Monday, March 03, 2008

Supernatural – My Very First Obsession

(This is something I actually wrote to try to get into a Smart Pop book before I found out Regular Joe turning into a Raving Fan stories were a dime a dozen. Did a lot of work on it, and it did get someone in my writer's group to check out the show, so figured it was worth sharing! Heh heh)

First off, I’m no spring chicken. And while I have enjoyed of a lot of shows, the majority being in the sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal fields, I’ve never thought of myself as all that much of a fan. I would go along, watch the show or movie, enjoy it, talk about it to others and move on. About every two years or so I might re-watch a movie or an episode of something I enjoyed here or there, but once it was gone it was gone.
That all ended for me once I ran across Kripke’s Supernatural.
Mind you, I didn’t go from mild mannered TV watcher to obsessed Supernatural fan overnight. It all happened in a slow insidious process I totally blame Sera Gamble, Raelle Tucker, Ben Edlund, John Shiban, Erik Kripke and the rest of the writing staff for and then the rest of show’s actors and crew for pulling it off.
I started watching the show originally for two reasons – one – I pretty much check out anything with a sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal bent, and – two – I’d been enjoying Jensen Ackles’ performance in Smallville and thought it was great he’d gotten his own show. (Sorry, I know my Jensen and Jared cards will be in horrid jeopardy by this admission, but until Smallville, I wasn’t really aware of Jensen, and before Supernatural, I had never even heard of Jared Padalecki. Yes, a total clueless n00b I was. But I know better now! Honest!)
I went through first run for the first season loving the music, the plots, the great acting, but while looking forward to it every week, still didn’t feel about it any more avidly than others before. VCR issues made me miss the last three episodes of the season, but luckily the WB/CW showed them again right before season two started. Those last three episodes were chock full of great writing and absolutely fabulous acting on the parts of Jensen, Jared, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jim Beaver, and Nicki Aycox. I was very pumped for season two, yet was still totally calm.
The first three episodes of season two also packed a major punch with the additions of Frederic Lehne, Samantha Ferris, and Sterling K Brown. And it was at “Bloodlust”, season two episode three, where I finally lost my grip and started the descent toward obsession.
After “Bloodlust” 2.03, this poor simple mild mannered TV watcher began viewing each episode three times over the same weekend. Unheard of! I instantly preordered the season one DVD’s and waited for them with eager anticipation – especially after the horrid cliffhanger for the Christmas break in “Croatoan” – withdrawal symptoms started to rear their ugly head, I even went to a couple of Supernatural forum sites and posted as the question of the ‘secret’ ate at my soul! The descent picked up speed.
Yet the final straw occurred once I got those first season DVD’s. In rapid succession I re-watched season one with season two fresh on the brain. Suddenly I was seeing hints, patterns woven in the background of the monster of the week storylines that were subtle and evil in their insidiousness. While following the thread of ‘what’s happened to Dad and we need to find him’, clues that could be easily dismissed as nothing were being seeded every so often to build up the ‘secret’ which was told to Dean but not revealed in episode 2.01 “In My Time of Dying”, and this was ramped up as more seeds were planted toward the mid season cliffhanger of “Croatoan” 2.09.
The existing family dynamics between the three Winchesters, especially Dean and Sam, were peppered through season one, reaching several high and stressful points beginning with “Home” 1.09 when we find out John is in Lawrence, KS yet for reasons we are not made privy to, he doesn’t reveal himself to his sons. When they do finally get together, it is a heartfelt reunion, but doesn’t last long as all the old baggage soon resurfaces. Rather than help, the fact that some answers have been uncovered regarding the twenty two year old murder of Mary only serves to put even more strain between the rocky relationship between John and Sam.
Dean is caught in the middle trying to hold everything together. And as is seen in “Devil’s Trap” 1.22, to have his family is all Dean lives for. He needs them, the sense of purpose they give him, while his father and Sam are independent enough they could survive without him. (Some utterly amazing non-vocal cues from Jensen Ackles during this episode.)
