Saturday, May 06, 2006

They did the mash!: Supernatural, season 1

So I had an elaborate post written up last night, and a computer error right before I hit submit caused the whole thing to get lost. You can see why I was reluctant to re-do this.

But here I am!

Before we get started, please remember to vote in the best-of-TV survey.

Anyway. Supernatural. Season 1.

This was quite a fun show. I saw 18 of its 22 episodes (most in connection with my writing project), and I was never exactly bored. It's not Shakespeare, of course, but as television to turn your brain off to, it's not bad.

That said, there's a lot here that could have been done better, to make the show even more of an enjoyable experience for viewers.

The show, which, in case you didn't know, is about two brothers tracking monsters around the U.S., adheres to the old X-Files format (which makes sense with all of the X-Files writers who work as producers on the show). Namely, it offers mostly standalone episodes, while giving you the occasional glimpse at an overriding plot. Sometimes, whole episodes are devoted to this plot (usually during sweeps months). Sometimes, references to it are slipped into the standalone episodes.

The show borrows from Buffy in that it looks as though it will have one Big Bad per season (while the brothers hadn't vanquished the Big Bad at the end of the first season finale, I don't really see a way for the writers to extend the story further). This season, the Big Bad was a demon responsible for the death of the boys' mother and one of their girlfriends. As a main villain, the demon offered up the right blend of menace and connection to our heroes to be truly effective (on Buffy, Big Bads worked best when they were characters that Buffy had some sort of relationship -- whether it was a romantic relationship gone sour or a relationship where the Big Bad mirrored her in some way; this is why no one talks with reverence for the days when Adam was the Big Bad).

The standalone episodes of the show varied greatly in quality. Some were excellent, mini scary movies. Others were simply preposterous, offering us monsters we'd seen a thousand times before in Saturday afternoon B-movies. I thought the episode Hell House, where the monster was one created by the frightened thoughts of thousands of Internet users, was a pretty novel twist on an old idea, but the episode with all of the Bugs was pretty weak.

The standalones also relied on urban legends a bit too much. Many urban legends, cool as they are, have lost their power to scare over the years. While the show offered some novel twists on a few (Bloody Mary in particular), too many were pretty pedestrian (how can you possibly screw up the Hookman as badly as this show did?). Still, the show seems to have hit most of the big ones, so season two should steer clear of these stories more (unless they decide to do that one where the girl bakes herself in a tanning bed, which seems like a terrible idea). Offhand mentions in numerous episodes of more obscure elements of paranormal esoterica promise stories for years to come (I can't wait to see what they do with Spring Heeled Jack).

All of this wouldn't have been so glaring if the central story had been a bit better constructed. And the central story fell apart in two ways: The demon the brothers were tracking was not well-established, and the device used to kill said demon arose as a deus ex machina.

The best thing about how Buffy constructed its season-long arcs was in how it created its villains. First, you met them. Then, you learned just how bad they were. Then, you learned what they planned to do. Then, Buffy and the gang began to devise a plot to take down the monsters. In Supernatural, we know the demon is a bad entity, bent on destruction, but we don't really know much beyond that. Attempts to take the battle from a personal vendetta to a "We have to save people from this demon" kind of battle came too late to matter (in the next-to-last episode specifically). We never got to know the demon as an entity in and of itself. We only got to know some of the people AROUND the demon, and when we learned their motivations, they seemed to be a bit of a stretch.

Furthermore, the plan to take out the demon was poorly constructed. The brothers must track down a gun that can kill anything. Since the gun is a Colt .45 and the show made a name for itself by taking American iconography and reworking it for its own milieu, this really could have worked well if the Colt had been introduced as a plot device early in the season. If we had found out in, say, episode four that the brothers planned to get this Colt from the vampire who held it so they could use it to kill the demon and it had taken them until episode 20 to do so, that would have been great. That would have been a shrewd and simple plan, arrived at by our heroes and carried out at great cost. Instead, the show introduced the idea of the gun in episode 20, the boys' father telling them about it. Even an attempt to imbue the gun with a great sense of history fell flat, simply because the gun felt like a deus ex machina. In short, the boys didn't have to come up with a plan to kill this demon. They just had to get the gun. And that felt like a cheat.

I don't mean to make it sound like I hate this show. Because I really sort of like it. Clearly, I stuck with it for a year, and I'm writing a script for it, so I don't think it's all bad. I just think there are some things in the internal structure of the show that could save the show from becoming too formulaic or too implausible.

I like the way the show is filmed. For something on a shoestring budget, it looks quite handsome (indeed, its directors often have a better eye than the directors of many bigtime horror films). I like the central performances too, and I think the idea of using ghosts and creepy critters to enforce the idea of a family bonding through a time of strife is a pretty good one. And the show's knowledge of its subject matter is really pretty impressive, even if creative liberties are taken so the boys can use super-cool shotguns in nearly every episode.

Supernatural is never going to be a show that aspires to be something beyond a weekly scary movie, but I'm not sure that's such a bad thing. It is what it is, and it's enjoyable enough on its own terms.


Chopped Nuts said...

Well, this isn't the main thrust of your post, but I disagree with your saying Adam didn't reflect Buffy and the gang.

I think Adam worked just fine as a villain. The fourth season is about fitting in, knowing your role, finding your place in the scheme of things, whatever you want to call it.

Buffy starts her college life having trouble fitting in. Her friends seem to be going off in different directions, she gets used sexually.

Willow goes gay. She has nothing in common with the wicca circle. She and Tara find each other.

Oz decides he can't be around Willow and leaves.

Young Mr Harris keeps trying to get in on the college scene even though he's not attending. He hooks up with Anya, a questionable choice in every one else's eyes.

Anya is, well, Anya.

Giles finds himself set aside as the old man.

Riley loses the direction forced on him from his higher-ups.

Faith returns and finds out maybe she's not the complete villain she thought she was.

Even Johnathon gets in on the act - since he doesn't fit in with the world around him he makes the world fit in with him.

Adam is the nasty expression of this. He's a mish-mash, constructed, and at first he's at a loss as to how he should define himself. So he goes around ripping everything apart to see what makes them tick. He's finally rewarded when he finds out the mission "Mother" had for him (so much so that he starts to recruit other bad guys to follow this vision). He's defined.

And of course the way he's finally defeated is our gang mush themselves together into one uber-entity, each adding a specific ingredient to make a sum greater than its parts.

I'd say that makes for a pretty cohesive season, uber-baddie and all. Whew, that was a long post for a minor point.

Chopped Nuts said...

Edit: Oops, forgot Spike - Thanks to his new chip he can no longer function as a vampire. he ends up helping the Scoobies, and gets punched out in a demon bar for his troubles.

The disconnect you have from Adam may be that he's not as personal as the other Big Bads.

Season 1 - The Master needs Buffy to come to him to be released. And Buffy has to accept her death sentence in order to save everyone she cares about.

Season 2 - It's Angel. 'Nuff said.

Season 3 - The Mayor becomes a father-figure to Buffy's dark half, Faith.

Season 5 - Glory needs to off little sis.

Season 6 - It's Willow.

Season 7 - It's empowerment through the sharing of power, needed
to stop the First.

Adam doesn't really have a personal beef with Buffy, she's just an obstacle. He hatches a plan with Spike to get the Slayer in a certain place at a certain time, alone, but it's kind of for a weak reason, compared to the showdowns with all the other Big Bads.

Okay then, that's enough fan-boyishness from me for one day. Yeesh.