5 out of 5
Created by: Eric Kripke
Covers season 1 – 15
When Supernatural began, yea many years ago in 2005, paranormal hunters and brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester were often subjected to “…like the X-Files?” jokes from whichever ghost- / vampire- / bogeyman-assailed victim they were hoping to protect. Appearing on a teen-geared channel (the WB) with two good looking leads, it seemed that creator Eric Kripke, and the show’s writers, wanted to try to level with their audience, and make it clear that it was understood that Supernatural wasn’t exactly breaking new ground.
And yet: it was, even right from that starting point, building quite a legacy up through 15 good to great seasons – note there was never a bad season – that now makes it the show for other like-minded spooks-of-the-week to compare to, with a looming shadow cast by how consistently solid and fun and entertaining and inventive the show could be.
Eric Kripke set things in motion: give it a backstory, give it some lore, but give it plenty of room to grow. Don’t focus on convincing us that ghosts and ghouls are real – Sam and Dean know that already – but instead make the threat feel real, and stakes of that are woven into the brothers’ in-universe history: raised as ‘hunters’ by their father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan); their mother killed by a demon; the life into which they were essentially borne – hunters being a loose knit, widespread group of those who track and kill the supernatural entities of the title – takes its toll, to the extent that Dad has gone quite absent, obsessed with finding his wife’s killer, and Sam has willfully separated himself from the life, off to college. Alas, he’s pulled back in, as it goes, by an event reminiscent of what happened to mother, and now here’s Dean, pulling up in their dad’s ’67 Impala, saying it’s time to get back to the hunt. It’s a perfect kickoff, and it’s fleshed out by the brothers’ personalities and their bickering / loving camaraderie, which is written such that we don’t forget sins of the past, and their bonding is earned over seasons of coming to acceptance with what the life (and their family) means to each of them.
That last bit contains a minor note that ends up being the most respectable aspect of the show: its tight continuity. The first five seasons, conceived as a whole, are admittedly the tightest plotted, following the hunt for that main demon from beginning to end, with seasons thereafter generally tackling one big bad for the year, but regardless, I have never watched a show that continually remembered to check off current events during its in-between episodes; meaning: while a larger plot kicks around at certain points in the season and we spend the remaining episodes of that year on individual cases, the writers will always have the Winchesters at least offer a passing nod to that larger plot. It seems like a small thing, something pithy, but watch any long running show that tries to have the same structure, and you’ll see a clear divide between A and B plots, where one can exist without the other. It makes it all too clear what’s important and what’s not. And just by having these brief moments of acknowledgement, Supernatural grounds itself, and it makes it feel like – yes, we remember that you viewers are here, and not just tuning in for another churned out 40 minutes.
Along these lines are the ways the ever-expanding and morphing cast are handled. Going back to the concept of stakes, the show proves, several times, that it’s willing to kill off fan favorites, but what stands on equal ground to that… is how many favorites there are. I can’t think of an “obnoxious” ongoing character from the show that I grew tired of seeing, and the way the series balances a steady flow of lore (filling in our knowledge of in-universe creatures with a blend of legit mythology and made up mythology) with its own interconnected understanding of how life and the universe all fits together – y’know, angels, demons, the whole nine yards – means that these ongoing characters can radically shift from good to evil and back, without it feeling like a cheap twist. This is the best possible combination of world-building with last-minute changeups: it never matters how far back plot point A was conceived, because it works just right in the moment.
The show isn’t perfect, of course. After that five season arc, there’s definitely a bit of bouncing around while the show figures out how to drive forward, and the brothers have a frustrating habit of hiding information from one another, which only inevitably leads to issues. And fifteen seasons means you will be able to suss out some episode formulas. But every one of these quirks has its counter: that the show does figure out how to drive forward – rather amazingly getting in to a really engaging upswing in its final five seasons – and even when it does feel adrift, creative episode structures and individual fascinating ideas easily carry us through; the Winchesters occasionally tedious bromance has a believable ebb and flow to it, annoyingly realistic as that may be; and those formulas, like any long-running series, can be just as much part of the fun, and the show knows when to lean into it and make light of itself for the same.
And so the show got to end on its own terms, as opposed to cancellation. By respecting its audience – Supernatural always tries to bring its A-Game, Jensen and Jared there for every minute of every episode – and also accepting that it’s not game-changing television, the series did change serialized TV, much for the better.