Season two revved all this up a notch right off the gate. “In My Time of Dying” 2.01 there are several layers of dynamics and information that are easy to miss. (It took me four viewings! But then… I am slow.) This is where the writers and actors played things so subtly I get goose bumps just thinking about it. Mainly what I am talking about is this – most of the attention on the episode is focused on Sam whenever interactions with John were concerned. So his assumptions became the viewers’ assumptions as he is the one being watched. Once I had seen it about three times or so (wow, I really do sound obsessed – eek!) and I could pay attention to other things going on, I got whacked on the side of the head with an epiphany – John Winchester had decided to trade his soul for his son the moment he regained consciousness and found out Dean was dying.
What was so totally clever about how this was played was the fact that not only would the viewers be keeping up with Sam, but John himself was doing everything he could to distract him and us. So when actually hearing and seeing his conversations with this new idea in mind, they take an entirely different meaning than what is shown at face value.
This underplay basically sets up the whole manner and tone for season two. Dean has to deal with two major issues – the fact he suspects his father somehow cut a deal with a demon to save his life, and the heavy secret that’s been dumped on him about his brother. Sam himself is dealing with deep issues of his own. Not only is he having to reconcile himself to the fact his father is dead, but as has unfortunately happened to many people out there, he hadn’t been on the best of terms with his father at their parting. Trying to keep himself together, Sam is also concerned over his brother, who seems to be taking their father’s death especially hard, even more so, as both of them suspect their father’s death was in no way natural.
Some of the seeds planted aren’t even expanded upon or shown to have been seeds for years at a time. Episode 1.09 “Home” is a perfect example. At the end, Mary gazes upon Sam and tells him ‘I’m sorry’. The audience would immediately assume she meant for having died. Yet you hit “All Hell Breaks Loose pt 1” and a more sinister connotation appears, implying that what appeared on the surface was a red herring. I’m talking about that extra bit of life 22 years ago YED reveals to Sam. The one showing that Mary may very well have known the Meat Puppet YED was wearing at the time, if not the demon himself. Now a whole new can of worms has been opened for the characters and viewers, one that has only been slightly addressed so far in season three.
And it’s not all drama and death and angst all the time either. The show has a lot of comedy entwined within the episodes and some tailored straight out for that very purpose. “Tall Tales” with the exaggerated story telling by the brothers as they try to make each other look bad in little ways. “Hollywood Babylon” and its humorous glimpse at the TV and movie making industry, which even included actual suggestions sent from the studious to the real show! “Bad Day at Black Rock” debuted a whole unknown set of skills from Jared and Jensen as slapstick comedy came into the fore. All of these are perfect examples of how even the dark subjects covered in the show can be made to be a lot of fun.
Still, all these great plots and sneaky loops wouldn’t mean anything if those portraying the events couldn’t make us believe in them – giving us another great facet of this show. From our two leads, Jensen and Jared, to the ever changing guest actors and actresses that grace the show every week, 99% or more give all that they can give and are in every way believable. Jim Beaver, who’s become a regular, really strutted his stuff and etched himself into our hearts in “All Hell Breaks Loose pt2” with that awesome scene he did with Jensen when he took him to task about what he’d done to bring Sam back to life. Totally heart wrenching. Then throw in performances from people like Katharine Isabelle, who played Ava, and Wow. The way this secretary from Peoria went into a tear fest then just switched it off with a flick of a switch as she revealed her changed true colors – it was a thrill to watch. And the children! As often as child stars appear on the show, every one of them has shown an awesome abundance of talent -- and this in a medium and genre that could so very easily miss the boat. One need only watch episode 3.02 “The Kids Are Alright” to be a believer – Margot Berner has my vote! She turned into one creepy little kid. 1.03 “Dead in the Water” had a wonderful performance from Nico McEown as Lucas – there are adults that can’t act as well as these two. Kudos for the casting director and all those in charge of squeezing what they can out of the actors. Totally amazing. In my opinion (and for whatever little that actually counts!) only one actor fell flat for me in all these many episodes. I won’t name names, but his character’s name starts with a “J”. (Sorry, dude. Just didn’t make it.) But 1 out of hundreds sure isn’t a bad record in my book.
