Friday, June 14, 2013

Always Late to the Party

Based on what I’ve read online (so you know it has to be the truth, right?), the creator / executive producer of Warner’s Supernatural TV series had a tough time pitching and selling the thing. 

If only he’d consulted me. Because it was obvious to me from the very first episode that what we’re dealing with here — and the only way to pitch it — is “Route 66 with Monsters.”

Actually, Route 66 did have monsters a time or two and could be a pretty scary show. One early episode had Martin Milner (later of Adam-12) and George Maharis stumbling upon an isolated tank town where the Boss Guy had years earlier committed a brutal Hate Crime and was holding the entire citizenry to silence, even to the point of piling more murders onto the problem. EC Comics published a very similar story right around the same time. During the late fifties and early sixties, for all of its post-wartime prosperity, America kept some pretty dark secrets.

In the first season of Supernatural, brothers Sam and Dean Winchester uncover a nearly identical situation… except that the murderer is a possessed scarecrow and isn’t motivated by Racial Intolerance. 

Supernatural owes so much to Classic TV that it feels like Classic TV right out of the box. I blew through the entire first season in a little over two weeks, and am raring for more. Perfect? Not. But it has a good beat (you can dance to it), and the show runners display a lot more  intelligence and good instincts than most of their peers ever did — I’m thinking specifically of David “I’m Making it Up as I Go Along” Lynch and his Twin Peaks, of the talented but too-cocky Chris Carter and his X-Files and the not-so-very talented J.J. Abrams and his Lost — the latter of which held its audience in so much open contempt that I’m amazed it found people willing to be insulted week after week.

The Big Elephant in the room on all of these shows is what’s come to be known in the trade as “The Mythology.” There’s nothing wrong in principle with having a backstory that ties your series together as a whole, while allowing for standalone episodes. It’s the way that those Other Bozos implemented the mythology that brought destruction down upon their shows. The X-Files is a prime example — it became obvious pretty quickly that Carter had no specific plans for his backstory, and suffered from what comics artist John Byrne once called “Gee-Whiz-What-A-Good-Bit-ism.”

That is, if it was a Good Bit, Carter stuck it on whether or not it made any sense in the overall design. I can just hear him saying “We’ll fix it later.” The so-called mythology became so contrived, so convoluted, so bloated and was so incoherent that the entire show eventually collapsed under its weight. Left with no other alternatives, Carter had Mulder and Scully fall in love, and that made for some far creepier moments than anything the conspiracy claptrap could provide.

Lost was like that from the very first episode. Watching it that one time, I immediately thought, “Oh my God, it’s another Twin-X-Peaks-Files fiasco where they have NO plan, are making it up as they go along, don’t care if it makes a lick of sense, and aren’t interested in anything other than stringing viewers along.”

There’s an ugly old-fashioned term for shows like that. They’re cock-teasers.

Now, Supernatural does have a “mythology” — and the producers even call it that — but at its heart it is a simple story: Mom killed by Demon, Dad wants to Get Demon, grown-up sons get caught up in his Calling. I do get the feeling that they have a definite plan, that they are not making it up as they go along, and that, while keeping it interesting, they aren’t piling on complications just for the sake of making it more complicated.

So in the end, it’s not the Classic TV tropes that make Supernatural worthwhile (although that helps)… it’s that the producers actually have brains in their heads and appear to be using them.

This holds true even in the non-mythology episodes. These guys just seem to have good Story Instincts. When  a shape-shifter appears as the monster of the week, they make it personal, not just by having the shape-shifter take on the form of one of the leads (we saw that coming), but by making sure that the shape-shifter — which we never see in its true form — absorbs some of the thoughts and feelings of its “mark.” This allows Dean Winchester to say some things that he would not otherwise say, and dredge up some resentments that would otherwise stay buried.

That, my friends, is how you write a TV show.

Going in to this series, I had some reservations about the content. We live in an age where very few televisual holds are barred after all, and I was afraid that the series would be too gory and intense for me. My tastes in Horror are pretty classical (read: Universal Monsters) — modern tropes of hack and slash, blood and gore, “shock” horror and torture porn are Not Acceptable to me. Here, Supernatural walks a tightrope line, sometimes stepping over but most often keeping just within the boundaries of taste. Most often, it’s the consequences of that violence that are shown, not the violence itself… and that’s a reasonable, tried-and-true way of handling some fairly touchy material. Give us just enough to sell the story, and nothing more. Supernatural mostly accomplishes this in its first season.

Meanwhile, the producers of Supernatural should get down on their knees and thank heavens for their lead actors, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padelecki as Dean and Sam. They bring everything to the table that this kind of show needs in order to work. First and probably most important, they have the ability to speak the most ridiculous lines describing the most unbelievable circumstances, not just with a straight face but in a way that makes it all believable. Second, they work very well together. Third, they have all the qualities to make the women in the audience swoon, but are so likable and cool that they don’t put off the male audience. Finally, they just have that “Classic Television” vibe going on. Although they are young, they do not seem to be bound to any specific generation. Tooling around in their bad-ass Impala, all leather jackets and black jeans, the Winchesters would be just as much at home in the ‘fifties as they are in the twenty-tweens. Even in the not-so-classic rock that blares from the Impala speakers (on cassettes no less), there is nothing in them to alienate an Olde Farte like me. 

So — for now, at least, I’m on board. Always late to the party, I’ll begin the second season sometime this week. No matter how you cut it up, Supernatural has logged eight seasons as I write this and has been picked up for a ninth. That’s a huge success in TV terms: had the exact same show aired during the Light Dark Ages when the airwaves were ruled by just three networks and niche marketing was just a glimmer in Madison Avenue’s eye, we’d have been lucky to get three seasons out of the thing. 

You’d think that they’d be just about out of monsters by now…

— Freder

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