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Tough Love for 'Supernatural' (Plus a Few Thoughts on the Show's 'Buffy' Reunion)

Date October 22, 2011
Tough Love for 'Supernatural' (Plus a Few Thoughts on the Show's 'Buffy' Reunion) Each week, I post a 'Supernatural' review that generally focuses on the hour that just aired, and occasionally I delve into big-picture matters. This time, I'm going to flip that ratio. Most of this post will be devoted to a "state of 'Supernatural'" essay.

Below, I offer a few thoughts on the appearances of 'Buffy' veterans James Marsters and

Tough Love for 'Supernatural' (Plus a Few Thoughts on the Show's 'Buffy' Reunion) Each week, I post a 'Supernatural' review that generally focuses on the hour that just aired, and occasionally I delve into big-picture matters. This time, I'm going to flip that ratio. Most of this post will be devoted to a "state of 'Supernatural'" essay.

Below, I offer a few thoughts on the appearances of 'Buffy' veterans James Marsters and Charisma Carpenter in 'Shut Up, Dr. Phil,' Friday's outing. But I spent that night hanging out and talking about the show with Alice Jester of the Winchester Family Business and academics and 'Supernatural' chroniclers Lynn Zubernis and Kathy Larsen, all of whom are among my favorite 'Supernatural' writers. Though we didn't always agree on everything, we were all of the opinion that there are number of things that aren't working or could be working better on the show these days.

Why is the word "love" in the title? Because we've been devoted to the show for a long time and we know how very good it can be. We're still fans, but, as is the case with a number of readers, our patience has been tested by various aspects of seasons 6 and 7. Hence the tough advice (and you're welcome to offer your own in comments, as long as you keep things civil.)

So, first things first: 'Shut Up, Dr. Phil' was an acceptable hour of television. I don't mean to damn it with faint praise -- honestly, it was fine, if you basically block out any big-picture things going on with the brothers (and I'll get to all that in the Tough Love section below).

Tough Love for 'Supernatural' (Plus a Few Thoughts on the Show's 'Buffy' Reunion) But if you're one of those people who thinks I've been way too hard on the show in recent weeks, it may cheer you up to know that I don't have anything majorly negative to say about Friday's episode. It wasn't the show at its best, but 'Dr. Phil' was adequate and competent and it was nice to see Carpenter and Marsters working their magic on TV together. It was a little odd that Marsters wasn't playing a snarky character like Spike or some of his other TV alter egos, but his Don was believable, and Carpenter doesn't exactly have a huge range but Maggie fell right in the middle of it. They were good together.

I've never been one to get into the straight-up horror aspects of the show, but there were some memorable and effective gross-outs in the hour -- the brain fry at the hair salon was disturbing, as was the death-by-nail-gun (the eyes! Uggggh!). But the cupcakes with the beating hearts were probably the items that had me squirming the most. Is it possible that I may have to give up cupcakes for a while? Perish the thought!

(However, Lynn and I wondered -- if Jenny threw up that much blood, why was she physically OK moments later? It looked to me like she was vomiting parts of her esophagus or something. But we didn't really sweat that detail. One detail I didn't quite buy was when the head of Maggie's friend was sliced off with a serving tray -- I didn't quite believe that a tray with a 1-inch lip around the edge would cut her head of that cleanly, but never mind.)

Tough Love for 'Supernatural' (Plus a Few Thoughts on the Show's 'Buffy' Reunion) As episodes go, it wasn't a full-on "funny" hour, though there were some humorous moments ("Restless leg syndrome!"), and it did have something of an old-school vibe, with the boys hunting plain old witches -- very old, by the sounds of it. If it felt a little bit flat overall, that's because when the show is firing on all cylinders, the lighter episodes tend to functions as breaks from the emotional intensity and suspense that has been building during a particular season.

But this season has been especially rocky on those fronts, and the only thing it's managed to build, for me anyway, is a fear that the show doesn't really have a consistently competent grasp on the fundamentals and isn't really sure of how best to make the brothers' emotional journeys compelling. So 'Dr. Phil' was a bit like having a palate-cleansing sorbet between sub-par courses.

The simplistic final scenes of the episode lead quite nicely into the discussion of 'Supernatural's' big-picture problems, so here goes.

Tough Love for 'Supernatural': Unsolicited Advice From a Few Fans

1. Find new places to take the brotherly relationship or new variations on the sibling themes. When we got to the end of 'Dr. Phil,' Kathy shook her head and said, "I feel like I'm stuck in an endless loop." It was yet another instance of the boys having a conversation by the car, with one brother telling his sibling that asking for help was OK, and one brother keeping a secret. Haven't we been here before? About 100 times?

