I must admit, I didn't really give Supernatural a fair chance. In the wake of Buffy and Angel reaching their ends, Supernatural was one of the WB (now The CW) networks answers to nab that young/hip skewing fantasy series audience. While I was a fan of Buffy and Angel, I didn't bemoan their conclusion because the shows had run their course and gotten fairly weak. I wasn't looking to fill the void and was skeptical of the glut of modern geek shows that the networks were churning out. So, after watching only two episodes of Supernatural (series one, episodes 2 & 3), I wrote it off. I described it to a friend as, "What would happen if Abercrombie and Fitch produced Phantasm 2. Two pretty boy models driving around in a muscle car solving X-Files."
The show stuck around but rather than find that promising, I figured it was just the same audience that somehow kept Smallville and Charmed alive. But, then I saw rumblings and portents that it was a sleeper, just not the kind of geek show that creates a big vocal legion. After discovering that the great Ben Edlund (The Tick) was a writer and co-producer and Kim Manners (The X-Files) was a frequent director, I finally checked out more episodes and became casually hooked. Hey, I was wrong; it ain't half-bad.
This being a review of a show four years into its run, I wont give too much backstory. Brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester are hunters, born into the underground blue collar trade of seeking out ghostie, monster, and black-eyed, smokey, human possessing demon shenanigans. They usually solve the cases with a load of buckshot and a wisecrack before riding off into the sunset in their '67 Impala while quality classic rock blasts on the stereo.
The first two seasons dealt with the loss of their father and the hunt for a yellow-eyed demon that killed their mother, Sam's girlfriend, and intended for Sam be part of a demon-human crossbred army. Season three, shortened and rushed due to the writers strike, dealt with Dean having sold his soul for Sam's resurrection. With one year left before Dean is dragged to Hell, the brothers searched for a way out of the contract and a new big bad is introduced in dangerous little girl demon Lilith.
Season four's major storylines involve, Armageddon for starters, the returns of Lilith as the big bad and shady demon vixen Ruby, Dean being dragged out of Hell by and angel named Castiel (Misha Collins) to serve for Heaven in the upcoming war, and Sam's emerging psychic powers, the employment of which may or may not put him in danger of turning to the dark side.
Season three was messy. The balance of monster-of-the-week thrills and mythology episodes had an off rhythm. Season four finds the show with a renewed focus and its most thorough development of a seasonal arc. Often even within the episodes that could have stood alone, the writers found little and major ways to always build on the Winchester's deal with the angels, Sam becoming a demon blood junkie, and Lilith trying to spring the big guy, Lucifer himself.
Beginning in season one with pixie demon baddie Meg, the show often casts predictably, glossy, cute chick villainess'. This hit a real low point in season three with erudite thief Bela Talbot as well as rogue demon Ruby, who returns in season four with a different actress, Genevieve Cortese, playing her. Cortese unfortunately doesn't do a great job of selling the characters menacing gray intentions and often comes across like that harpy girlfriend you stuck with despite all your friends hating her only to look back and not fathom why you dated her in the first place. They continued on the Toby Dammit route with their main baddie, Lilith, being a creepy little girl. This limited her interplay with the boys and meant for the big finale they had to ditch the kid flesh for Lilith occupying yet another buxom babe demoness. You cannot exactly have two six+ foot twenty-something men beating up on a little girl, can you?
Luckily to balance out those sore spots, season four found a good thread to tyrannize the brothers in angels Castiel and Uriel, the introduction of two solid female supporting characters in fallen angel Anna (Julie McNiven) and sassy rock groupie/biker chick psychic Pamela Barnes (Traci Dinwiddie), as well as the welcome return of hunter friend and supporting cast standout Bobby (Jim Beaver).
Even when deadly serious, the show has always dropped in humor, like the Odd Couple dynamics of the brothers and episode titles like Chris Angel is a Douchebag. Usually the more light or laugh-premised episodes are spaced out but season four has a few lumped together: the black and white, gimmicky, monster mash of Monster Movie, Yellow Fever, and Wishful Thinking. Also, later in the season, the two find themselves unknowingly leading alternate lifestyles in Its a Terrible Life, Dean as an alpha male executive and Sam as a lowly tech geek. The show also has a very meta episode in The Monster at the End of This Book where they find that a bedraggled pulp writer has somehow been recounting all of the boys adventures. Their secret life being out there is one thing but as Dean says while reading one of the books, "I'm full frontal in here, dude!"
