In 2005, there were lots of people who assumed Supernatural would fail catastrophically in its first season, if only because no one would watch a serious, not-Buffy horror show with classic rock on The WB. Then, there was a 50/50 chance it would be cancelled after the writer’s strike during a truncated season 3. Then many of us assumed it would end with the departure of creator Eric Kripke, who admitted to only having a five-year story and still planning to end his story in that time.
It’s 2014 now, and the last show to ever air on The WB is still airing today, with the same two actors, many of the same producers, and hitting 200 episodes with no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Everyone’s said it, but it bears repeating: no one expected this show to run this long.
We’ve had a ton of coverage here at KSiteTV in celebration of the 200th episode of Supernatural, which premieres tonight. The episode, “Fan Fiction,” is poised to dive right back into the super-meta well, wrangle in plenty of guests and references, and generally celebrate the show and its fans. It’s a stark contrast to the show’s 100th episode, “Point of No Return,” an extremely dark and pivotal affair that set the stage for the fifth season’s apocalyptic climax. But that contrast is a good representation of what Supernatural has become, for better or worse, and why it’s lasted a decade.
With an established interest in paranormal shows and anything from The WB, I caught the pilot of Supernatural right when it premiered in 2005. Well, not right when it premiered—a few days later, that Saturday night/Sunday morning at 2am. My area was cursed with UPN instead of WB, but our NBC station had the rights to broadcast most WB shows on weekends and the middle of the night to fill their schedules. At the height of my Smallville obsession, I was totally willing to stay up past SNL to catch it at 1am, or videotape it if I couldn’t—this is before On Demand and streaming were so rampant, remember—and Supernatural replaced the 2am slot that had been given to Everwood. I’m glad it did; Supernatural was a much better follow-up to Smallville in our faux-WB nighttime lineup. Also, watching a scary show in the middle of the night is just going to lead to better results, let’s be honest.
That feeling still carried over even after WB switched to CW and I could finally watch in primetime. My high school friends and I watched the story of the Winchester brothers and their hunt for their father and the Yellow-Eyed Demon at night in our dark basements together, in lieu of watching actual horror movies in groups like normal teenagers. Years later, a completely different group of friends in college caused me to re-fall in love with the show when the angel mythology kicked in at the top of season 4, and there was born a tiny subgroup of weird theatre kids on campus who all obsessed over Supernatural. I’m pretty sure there’s still a Facebook page out there with our college’s “Official” Supernatural Fan Club chapter (my officer title was “Bobby Singer”…and also, shut up.) What made it so special to all of us, at the time, was that it was this little, secret show that no one would believe was really, legitimately good. It was a challenge to convince people that, yes, the show with a guy from Gilmore Girls and another guy from Dark Angel and a much-maligned season of Smallville were in an X-Files knock-off on The WB’s new awkwardly-named network, and it was actually extremely well-written and entertaining.
And it truly was; in the first five years, every single season got better and better with each passing year. It was experimental, and it tied together overarching plots and characters like nobody’s business. The plot points were daring. There were tons of ingenious concepts the show used and continually found new significance for, like the Colt and even the iconic Impala itself. Little tidbits or minor characters would return and play massive roles, with an astounding sense of continuity.
The examples are numerous. One-off episodes about a Croatoan virus and a dead third brother bait-and-switch became integral to the apocalypse. Characters were introduced with a specific role—like Ruby and the Trickster—and would be unveiled later to be completely tied into the main story arc in fascinating ways. It was daring and experimental, creating an entire meta-Supernatural series within the show, and managing to tie it into the main narrative. Seasons would find parallels with the brothers’ deaths—it wasn’t a joke the first time—and then, more brilliantly, between Heaven and Hell, and the Biblical story of Creation. It was a show about brothers with salt-filled shotguns saving people and hunting things, and it was a show about mortals thrust into a cosmic war and armed with free will. The actors grew, the characters grew, and the story revealed itself to be impeccably well-thought out, intellectual, sardonic, self-aware, existentialist, philosophical—whatever hoity-toity words a pretentious college-student could throw out that was the antithesis to the type of show people expected.
From the offset, Supernatural looked like a cheap CW show with impossibly attractive people, but it also looked like a melodramatic horror show full of weird monsters and movie clichés, neither of which should appeal to people with “good taste.” Then Supernatural succeeded by being both of those things and neither of them at the same time, plus a whole lot of everything else. Just consider that some of the best episodes of the show include the likes of “Mystery Spot,” “Abandon All Hope,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Devil’s Trap,” and “Changing Channels,” just to name a few. These are each profoundly different, and yet they’re all beloved for sometimes completely unrelated reasons, and that’s an incredible feat.
