Lawrence, Kansas, early 80's. It is night, and all is well for the happy occupants of the Winchester home: husband John, wife Mary, and their two young boys, four year old Dean and baby Sam. John is asleep in front of the TV when he awakens to screaming - which is coming from the nursery. He races in to find his wife pinned to the ceiling, her abdomen torn open; he barely has time to register this horrible fact before, still alive, she bursts into flames. After having Dean flee the home with infant Sam, he tries to save his wife but it's too late. She's gone and the fire is spreading. He barely makes it out of the house before it is wholly ablaze. John and his boys watch as the life they knew goes up in flames.
Stanford University, 2005. College student Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki, House of Wax) is startled one night by sounds of an intruder in the apartment he shares with his beloved girlfriend Jessica. Upon investigation (and a brief hand-to-hand encounter), he is surprised to see - after 2 years - his older brother Dean (Jensen Ackles, Dark Angel). It seems that their father has disappeared on a "hunting trip," and Dean needs Sam's help in finding him. A very reluctant Sam agrees to come along, and the brothers head off to the site of Dad's last known whereabouts. As it turns out, Dad was certainly hunting something, but of a decidedly different breed of wildlife.
After the loss of his wife, ex-Marine John Winchester vowed to find the person (or entity) responsible for her death, at any cost. To that end, he immersed himself in the occult and the knowledge of how to combat and destroy "every evil thing" he came across, raising his sons as warriors to help him wage this highly personal campaign against the forces of darkness. They are adept in all manner of weaponry - conventional and otherwise - and survival skills, from your typical martial-arts training to impersonating law enforcement officers of practically every stripe to small-time credit card scams when cash flow is particularly tight. As they grew, Dean remained the "good" soldier, following orders blindly without question and carrying out Dad's will zealously. Sam became increasingly disillusioned, tiring of both their nomadic existence as well as the toll that fighting the evil of the world took on his soul; he finally caved and left for California, where he could pursue the normal life he had been searching and aching for, as he had never known a life beyond "hunting" ever since he could remember.
But now Dad is missing. And as Sam is brought back into his previous life, old family wounds are reopened. Others have never really healed. And when tragedy strikes Sam painfully close to his heart, he realizes that this war will never be over. Not until the Winchester brothers confront their past and defeat it. Only then will he have an opportunity to lead a "normal" life. So the boys set off on their long road trip, chasing their father's trail as best they can, and along the way they encounter a variety of monsters, ghosts, and your typical "things that go bump in the night," and do what they do, which is kick evil's ass all over the place.
Supernatural debuted in the fall of 2005, and it is a complete understatement to say that I didn't expect much from it. I was a big fan of The X-Files (my worship of Robert Patrick even had me watching the lesser-in-quality last couple of seasons). I enjoyed the first few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer quite a bit. But the WB doing a mostly serious horror series? I really didn't think there was much of a chance at it being any good, honestly.
Apparently I didn't count on a man named Eric Kripke. Or the writing staff he would assemble. Or the cast led by Ackles and Padalecki. . .or any of it, really. I certainly didn't count on it becoming, in one short season, my absolute favorite TV show dealing in dark fantasy. Ever.
The horror fans I know who have given the show a chance and checked out more than one episode are all still watching it. However, the fact that it premiered on the WB probably scared away more genre stalwarts than it brought in. But let me make this clear: this is not Charmed meets Dawson's Creek with some Night Stalker thrown in for good measure. Yes, most everybody on the show is young and attractive, but I would say that is due more to the demands of TV these days rather than an aesthetic pursued by the creators. For Supernatural is a unqualified winner; it is scary and thrilling, surprisingly funny and witty, and absolutely steeped in pop culture, especially full of sci-fi and horror references. My inner geek is more than placated week in and week out. Not to mention the very antithesis of the WB's usual M.O. by cranking a soundtrack of classic rock from the 70's and 80's (I must admit, when AC/DC's "Back in Black" played in the pilot, I think the show had me right there), which is used perfectly. Or the fact that they tool around the country in an absolutely kickass, jet-black, classic Chevy Impala (dubbed "Metallicar" by the fans).
Creator Kripke's goal going into the show was to make a "horror movie every week" and the show, in both quality and execution, reflects that. The action sequences are uniformly well done and exciting. The special effects are excellent for a network production (save for the odd bit of CGI here and there, but it IS television, so what ya gonna do?) and can be fairly graphic at times; in a couple of instances, I was floored at what they got away with. Said FX feature work from veterans of almost everything filmed in Vancouver - where the show, like a lot of TV, is shot - in the last few years, from Freddy vs. Jason to Final Destination.
