Jan 9, 2011

Supernatural - Season 1

I wasn't a fan of Supernatural from the start. Even though I'd heard a lot about the show, it took a long time for me to give it a try, and by the time I finally did, Season 3 was nearly finished. However, I quickly found just how lucky this delay had been, considering the monstrous addictiveness of the Winchesters' adventures. Recently I've started a rewatch, and decided that's a good enough excuse for reviewing one of the best shows on the subject ever to appear on TV.

The story begins twenty two years ago, in Lawrence, Texas. One night Mary Winchester (Samantha Smith) enters the nursery of her six months old son Sam, to find a stranger over the baby's crib. Her scream draws her husband John (Watchmen's Jeffrey Dean Morgan) upstairs, but by the time he gets there, he can only witness in horror as his wife, pinned to the ceiling and bleeding, bursts into flames. John runs away with Sammy and his older son Dean, while their home and the life they knew burn behind them.

Twenty two years later the Winchester brothers have gone their separate ways. Dean (Jensen Ackles) and John have stayed together, going into the night to hunt the monsters, ghosts and demons that haunt the world, unseen by common people. In the mean time, Sam (Jared Padalecki) has opted for a normal life and is headed toward a bright future as a pre-law student in Stanford. Until one day Dean comes to tell him that their father has disappeared, and he needs his brother's help to find him. At first, Sam is reluctant to abandon his college life, but then tragedy strikes again, and the search for John Winchester begins.

Needless to say that in their travels, the brothers stumble upon a cornucopia of supernatural beasties - demons, monsters from fairy tales and urban legends, pagan gods, ghosts and mythical creatures. Most of Season 1 is actually comprised of stand-alone episodes, with the leads for the search spread thinly over the twenty two episodes. That is not to say that the main story-arc is non-existent, but it takes no more than five or six episodes, most of those - toward the end.

The first thing that separates Supernatural from shows like The X-Files or Buffy is the level of horror in the show. Despite the moderately light tone and the wisecracking (mostly courtesy of the insanely charming Dean, but I'll get there in a moment), there is a lot of blood, gore and terror in the cases that the brothers pursue. The body-count is impressive, and many episodes could easily stand toe to toe with an expensive horror movie. The nasties are often impressive, and apart from a few lapses, the CGI looks expensive.

Of course, monsters do not a TV show make, and Supernatural both excels and in a way also fails in the most important aspect - the casting. The Winchester brothers are spot on. Dean is charming, roguish smartass who always has something funny to say, and a quick smile to get himself into trouble with. He likes the ladies, and the ladies like him, but at the same time there is no one you'd want more by your side when it comes to dealing with the monster in your closet. Sam has the same training as his brother, having left after turning 18, but he could not be more different. Where Dean presents a happy-go-lucky facade, his younger bro is brooding, serious, studious and in possession of the biggest stick you could possibly stick up your butt. Or so it begins, as with the passing of seasons both main characters evolve a lot, roles get reversed more than once, and nobody is near to where they started.

However, in Season 1 the dynamic between the Winchesters is pure joy to behold. Sam and Dean's relationship is complicated but true, and with all the baggage and bad blood in the family, they are still each other's biggest support. Plus, the constant arguing, smartassery, pranks and snide remarks, combined with the touchy-feely stuff (as Dean dubs the emotional moments) make for one of the best TV couples of all time, and is the main reason to watch Supernatural.

Unfortunately, they are basically the only characters in the first twenty two episodes of the show. If there is a lesson everyone working in TV needs to learn from Joss Whedon, it is that longer mediums need their support cast. They need an ensemble. And even though Supernatural gets there, eventually, this happens slowly throughout the seasons, and it never reaches the richness of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica for example. Apart from the brothers, there are only three other recurring characters (every one of which would be a spoiler to name, so I won't do it), and they appear in less than four episodes each. Even the longest surviving member of the cast - Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver) doesn't make his entrance until the very last episode of Season 1. And even beyond that, he appears rarely enough - he has only 35 episodes to his name (while the entire show has reached 126 up to this point).

There is another problem with the opening season of Supernatural - its episodes are way too predictable. Basically, all the stand-alones follow a single pattern - gruesome supernatural killing occurs; the brothers find out about it, go to investigate; investigation galore; they find out what the deal is; they kill the thing; the end. There is also a hot chick involved somewhere in the process, usually for Dean to flirt with, but of course, none of them are recurring characters. Season 2 already breaks the patterns and begins introducing more original stories, but the first one could occasionally get tedious.

Still, those are not problems that would prevent you from enjoying the show. It compensates with its great main characters, smart and witty dialogue (although, of course, nowhere near Whedon standards) and the high production values, giving real life to the supernatural. And even in Season 1 there are a few episodes original enough to warrant special attention, like Asylum, with its brilliant madhouse atmosphere and the role reversal of ghosts and victims; or the brilliant comedic Hell Hous, where a local urban legend keeps changing, altering the evil ghost in a haunted house with it. This episode also introduces two awesome characters who reappear in later seasons - the "Ghost hunters" Harry Spangler (Travis Wester) and Ed Zeddmore (A.J. Buckley) - and also have a spin-off web show of their own, called Ghostfacers.

And if you stick with it, Season 1 of Supernatural treats you to an awesome showdown and one of the most nail-biting cliffhangers in TV's recent history. My advice is to give it a try and do stick with it. This is a show that gets better and better with each season, the stakes getting higher and higher, and characters getting deeper and deeper. And even if Season 1 is a bit uncertain in moments, and lacks the punch to herald a truly special TV show, it is still better than most anything on the subject you're likely to find.


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