Monday, June 26, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Supernatural

I'm still drowning in exams and final papers, but all Austen and no play makes Diana a cranky girl. So "Supernatural" gets the honor of kicking off my Summer of TV.

As I've mentioned before, I'm interested in this series for four primary reasons: first, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are cute individually and mega-cute together. Great chemistry means I can sit through episodes about ghostly racist monster trucks just for their interactions. Second, it's Buffy-Lite, and I find myself nostalgic for the old monster-fighting genre that's fallen a bit to the wayside in recent years. Third, while it's not especially deep or complex, it does make somewhat interesting use of urban legends and mythology. And finally, it has one of the most peculiar fandoms I've ever seen (more about that in a bit).

"Supernatural" is the story of Dean (Ackles) and Sam (Padalecki) Winchester, brothers whose lives were shattered in childhood when their mother was murdered by a demon. Their ex-Marine father then devoted his life - and the lives of his children - to hunting supernatural creatures. This goes on until Sam starts craving normalcy; he abandons his family and runs away to Stanford. Things go rather well for him until Dean crashes back into his life, reporting that their father has gone missing. To make things worse, their mother's killer resurfaces, and Sam gets dragged back into his old life, road-tripping across the country with Dean in search of supernatural threats to destroy.

Let's start with the acting. I had somewhat mixed reactions to both Ackles and Padalecki; Ackles plays Dean as an alpha male bad-ass, and my God does he pull it off, but that particular character type doesn't offer a lot of range - he's tough, he's lecherous, he's hot, and that's about all we get on a regular basis. Considering Ackles' resume, though, I give him points for nailing a part that goes so completely against the pretty-boy typecasting he usually falls into.

Padalecki's a bit more problematic. Obviously, Sam is Dean's foil, so he's kind and considerate and intelligent and sympathetic. But if still waters run deep, Padalecki should be in China by now, because he's so low-key it's nearly impossible to get a handle on the character. There are moments where he bats it out of the park (finding Jessica at the end of the pilot, or his last prank on Dean in "Hell House") and moments where he should be acting out more than he is. He slowly improves towards the end of the season, though, so if he's completely thawed out by September, more power to him.

The biggest problem this show faced was its structure. Like most series, "Supernatural" was patterned on a comibination of mytharc episodes (progressing the overall seasonal storyline) and standalone stories. The standalones followed a very strict and repetitive formula: a bunch of hapless Red Shirts get themselves killed by the Weekly Evil, more or less telling us exactly what's going on. The Winchesters arrive, stumble onto the case via a surviving Red Shirt of varying acting skill/appeal. They argue whether it's "their gig" and research, basically spending a big chunk of each episode catching up with what we already know. The research will inevitably reveal that every culture in the world has a lore that matches the Evil (which seems to be a constant attempt to "justify" the existence of the monster, though I'm not clear why it's necessary each week), leading the brothers to track it down and kill it.

The mytharc is quite different, because it's barely there at all: only four episodes really deal with John Winchester and the Big Bad, with three of those constituting the season finale. It's the result of having a relatively thin seasonal plot - there was a vague idea of the brothers finding both their father and the monster that killed their mother, with no leads or clues or plan. Fortunately, the writers at least understood that this couldn't sustain an entire season; unfortunately, their solution was to just mention it every other episode, bring the whole thing to a head during the finale, and end the season on a cliffhanger stalemate that apparently took everything back to square one. I see that move as treading on very, very thin ice; for its own sake, the second season had better wrap that story up halfway through at the latest, because if it wasn't enough for twenty-two episodes it certainly won't do for forty-four.

Plot problems wouldn't be such a big deal if we could focus on characters instead, but with Sam and Dean being the only recurring characters on the show (aside from Meg, but she's folded into the mytharc)... well, they're interesting figures, but again, the minimalist approach has really narrowed the field of possibilities. The set-up is partly to blame - with the brothers driving all over America, it's just not plausible that they'd bump into anyone more than once. Which makes it all the more irritating when someone like Loretta Devine guest-stars, makes a great impression and then vanishes.

Still, I found the first season to be quite entertaining, warts and all. There's a certain washed-out, gritty feel to it that makes for a nice contrast with its fantastical premise, and I'm genuinely curious to see what comes next. It's a bit in danger of wearing out its main storyline, but there's still a ways to go until that becomes a serious problem.

Now, onto the fandom. Most fanfic writers tend to draw the line at incest as the one taboo even they don't dare break, either because it's a personal squick or because it's nigh-impossible to pull off believably. As far as I know, the last fandom to even conceive of an incestuous pairing as a remote possibility was "Firefly", and that was hardly met with unanimous approval. "Supernatural", on the other hand, appears to have encouraged a massive influx of writers who have no trouble with the idea of Sam and Dean expressing their love horizontally.

It's an interesting phenomenon to analyze, not least of which because the writers point to the show as setting up the foundation for that specific type of relationship. I don't necessarily agree; there's no subtext I could use to support that interpretation aside from a handful of characters occasionally mistaking them for lovers. But since that usually highlights the naivete of the Red Shirts, we're probably not supposed to read too much into it.

On the other hand, I can see a case being made where the writers inadvertantly left themselves open to this the moment they disconnected Sam and Dean from the rest of the world. For all intents and purposes, the Winchesters don't actually exist in society, they've been raised from childhood to live beyond the fringe, below the radar, outside any kind of social context. And since incest (specifically of the brother/brother variety) is a social taboo rather than a biological one, it's just one more rule they're in the perfect position to break. Beyond that, it's simply the default: there literally isn't anyone else who could factor into a romantic equation. Dean has his various flings, but if you're aiming for emotional attachment the only viable candidate is Sam. Sure, it's deeply fucked-up, but then, so are the characters.

Purely on a creative level, there's something appealingly challenging about trying to write The Incest Scenario. After all, it requires much more plausible justification than your average erotica/homoerotica. The subject matter may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I certainly appreciate the fact that it forces writers to work harder at selling the pairing, simply because it's so outrageous. Hell, I'll probably end up taking a stab at it myself if I ever get the time to continue "From The Ashes".