I started re-watching Supernatural from the beginning this past Wednesday… it’s familiar, it’s comforting, it’s straightforward and uncomplicated, and it’s been helping me cope with the exceedingly complicated world beyond the TV screen. I’m not going to dwell on that in this post, though. This post is also not about the problematic parts of the show, though I’ll certainly talk about that at some point. What I do want to talk about is that I forgot how charming Supernatural is right from the beginning. I’m fairly certain this isn’t just my affection and familiarity talking… in fact I’m certain this is exactly how that affection began.
I talked about Supernatural at length on an episode of the podcast, but I’ll give you the rundown here as well: it’s about the Winchester brothers, Sam and Dean, who hunt supernatural creatures, live on the road in cheap motels, and make money by gambling and committing credit-card fraud. It’s largely of the monster-of-the-week variety with a big bad that ties each season together. But from the very first episode it’s so much more than that: the thing that makes the show such an obsession with fans is that the relationships between the main characters feel real, consistent, and fully realized throughout the series.
The series begins by showing us Sam’s apparently normal life… he’s just graduated college, he’s about to attend law school, he’s got a girlfriend he loves. Then his older brother Dean shows up and tries to convince Sam to come search for their father, John, who Dean meaningfully says is on a “hunting trip” and hasn’t been heard from in three days. It’s immediately clear that Sam’s relationship with his father and brother is strained, and as the show progresses it explores the messy nature of familial love, and later the love found in platonic friendships. (Romantic love exists occasionally throughout the show, but it’s rare, fleeting, and largely unimportant.) The lead characters—who are all male—have conversations about their feelings every episode, and just as often there are scenes where the actors subtly express all the complexities with only facial expressions or tears. Throughout the first season Sam struggles with feeling torn between leaving a normal life behind and the loyalty he feels towards his family. Dean suppresses jealousy that Sam ever had a chance at a normal life, hides the weight of responsibility he feels under jokey bravado, and desperately tries to maintain peace between Sam and their father John, the only two people he has in his life. John can be brusque, unhinged, and hyper-focused on the job, but it’s also clear he thinks he’s doing the right thing to keep his boys safe from all the horror he knows is in the world. And in between they kill monsters.
I suspect that this is one of the main reasons that the fan-base is largely female… the focus on feelings and interpersonal communication is far more interesting to us than the “will they or won’t they” romantic plot of so many shows. This may seem counter-intuitive when you’re scrolling through Tumblrs full of fan-fic and art devoted to placing the male leads in sexy situations with each other, but I think the truth is that most fans (including the fan creators) want those fanciful ‘ships to remain separate and sacred from the show’s canon.
So the show began with the right ingredients to create its current fan-base, but then that fan-base began to influence and cultivate the show into something even better. The show’s creators and cast are very connected with the fan community through conventions and social media. But they also respond within the show with easter eggs and entire meta-episodes, the best example of the latter being the 200th episode, “Fan Fiction,” which can only be described as a love letter to the fans. That relationship between the creators and fans feels unique and collaborative, like friends snickering together over inside jokes. And it’s yet another relationship that forms the backbone of the show—though to be clear it’s not exclusionary… the fan community is warm and you’ll quickly be welcomed into that click.
I’m afraid I’ve made it sound too soapy… is the series still a fun horror/fantasy escapist show? Absolutely, but that’s not what makes it special. I think after 12 seasons I have sometimes lost sight of that… I still heartily recommend it to people, but I’ve occasionally felt like it’s inertia that’s drawn me back season after season. Re-watching from the beginning has reminded me why I fell in love with the show and why it’s not even a guilty pleasure… it’s just a pleasure.