or opinions of my guest bloggers so the thoughts below are all Stovall's. Though that doesn't mean I don't agree with many of them...

"My (Heavily-Qualified) Review of Supernatural and Its Role in My Horror Renaissance"

  • Let me begin with a confession: I did not watch all of Supernatural Season One.

I did this (or rather, did not do this) for a couple of reasons. One is that Supernatural fans all seem ready to tell you, as part of their sales pitch to watch the show, that it doesn’t really hit its stride until the third season. Tolkien fans do this, too – they tell you that the books are almost unreadable, almost as a dare for you to actually read the books and prove them wrong. It’s an impulse I don’t really understand, but I suppose the psychology holds up as so many people seem to want solely that which seems unattainable. Secondly, I tried to start from the beginning and watch the whole way through a while back. It all seemed to be going so well, too. Here was a show that had Adrianne Palicki and Sarah Shahi, to carry me past That Guy With The Forehead from Gilmore Girls, as well as the horror tropes with which I was struggling.

And it was in writing that last sentence fragment that I realized the trouble here was me.

Another confession: I’ve just never been much of a horror guy. The reason for this, I think, is that I came of age when slashers were all the rage. I was born in 1978, so my awareness of film coincided with the advent of Freddy and Jason, neither of whom really do anything for me as characters. I like the first Halloween movie a lot, but have no interest in the continuing franchise. (I have also never seen any of the Jaws sequels. The case could be made that I am living right.) I’m just not afraid of one guy, even if he is holding a knife or has razor fingernails. People leave. They die. They get winded. And the kids running from the monster are all, well, completely non-characters. I don’t care about them, so I’m not afraid of them dying. I never struggled with the idea that movies aren’t real, so when someone who doesn’t resemble any human as I understand humans to be, is chasing down someone else who doesn’t act in a way that resembles how humans act, well, I just don’t care. Let the fake blood flow.

So why would a guy who doesn’t care for horror want to start watching a horror show? That is a fair question.

Lately, I’ve been experiencing a bit of a Horror Renaissance. It began with the film The Innkeepers, written and directed by Ti West. The film takes place in an old, supposedly haunted hotel in Connecticut – which for some reason I thought, and continue to think, was set in Chicago – and follows Claire and Luke, the two clerks who work there. The hotel is closing, so this is their last chance to get any evidence of the ghosts that lurk there, so that they might put it online. The film has tremendous atmosphere, and the chemistry between the two leads is fantastic. So much so, in fact, that I asked my friend why this needed to be a horror film. “I would totally watch a movie that was just these characters interacting and doing whatever,” I said. “So then you’d be fine watching them in a movie where they banter as they look for ghosts,” she responded. Yep.

I hadn’t even realized that I was complicit in the ghettoizing of Horror, but I was. Horror is a genre, like Comedy or Drama or Action. It has tenets, beats that it requires its stories to hit, but otherwise it is a vast thing. I was defining it by what I saw as its worst aspects, just as so many people do. And yet we don’t say that we don’t like Comedy because some of them aren’t funny. Ti West had created characters I cared about, characters I related to – why did the specific genre in which he chose to do this matter? And once I realized this, it opened the floodgates. Suddenly I was soliciting recommendations from my friends who liked Horror. I was clicking through to view the Scariest Films of the Year lists. It didn’t take long to notice that all these friends and the creators of all these lists were all fans of the same show: Supernatural.

Here’s where it gets tricky: Even though I had the impulse to revisit this show, I remembered watching the first three episodes and how little effect they had on me (and that’s WITH Adrianne Palicki and Sarah Shahi!), as well as the echo of all those fans saying “It takes a couple of seasons to find its way.” I’m not someone with a non-existent attention span, but it does feel like 44 episodes is a lot to invest in something before it even gets its footing. So there was still a bit of reluctance.

Enter Stage Left, my friend John.

John really likes Supernatural. John also really likes it when people like what he likes. To paraphrase one of my favorite tweets from Lena Dunham, the purity of joy he exudes at the prospect of an evening spent watching Rifftrax with friends makes newborn babies look selfish and slutty. So it’s kind of awesome and completely charming when he decides he wants to be your bridge to something in pop culture. He knew I probably wasn’t going to watch the entire season, so he sat down and made a list of episodes he viewed as essential for understanding the series’ mythology, as well as the core relationship between the brothers. Because – much like finding the perfect actor to play Don Draper -- this show lives or dies on the audience’s relationship to those characters.