Nobody disputes that it must be tough to find new and compelling material in the seventh season of a show, but that's the nature of the television beast -- a program must evolve or die. The sense that I get from reading comments on this site and others and from talking to my fellow fans is that nobody is particularly impressed with what's going on with the brothers and that the contrived conflicts between them just feel tired. The Winchesters are obviously the heart and the soul of the show, but the depth and complexity of what they're going through is what drew me deeply into the show's orbit. When it makes me feel like I'm watching repeats from a few seasons ago, I begin to mentally check out.

2. Give the brothers goals that they care about. My fellow 'Supernatural' writers and I talked for a long time about how other seasons have shown the brothers working toward goals they cared about -- saving Dean from Hell, saving the world, etc. What's the goal now? There doesn't appear to be one, aside from catching the so-far boring Leviathans, and what's personal about that?

If the point is that they are so psychologically and emotionally lost that they're unable to think of goals to care about or even reasons to live (at least in Dean's case), make those mental states emotionally gripping. My fellow bloggers and I talked a lot about how 'Supernatural' seems to be mistaking negativity for darkness these days. As Kathy said, to take a character on a dark journey, you have to give that character context -- there have to be both good and bad impulses that the person is struggling with.

Right now, there's just way too much nihilism and pessimism, which, as I've written before, is quite frequently dramatically inert. Where's the suspense in nothing to work toward and nothing to care about? Suspense comes from our fear that the characters will lose something or someone close to them. If they have no goals or people or things that matter to them, a show's ability to create suspense are reduced considerably.

3. Make the audience invest in the brothers' goals. As Alice said, "I want to be made to care. I miss the heart."

The Winchesters don't seem particularly emotionally invested in the quest to get the Leviathans, though (fingers crossed) that might change. But if they're just trudging through a world in which they have nothing but each other (and Bobby on occasion), well, that world is simply less interesting. The journeys that the brothers have gone on in the past to save each other or to save the world illuminated their characters and made us, as viewers, root for them. We wanted them to want something and we wanted them to get at least some of what they wanted.

Right now, there's really not a lot for us to root for, unless you count rooting for Dean's very overtaxed liver to pull through.

4. Make the characters complicated again. I can summarize so much of what's going on in 'Supernatural' very simply -- too simply "Dean feels guilty about stuff, so he drinks." "Sam doesn't feel guilty any more." "Dean is keeping a secret from Sam." Really, after seven seasons, that's where we're at? Things are less interesting than they were in the very early seasons? It's as if the show is painting in primary colors these days, instead of the full range of oil paints.

Can someone please explain to me why we were told for a very long time that the wall falling in Sam's head would be very, very, very bad -- and yet the Sam we saw in 'Dr. Phil' was perfectly fine? Sure, he had a wee problem with hallucinations for a while, but that seems to have cleared right up. Why? Because, I'm guessing, the show was just tired of the idea that Sam was damaged by the wall falling, so goodbye to that.

And the character development for Dean has largely consisted of putting a bottle in his hand. As for him killing Amy, again, that is symptomatic of what the show has done wrong; it's the tip of a big iceberg. It's the duty of the show to make me understand -- in that hour and in general -- why Dean felt it was necessary to do that. Done right, my heart should have broken for him in that moment, as my heart has broken for the Sam and Dean so many times in the past. As it was, that moment felt extremely abrupt and poorly set up, and it's endemic of the rather messy, all-over-the-map development of the characters these days.

5. Repopulate the world. In my view, one of the biggest mistakes the show has consistently made is killing off recurring characters. Yes, I know, it has to happen sometimes, but the killing spree in recent seasons has been particularly brutal (and the exit of Cas? Almost a non-event. That's just sad.). Here's what I don't get: Why does the powers that be at 'Supernatural' think that the only way that the brothers can learn to value their relationship is to take everyone else away from them? If you killed off everyone I know, would that make me love my husband more? Possibly, but at what cost?

Why must the boys pay that cost? No one has ever explained that adequately to me. The life they live is hard enough, must they be deprived of friendship and compansionship and even fun enemies, for the most part? Having a number of recurring characters stick around wouldn't exactly take the focus away from the brothers. In any case, the show feels like something of a wasteland these days. So many good characters are gone, and I don't think the payoffs we've had have nearly matched what the show lost.

Isolating the boys so much has never made sense to me, especially from a creative standpoint. Characters are illuminated through their interactions with others, and if most of the people who've known the boys long-term are gone, the potential complexity of those interactions is drastically reduced. The world the boys move through these days feels especially airless and joyless, in part because it's just them.

Alice dug up a quote from Ben Edlund at Comic-Con in which he talked about the show's alleged "noir" tone last season. "I think it's a pretty depressing show," Ben said. And when Alice asked in a joking way if he was depressed, he answered, "I'm melancholy, I'm not depressed."

