Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Supernatural Rewatch: Season 1

In preparation for a future Dark Discussions podcast, I decided, finally, to revisit Supernatural, starting from the beginning. You see, while I am an unabashed fan of the series, I have never made an effort to revisit episodes as the series has progressed. Buffy, Star Trek, Battlestar - those I would frequently watch and rewatch. But with Supernatural, it was DVR, watch, delete. Perhaps it is because I was a reluctant fan at first, and never expected it to last more than a season or two, or maybe my life has just gotten too busy, or because I keep looking at that huge pile of unwatched DVD's and BluRays, or, most likely, a combination of all of the above.

Anyway, while I was not enthused by the series at first, I am now an unabashed fan, and have managed to miss only one episode in its (so far) seven year run. I don't think that it has ever been the best show on television, it has been one of the most consistently entertaining.

For those who are not fans, the show follows the exploits of a pair of brothers travelling America fighting the things that go bump in the night. It's the latest series to follow in the footsteps of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, continuing where X-Files and Buffy left off. Yet the show is its own thing, featuring more testosterone driven rough and tumble than its kin.


"Don't be afraid of the dark? Of course you should be afraid of the dark! You know what's out there!" - Dean

The pilot does what the pilot should, introducing us to Sam and Dean Winchester, their world and their conflict. This is an effective episode, moving swiftly and efficiently despite the dense info dumping, and packing in an effective scare or two.

The first half of the show sets up the series. We see the death of Mother Winchester, which leads John (Dad), Dean and Sam to a life of demon hunting. Flash forward 20 years to find Sam has left "the life" behind, working to get into law school. Dean arrives in the middle of the night to drag Sam him into helping find their father, who has gone missing. This is the most awkard part of the pilot, loaded with exposition, but it works to establish the Supernatural universe, with hints of a world teeming with creatures in dark corners.

"When I told Dad I was afraid of the thing in my closet he gave me a .45."

The remainder of the pilot serves to show what we can expect week in, week out, as Sam and Dean try to banish a "Woman in White" - the series take on the vanishing hitchhiker legend. Very quickly the rules are laid out - the boys know what's what, most civilians do not. They have a trunk full of weapons, live off fraudulent credit cards, and ghosts can be banished by burning their remains. The ghost herself is effectively done, creating a tangible threat out of an intangible entity, and the means used to dispatch her both logical and disturbing. This storyline also gives the boys a chance to find their Dad's old journal, which also features prominantly in the show for the next several seasons.

"Sammy is a chubby twelve year old. I'm Sam."

The core of the show is the relationship between Sam and Dean. Ackles and Padalecki have a genuine fraternal chemistry that sells what the writers are slinging, and this line essentially lays out the relationship - Sam is trying to be his own man, but Dean has trouble thinking of him as anything other than the kid he used to protect. It is this relationship that will drive the series and its mythology for years to come, and the (once) young actors are more than up to the task.

"What I said earlier about Mom and Dad..."
"No chick flick moments!"
"All right... jerk."

The Winchester fraternity gives the show a texture different from the shows that preceded it.Muldur and Scully sizzled with sexual subtext, Buffy wallowed in teen angst, and Charmed was soaked to the bone with estrogen. Sure the show will have its weepy moments in the future, but these are guys, guys with guns, driving a guy's car, and listening to manly music.

"It's the greatest hits of Mullet Rock."
"Driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his pie hole."

One of the shows signatures is its use of a classic rock soundtrack. This immediately distinguished it from former WB series such as Buffy and Charmed, which often relied on alternative pop ballads (from the Warners label, naturally). Choice cuts in the pilot include Highway to Hell, Back in Black and Ramblin' Man.

Season 1

While the first episode is an effective hook to reel in viewers, the next batch of episodes were mixed, at best. The main story - the quest for John- is put on the back burner (though often referenced) as the boys drive through America killing what ain't right. The emphasis is on the monster of the week, and obvious "homages" to modern monster films only serve to remind the viewer of better things. There are certainly winners in the early mix - Dead in the Water and Skin stand out for me - but had the series continued on this path I suspect it would be short lived.

Episodes 1.9 (Home) and 1.11(Scarecrow) put the series on its feet. In "Home," the boys return back to their home in Lawrence, KS, in the hopes of finding and vanquishing the demon that killed their mother. Though the quest is mostly fruitless, it gives them some clues, brings back both Mom and Dad, and most importantly tells the audience that there will be some forward momentum.

"Scarecrow"expands the storyline further. The nominal A story about a killer scarecrow serves as a metaphor for sacrifice, something that will have greater resonance in coming seasons. More important is Sam's B story, in which he leaves Dean for the first but not last time. In his wanderings to find his father (just how was he going to do this without a car, the journal or any other clues is a mystery), he hooks up with young hitchhiker Meg. As it turns out, Meg is working for "the Demon" and will play an important role.

Most of the remaining episodes continue to move the ball down the field while still providing mostly entertaining monster of the week stories. By this point the writers have realized the monsters work best as metaphors for the brothers and their relationship, so the weekly crisis often dovetails into the larger story arc.

All the pieces come together in the final three tales, "Dead Man's Blood", "Salvation" and "Devil's Trap", as boys are reunited with their father in order to find a holy weapon to vanquish the Yellow Eyed Demon, and culminating in a showdown between Sam and his possessed father.

With viewers still suffering blue balls from X-Files, and scratching their heads over Lost, Supernatural was delivering actual resolutions to their arcs, and doing so in an entertaining fashion. Though there were some rough outings in the early episodes, the series found its footing, and had most of its most important elements in place before the shocking final moment (which had my wife and I wondering if the show had been cancelled!).

Top 5 Episodes From Season 1:

1.3 Dead in the Water: Well told ghost tale that offers little to the mythology but effectively sells the daily horrors the boys are fighting.

I'm Agent Ford, this is Agent Hamill.

1.6 Skin: A solid take on the tried and true "evil doppleganger" tale. I think the first "gross" episode in the series, it is the first to shake up the show's format, and is the first episode since the pilot to have long term ramifications (Dean's official "death").

Well, he's not stupid. He picked the handsome one!

1.12 Faith: First episode to feature Reapers (left unemployed since Dead Like Me was cancelled), and featuring Julie Benz (Buffy, Angel, Dexter). Well shot in sepia tones (to hide bad makeup) the sequence in which a Reaper stalks and kills a jogger is one of the best in the first year.

I'm not gonna die in a hospital when the nurses aren't even hot!

1.20 Dead Man's Blood: Reunites the Wincherster boys with their Dad, gives us the Colt, and our first look at Supernatural's vampires.

Whatever happened to that college fund?
Spent it on ammo.

1.22 Devil's Trap: Season finale is always a cliched pick but in this case its earned. Meeting Bobby, exorcising Meg, the confrontation between Sam and John, and one shocker of a finale - what's not to like?

Oh, we're going for it, baby. Head spinning, projectile vomiting, the whole nine yards.

Season Stinker:

1.13 Route 666:  Admittedly a neat idea of a road haunted by a ghostly truck, but by drapping it in racial metaphor it fails under its own self importance. And if the preachy dialogue wasn't enough, there is a total lack of chemistry between Dean and the supposed love of his life. Strong contender for the worst in the entire series.

 I miss conversations that didn't start with "this killer truck"!