So, at nearly a thousand words in, let’s actually talk about the show.

First of all, if you’re going to create a TV show, you have to have a world, not just a story. From what I’ve read about the genesis and early days of Supernatural, they were figuring a lot out as they went. But it is pretty undeniable that Eric Kripke had a world in place for this show. From the “Spot the Classic Rock Names” game, to the Impala the brothers drive, to the largely Midwestern settings, this guy knew how he wanted his show to play with an audience. And really, nowhere is that more apparent than in the casting of Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki (see, I know he has a name) as the Brothers Winchester.

Before Supernatural, Jensen Ackles’ resume reads pretty much the way you’d expect it to read for a guy who looks like he looks and is acting in the late-90s and early-aughts. You’ve got your daytime soaps, your primetime soaps, etc. And then you have Dean Winchester. Sam got the pathos, the brains, the tortured relationship with, well, everything. Dean got the charm, and the clarity of vision one needs when going on a life’s quest. He wants to follow in his Dad’s footsteps, because…well…they’re his Dad’s footsteps. So many people in this world never really know what they want to do in this world - they change majors, jobs, relationships, identities. Dean knows exactly what he wants to do: He wants to be like his Dad, and that means hunting and killing some damn demons. He doesn’t need to ask why. He doesn’t need anyone else to understand his journey. He’s a Winchester, and he’s gonna do what Winchesters do.

Sam, however, has no such clarity – and Padalecki plays that conflict well. I’ve never been the biggest Jared Padalecki fan, but I appreciate what he’s doing here. In his performance, we see that Sam got his Dad’s stubbornness, his intractability. He needs a reason to do something. He hasn’t let go – at least as of yet – of the urge to not be a Winchester. He doesn’t see the nobility of purpose so central to Dean’s worldview. He sees the emotional distance it caused in his family. The loneliness. The uncertainty. He just wants to go to normal-ass school, be a normal-ass lawyer, get normal-ass married to his girlfriend (Which I get, how can anyone not want to marry Tyra?), and live a normal-ass life. And yet, he’s a Winchester – and a Winchester does what Winchesters do.

I think my favorite aspect of the brothers’ dynamic – as it pertains to Season One – is the evolution we see as the season progresses. In the beginning, it reminds me of Han and Luke in A New Hope – as a kid it always struck me that they were never “even”, but rather Han was always yelling that either Luke owed him one or he owed Luke one (I don’t mind admitting this skewed my entire take on the concept of zero-balance as a little boy). As their quest to find Dad begins, Dean knows that the burden is largely on his shoulders. Sam doesn’t know the tricks, he doesn’t know the drills. Dean has to put him through Being A Winchester 101 before he’ll be of much use – and that right there tells you all you need to know about Dean, because sometimes an Alpha isn’t an Alpha if they don’t have a Beta. Which, then, begs the question of what an Alpha even is, in relation to itself, to others, to the story. Does Dean hit the ground running because Ackles has the pedal to the metal from the word “Go,” or does Ackles go zero-to-sixty in the pilot because Dean demands it? Does Padalecki (whose face too easily defaults to that expression where he looks like he’s smelling a fart for the first time) need more time to ease into Sam, or is he merely reflecting that Sam needs so much time to ease into this new life? All of this is given plenty of time and space to play out, so that it is completely feasible when Sam comes to replace his father (because Joseph Campbell), and thus lap Dean in terms of the story as we are shown.

If you’ll allow me a quick digression: This reminds me of one of my favorite parts in The Aviator, where Hughes is trying to shoot a dogfight (the good kind, with planes), but can’t convey the speed at which the planes are traveling. He finally hits upon the idea that he needs clouds, something fixed which shows the rapid movement of that which is not fixed. Dean is the cloud to Sam’s plane, to a certain extent.

Kripke and his writers do a wonderful job balancing how many times each brother saves the other, using each instance as a means of revealing the role each brother plays in this developing mythology. I might point to the episode titles, the name game, or the car as ways of showing that Kripke had a world in mind when he began this show, but let’s be honest, it’s the nuanced, textured relationship between Sam and Dean that really conveys this. I could watch these two sit and talk over lunch for an hour. You do get a sense of lives lived offscreen, which is one of the highest compliments I can pay a writer. Sam and Dean are people who exist in a horror context, but it doesn’t define them. While their lives may be spent hunting the darkness on the edge of town, they never forget to enjoy the light. They’re friends one minute and enemies the next – in short, they’re family.