With 15 hours days and still giving us all they’ve got, Jensen and Jared will always have my undying devotion as to the extent of their acting ability. As heart wrenching as some of the scenes are, their shining skills make them more so. And they even do their own stunts. Be still my heart! (Jared, just don’t break any more parts of yourself, okay?) Add in all the wonderful emotions and words conveyed by both of them without their ever having to open their mouths and you will quiver in awe. Their body language and long looks speak volumes. Sometimes things just don’t need to be said to be understood, and our boys do that beautifully. Just watch the last five minutes of “Heart” 2.17 and you too will become a believer.
Then add in the more subtle pieces of the show, the ones hardly ever noticed but which can add so much more to any series – the music, the sets, the special effects, and the gurus who bring it all together, the directors.
Chris Lennertz and Jay Gruska do an amazing job of creating just the right type of music for the show. Unlike many programs, due to the constantly changing locations and creatures having to be dealt with each week, the two of them are continually coming up with new tracks to create the perfect mood for a scene. Re-watch the “Pilot” or “Croatoan”, and just listen to the background music and you’ll see how much it adds to the mood and feel. But Mr. Lennertz and Mr. Gruska didn’t stop there. They took some old time rock favorites and tweaked and wove them into episodes totally raising the bar on the end product. I can’t hear AC/DC’s “Back In Black” without picturing Baby/Metallicar racing down a blacktopped backcountry road. And the way “Silent Lucidity” by Queensryche was used in the episode “Heart”, in that amazing scene between Dean and Sam in the kitchen, where Sam makes the heart breaking decision to do as Madison has asked and be the one to end her life, while Dean must stand there and let his brother do it -- I still get goose bumps whenever I hear the song on the radio. Others that had a lot of impact and tie beautifully to their scenes were “Don’t Fear the Reaper” with its lovely instrumental only sequence working in as a subtle background as the jogger goes by in the park before the creature reveals itself and takes her life, “Carry On My Wayward Son”, which was used beautifully late in season one in the recap to show us where the brothers had been and where they are headed, “Stonehenge”, which is forever glued in my mind as well as that awesome fantasy painted van belonging to Andy, “Cold As Ice” used as a lead in through the radio to tell us exactly what Dean and Sam thought of Ellen as she sat fuming in utter silence on the front seat of the Impala after she showed up to take Jo home, “White Rabbit” haunted the dark street as one of the chosen gets stalked and killed by Gordon, “Lady in Red” had me rolling on the floor as it was the perfect slow dance song for the alien abduction/dance scenario and gave it just that right touch, and “Renegade” encapsulated the smelly stuff hitting the fan as Sam and Dean made their getaway after almost being caught by the FBI in the bank robbery debacle of “Night Shifter”.
Now throw in the sets. Done in and out of the studio, the set designers bust chops to try to make different parts of Vancouver appear as all sorts of locals over the US, their specialty being cheap motel rooms. It’s too much fun anticipating what kind of strange or creative environment the crew will be coming up with for the next room the boys will be staying in. The Disco theme including the hanging disco ball (“Provenance”), the bowling alley theme (Flashback motel in “Something Wicked”), the Milwaukee and Beer theme (with even real life pictures of some of the set crew’s family members who live there), the bigger than life Texas theme (set to be in Richardson, Jensen’s home town, in “Hell House”), the blue rose theme, the fishing theme with the room divider made of bobs (this one had me rolling, “Born Under a Bad Sign”), the sixteen wheeler mud flap babes theme -- the creativity alone screams of the fun these people are having and how much they love their work and the show. Their efforts at enhancing outdoor locals, or in some cases, having to recreate them indoors (Vancouver weather being a bit fickle). Each bit giving flavor and presence to each episode.
