Supernatural: Season Three Review
It's been a couple of years since I last checked in with Sam and Dean Winchester. I've never felt any real need to: despite giving the first season of Eric Kripke's series a reasonably good review the overwhelming impression I took away was of an okay show hampered by a weak backstory and, in Sam and Dean, a couple of underdeveloped lead characters. As such, the one time the show has impinged on my consciousness between then and now has been when registering momentary surprise to see it being renewed year after year - there just didn't seem to be enough special about it to guarantee a decent run (although frankly in a world in which Firefly can be cancelled while Charmed gets eight seasons anything's possible). As such, it was with a certain amount of intrigue that I popped Disc One of this latest season into my player, knowing as I did absolutely nothing about what was to come. Had the unpromising seedling taken root and grown into a beautiful flower, or was it a case of a low-key weed which had simply ducked every time the mower had come past?
The first episode, The Magnificent Seven, picks up days after the conclusion to the Season Two finale. Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) has sold his soul to an unknown demon in return for resurrecting his dead brother Sam (Jarad Padalecki) and as a consequence now has exactly a year to live before said nasty drags him kicking and screaming into the fiery pits of Hell. If that wasn't enough to deal with, he and Sam also have to contend with having inadvertently unleashed hundreds of other demons into the world, pushing them and their fellow supernatural hunters into a war against the devil spawn which no one expects they can win. Now the brothers must travel the country trying to clear up the mess they've created while simultaneously trying to find a way to extricate Dean from his Faustian pact before time runs out...
Things have certainly moved on for the two since their early adventures, but the most striking thing for someone who missed out on the entirety of Year Two is that Supernatural as a whole hasn't. For a multitude of different reasons it's usually easy to tell apart episodes from different years of a series, whether it be in a slightly different tone in script, style of acting or whatever, but here there has been little to no progression at all. Bar the odd plot point, any episode of Season One could easily slot into the third with the vast majority of viewers being none the wiser. This isn't always a necessarily bad thing - it's arguable that there's a similar phenomenon in, for example, Star Trek: The Next Generation during its glory years - but it is symptomatic of this show's relative lack of ambition. There's been no progression in terms of substance at all, with the consequence that the same flaws which afflicted the early episodes are still very much an issue. The mythology continues to be weak - we are told repeatedly about this apparent new war with the demons there's no real difference between a typical battle they have here than they did back in the early days, while we get not one but two generic Mysterious Females With Their Own Agendas - while the characterisation of the two leads is, if not one-dimensional, resolutely simplistic.
That said, taken on its own terms these are not insurmountable problems. It's clear that the show has very modest aims; it has ploughed its own shallow furrow and is now quite happy to potter along in it reaping the thin resultant fare, perfectly content with its own limitations. There's an easy-going feel to the whole which makes it hard to dislike, and there's little denying that on a surface level these sixteen episodes are certainly enjoyable enough, and not at all a chore to work through. The most telling illustration of this laidback attitude on the half of the show's producers are a series of episodes fairly late on in the season, starting with Mystery Spot, which are among the strongest of the year. They also happen to be direct Supernatural rewrites of more famous films, but at no point does the show do anything but cheerfully acknowledge this, even going so far as to reference the fact that, for example, Mystery Spot is Groundhog Day with an extended epilogue.
How one reacts to such an approach, of course, will govern how one views the show. On one level, the attitude could be seen as sheer laziness, but on another it's just following the show's early remit to retell and have fun with US folklore (as I mentioned in my Season One review, this is a show immersed deeply in Americana). At times one gets the impression that the series is a repository for all the pitches to The X Files which down the years were judged too daft to get through (the two series shares many production members) but it's unfortunate that this happy willingness to not always take things terribly serious isn't matched by any genuine wit. Pleasingly goofy stories, like Bad Day in Black Rock in which the brothers find a lucky rabbit's foot, or Bedtime Stories which sees a whole raft of fairy tales coming to life, ultimately fall a little flat as they develop in exactly the way you would expect, while the season's big out-and-out comedy, Ghostfacers is very clunky.
Arguably, though, a more damning criticism for something called Supernatural is that it's not especially scary. While there's the odd decent piece of imagery too much of the time we have horror on automatic pilot, every sudden spook, every crash shock as predictable as could be. I don't think it's especially a cynical exploitation of old-fashioned horror techniques so much as a rather naive reliance on them, but no matter how many CGI spooks and buckets of blood you throw at the screen if you don't have a decent, skin-crawling story backing them up they won't scare anyone much over the age of ten. Here the reliance on old horror staples does cause problems - despite trying, too often the writing can't find a new spin to put on, for example, the possessed child idea (of which there a tiresome number of variations in the first part of this season), and the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt is never truer than in this case. Put bluntly, we've seen it all before, and seen it a lot better.
But despite the many flaws, it's okay. It's fine. It isn't great but it isn't awful either, and indeed the show's intense superficiality is its main charm. I would venture to suggest that even the show's producers would admit they were trying to do little more than divert its audience for an hour a week, and to a large degree it succeeds in that aim - I can't see how anyone could be especially passionate about it but equally it's inoffensive nonsense. Like Dean, it's dumb, but it knows it's dumb and doesn't especially care. Once again, I'm going to feel no particular compunction to pick up the story again come Season Four, but should I happen on an episode channel surfing I expect I'd be sufficiently entertained to not turn over. Even if I won't feel the slightest urge to hide behind the sofa.
All sixteen episodes of the season are presented on five DVDs. The menus are well designed and user-friendly (although they appear to be using a picture of the two actors from an earlier season) and there's that all important Play All option lurking on nearly every page. The Video is excellent, pin sharp and full of detail, with the transfer more than ably handling the murkier scenes shot in the near dark as well as those in bright sunlight. The Audio is almost as good, each episode having a 5.1 mix which uses all the speakers effectively and help build up a suitably creepy atmosphere. Both episodes and extras are fully subtitled.
There’s a good selection of Extras too, with the only disappointment being the Closer Looks; these are short (three to four minutes) segments in which a member of the production team discuss an episode, which are good as far as they go but make one wish they had longer to speak on a proper commentary track. The most substantial extra is From Legends to Reality: Supernatural Effects (23:07), a well-put-together look at how the show's grisly SFX are made. Featuring contributions from the visual effects and make-up crews as well as the series producers it's informative and enjoyable, the perfect example of what an extra on a television DVD set should be like.
Slightly less exciting is the Impala Featurette, (5:18) a look at Sam’s car and the weapons cache the boys keep in the boot, but I guess if there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to know about either this is where to look. There’s also a supplement to the episode Ghostfacers, called Ghostfacers Confessionals (16:03) which is essentially deleted scenes strung together and is reasonably good fun. Rounding things off there’s have a Gag Reel (7:56) which is the usual collection of goofs and fluffs.
Aside from the lack of commentaries this is a sturdy well-put-together set with a strong AV presentation and decent extras for a deeply ordinary show.
5 out of 10
9 out of 10
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7 out of 10