But I would argue that, for too much of this season and last, 'Supernatural' has been just depressing, and that's partly because the boys have so little left in their personal lives. As Kathy said, "The idea of being melancholy depends on the fact that happiness is possible," and the possibility of happiness, or even contentment, seems to be long gone.

I spent part of Friday night at the Chicago 'Supernatural' convention, at the karaoke event that Matt Cohen and Richard Speight Jr. throw at these affairs. Watching Rick Worthy, Amy Gumenick, Sebastian Roche, Chad Lindberg (and even Jared Padalecki at times) whoop it up and crowd-surf and generally have a fantastic time reminded me of the strong bond between the fans and the actors, and part of the reason those bonds exist is because the show has done a good job of creating kick-ass supporting characters. I wish there was a hope that more of them could come back on a regular basis, or that cool new characters would arrive in the Winchesters' universe.

6. Restore the sense of continuity. "I miss the sense of progression more than anything," Lynn said. In past seasons, "it was like, 'Look how these pieces fit together and make sense.'" These days, not so much.

Season 6 started out promisingly, and I thought it was bold to put the boys in the center of a bunch of different story lines rather than have them track one Big Bad. I thought the season 6 story lines would all tie together toward the end of the season, but that's not what happened. Things were abruptly jettisoned left and right and the potential of the Campbell storyline was just one aspect of the season that never went anywhere worthwhile.

If people are nostalgic for Castiel, I think that's for a few reasons. First, he was a great character, and his relationship with the boys illuminated who they are in new ways. Second, the manner of his leaving was perfunctory (and he won't be back any time soon, according to this very recent interview with executive producer Sera Gamble).

But I think the Cas sadness and wistfulness may be tied to nostalgia for one of the show's finest hours -- season 4. What was great about that season was that every single episode built on the previous one, and there was a sense of exciting progression. You felt as though it was going somewhere.

And show was working on a bigger canvas as well. Spiritual, theological and moral themes all reinforced each other and led to bigger and bigger dilemmas for the brothers, and the elaborate construction of the season wasn't structure for the sake of structure -- it was about creating exciting stakes and satisfying emotional payoffs.

I'm not saying every season has to be season 4 or season 2, but boy, does the world feel limited and unambitious these days. Perhaps more complexity will develop as season 7 progresses. But, as has been the case in recent seasons, will promising story lines just be thrown overboard at random? I hope not.

7. Show, don't tell. Too frequently these days, we're just told that something is the case -- we're not shown why. There's a superficial quality to the storytelling that makes me trust it less. It's hard for me to get invested in stakes that the show just tells me don't matter any more, as was the case with Sam's wall. The progress of the brothers and of the season feels herky-jerky, as was the case in the second half of last season, and the show having the characters make statements about where things stand isn't really a great substitute for taking us their through well-earned character development and storytelling.

And when it comes to telling, try not to be so obvious. Everything to do with the Don and Maggie was so on-the-nose. They weren't talking and the boys need to talk, get it? In case you didn't get it in the scene in which they reconciled, Sam reminded us again of the parallels in the closing scene of the episode. This isn't the season for you if you're allergic to anvils.

8. We like angst, but pessimism is not angst; negativity is not darkness. Give us compelling and twisted emotional dilemmas, but jeez, lighten up. As Lynn said, "You can't have the same pitch all the time. There have to be variations" in the tone.

One question I put to Lynn and Kathy: Do the Ghostfacers even fit in this world anymore? Tonally speaking, they fit into the world of previous season because, though the brothers faced many setbacks, they weren't hopeless. Things weren't always awful. They had goals, they occasionally goofed around, they joked around, they got to win and those wins got to mean something sometimes. But the pervasive gloom that has settled over 'Supernatural' makes it hard for me to even picture a 'Ghostfacers' episode in the midst of all this (not that one is coming, as far as I know). Isn't that weird? Isn't that maybe indicative of where things have gone wrong?

As I've said about a million times, I like dark drama. 'Battlestar Galactica,' 'The Shield,' 'The Wire,' 'Breaking Bad' and so many shows like that -- I'm addicted to them. But I was entranced by those shows because the characters, even when they weren't admirable or even likable, had goals and ideas and traits that were compelling on the screen. There were things those characters wanted and cared about. They existed in worlds full of fraught but sometimes fulfilling relationships. Even at the darkest times, they had hope that something better -- some contentment or relief -- might be around the corner.

"People wouldn't have been watching all this time if it was depressing," Kathy said. I agree.

It's hard to come up with fresh new complications for the boys and new angles on their pain, their world, their motivations. I get it. But longtime fans know what 'Supernatural' is capable of, and it's better than what we've gotten the last few weeks and for various chunks of the previous season.

We haven't abandoned all hope, not by a long stretch, but speaking for myself only, I had to say all this because I care. Thanks for listening.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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