And in the end, that’s what this season was all about: Two brothers trying to rebuild their family. Kripke gave the brothers exactly what they wanted, and then held true to the dramatic conceit that one should always be careful what they wish for, they just might get it. While I may not particularly care for the cliffhanger ending of Season One, I certainly respect it. And it is due to that respect that I will promise to never skip another episode of this show. It may take until the third season for him to get a firm grasp on the mythology, but the groundwork he’s doing in the meantime is solid…and that ain’t nothing.


Melä said...

I'm a somewhat new viewer of Supernatural (I only started watching last year after one of my friends practicly made me watch it) and I've seen now every episode, have probably read and watched every interview there ever was about the show and basically can't stop now. I'm not easily addicted to Tv Shows, I can even say, I don't care about them, but I couldn't stop watching Kripke's Supernatural. The way the show is written, the way Jared and Jensen portrail Sam and Dean and the beautiful handel with details the directors, set designers and writers seem to take, has won me over in every way.
I can only agree with your opinion on the first season and I have nothing to add and I'm looking forward to your next review on Season 2

Mickey Shea said...

Great review; I particularly loved the description of the brothers' relationship.

I personally loved season 1 and,the second being my all-time favourite, and I have friends who feel the same way. So the dissing of the first two seasons isn't a universal thing.

The first two seasons are deceptively simple: they sow a lot of seeds that blossom into an epic mytharc later on. And then 3 seasons later you're going: "Oh, that's why that happened! They were planning this all along!" Home in S1 and In the Beginning in S4, as well as Croatoan in S2 and The End in S5 are two good examples.

It's such an underrated show, there really is so much more to it than meets the eye. I'm not a horror fan either, and at first gave it a pass, until it happened to be on the TV one day while I was cleaning and next thing I knew I was glued to the screen.

bjxmas said...

I'm with your friend, always a great joy to introduce Supernatural to a new viewer. Welcome! I'm not a horror fan either, but I was a fan of Jensen Ackles and was thrilled he finally had writers who noted what he brought to a character and together the actors and writers created these intriguing brothers who are so real and believable. I love Kim Manners' explanation of the show, it's a show about family and how these brothers relate, it just happens that the framework to tell that story is the horror genre.

I loved the show from the start as simply great fun, but 1.03 Dead in the Water gave me the emotional glimpse behind Dean's swagger and 1.09 Home let me definitively know that Supernatural was going to be so much more than just escapist action. I honestly had no clue just how much depth they would layer in, but Kripke had all the pieces in place and he encouraged his writers and actors to dig deep and make Supernatural more than I imagine any of them initially thought it would be.

S2 is my favorite season because it shattered all expectations and reversed so much of who we thought the brothers were and yet it all fit. It was real life, real emotion, real hurts and real triumphs and the building blocks fell into place. Funny how this all comes about in a very unreal world.

What I most respect about Eric Kripke is his willingness to try new things, to not rest on success but instead make every season different while holding firm to who Sam and Dean Winchester are. It keeps things fresh. You have the comfort and familiarity of the Winchesters under the stress and turmoil of an uncertain life with any number of supernatural creatures ready to test them. That makes for great drama!

Sam and Dean are the main attraction and casting was critical. Jensen and Jared make us care. What is most frustrating for fans is the notion that non-watchers have that it is all about the gorgeous guys. As you noted, Jensen has that face and a career that was solid, but the chance to really act, to show his true talent, came with Dean Winchester.

Going into S8 it's wonderful to still be excited about a show. With Jeremy Carver back I'm expecting grand things. I hate to put that pressure on him, but somehow they always find new ways to surprise and delight me. They take risks and reap great rewards when it works, and if the story falls a little short on occasion (as Bob Singer noted, you can't hit it out of the ballpark every time!) we still have Sam and Dean and their brotherhood. I'll take Sam and Dean talking in the car or by the side of the road over anything else on TV. To get all the comedy, horror, drama, action and other intriguing characters too is just a huge bonus.