Supernatural: The Complete First Season Review
Here’s a show that does exactly what it says on the tin. Although as a title Supernatural is banal and oddly half-hearted, it does serve as an effective job description: this is a show, it says, about ghosts and ghoulies and everything else that goes bump in the night, and it’s one reason for being is to scare the crap out of you. It’s a commendable aim, and this is a series that goes full-tilt for it, gleefully revelling in its horror genre as it does its best to induce nightmares and chill the blood; although overall this is a show with many flaws, one cannot fault its central aim. It follows the adventures of two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), as they travel the length and breadth of America investigating mysterious happenings and fighting demons. When very young their mother was killed by a particular malevolent, an event which set their father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) off on a life-long crusade to rid the world of all such creatures, a mission which from the start he encouraged his sons to follow as well. Sam, however, wanted a normal life and left for college, a decision that caused a deep divide between himself and his brother and father, but even there he couldn’t hide from the evil that’s out there, and when his father goes missing and his girlfriend is murdered by the same demon who attacked his mother he joins his brother, determined to hunt down said demon and find his missing parent.
This is a show soaked in the folklore of US urban legends, saturated with the kinds of stories American teenagers tell each other around campfires on that mythical night between the end of their Prom and losing their virginity. Eric Kripke's series revels in looking at these stories anew, from the hookman who stalks the couple parked in a lonely spot to the demon lorry driver who pursues his victims relentlessly down a deserted highway, by way of the joys of the legends of Bloody Mary and abandoned insane asylums that still hold the torment of those who resided within years before. Going by the ethos that the old ones are still the best, it isn’t the slightest bit embarrassed when it offers stories about haunted portraits or mystical guns that can gun down demons - joyously, there’s even a story about a haunted house built on Old Indian Burial Ground, offered entirely without irony (although there are jokes in the show, the monsters themselves are always treated entirely seriously). Backed by a beat of Classic Rock from the likes of Black Sabbath and AC/DC, and putting its characters in a battered Chevy, we are in territory deeply in love with classic Americana in all its forms, virtually worshipping the world of cool its writers grew up in.
The series is set resolutely in smalltown America, the Nowherevilles that seem cut off from the world and in which one can believe just about anything could happen. These are the places of distrustful locals, legends about strange things going on in the woods and old abandoned farm houses with sinister pasts (there are a lot of old abandoned farm houses with sinister pasts in this series). From the earliest days of the genre writers realised that it was in these isolated communities that the greatest scares could be found, and while there’s the odd episode set in the big city they tend to be the least successful (Shadow comes to mind here). Regrettably, this leads to a certain amount of repetition - one gets the impression, although it isn’t actually the case, that a majority of the episodes end with said farm houses burning to the ground. A love of this gothic American setting is fine, but for future seasons the show has to expand his wings a bit and find more varied settings. That said, the show does benefit from a large amount of location filming which is usually employed to great effect, giving the series an authenticity and the places the brothers visit a tangibility a more studio-based show just wouldn’t have.
For fans of the genre it’s as cosy as singing along to your favourite musical or laughing along at a favourite comedy even though one knows the jokes backwards. However, on its own a homage to the genre would not work, and ultimately grow repetitive and stale; where Supernatural escapes (mostly) from this pitfall is in its presentation of such material. Not only is it well versed in all the old scare stories, it also understands why they are so scary, exploiting that fear to the hilt and at times analysing it and showing why they have stayed the test of time as fright tales. Bringing that awareness to the screen, it is then able to exploit that fear and present the tales in a modern style. This is a show that goes further than ever before in a mainstream show; it is, relatively, speaking, a veritable gore fest, with virtually every episode having lashings of blood sprayed about the place (particularly likes showing people’s throats being cut) and scary-ass demons lurching towards the screen in all their miserable, hellish glory. It’s also one that’s not afraid to go for broke, happily breaking taboos such as slaughtering children if needs be. It is a suitable and appropriate progression for a genre that has as its antecedents Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The X Files (a show with which it shares several key personnel, including Executive Producers Kim Manners and John Shiban, and the great TV director David Nutter), building on those fright fests and adding on a suitably large amount of claret.