Season Four also has a few episodes that are heavy with backstory and flashbacks. The most significant is arguably In The Beginning, where Castiel sends Dean back in time to 1973 and he meets his courting mother and father, learns of his mothers hunter family background, and ultimately sees the demonic bargain that spawned the start of the series. I Know What You Did Last Summer largely has Sam recounting his downward spiral in the months that Dean was dead. After School Special looks at the brothers when they were young, returning to a school they briefly attended to investigate a series of bullied kids violently attacking their abusers, the cause of which directly relates to their time there.
The monster-of-the-week episodes include: Metamorphosis, where a seemingly normal man is changing into a monster and the moral quandary of seeing if he can save himself or offing him before he hurts someone. Family Remains (with guest star Supergirl Helen Slater) that has echoes of X-Files "Home", where they intervene on what they believe to be a haunted house that hosts a very different menace. Additionally there's some bad magic in Chris Angel is a Douchebag, a siren in Sex and Violence, and grave results occur in Jump The Shark when they meet the half-brother that they never knew existed.
Its always going to be tough to be the Luke Skywalker to someone elses Han Solo. While both sell the noble intentions of their characters, this is increasingly the case for Padalecki, who plays the brooding straight man to Ackles fun loving charmer. Padalecki gets to be all haunted and conflicted as Sam takes a darker turn but Padalecki often flexes some of the same acting muscles and looks throughout the season. Ackles, on the other hand, gets to be a total goofball in an episode like Yellow Fever as well as play dramatic shades and layers, especially Dean's new, tortured, PTSD soldier allegorical wrinkles in episodes like Heaven and Hell and On the Head of a Pin. But lest you think my man crush is on Ackles. No, I'd have to say I'm a Jim Beaver man. I don't drink, but I wanna' buy that man (or at least his character) a beer.
The DVD: Warner Bros.
Supernatural is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. Be it runes in spraypaint, rusted muscle cars, really good bacon cheeseburgers, or ghosts taking shotgun blasts, color and general definitions are good. Despite being a lower rung cult number, they stretch every dollar and the show is consistently slick in its production. Contrast is a bit murky and the grain level is quite high, but as evidenced by the original broadcasts and the unfettered deleted scenes, the rough aesthetic is an intentional post-effect and essential in adding to the series horror and grit.
Audio choices boil down to either English language 5.1 Surround or a Portuguese dub in 2.0 Stereo. A well-scored show both in terms of their choice of source music and incidental compositions. Solid fx work and always clear dialogue. The surround mix is pretty robust and responsive.
They subtitle everything on these discs, even the extras gag reel. Not only that, you get a wealth of language options for the series episodes- English, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai.
First up, a few Commentary Tracks, series creator Eric Kripke and writer Jeremy Carver on In the Beginning, writer Sera Gamble and director Robert Singer on When the Levee Breaks, and solo commentary for Lucifer Rising by Kripke, who wrote and directed the episode. These were okay, but there was nothing particularly repeat worthy or memorable. Deleted and/or Extended scenes are available for ten episodes.
Next, a selection of Featurettes, seven total, ranging from six and a half minutes to eleven minutes, with show writers (Kripke, Edlund, Carver, etc) and theologians discussing the shows mythology and referance points. Again, like the commentary, these are not going to merit many repeat viewings but the diversion from the well-trodden behind the scenes material is welcome. Finally, the flub and fart heavy Gag Reel clocking in at nearly ten and a half minutes.
Season one of Supernatural was the usual finding its ground stuff for a myth heavy fantasy series. Season two marked a real high point for the show. Season three took a definite dip in quality and aim. Season four finds Supernatural clicking once again, the arc is well-sustained and elaborate, the characters find good growth, and the supporting cast is mostly well-rounded and engaging. The introduction of angels into the shows mythverse was a natural progression, and of course the Winchester's find, like in Garth Ennis' The Preacher comic or The Prophecy films, superior, cold, deadly powerful angels are just as hard to deal with as demons.
Plenty of horror, grue, drama and laughs, with the shows fan expected whopper of a finale. If Lost is about characters reconciling or running from their pasts and Buffy is about the pangs of adolescence, Supernatural is fantasy with an undercurrent about the bond of brotherhood. God, Satan, Destiny, The End of the World, in the end, right or wrong, the Winchester's serve the innocent and family first. The DVD package is agreeable, satisfying visuals and audio, and a fairly respectable round of extras.