A show like this, dealing with the supernatural, will depend heavily on the special effects team assigned to it, and the crew working on Supernatural is definitely top notch. From the simple colored contact lenses to give the demon possessed just that icky touch of otherness to flickering ghosts and shotgun propelled rock salt dissipations, it’s the special effects magic that allows the audience to make the leap in imagination to truly submerse themselves in the world of Supernatural. Their attention to detail is amazing. Just check out “Born Under a Bad Sign” when Meg is forced out of Sam’s body. Not only do you have the black smoke coming out of his mouth, but they went the extra mile and you can see the character’s throat moving as the demon passes through, giving the scene just that extra added touch of reality. “Bloodlust” was given a heavy spray of blood, just what you might expect from a vampire getting his head decapitated by a chainsaw, but even better was the head the brothers found at the morgue and a touch inside the mouth pushing out hidden vampire teeth. And who can forget the artfully done and utterly icky scene in “Skin”, where Dean’s doppelganger rips off his skin and we see teeth propelled from gums and ears ripped and dropped on the ground – fabulous!
All of this hard work must be focused and directed, and Supernatural has some of the best and most acclimated to the genre around. Many of the directors of Supernatural come from impressive backgrounds, having worked on Science Fiction/Fantasy/Paranormal shows before. Kim Manners produced and directed a large chunk of episodes for the X-Files. Robert Singer produced V and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Phillip Sgriccia produced and directed episodes for Lois & Clark, and directed episodes for Hercules and Xena. All of them are innately aware of how to make the incredible credible and better yet, how to squeeze the people and especially the actors they work with to give 110%.
More amazing is realizing how sweeping or cool shots, that as an audience we just take for granted, are actually masterful works of organization and timing. A 180 degree hallway shot taking hours to make, or the ‘now you see him now you don’t’ shots as the camera wound around Sam in Dean’s hospital room “In My Time of Dying” will make your jaw drop once you realize how truly difficult they were to make and the dedication it took to get them to work just for a few moments of an amazing visual.
As if all this great work wasn’t enough to get anyone to salivate in obsession, the crew for the show add in-jokes into the episodes as fan service! The license plate in “Nightmare” for Max’s father’s car told us a lot about the man before he was killed. “Provenance” has a license plate for Kripke at the auction house. “Croatoan” has one that let’s you know exactly what Dean is thinking as he comes across an abandoned car. The billboard in the town of Salvation has what looks like a bible quote but the book is that of JW. “Hollywood Babylon” not only makes fun of the problems TV shows have to deal with in real life, but poked fun at Jared by bringing up his previous employment as part of the Gilmore Girls (and boy did he run! Lol). There was also the picture of John Winchester in his baseball uniform in “What is and What Should Never Be” with the logo for Route 66.
It is all these elements that combine together to give the audience so much more than just the sum of the parts (even as clichéd as the saying is, it’s no less true). And what makes it all even more amazing is when you start realizing how all this was made despite the off sequence scene filming (no idea how actors can do that!), the fact each episode normally gets filmed in one week, two film crews working on different pieces, fifteen hour days, having to get approved by the powers that be in LA, having to attempt to work with their suggestions, cutbacks, and their own ideas on what should make the show tick. (Makes you wonder how any show actually makes it anywhere. The more I find out about the TV business the more it scares me.) :P
Now you have seen the reasons why Supernatural has done what no other show truly did before its time, drag me toward obsession (and having me doubt my sanity to boot!). But luckily I am not alone. And those of us with the fever are more than happy to infect others. Multiple sets of DVD’s bought (despite my daughter rolling her eyes at me – hey, the first person kept it too long and I was going into withdrawal!) and shared. List groups springing up in Yahoo, forums, fan sites, and postcard campaigns. Fanfiction has run amok with stories about the Winchesters that come in all kinds, shapes, and sizes – 13,000 last time I looked, rivaled only by CSI at 15,000, and that show is on the main networks, has a much larger viewership, and tons more exposure than our little gem.
So like me, wear your newfound obsession proudly! You know you wanted, needed one. And here’s the perfect vessel bar none.
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