Admittedly, some of the earlier aforementioned successes of the show are things that became problems later on; sometimes a lack of continuity and an overabundance of supporting character death has plagued it. But even when the show goes in narrative circles—which it has in spades since season 5—it still manages to pull out incredible episodes, concepts, and characters. As attached as I am to the idea of seasons 1-5 as one complete story (let’s be real, no ending will ever top “Swan Song”), I’m completely in favor of characters like Charlie, Kevin, Abaddon, Benny, and the expansion of Crowley; my favorite episodes ever include the likes of “Weekend at Bobby’s,” “Death’s Door,” “The French Mistake,” and “Meta Fiction.” The latter era has problems, but it still has a whole slew of hits, many of them positively affecting the show now. Any decline in quality is not remotely comparable to the level of The Simpsons or Family Guy, its narratives aren’t nearly as aimless as The X-Files became, and it has barely changed at all compared to how much Smallville transformed over time to adapt to its long run. Supernatural definitely hasn’t been consistent in its later years, but so far it’s always come back from its lowest of lows and shown more bite than not.
And frankly, it’s hard to criticize the show sometimes when every single person working on it appears to absolutely love it. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, despite being in all 200 of these episodes, show no signs of being jaded or exhausted, especially compared to actors on generally any other show that’s run comparatively long. Misha Collins and Mark Sheppard absolutely revel in the love they get. Eric Kripke still loves to talk about his baby, even after having departed as showrunner half a decade ago. Much of the crew from season one have stuck throughout it without any desire to leave. Actors in major and minor roles like Jim Beaver, Osric Chau, Felicia Day, Kim Rhodes, and Lauren Tom, just to name a scarce few, all seem ecstatic to be part of it and are always open to returning. If there’s ever been a single member that was dissatisfied with their experience on the show, they haven’t been very vocal about it.
An even larger factor is that Supernatural’s success rode parallel to the cusp of geek culture exploding in the mainstream, at least in a general sense. Doctor Who’s revival was slowly-but-surely saturating more and more of the non-sci-fi-friendly public consciousness, and superhero movies were earning increasing critical acclaim and money every year. And, oh yeah, Tumblr and Twitter were both becoming things lots of people were using to promote those fandoms. It wasn’t quite at the peak we’re at now when Supernatural ended its Eric Kripke era, but it was definitely clear then that the show’s internet fandom wasn’t as niche as it used to be. The ratings might not have improved as much as you’d expect, but people were going back and finding the show—especially once it hit Netflix—and retroactively becoming part of it.
Five-year-olds in 2005 are now be old enough to go totally gaga over Cas and the Winchesters and become engrossed in the emotional aspects. Teens in the perfect WB demographic in 2005 are now old enough to truly appreciate the self-awareness and the narrative. Adults then and now can enjoy both how much the show has grown and changed, but still be comfortable that it’s also pretty much the same show as it used to be, in the important ways. That’s what’s quite amazing about any show so long-running: it literally spans generations in its single run, and offers something to all those generations.
When Castiel’s army merchandise started popping up in Hot Topic, I’ll be the first to admit that some of us would instinctively react with bitter (and unfounded) jealousy over these young Tumblr punks hijacking our show. But that, ultimately, goes against what this show has become: the definition of a story thriving on its audience, but in a way that no other TV show has done so successfully. Its extremely loose fourth wall and neverending attempts to shatter the little of it that exists has created a strange, entertaining universe that almost merges the fandom and the narrative as one. The show is incredibly reactionary to the people who watch, and yet it’s embraced the crazy that comes with internet fandoms and overenthusiastic young viewers (in a good way) and made it part of the universe. It’s a total oddity in the TV world, at least the extent to which Supernatural does it, but it’s managed to keep this going for over 200 episodes. Even if it doesn’t have the fascinating narrative prowess of its golden age, it has never sank to anything lower than decent. Even at its worst, it’s always entertaining and oddly comforting just to hang out with these familiar characters, no matter how bloody it gets.
And at the end of the day, this is still the same show about the two brothers in their Impala saving people and hunting things. Their hair and voices are different, the history is different, and the people/angels/demons in their lives are different. But it’s the exact same show at its heart, and that’s astounding. That sameness might be the reason it doesn’t seem as daring as it used to be, but it might be the lesser of two evils—it’s part of the reason we’re all comfortable to stick around for 200 episodes. Like the Winchesters, we’ll sacrifice our own well-being (i.e. living through things like the Leviathan arc or that backdoor pilot) in order to keep it alive, because the exciting, entertaining, and consistently competent results are worth it. And when Supernatural is firing on all-cylinders, it’s one hell of a good show.