The stories themselves are interesting and well written by a staff headed by Kripke, and the other writers turn in some excellent work. Sera Gamble and Raelle Tucker deserve special notice for a few superb episodes, as well as X-Files vet John Shiban. In fact, the X-Files connection extends to directors David Nutter (who handles the first two episodes here) and Kim Manners (an executive producer on the show as well as having directed nine episodes of the series as of this writing), who haven't lost any of their mojo since working on that project; their episodes have helped to create a perfectly dark and threatening tone for the show, which has been appropriated by the other directors.
Storytelling-wise, it is a fair statement to say that, again like the X-Files, Supernatural alternates between stand-alone, monster-of-the-week eps and those that move the main arc forward - that of the Winchester brothers searching for their father and ultimately hunting for the demon that killed their mother. Both styles are great, however. In this first season Dean and Sam run afoul of antagonists as varied as a shapeshifter, a particularly vicious scarecrow, a few demons, a nest of vampires, and more than a few vengeful spirits. Most of these derive from urban legends (like the Hook Man and everybody's favorite Bloody Mary) which the show treats as real and deadly serious. The main storyline is handled perfectly, drawing it out over the course of the season and giving the audience just enough answers while continuing to pose all the right questions - all of which come to a head in the thrilling final episodes and giving the finale one hell of a cliffhanger.
A great deal of the show's success is due to a simple factor that I wish was more common in today's television landscape: character. The nature of TV, almost by definition, demands involving and interesting stories. Supernatural has those, to be sure, but it does something that takes it to the next level, in my opinion. It allows the individual episodes to be story driven while the overall show itself is very much character driven. Good writers understand this instinctively; caring about the people we are watching means we actually give a shit about what happens to them, and when they are in danger (be it physical or emotional), we're right there with them - we have a stake in all of this.
The actors are definitely a part in bringing that to the table. As Dean and Sam, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are never less than convincing that a) they're brothers and have a shared history together, and b) that they care for each other more than pretty much anything in this world. For when it comes right down to it, they are all the other has - even more so than their Dad. These two (both natives of Texas) have an undeniable chemistry and rapport that, once you've seen just a few episodes, has you simply accepting their kinship as fact, never to be questioned or thought of again. It undoubtedly helps that they became fast friends in real life, which adds another dimension to their relationship. Individually they're fantastic as well: Ackles is the smooth, wise cracking, lady-lovin, hyper-competent and fiercely protective older brother; while Padalecki is sensitive, thoughtful, technologically savvy and a great deal less reckless and impulsive, yet he can still kick some serious ass when the situation calls for it. Watching these two is some truly entertaining viewing. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Dead and Breakfast) as their father John is just flat-out stellar; he is the rock this family is built upon.
And just to be clear: these Winchesters are pretty screwed up, emotionally speaking. Although I guess that can't be helped when your mother or wife is slaughtered by a demon straight form hell; I think that would leave most of us a little less than at our best. The family dynamic is played about as realistic as something like this can be under such fantastic circumstances, with reserves of soul-crushing guilt and seething rage bubbling just under the surface, but sometimes they get right up in your face. All perfectly brought to life by the cast.
Lest I make this sound way too heavy, remember that this show is first and foremost a thrill-ride and is very enjoyable. It's just that the emotions it deals with are never treated as anything less than painfully true and honest. Which again, makes the lighter moments more likely to make you laugh and smile, and hope against hope that everything is going to turn out okay for these guys; they've been through a whole hell of a lot, and they deserve their revenge AND a good life.
The DVD set from Warners is fairly impressive. We've got all 22 episodes (five of which have deleted/extended scenes) with commentary on 2 of them, with creator Eric Kripke, director David Nutter, and producer Peter Johnson on the pilot and Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki on "Phantom Traveler". They're both informative, even though the latter track seems more laid-back, with Ackles and Padalecki clearly enjoying themselves. There are two featurettes, starting with "Supernatural: Tales From The Edge Of Darkness" which - at around 20 minutes - gives a good amount of info and insight, even if it's a more or less typical behind the scenes look. Then there's "A Day in the Life of Jared and Jensen," which is about what it sounds like, following the boys on a typical day from morning to wrap; we see them in their trailers and on set, starting snowball fights with the crew and generally having a good time - the duo's friendship is illustrated well here. There's also a gag reel, a still gallery and some DVD-ROM online content, including a script for the pilot that varies slightly from what was actually filmed but still recognizable as what the show has come to be.
Supernatural is AWESOME, is what I'm saying. And not in any guilty pleasure type way, either. At least not for me. It makes me laugh, say "oh shit!" occasionally, and cheer like an idiot sometimes. It's comforting, knowing that there's at least a few people still out there who just want to scare you and entertain you, and do a damn fine job doing it.