That’s where the show succeeds. Unfortunately, it’s not so strong in other areas, most notably the leads. One thing any successful ghost story has to have is a strong protagonist - this has been true all the way back to when Van Helsing first encountered Dracula. An elemental force of evil has to be confronted by an equivalent moral force of good, one whom the audience can hide behind safe in the knowledge it will stand firm and face down the darkness that is attacking. Supernatural does not have that, though, having at its centre two rather bland characters who, while functional, never light up the screen. The characterisation of the two brothers is linear and basic; Sam is the bookish, serious one, a man who fixes his mind on a job and won’t be distracted, one who wears his heart on his chest and says what he feels, much to the discomfort of Dean, who hides behind a façade of wisecracking and cheap thrills (in an early episode he virtually shudders when his brother starts opening up and says something along the lines of “Please, no Oprah moments.”) This is fine as far as it goes, but there’s nothing else there, nothing to distinguish the two from the thousands of ghostbusters who have gone before them and with no spark of individuality to set them apart they end up being rather dull companions, constantly repeating the same cycles episode after episode (Sam feels guilt about deserting their father and his girlfriend’s murder and is not shy about talking about it, for example). It’s not helped by the fact they are played by two actors who are at best adequate: although they have a decent chemistry together, Padalecki, in particular, is totally nondescript, a boring actor who emotes enthusiastically but remains a totally unremarkable screen presence. Ackles is a little more charismatic but still doesn’t have that edge he needs for this kind of show; one can imagine him popping up in a teen drama quite happily, but he’s no Agent Mulder. That said, it could have been worse, as originally Ackles was cast as Sam before Padalecki came onboard, which would have been worse, but the two characters are still very far from the Luke Skywalker and Han Solo that Kripke envisions them to be.
Perhaps aware at the season’s half way mark that the characters needed work, the writers introduce the idea that Sam has some kind of supernatural ability himself, an ESP in which he can see murderous events before they happen. Even that feels lame, reflecting as it does Cordelia’s gift in Angel and in general the “arc” is not nearly as interesting as it could be. Necessarily for the first half of the season it meanders as the brothers travel the land searching for their father, but the eventual introduction of Daddy Winchester is curiously botched, and their first encounter with him is underwhelming, hardly the emotional rollercoaster we had been promised. It’s as though the writers are uncertain what to do with the dynamic. The quest for searching for the demon is basically a good one but its handling is clumsy and one gets no sense of real motivation for what the thing is doing. What is far more fun is watching the two brothers stumbling through each adventure; each episode they have to lie, cheat and blag their way past the police to get to the heart of the action, using a box full of fake IDs and disguises which range from masquerading as a pair of priests through to forest rangers and beyond. This is fun, and gives a momentum to the travel side of the show, as the end of most shows the two are chased out of town.
However, the central problem of the continuing storyline is a real difficulty. Consequently, nearly all the best episodes of the season are those that do not concentrate on the series’ ongoing storyline - of the “arc” episodes, only Scarecrow and Nightmare totally satisfy, while the Big Events of the season are oddly unimpressive events which seem to forget that the series as a whole has been building up them. The season finale is a perfect illustration of this, an episode which meanders to a climax one could see coming as early as episode nine Home, one which the writers then cop out of in favour of a cliff-hanger that comes completely from left-field (almost literally). The better episodes, then, are the standalones that concentrate not on the brothers but on the scares. Bloody Mary is a good early show, an early indication that no one in the show is safe, while Asylum, Route 666 and The Benders, while all utterly familiar concepts, retell their classic tales of horror relatively well (even if in the latter episode’s case, it has nothing new to add to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre genre). The standout episode, though, is Hell House, an episode with a little more depth than most in which a monster comes into being simply through the act of belief. A confident, amusing hour, it has more to it than most of the others combined.
Its leads are the show’s major weakness, but there are other little niggles too, most notably the fact that in the early part of the season the brothers almost exclusively fight the baddies not with cloves of garlics and raised crucifixes, but with guns, lots of guns, something that doesn’t seem very supernatural at all. It’s only in the last few shows that the writers seem to remember where they are, and start having the characters drawing pentagrams and surrounding themselves with circles of salt to ward off their enemies, and resolve the gun issue by introducing a mystical Colt which, legend has it, can kill any demons it shoots but has a strictly limited supply. This is far more like it - if one has to kill supernatural goons with guns (which, to me, rather trivialises their spookiness and brings them down to the level of an everyday baddy) at least give some explanation for it beyond vague mentions of silver bullets.
