Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Very Superstitious

Let's have a chat about Supernatural! But before we get started, may I recommend some funky mood music?

Title card to season 5. So far I've only seen seasons 1-3

Those of you who brought up on Buffy and Angel may be jonesing for a show with magic, monsters and mayhem. Nothing that will scratch your itch better than Supernatural. It has one of those elegantly simple, impossibly promising premises: two brothers travel across america and hunt monsters from classic folklore. Sam and Dean Winchester are more conventional heroes than what you'll find in the Whedonverse and their relationship stays in familiar emotional territory, but they've got a dynamic that could charm the dry off a desert. I think Jensen Ackles is a better actor than Jared Padalecki, though I prefer Sam's character to Dean's.
Fangirlish preferences aside, the show really shines where lore is concerned. The winchester boys run through a gauntlet of unique ghouls and ghosts, especially in the first season and series creator Eric Kripke does an admirable job of modernizing the spooks while keeping them faithful to their roots. There are no sparkling vampires here. Ghosts are banished with shotguns loaded with rocksalt, demons are bound with magic circles and dark rituals are invoked at crossroads. A few episodes tap into some truly unique folklore, like faith healers, Djinns and Lucid dreaming. The show follows a  mystery formula but it has a little more variety than typical detective shows. That said, the monster of the week format makes for disposable supporting characters and very few real relationships. The few supporting characters that do endure from one episode to the next are mostly likable, but the show also adhere to some troubling Hollywood conventions, especially where minorities and women are concerned.
The first season of supernatural is a parade of distressing damsels; women who cannot fight the bad guys, or at least cannot fight them without the boys help. Okay sure, this trend is so common that it barely bears comment and it makes sense that these normal women don't know how to fight the forces of darkness. When the show finally introduces strong female characters, like the headstrong aspiring hunter Jo, she still needs the boy's protection. Worse yet are Bela Talbot and Ruby; a duplicitous self-serving thief and a demon turned good respectively. The implications are absolutely medieval: Women are only powerful when they are deceptive, or when they draw power from the devil. Then there's the dying black guy syndrome to consider: so far I've seen three seasons of supernatural, and there have been three reoccurring black characters. All of them are antagonists of some sort or another, well-intending or not, and they all end up dead. I don't want the writers to throw in characters for the sake of pandering to political correctness, but you'd think they could have one woman who doesn't draw her power from darkness and deceit and one black guy who doesn't die. 

The show's over-arching plot is conventional but fairly well-written, gradually altering the brother's objectives and introducing new sources of tension in their relationship. As I mentioned, I haven't seen season four and five, but seasons one through three maintain a consistent level of quality, which is a hell of a lot more than can be said for some other shows. All in all, Supernatural is the best and worst about television formula writing. The conventions are easy to digest, entertaining, and charming, but also fairly shallow and at times insensitive.

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