Ultimately, though such complaints sort of miss the point. This is a show concerned with atmosphere beyond anything else, and in that sense it succeeds fine. Drawing as its inspiration everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to (paradoxically, given its setting) An American Werewolf in London via Poltergeist, Evil Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday 13th et al it immerses its viewers in a amalgamated mishmash (in a good way) of great American horror and myth. It’s simple aim is to give us watchers as many scares and spooks over the course of each forty-five minute episode as possible and in that sense it does its job perfectly well. Writing, while not of the standard Chris Carter had at his best, is promising if occasionally trite and naïve (the constant cultural references, most notably to Ghostbusters and - cheekily - The X Files are fun but wearying, although it does get bonus points for a very subtle nod to The Greatest Simpsons Episode of All Time, Marge Vs the Monorail in Something Wicked) and its whole ethos of celebrating the best of US myth in a non-cynical fashion is pleasingly refreshing. Taking itself seriously, it’s at its confident best when it unleashes its Americana slant full throttle, and at its worst when it tries to emote too much and copy the arcs of other shows. Flawed, then, but definitely promising.
All twenty-two episodes of Supernatural’s first season are presented on the six discs in this set, four per disc with the last holding the final two and all the extras bar commentaries and deleted scenes. The discs are housed in a nicely-designed fold-out case which includes details of all episodes and screenshots from most.
The Main Menu consists of the four options Play All, Episodes, Special Features and Languages, accompanied by a running montage of clips and a small piece of looping music. One nice feature the Episodes menu has is the option to turn on or off the “Previously On Supernaturals” for each episode, a feature I’ve not seen before. All the episodes which come with deleted scenes are marked with a little scissors symbol and in general the menus are nicely, sensibly arranged (and the Easter Eggs not too hard to find!)
A very nice transfer. The series itself is shot with a muted, flat colour scheme, with even the brightest scenes having a dourness about them, which results in some of the exteriors looking oddly one-dimensional at times, with white waxy skin with little shadow, but that’s how the series is shot rather than a fault of the transfer itself. Dark scenes are handled well with shades clearly delineated and overall this is a nice transfer.
Disappointingly for a new series this only has a stereo track and not 5.1. However, it makes good use of its two channels with spooks darting from one side to the other and so on, and the music and dialogue all combines nicely in a crisp, clear track.
Two episodes come with commentaries. The first, on the pilot, features creator Eric Kripke, producer Peter Johnson and director David Nutter, and is a standard DVD yak track, with a mixture of Kripke discussing the show's aims, stories about the filming of this particular episode and some general appreciation for people's contributions.
The second commentary is on the episode Phantom Traveller and features Ackles and Padalecki. It's a very easy-going chat with plenty of banter but there's enough detail about their lives filming the show to make it of interest to fans.
Eight episodes have extra scenes included, namely Pilot, Wendigo, Phantom Traveller, Hook Man, Home, Scarecrow, Faith, and Nightmare. None run for more than a few minutes but are a nice addition.
Supernatural: Tales From the Edge of Darkness (22:51)
Decent Making Of that concentrates on how the series came to be and the general ethos rather than a picture of day-to-day workings on set. All the major players contribute, including Kripke, Ackles, Padalecki, Nutter, Shiban, and so on, making this an enjoyable featurette.
Day in the Life of Jared and Jensen (10:36)
An exercise in vacuity, this is the equivalent of one of those profiles of teeny-boopers you see on music channels, the ones in which the star burbles at the camera for half an hour in the mistaken belief every word that pours of their mouths is comedy nectar that will be lapped up by adoring fans around the world. Highlights include Jared showing us how he eats candy, Jared showing us his lunch, and Jared showing us a pile of chocolate bars.
Gag Reel (7:43)
There goes another eight minutes of my life I’ll never get back. I’m sure lots of people will be amused by these onset antics but when I see these things the word “gag” starts assuming its other meaning and I need to reach for the bucket.
This is better, a gallery of twenty-one production designs of the various nasties from the show, some of which are pretty artistic.
There are two Easter Eggs, both easy to spot on the Extras menu on Disk Six. The first is a little clip of the show’s creator Eric Kripke thanking the fans for enjoying the show and promising great things to come in season two, which runs for 1:52, and the second is a look at two opening sequences which were rejected for the show. A (very minor) disappointment of the show is a lack of said opening sequence, and the first of these looked like it was on the right track, so it’s a shame some more time wasn’t spent on it, but these are two nice little secrets to find.
Weblink which takes you to, in the words on the box, “Exclusive Supernatural content (Original Script, Sam’s Files and More!)” Which is nice.
Thankfully, the most terrifying thing about this series isn’t that McG is an Executive Producer. A decent series gets a nice set of competent extras, although the featurettes were not to my taste.